Upside Down and Backwards

John 3:16 – “for God so loved” – 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. Don’t forget: 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 post-resurrection 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, whose glory has been jumping off the pages of our Scripture lessons these Sundays of the Easter season. By her power and might, the Spirit enables us to experience the loving Word of the Lord with all our senses. So, feast on the nourishment that is the story of God with us at the start of chapter 3 in John’s Gospel.

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.

Very truly, I tell you, no one can embody 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 marks 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 reborn 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 loves the world so much that the Father gives 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? No, not really!

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.

Exactly what does that look like?

Meet Domingo and Irene Garcia. He’s a mechanic. She’s a hairdresser. They’ve been foster parents to 32 children and have adopted 16. They did so only by the Spirit’s power.

Domingo and Irene have not always been as gracious as they are today. In the early days of their marriage, Irene hated Domingo. He was abusive, an alcoholic, and she regularly prayed that he would die, because of the physical and emotion pain he inflicted on her. She even daydreamed about him driving off a cliff!

Now she calls him the godliest man she knows. Here in their own words is their story:

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, and sometimes does. 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.

Release from that limbo demands precisely the kind of spiritual re-birth that Jesus is talking about and the Garcias experience – the kind of spiritual re-birth that envisions 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 your new normal.

In this season of Easter – and for all the days, weeks, and years that follow, what we have to hold onto – what you and I cling to for dear life – is the Good News of God’s love: Easter’s promise of resurrection, re-birth and re-creation! Easter’s promise of the Holy Spirit!

Thus the invitation still stands: Come and be born again from above by water and Spirit. For God so loved. For God still loves! In, by, and through the Spirit – always and forever the giver and renewer of life!

Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, April 30, 2023, the fourth Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the third of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Francis Chan and Scott Hoezee inform the message.

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