Church of the Incarnation
The Impotence of Being Born from Below; the Gift of Being Borne from Above
In our Gospel reading this morning Jesus reveals what I’d say is the climax of the Christian faith: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
But recall who it is Jesus is speaking to – Nicodemus, a Pharisee or leader of the Jews. We hear earlier in the Gospel of John that Jesus came to his own people – the Jews – and not only didn’t they know him, but because they do not recognize him as sent by God – they actually reject him and seek to undermine his mission to call for repentance and reconciliation at every turn. Jesus chastises Nicodemus – this supposed teacher of the people of God – for not believing Jesus’s words and deeds when they would have already been given to Nicodemus (and all the people of Israel in their own history).
We hear these today in our OT and epistle readings: Abraham leaves his home, so safety, security, work, all that he knew, to follow God’s commandments not by vision, not by knowing how everything would work out, but by faith. He trusts that his barren wife will bear a righteous heir, and God grants this in Isaac. God asks Abraham to go out again – from all that Abraham would have expected and cherished – to do something unthinkable, to offer up or sacrifice his son. And at the last moment, an angel tells Abraham not to sacrifice his son because God will provide the true sacrifice, his own Son, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Of course Abraham did not know this. He simply trusted in God’s Word by faith, going out with his only son, his only heir, after having been promised by God that he would be an heir to many nations whom he would not see in his earthly life. From this faith we have one of Abraham’s ancestors, Moses, who also goes out to lead God’s people by faith, not by talent, not by hard work, not even by capacity, but merely by responding to God’s calling when really, that calling seemed impossible. He challenged Pharaoh, endured years of Pharaoh’s hardness of heart, and only then, not by his hard work, but by God’s power, did he lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt so they might find a new home. But he wasn’t done yet. God’s people, the Israelites got out into the desert and became angry, bitter and divided against one another. They attacked one another like serpents while turning to idols to soothe their anxiety, frustration, doubt, and fear, to assuage their anger and disappointment. They fell back into a literal slavery to their own sins, after having been released from the slavery of Egypt.
They were as blind as Nicodemus to one simple reality: the work of God bears fruit in someone when that person responds not by their own works, but rather, by faith; trusting not in themselves and their own power or capacity or work or gifts or money or possessions; but trusting that God will work in and through them for the good of everyone whom he has made.
Trust in God is not about following certain rules or prescriptions that are likely a mix of what you learned in the families and places where you were born and the ways this has so far caused you to interpret understand how God works. But real trust in God is not about your works and your ways; it’s about allowing God to work in and through you, given the gifts he has provided you. Those gifts are given so that at times and places of which you’re likely unaware, he will come to collect and use these things for his purposes. This is what Jesus means when he says, “you were born of the flesh (you have inherited certain ways of thinking and doing, and certain expectations about how things will unfold). But you must be born from above, of the spirit, where you allow God to update your way of seeing what he’s doing in the world, and then follow where and how he is leading you. To be born again – opened to God’s presence in people and places and ways you didn’t expect – is to be made an instrument of God’s mission to gather and save all whom he has made. To be born again begins with the humility of confessing that like Nicodemus, you are ignorant of both earthly and heavenly things, that you see through the glass of God’s truth darkly as Paul puts it. Confession itself is true faith because it begins with truth: I want to believe, but help my unbelief; make me an instrument of your grace Lord, as you are the potter and I am the clay, shape me so that I might be made into an instrument of your redeeming grace. AMEN