Grace and peace to you, from God our Creator and from our Lord and risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are times when life gets a little stale, boring and empty, when you do the same things over and over and over and over again. You go through the motions but that inner motivation is not there.
I’ve spoken with a lot of high school, college or even a couple of seminar graduates who have experienced this in the last couple of months. I know I did! (I remember being a student, I think I began “senior slide” in my sophomore year.) Pretty much every year, by about the end of April, I would just lose steam. My motivation would drop, and I struggled to get things done. I was just so tired of writing paper after paper after paper after paper.
It happens to us in so many different aspects of our lives. In our jobs, sometimes it feels like we’re just going through the motions. In many ways, we go through parts of our jobs over and over and over again, for one year, two years, twenty years, forty years. Over and over again. At one time, the job was quite exciting, but time has gone by and the inner enthusiasm isn’t quite there. Jobs can become stale. You personally, not just the job, can become stale. We can become washed out, worn out, burnt out. We all know that feeling to some extent.
The same thing can happen in our relationships…even in our marriages. I’ve known lots of couples who after years together, move into a sense of routine that can begin to morph into a sense of staleness… And they sometimes need to be reminded of just why they fell in love in the first place.
And, let’s be honest, the same thing can happen within our faith life; in our relationship with God. We pray…we read scripture…we come to worship…there is a rhythm and a cycle to our life of faith. And sometimes, like any part of our life where there is a rhythm…things begin to feel routine, and it can begin to feel like we’re just going through the motions. We can lose our passion…lose our energy.
And so with this in mind, we discover the story of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a man who was going through the motions of religion without the inner motivation of God.
Now when I imagine Nicodemus, I think of him as a man in his mid fifties or mid sixties, gray haired, physically distinguished, accomplished, successful in his work. He was a teacher of the law, a professor of religion at the temple in Jerusalem. He was one of the primary teachers of the law.
But in his relationship with God, Nicodemus was a man who was going through the motions. He knew the law; he was a teacher of the law, but his inner enthusiasm for his faith just wasn’t there anymore. He was not quite right in his relationship with God anymore.
So Jesus of Nazareth showed up in town, and Nicodemus had gone to hear Jesus preach in the temple. Nicodemus sensed that Jesus had something inside of him that Nicodemus no longer had.
So I can kind of imagine what happened: quietly, late one night, Nicodemus snuck over to the home of Jesus, not wanting his fellow religious professors to know. (knock). Jesus comes to the door: “Yes?”
“I know it is late, but my name is Nicodemus. Can I speak with you for a minute.”
Nicodemus came into the room. Maybe Jesus invited him up to the roof of the house where it was cooler; maybe he offers him a glass of wine. And Jesus asks: “How can I help you?”
Nicodemus said, “Things are not quite right with me. They aren’t quite right inside of me. I sense that you have something that I don’t have anymore. I am tired. My lectures are stale. I am getting old and slow. I’m not sure what to do.
Jesus, of course, had this uncanny ability to look right into a person’s heart, and he said, “I know the problem that you are having Nicodemus. It is not that you are old; it is not that you are tired; it is not that you are worn out. The problem is this; you are no longer close to God. You’ve drifted away from God. God is no longer living in the center of your heart. Nicodemus, you need to be born again.”
Nicodemus scoffs: “Born again? Take and push me back into my mother’s womb? Come on, now. I can’t be born again.”
Jesus said, “”You don’t understand Nicodemus. You need to be born anew, to experience a rebirth in your relationship with God. You need to be born of the water, the cleansing waters of God. You need to be born of the Spirit; you need to be born from above. You need to experience rebirth.”
So how does this story end? Does Nicodemus become born again? Was Nicodemus born anew? Did he experience a rebirth? Well, we don’t really know. The Gospels don’t really explain what happened to him.
But, I have a theory: If we jump seventeen chapters forward in the Gospel of John to the very end of the story, after Jesus’ crucifixion, there is a story about two wealthy men who came to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. One is named Joseph of Arimathea. The other is named Nicodemus. We don’t know for sure that it’s the same Nicodemus, but often in the Gospels it will make a distinction, like Joseph “of Arimathea” if it’s a different person of the same name. Here it’s just Nicodemus. I believe that the odds are good that it’s the same man.
Yes, I believe that this Good Friday story reveals that Nicodemus had become a disciple of Jesus Christ. That he had indeed been reborn in his relationship with God.
Far too often in life, we too drift away from God. It can feel like we are going through the motions without the inner motivation.
It doesn’t matter your age, or your vocation, or your station in life; things just don’t feel quite right.
You start to have the habits of faith without the heart of faith. You have structures without the Spirit. You are going through the rituals but you don’t have the real thing. You are going through the patterns of faith but you no longer have the power of faith.
And if you have ever come to that time in your life, when things aren’t quite right, when your religion has become more of a ritual than a real thing, when it is more of a pattern than power, when it is more structure than Spirit, we then need to come to Jesus’ door <knock> and say, “Jesus, I need some help. I’ve got a problem … here… in my heart. It is not quite right.”
And Jesus will say to you and me, “Come right in. Sit down for a while. Let’s talk.” And Jesus has that uncanny ability to look deeply into your heart and mine; and he says, “You need to be born again, to be born anew, to be born from above, to experience a rebirth of God’s love in your heart. You need to be born of the water and the Spirit.”
So…what does it mean to be born again? What does it mean to be born anew? What is God’s lesson for us in the Gospel story for today?
It’s a phrase that we most often associate with the fundamentalist, or evangelical traditions…as in when someone gets in your face and asks if you’ve been born again. But the Baptists or the Evangelical Free Church folks don’t own this phrase…this idea. Theologically it’s actually a pretty Lutheran concept…and I think we need to reclaim it.
Jesus said that there were two parts of being born again. To be born again is to be born of the water and be born of the Spirit. Two parts. It is a combination of those two parts that results in being born again.
What does it mean to be born of the water? During the time of Jesus, water was pretty much everything. It was what you drank. It was what you cooked with. It was what you cleaned with. It was what you washed your face…your clothes…your everything with.
And that is half of what it means to be born again. It means to be washed clean of your sins.
Yes, we are forever in need of God’s cleansing waters. That is true of everybody here. There are no exceptions.
We never grow to become so religious that we outgrow the need to be daily washed of your sins. Martin Luther talked about this. He said that every day when he woke up, he would go to the basin to wash his face, and when the cold water would splash on him, he was reminded that every single day, Jesus makes him clean. Every. Single. Day.
But there is a second half to be being born again. It means to be born of the Spirit. What does that mean? To be born of the Spirit?
To be born of the Spirit means to have God’s Holy Spirit living within you. It when you came to the font and were baptized, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God’s gracious love…God’s Spirit, comes and embeds itself within you. It’s always there. We don’t invite it in…it is a gift of God. But we need to remember to recognize it within us.
And what is this Spirit? It is a gift, that shows us a way of loving, a way of forgiving, a way of caring, a way of prayer, a way of worship, a way of thanksgiving and praise, a way of being in tune with the God’s will.
To be born again is to be washed of our sin every day, and it is to recognize God’s Spirit within us, allowing it to work it’s love out through us.
And where we differ from our evangelical or fundamentalist sisters and brothers is that where they might look at the idea of being “born again” as an event, we look at is as a daily occurrence…a lifestyle. Every single day, Christ makes us new. Every single day God washes us of our sins and Christ’s Spirit takes hold within us.
If you come to that point in your life where you say, “God, I am just going through the motions and I don’t have that inner motivation any longer. I have the patterns of religion but not the power. I have the rituals of faith but not the real thing. I have the structures but not the Spirit…and you sense that something is wrong with your life. One night, you may come up to the home of Jesus and knock on his door and say, “Jesus, things aren’t right in here. Things aren’t right, here in my heart.”
Jesus will reply, “I know. It happens to people all the time. You need to be born again. You need to experience a rebirth. You need to be born of the water and born of the Spirit.”
Knock <knock> and Jesus will answer. And he will remind you that this gift of new life, this gift of rebirth, it is for you.