Scripture: John 3:1–21
On the outside, Nikki had it all. Perfect husband. Beautiful house. Children who excelled at everything they tried. Before they had kids, she was a phenomenal teacher; her principal cried when Nikki told her that she was leaving to raise the twins. Now that they were a little older, Nikki was able to get back into the district and sub when she had time. But she rarely had time.
Nikki was a do-it-all mom at school, helping with the kids sports teams and fundraisers and band boosters. Teachers would fight each other to get Nikki’s kids in their classrooms, not only because they were great students, but because they got Nikki, too!
On top of all of that, she also found a way to stay just as busy at church. Star of the children’s committee. Vacation Bible School coordinator extraordinaire. She participated in a handful of women’s Bible studies during the week, and led a handful more. Whenever the Stewardship Committee needed someone to stand up and talk about using your gifts for the Kingdom, Nikki was on the list. On the outside, Nikki had it all.
But when things slowed down long enough for her to think about it, Nikki wondered if she was doing…enough. Late at night, as she stared up at the ceiling, when there was no one left to tell her she was doing a good job, she felt a resentment start to creep in. She wondered if folks knew how much she did. She wondered if it even mattered. One day at a Bible study, she kind of lost it. She threw her hands up and said out loud, “sometimes I just wonder if all of it is worth it! I mean, does God care about all of this stuff that I do for him? What if I just quit it all? Quit the committees? Quit the ministry? Quit even going to church?”
The silence in the room was deafening. One of the other ladies relieved the tension with a joke, “If you quit going to church, Nikki, they might as well shut the place down!” And the tension broke, and the whole room laughed. Even Nikki managed a chuckle. On the outside.
That afternoon, she got a text from one of the ladies in the Bible study. She wondered if they could get coffee the next day. Nikki was a little wary, but appreciated the chance to vent. And vent she did. At coffee the next morning, in a corner booth at the coffee shop, she aired all of her grievances. With her family. With her husband, who expected her to do it all. With the school, that assumed that she would take care of everything. With the church, filled with people and staff and leaders who would be lost without her. Even with God. Why does God expect so much from her, when there is only so much energy she had to give?
Her friend, who nodded her head for the first few minutes, and then got visibly concerned and then even angry, finally couldn’t keep it in any longer. “Do you hear what you are saying, Nikki? You’re talking about leaving the faith! About losing your faith! How could you even say that out loud? I mean, to hear you talk like this makes me wonder, are you even a Christian? Are you really born again?”
Anyone ever been asked that question?
When I was a kid, I heard it all the time. “Are you born again?” Like there was a test that had to be passed.
When I got to high school, it was a way to contrast the insiders to the outsiders. “Are you really born again?”
When I got to college, it came with a set of rules and expectations: this is what you need to do to be born again. Like, really born again. For real.
It wasn’t until seminary that I actually sat down with this passage in John 3, and actually read it, that I realized something that felt a little groundbreaking: it doesn’t say that I need to be born again. In fact, the whole point of the passage is that the guy who gets it all wrong…who is demonstrated to be literally “in the dark” by the time of day that he arrives to see Jesus…and who is demonstrated to be figuratively “in the dark” by continually missing the point of Jesus’ words…that guy thinks that the right answer is being “born again.” Really born again!
Nicodemus has all of the education in the room. He has all of the power and position and privilege in the room. He has all of the answers in the room. But it gets him nowhere. And while he might have been well-meaning and genuine, he was also locked into a failed system of religious obligation and perfectionism that made it nearly impossible for him to understand what Jesus was talking about. So, in a demonstration of his “in-the-dark-ness,” he looks at Jesus with a face filled with confusion and clarifies, “so I am supposed to be born again? Really born again? Right?”
And Jesus looks at him like he has lost his mind.
Because being born again isn’t the point. In the story, it is the confused answer of the in-the-dark guy!
So let me make this clear. Let me tell you about again.
Again is about “ought to” and “supposed to” and following the rules that we were taught when we were young.
Again is wearing ourselves out with obligation and expectation and perfection.
Again is the Jesus treadmill, pounding step after pounding step of doing the thing that we have been told is good for us, even though we wonder if we have lost our soul in the process.
Again is busting our butts because we think that accomplishing religious rules, and making tally marks on the religious scorecard, and impressing the other religious rule-followers is what the life of faith is made of.
Again is showing up, no questions asked, and doing the things that we got told would save us…even though we wonder deep down if those aren’t really the things that bring true salvation.
Again is sacrificing ourselves for the good of the cause, even though we aren’t sure what the cause is anymore, and some days we aren’t even sure what good is anymore.
Again is getting angry at the people that we think we are supposed to get angry at, as if that anger was some physical trophy or accomplishment or achievement. A thing that we can put up on our mantle and show people, “look what I did!”
Again is about overtime, those extra hours that make you worthwhile, or that extra effort that makes you a better human in someone’s eyes. Or maybe just your own. Or maybe not at all.
For Nicodemus, who has spent his whole life perfecting again, he finds it incredibly difficult to understand what Jesus is talking about.
John gets the joke. It’s his joke, after all. He pokes fun at Nicodemus, as he pokes fun at all of us who think that the right answer is again.
Here is where I should give you a lesson on the Greek, talking about the Greek word anothen, which actually has not two meanings, but three. It means “again.” It means “anew.” AND it means “from above.” But really, when anothen wanders into the story here in John 3, it only means one thing. In fact, it means that one thing specifically because it doesn’t mean the other two. That’s the joke.
Don’t get me wrong. There is something honorable about again, and something beautiful about anew. But neither of those is the thing that John 3 seems to be about. When Nicodemus has his eyes opened, it isn’t with again or even anew. In fact, Jesus shakes his head and wonders how the guy who is supposed to be teaching the people of God about being people of God…could get it all wrong. Jesus looks him in the eye and tells Nicodemus it isn’t about again.
It is about from.
It isn’t even about above. Above is there, of course. Above is great and above is part of the story. But the biggest word in these whole 21 verses isn’t above. Because above is kind of abstract and mysterious and we aren’t even sure what above is. And when it comes down to it, above isn’t even a thing that is remotely within our power. Which is the point. Which is why the most important word in these 21 verses isn’t above, and definitely isn’t again.
It is from.
Let’s talk about from.
From is receiving instead of achieving.
From is getting a gift. Not buying it and wrapping it and being resentful when they open it and aren’t as happy as we think they should have been.
From is about getting that gift, and tearing it open because we have no idea what it is, and when we do, we cannot believe how perfectly perfect it is and we couldn’t have picked it out even if we had tried.
From is understanding that the Giver knew us better than we even knew ourselves, and knew what we needed and what would make us whole.
From is the Giver loving us so much, and loving the world so much, that he gave us what would truly bring our hearts contentment.
From is living, not with a set of expectations and obligations, or some kind of eternal job description that we received when we came out of the waters of baptism, but living with hope that each day is a new gift. Filled with new gifts, in fact.
From is understanding that whatever hard work we do, thinking we are earning those gifts, just makes the Giver laugh. Kind of chuckle, not a mean or angry laugh, but a laugh of grace that suggests that the Giver knows that whatever we try and do to earn the gift is sweet and special and meaningful, but totally and utterly unnecessary.
Because the Giver gives. Not sells. Or exchanges. Or barters.
Or pulls that middle class “thanks for inviting me to your house, so here is a gift that I give to you so that you will like me more, or maybe so that when I invite you to my house, you will give me something of appreciable or greater value.”
The Giver laughs at our rules and our attempts to earn more gifts.
The Giver. Gives.
Because that is what from means.
When Nicodemus stumbles out of the dark to see Jesus, he brings his pockets-full of again to show off to Jesus. When he takes all that he has and shows off his again to the guy that he thinks is full of again, that is when Jesus the Giver laughs his laugh of love and tells him…
It means from. It has always meant from.
Nikki was figuring that out. That the God that gave her incredible gifts of a beautiful family and warm home and amazing talents…wasn’t doing it to lure her into a life of service. Wasn’t trying to trick or guilt or shame her into doing good stuff in return. That day in the coffee shop, the look of horror on her friend’s face told her everything she needed to know. Helped her to see that she didn’t want to worship a God that caused such terror. Such over-the-shoulder-glancing fear.
She left that coffee shop and went back to re-read the story of Nicodemus and contemplate what it meant to be born again. Her parents had always told her that she had been named after Nicodemus. They had married late in life, and didn’t think that they could have children. So, when she was born, she was to them a gift from above.
For Nikki, there was always an assumption that because she had been a gift that she had to act like it. She had to live up to those expectations, most of them imagined. But as she read Nicodemus again, she started to see her life as a series of gifts from above:
- …her children and family and friends were not ice sculptures that required constant trimming and fixing, even as they immediately began to melt…but were gifted treasures that she could celebrate and even learn beside.
- She saw that her talents were not a burden that demanded correct utilization, but they were in fact an invitation from God to partner in the work of ministry.
- She saw that her time was not an obligation doled out by a miserly and closed-fisted God, but the opportunity to serve, to share, to play, and to celebrate, all the while receiving from the Giver a host of good and perfect gifts.
That night, Nikki slept. For the first time in a long time, she slept soundly. And in her dreams, she was in a bright and open mountain meadow, filled with brilliant and beautiful wildflowers. And as she spun and danced through the flowers, falling to the soft grass and looking up at the clouds, a slightly darker cloud roll in and gently begin to drop a gentle rain. In her sleep, Nikki felt the nourishing and nurturing showers of God.
Falling. From above.