So Simple a Baby Could Do It
Maybe it’s that thing you said in the middle of a heated discussion, a phrase you can’t believe came from your lips, but there it was…
Or perhaps it was that one time when you did that one thing that is so humiliating. You had wanted the earth to open you up and swallow you whole, but it wouldn’t move…
The truth is that every one of us has regrets, things we’ve said or done that we would love to wish away as though they had never happened. Unfortunately, doing so is kind of like putting toothpaste back into the tube – once it’s out, it’s out.
Don’t you wish, sometimes, that our lives were like computers? Have you ever been stuck on a computer problem – you know what it’s supposed to do, but it won’t do it, so finally you break down and call tech support? Once they take your information and you describe the problem to them, what’s the first thing they tell you to do? Restart the computer. That always makes me so mad. “You have got to be kidding,” I think. “If it were that easy, then why would I be wasting my time with tech support?” But you do it anyway and, 99% of the time, that fixes the problem.
Wouldn’t it be nice if life were that easy, that we could just reboot our hard drives and fix all of those problems, that those nasty error messages would just go away?
Every one of us would love a do-over from time to time. Regrets, hopes for forgiveness or reconciliation, getting that second chance, we all have those moments when we are reminded how imperfect we really are. But would any of us want to start it all over again, to begin as babies and get a second chance at our entire life? I’m not sure how many of us would sign onto that.
And yet, if we are to take Jesus at his word, that’s exactly what he is suggesting that we do.
In the lesson from John, Jesus is confronted by Nicodemus. We are told he is a Pharisee, and so the fact that he is coming to Jesus for a little late night conversation is remarkable. Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees hasn’t reached its full force yet, but it’s already pretty clear where that train is headed. And yet, Nicodemus comes to Jesus not out of challenge, but out of conviction that this Jesus truly is of God. And that’s a remarkable turn of events for a man whose name, Nicodemus, means “the people’s victory” – he’s a man of the people, his people, his tribe. And yet he is open enough to recognize when God has been at work in unexpected ways and through unexpected means.
As the conversation begins, Jesus throws down this nugget: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born” – and here I’m going to use the Greek word – “ἄνωθεν.” Gallons of doctrinal blood have been shed over how to translate this word. We’ve most often heard it as “again” – as in, being “born again.” But the word can also be translated as “from above”.
I, for one, am convinced that “from above” is the correct translation here. And here’s why: there are numerous stories in John’s gospel where Jesus uses Greek words that have two meanings. And in each of these stories, the person to whom Jesus is talking always picks the wrong word. Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is talking about being born again; Jesus goes on to clarify that he means a birth of the Spirit, not re-entry to the womb.
But I digress – the point, no matter what translation is chosen, is a being born – a different kind of birth, a birth from God, from the Spirit, from above. And it is this kind of birth which gives us the possibility of seeing what it is that God desires for us and for this world. In other words, it’s a total system reboot.
That’s where, I’m guessing, most of us would draw the line. There are a few moments here and there that we’d like to redo, things that we wish we could erase from the permanent memory banks – both ours and others. But starting completely over? I’m not so sure about that…
Think about it – what does it mean to be born? First of all, you have no say in the matter – it just happens to you. And you’re taken from a warm, cozy place into a world full of noise and light and it’s cold – oh, so cold! And yet, you’re still dependent. You can’t feed yourself; you can’t control your body – shoot, you can’t even hold up your own head!
As the months go by, you slowly get more and more control of your body. But it’s mostly by trial and error – you figure out that that motion in front of your face is actually your hand, and that you are the one that is making it go past. You can pick things up, but only by focusing your concentration. Eventually, you can crawl, but those other people are standing. And so you try that, too, pulling up on the furniture, but you don’t have the balance, and end up falling over nine times out of ten.
It reminds me of a wonderful Peanuts cartoon. Linus has just learned to stand and Lucy, his big sister, is so proud of him, she gives him a cookie. And as he holds the cookie, the weight of it shifts his balance, and he falls over.
By the time we overcome all of these obstacles and learn how to feed ourselves, clean ourselves, sit up, stand, walk, run, our yearning for independence and self-sufficiency has become imprinted on us. Being born, starting all over again, is a recipe for dependence and frustration – both because of all the things we cannot do for ourselves. Our independence and our abilities are hard won; we’ll be damned before we give those away.
And yet, that’s exactly the prescription Jesus gives to Nicodemus – not a rebirth of the flesh, but a birth of the Spirit. And I’m convinced that this ultimately means an admission of dependence on the Spirit for our very existence. And that dependence runs completely counter to our ideal that independence is the fullest measure of our self-worth.
We are, somewhat, left to wonder what Nicodemus did with this conversation. He makes two other cameos in John’s gospel. A few chapters later, Nicodemus stands among the Pharisees who are ready to convict Jesus, reminding them that the law makes clear provision for due process. And after the crucifixion, he shows up again, coming to pay his respects by preparing the body for burial. Some Christian traditions continue his story beyond the gospels, claiming him as a convert and ultimately an early Christian martyr. But in any case, his encounter with Jesus clearly altered his perceptions and changed his life forever. And that life was a new one, been born from above, a Spiritual re-birth.
Where do we go from here? What do we take from our midnight conversation with Jesus? Are we willing to let go of our hard-won independence, of the people’s victory, so that we might be held fast by the God whom we proclaim is our source of life and strength? I’m convinced that this is God’s invitation to us today. As we continue in this season of Lent, meditating on this theme of “packing light”, we are invited into intentional time and intentional ways to consider our baggage – what is it that weighs us down and distracts us from the things of God? What might it mean to recognize God’s provision in our lives? How might we leave this support chat convinced that a complete restart is the only way to go – not to remove the past, but to redeem it? Can we trust God as individuals and as a community so fully that we might even be willing to leave behind the paradoxical comforts of our anxieties and fears?
There is new life in Christ – we can leave the darkness of this encounter into God’s light of grace; and that light is all we ever need to carry with us.