Upside-down and Backwards

John 3:16 – “for God so loved” – is one of the most familiar and recognizable verses of the New Testament.

The statement is full and true on its own, but like all Scripture, you miss out on a lot when you avoid drinking-in the intoxicating concoction of verses that come before and after.

The popular verse – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” – is part of a long conversation that Jesus holds with a religious leader named Nicodemus. Along the way, Jesus stresses the spiritual need to be born again from above. Understandably, Nicodemus is confused, and Jesus goes on to break things down and unpack that powerful truth. It’s been described as “the greatest conversation ever held”!

Those who study such things speculate that Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night to keep their conversation on the down-low. That’s a very real possibility. Remember, Jesus isn’t exactly popular in the circles that Nicodemus frequents, because Jesus challenges the beliefs and behaviors of Nicodemus, his fellow religious leaders, and other such supposedly holy and pious folks.

And let’s be honest: No one likes being the object of such deep, personal scrutiny. No one likes being called on the carpet and held to account for words and actions. Great vulnerability befalls when you’re fully seen in broad daylight for who you are and for what you stand, and no one likes running the risk of being defined by character faults and spiritual blemishes. Most of us only trust a select few others with that intimate portrait of our true selves, and that’s usually because we know that those who know us as we are also love us as we are.

And there it is: Love.

Again and again, God’s love calls us into its redeeming light. Which raises the hard question of walking a Lenten journey with Jesus: Can we – will we – muster enough trust in his love to draw back the curtain on our souls and let in the game-changing, life-altering beams of the Lord’s heavenly light?

Thanks be to God, we’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who lets us experience the loving Word of the Lord with all our senses.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.

He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus 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?”

Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The 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.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”

Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (John 3:1-21)

Nicodemus was a teacher in the Jerusalem synagogue.

He’d taught the truths of Scripture to hundreds of people. He’d grown used to having all the answers and liked being the expert.

But then, perhaps out of simple curiosity but more likely because of deep spiritual hunger and thirst, Nicodemus seeks out Jesus and finds himself confused and stumped by what he hears: “Unless you are born again, you will never see the Kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus recognizes the truth of Jesus but doesn’t understand it, and Nicodemus is at once humiliated and stimulated. So, he decides to ask Jesus what it all means, and Jesus lays out the truth of life:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

You must be born from above.

Being “born again” is a slogan and rallying cry for an entire segment of modern Christianity.

In those circles, being “born again” is the yardstick that measures the validity of one’s faith, the surety of one’s salvation, and the piety of one’s life. It’s often a very flat measure that refers to the moment when a person “comes” to Jesus or “accepts” Christ.

But if that’s all the farther you want to take it, then you’re missing what being “born again” is really all about! To be “born again” is to be “born again from above” – to receive ongoing re-birth from the power of God above through the lifting up of Jesus on the cross.

Being “born again” as the phrase is typically used usually ignores the source of rebirth. It ignores the cross. You simply cannot know the true meaning of human life without grounding it in the reality of Jesus’s life and death.

When “born again” becomes just a slogan or a label, you risk losing out on the powerful offer of a new, unprecedented way of living that Jesus brings – a life regenerated through the cross of Jesus, a life borne and re-borne of water and of Spirit, a life lived on the terms that Jesus offers and presents.

To believe in Jesus on those terms is to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that God loved the world so much that the Father gave the Son as a gift. The God revealed in Jesus is a God whose love knows no bounds and who asks only that one receive the gift. And if you receive the gift, you receive eternal life.

Simple enough, right?

But the hard part between today and that promised eternity is letting the love of God in Jesus Christ reshape and redefine your life in the here and now – taking up your own cross, dying from the darkness of your old worldly self, and rising into the light of a new life made possible by water and Spirit.

Think of it this way:

Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, tells the story of a man named Virgil who had been blind from early childhood. And at age 50, Virgil underwent surgery that restored his sight. But as he and Dr. Sacks found out, having the physical capacity for sight is not the same as seeing.

Virgil’s first experiences with sight were confusing. He was able to make out colors and movements, but arranging them into a coherent picture and making sense of what he was seeing were far more difficult endeavors. Over time, Virgil learned to identify various objects, but his habits and behaviors were still those of a blind man.

That led Dr. Sacks to conclude this: “One must die as a blind person to be born again as a seeing person. It is the interim – the limbo – that is so terrible.”

Having a coherent picture of Jesus means more than observing what he did or listening to what he said.

It means experiencing a change of heart and mind, and letting the Holy Spirit change your heart and mind doesn’t happen overnight. It surely could happen that quickly, but usually, you and I are too stubborn, stiff-necked and stuck in our ways to let the Holy Spirit work that fast.

That means we end up spending some time in an already-but-not-yet place of limbo where we know the truth but wrestle with what it all means, an already-but-not-yet place of limbo where the Spirit is still at work but stymied by our resistance to change.

The real spiritual re-birth of which Jesus speaks requires a person to come to see the world in the upside-down terms that Jesus always uses when he talks about the Kingdom of God.

A person’s soul and spirit have to be re-wired to believe and live the idea that humility and kindness – loving and serving God and neighbor, putting others’ interests and needs ahead of your own – are far more valuable in the eyes of the Lord than brazen pride, endless self-promotion, and living the best life ever.

When you are re-born from above, you live and move in the belief that the meek, and the lowly, and the quiet are far more treasured in the heart of God than the bold, and the lofty, and the noisy.

What’s truly upside-down and backwards in terms of human logic is that God makes this type of transformation happen in you and me by depositing a little baby into an animal’s feed through set out on the edge of nowhere in this world.

And salvation from the evil powers that be comes through a cross – an emblem of the very thing that terrifies us the most in this world: death.

But when you are re-born from above, you look at a bloody instrument of execution and see life – new life in the Kingdom of God, where the rules have changed and resurrection and re-creation are the new normal.

You’ve probably heard the story – I think I might have told it before – about the guy walking down the street who suddenly falls into a deep hole he didn’t see.

The hole is deep; the walls are steep.

A psychiatrist happens by, and the guy calls out: “Hey, Doc, can you help me here?” The doctor writes a prescription for an anti-depressant and throws it into the hole.

A minister comes by and the guy calls out: “Hey, pastor, can you help me out here?” The pastor writes out a prayer and tosses it down into the hole.

Then the guy’s best friend comes by, sees his friend down in the hole, and immediately jumps in. “What’d ya do that for?” the guy says, “Now we’re both stuck.”

“No worries,” the friend says. “I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”

In this world of sin and evil, fear and despair, brokenness and emptiness, there are plenty of dark and deep pits into which you and I fall. And for each of us, in the end, there’s a six-foot-deep hole in the ground waiting for us at a cemetery somewhere.

But, thanks be to God, Jesus has been down in that hole himself, and he knows the way out. You’ve probably heard of the way out, too. It’s called Easter!

In this season of Lent, when we focus on sin and what Jesus comes to do to save us from sin, we dare not forget that, above all, what we have to hold onto and cling to for dear life is the good news of God’s love – the Easter promise of resurrection, re-birth and re-creation!

Creation itself sprang from a bubbling overflow of God’s love.

Like a shaken-up bottle of champagne, so also God’s love was so effervescent, so fully pressured, so rich and powerful, that sooner or later the cork had to explode out. And when it did, a river of sparkling love gushed forth and sprayed upon everyone everywhere.

Creation is that overflow of love.

God wanted to share the life and the love in which God already so exquisitely relished among Father, Son, and Spirit, who exist embraced in an interpenetrating dance of love.

God is like an ever-moving circle of dance in which Father, Son, and Spirit constantly and forever move in and through one another in perfect bliss, harmony, and joy. The three persons of God are so invested in one another, so interested in one another, so caring of one another that, although three persons, they form just one God. They’ve been serving each other like that for all eternity and finding holy joy in that loving co-service.

So, it is no surprise that, at some point, those three persons decided so great was this love – so focused was this love on the other – that they wanted an entire universe of others with whom to further share the love. God was under no requirement to create anything. Yet it is just so much like God to want to create, nurture, and share such deep love.

God’s motivation to create the world is similar to what motivates us to invite as many friends as we can to a birthday, wedding or anniversary celebration: We want to widen the circle of our own love and joy. We want to share the grand event with those who are close to us.

Something very much like that is what brings about Creation in the first place: the love of God within Father, Son and Holy Spirit bubbling over in a desire to spread the joy around.  “Let us create some creatures so that we can then invite them to join the dance!”

To be born again is to accept the invitation to that holy dance.

And to let the Holy Spirit sync up our daily rhythms with the Father’s and the Son’s – to let God’s work of creation, re-creation and resurrection continue in and through us. Sure, there’ll be times when we’ll step on God’s toes – times when God is waltzing and we’re doing the two-step. But the invitation still stands: Come and be born again from above by water and Spirit.

For God so loved.

Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant VanderVelden shared this message on the fourth Sunday in Lent, March 14, 2021. It is the fourth in a series of sermons around the theme “Again and Again: A Lenten Refrain,” which draws on Psalm 13. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by T. Denise Anderson, Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, Gail R. O’Day, and Gerard Sloyan inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwinn Garrity, Light Wave,

Our song of the day is “There Is a Fountain” by Selah:

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