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Being Born Again
a homily based on John 3:1-17
by Rev. Thomas Hall

A young man came to the door of a monastery with a big, fat duck in his arms. His uncle, who happened to be one of the monks, answered the door. "Here, Uncle Stanislav, is a gift for you and the other monks." Well, Uncle Bartholomew took the duck and plucked it, stuffed it, basted and baked it and the brothers lived high on the hog (so to speak) that night.

Several days later, another knock came on the monastery door. "Alollo? I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the big, fat duck. I'm a bit down on my luck, and I wonder if I might impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to sleep for the night?"

"Of course you can, my son, you are most welcome here." So that night, he joined the monks for warm duck soup. A few days later, another knock. Halloooo! I am a friend of the friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. Could I impose on you for a bit of hospitality? He too was welcomed . . . more duck soup.

A few more days went by. Another knock. Hi, I am a friend of the friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. That night at dinner he was presented with a steaming hot bowl of water. He tasted it, looked up, perturbed. "What’s this? "This?" asked Brother Stanislav. "Oh this. Why this is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck that my nephew brought."

Theologically speaking, second-hand, third- or fourth-hand faith can end up being pretty watered down. Living by the faith of the faith of the faith that we once owned in confirmation class or from a Bible study or prayer group can be pretty bland and tasteless over the years.

Yet this is precisely the problem that this morning's gospel lesson appears to address. Under the cover of darkness, a man comes to Jesus. Consider Nicodemus. This is no lost soul. Nicodemus is no local thug, nor a desperate man. He’s a prominent figure in town. Powerful. Influential. A member of the Sanhedrin. Very Mainline. Well off, financially speaking. He's a leader in his community. He believes that his faith requires that he do something, not just believe something, that what he believes determines how he lives. Like most of us, Nicodemus is a thinker-doesn't just swallow anything that the preacher says. Has to agree with the Scripture and tradition. You won’t see this guy coming forward at a Billy Graham Crusade for spiritual counseling-he is the counselor. He’s the adult Sunday School leader. The District Superintendent. Nicodemus is a model Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Pentecostal. He’s one together guy.

So what's someone like this slinking up to Jesus when nobody’s looking? Our lesson doesn’t tell us. But there are some clues left for us. Our writer places him in the dark for more than one reason. He’s in the dark about Jesus. And that bothers him. Maybe his faith has sort of leveled off. He's gone on in his faith for so long t lived on the faith of the faith of the faith that he once owned for so many years that his faith seems more an empty ritual like a couple still married, still polite but who haven’t had a meaningful conversation in fifteen years. Suddenly this new teacher blows into town and starts preaching a Will Rogers style sermon.

And the signs! What disturbing signs! Some of Nicodemust fellow Methodists had been terribly disturbed at some of the goings-on: massive crowds jam the stadium to hear this prophet preach against the way they practice worship. Part of Nicodemus wants to reject Jesus out of hand. But the signs! Who can deny anyone with these signs? He’s heard the stories of crippled legs made strong and withered arms made straight, of blind eyes restored to sight. Too many things about this stranger to ignore.

He moves away from the light and begins a hushed conversation with some small talk-"how's the back?" Doesn't quite know how to begin. But Jesus cuts Nicodemus up short.

"Listen, no one even gets within sight of the city limits to God's town without first being born again." Nicodemus' face contorts with frustration. "Born again?" What's that? The conversation is clearly in trouble. The two have come to a communicational fork in the road. The writer, who includes this story, has Jesus using the word anothen--a tricky word that is almost untranslatable in English; it describes an event, something that is experienced. One possible translation is "born again," anothen. That's how Nicodemus hears it. Rebirth. He hears Jesus telling him to go all the way back to the beginning; to start all over again. "Begin again," Jesus seems to tell Nicodemus. So analytical Nicodemus takes Jesus words to their logical conclusion and ends up stuck in the birth canal trying to begin life all over again!

But is this what Jesus wants? To just throw everything out the window and get back in line again? To sum our entire life up with some experience, that negates everything we've ever experienced? That's the way I understood this passage for most of my life. Getting born again was like just getting the cement poured in my basement and letting it dry. Then another experience comes along and I’d have to get the jackhammer out and break it all up so that I could pour a new layer of cement down. Do you know how long it takes to build a house that way? Never get it built.

Jesus moves quickly to correct Nicodemus. He uses the word in quite another sense. Anothen can also be translated above. "Nicodemus," Jesus says, "you must be born from above. It takes baptism and the Spirit to bring you into the city limits. Nicodemus, don't be astonished with my statement, just watch the wind causing the trees to clatter and clack." Jesus moves to a discussion about the Spirit. "Nicodemus, what I mean is, that the Spirit’s unpredictable; comes and goes as it pleases." But one thing for sure-we are never quite the same once the breeze of the Spirit blows through our life.

The Nicene Creed says that the Holy Spirit is "the Lord and Giver of Life." That means that anytime the Spirit is around life and renewal happens. When the earth was still wohu tabohu-shapeless and dead-the Spirit as a mother hen, brooded over it and creation happened. As the prophet looked out over a valley of bleached bones, the Spirit came upon them and they began to stand to their feet-a vast army. To the 120 persons gathered on the Day of Pentecost, the mighty wind of the Spirit swept through the room and empowered 120 persons to change the world. When the Spirit begins to breath upon us-renewal and spiritual rebirth happens. Without the Spirit saturating our lives-- even the born-again experience becomes hardened and sun-baked. A dead issue. But with the Spirit coming from beyond our abilities and talents, coming to us from outside of ourselves, every day becomes an opportunity to be saturated by the Breath of God.

What is the Spirit's wind like in your life right now? Still as a summer night? A few little gusts? Howling? Full sail? Dead calm? Look up and wait for the mighty wind of the Spirit. Are you like our friend, Nicodemus? Life together, well ordered? Yet, deep down inside you’re looking for something more? Invite the Lord and Giver of Life to your house.

Pope Paul began Vatican II with a simple prayer. He prayed, "Come, Holy Spirit and renew us as by a new Pentecost." Let that prayer be our prayer to God. "Come, Holy Spirit and saturate our lives with the mighty wind of your Spirit." Not once, twice, or three times, but a thousand times in our life. Amen.