“Choosing To Be Born”
John 3: 1-17 ~ May 30, 2021 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church
If there was a secret to reducing your level of stress, would you be interested? If I told you there was a secret to reducing your anxiety, would you want to know more? If you learned that there was a way to lower the amount of worry that occupied your day, would you want to dive deeper? If you had an opportunity before you to decrease your levels of stress, anxiety and worry, would you be inclined to engage further in this morning’s conversation? Now, I want to assure you that this is not a product you might find on a late-night infomercial designed to con a weary insomniac into purchasing. And this will not have even the faintest odour of ‘snake-oil’. What Jesus presents in this morning’s text is something that comes with the potential to lower our levels of stress, to reduce our anxiety and even soften our levels of worry. In this morning’s text, Jesus introduces this curious topic of ‘choice’.
If we think about it, choices are something we make each and every day. We choose the time we wake up: 6 am or noon. We choose the method we arise: music, a beeping alarm or a chance to hit the snooze. Our choices allow us to be on time, to miss out, or to be in trouble with the boss. We choose our breakfast foods: coffee and toast, a smoothie, or an array of breakfast cereals that occupy an entire supermarket aisle. We set out and choose our activities for the day: to go to work, to call in sick, to take time with friends, to go for a walk, to go parachuting. And as the day unfolds, we make choice after choice after choice. You might counter and say that many of these are not choices: “I have to go to work…I have bills to pay. I have to eat…I’m hungry.” Yet, when we think of all of our daily actions, they are an amalgam of choices.
And then Jesus comes to a subject that we seemingly have no control over…our birth...we learn that, even here…there is choice involved. Who among us ‘chose’ to be born? As Jesus’ hearers, we would resoundingly respond that birth is something that is imposed upon us. Birth is not a choice. We were having a wonderful time in our mother’s womb…everything we needed was there…and suddenly we were forced to be born. There was a baby shower to attend; expectant parents who wanted to meet you; a life waiting to be lived. And, with no choice in the matter, we were birthed into life. We were born. There is, however, another form of birth that Jesus teaches in this text. This birth is one in which we do have a choice; this is our spiritual birth.
Hear the text again from the perspective of choice: 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
Nicodemus and Jesus, the two characters in this dialogue, come from two very different worlds. Nicodemus is a Pharisee: a leader and teacher of the Jews. More than that, he is a member of the Sanhedrin: he was one of the rabbis appointed to sit as part of the tribunal in one of the Jewish courts. Nicodemus had a very clear understanding of life and faith, and how it all intertwines. Yet…there is this one named Jesus. His wisdom had caused a growth in his following and, increasingly, people were opening their minds to his teachings. Did Nicodemus wonder? Deep inside, did he wonder about the strong prescriptions they made about faith. Did he wonder about the choices that are there? He must have wondered; he must have been curious because he went to this Jesus to find out more. Now, as a Sanhedrin rabbi, he did not want to be associated with Jesus, this ‘peasant rabbi’. He was also cautious because he did not go to Jesus in the light of day, when others would have seen him. He went to Jesus “in the night.” But something drew him to go. And Nicodemus discovers a new way to view God; a new way to understand faith; a new way to live…a way that is birthed through the choices that are ours.
Contrary to Nicodemus’ attempt to fit Jesus into his previous understanding of the law, the faith, the world, Nicodemus learns of this concept of a birth from above. This curious concept that Jesus opens Nicodemus’ mind to is all about one’s choice. The choice to receive the mysterious freedom that comes through the outpouring of the Spirit. What Nicodemus had previously understood as proper teaching was very fixed: prescriptive ways; prescriptive laws; prescriptive practices. And to those beautiful practices, which Jesus himself followed, he added space for the movement of the Spirit in one’s life. The choice to open one’s life for a spiritual birth and let God blow life into our journey; to let God blow guidance into our path; to let God fill us with the spiritual gifts to touch the world.
When I think of these two forms of birth – natural and spiritual, I wonder if we might consider them this way. When my children were born, they arrived…through no choice of their own as children to Scott and Jennifer. That is our natural birth; the birth we have no choice in. Yet, the spiritual birth is very different; it comes as a choice. Our spiritual birth is our choice to acknowledge that we are more than just flesh and blood, we are also Spirit. Our spiritual birth is our acknowledgment that we are also God’s child. It recalls Jesus’ baptism when the Spirit hovered upon him and the words from the heavens spoke: “you are my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased”. Your choice of a spiritual birth is to acknowledge that you are a son/ that you are a daughter of God…that God is madly in love with you…that God is infusing spiritual gifts in you to bless the world with peace, hope and justice.
And when this birth happens, we never know where it will lead. When you choose to open your life to God’s spirit, you never know where that spirit will bless and guide you to serve. The Hebrew word “ruah” is equally translated as “spirit” and “breath” and “wind”. Jesus taught about the dynamism of the spirit this way: 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
So, getting back to my original question about an approach to reducing stress, anxiety, and worry. Jesus’ teaching of this birth choice offers a remedy. When we live ~ only ~ acknowledging our natural birth, we take on ALL the responsibilities of the world around us. We become responsible for everything working out perfectly. All the problems in our lives are ours to solve: our emotions, our relationships, our finances, our health, our everything….each and every problem is ours to solve. And that is a heavy burden to carry; that leads to a lot of stress, anxiety and worry. I read an article in Psychology Today where the author said that “if there is one thing worse than a bad mother, it is a good mother.” The article went on to describe what she meant by the “good mother.” The good mother is the one who believes she must be fully sufficient for all her child’s needs, who feels she must be perfect and conscientious. The article argued that we must strive, not to be “good parents”, but rather “good enough” parents.
I think this is what Jesus is referring to in the concept of the spiritual birth. This choice of allowing the Spirit to be born into our lives allows God in. It allows for God to bless us with strength and power; it allows for God to share in your struggle; it allows for God to guide you in the indecision points; it allows God to comfort you in the struggles; it allows for God to share the journey. Preaching scholar, Barbara Brown Taylor, argues that we suffer from a “surfeit of significance”. A surfeit or surplus of significance isn’t a worry that our actions are devoid of meaning. Rather, it is worry that the fate of the world rests on our shoulders; in its extreme form, it is our taking the role of God; if we don’t do it, it won’t get done; it is all up to us.
And I think that this why Trinity Sunday is such a significant part of our year. We need to balance this gift we receive of being part of God’s Creation. This call to be followers of the Way of Jesus. We need to balance them with the gift of the Spirit that tells us that we do not need to walk the journey alone. Indeed, we cannot walk the journey alone. We need to open ourselves to undergo a spiritual birth and let Creator/Christ/Spirit share the journey with us.
Choices…choices…spiritual choices. Amen.