Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017
Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was there in the room when both of my brothers were born. I don’t remember much about Nels’ birth; I was only four and a half. But I was sixteen when Lars was born, and I remember it very well. And one of the things that I remember is how long it took, and how much was involved. It seemed to take forever. Mom was at the center of things, with Dad supporting her, and nurses and doctors coming in and out as things ebbed and flowed. There were moments when things got very intense, and then everyone would relax for a bit. Then another pang would come, and things would rev up again. It seemed to take forever, and there was a lot of yelling and mess and gross stuff, but at the end, there was a new life: my baby brother Lars.
I think that may be one of the reasons I’m so comfortable with the Lutheran understanding of what it means to be “born again.” In those traditions which emphasize being “born again,” it’s usually talked about as a relatively simple event. You hear a call and come to Jesus. You see the light and become a Christian. You feel God’s presence in your life and get baptized. Over and done, boom. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the point is that a born-again Christian can usually give you a time and date for the moment they believe they were born again, born from above. In theory, that moment of being born again changes you forever. In theory, once you have been born again, the Christian life is simply a matter of continuing on in holiness and growing in a straight line towards God. You shouldn’t still struggle with your faith, or sin, or fall back into un-Christian behavior. It happens, of course, but it’s not supposed to happen.
I can’t name a date and time when I was saved or born again, but that isn’t because I haven’t experienced that second birth Christ talks about in our Gospel. I can’t give you a specific moment partly because I’m pretty sure it’s still happening. We are all, every one of us, in the middle of being born from above. We are still in the middle of all the pain and mess of our second birth. It’s an ongoing process. No Christian, in this life, is perfect in faith; no Christian, in this life, follows God’s call completely. None of us are free from sin; none of us are free from temptation; none of us is free from doubt. There are times when we feel close to God, and times when we feel separated. We are forgiven, and then we fall back into sin, and then we confess and are forgiven anew. Faith is not a simple one-and-done thing; it’s a complex reality to be lived through.
Martin Luther put it this way: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it. The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.” In other words, the life of a Christian isn’t about already being a perfect faithful Christian, but about growing in faith. It’s not a one-great-moment and then everything’s settled and fine forever. There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys. There are pains, setbacks, trouble; there are times of rest to catch your breath. Just like in a birth. There are a lot of people who have a part to play in our growth in faith; some of them are there for the whole long process, and some are just there for one part of it. Just like in a birth. It’s a long, drawn-out process, just like a birth. And, at the end, there is new life … just like in a birth. Except that this birth takes our whole lives, and the new life is the life we have in Christ. This birth is not about blood and biology; this birth is about faith and the family of God.
This birth comes through water and Spirit. That should sound familiar to you. There is a sacrament we have—shared by all Christians—of water and the Holy Spirit. Baptism. When we are showered with the waters of baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. We become part of a new family, the family of God—just as we become part of our birth family when we are born. The water washes away the old, sinful self; our sins are drowned in the waters of baptism. And yet, we still sin. But that doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t effective, and it doesn’t mean that the transforming power of water and the Spirit isn’t still at work in us: that just means that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet done. Although we only are baptized once, the reality of baptism lasts our whole life long. Every day, we are drowned in the waters of baptism, and every day we rise to new life in Christ. As our faith ebbs and flows, as our commitment to Christ grows (and sometimes shrinks), the Holy Spirit works in us continually. We are in the process of being re-born as children of God.
We don’t get to choose what the Spirit does in us. We don’t get to choose where it sends us. Just like the infant in the birth canal, we go where we are pushed. We don’t know what’s coming; the future is beyond our understanding. But we know that we are on the way; we know that something wonderful is coming. We know that something new is coming, and that we will be new in it. We trust the Spirit to lead us to God. We trust the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to work in us and around us, and to work in and around the whole of creation. We trust that love will win, and that love will be active in faith. The whole purpose of God’s work in the world is that his love will overflow in us. For God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but live God’s abundant life now and in the world to come. God didn’t send Jesus into condemn the world, but to save it.
That salvation works through faith. Faith is not just a static thing that we have, it is something we do. It’s something we are. It’s something we grow into. Belief isn’t just about memorizing the right answers. In Greek, the word for faith—pistis—can be both a noun and a verb. In other words, it can be an idea, but it can also be an action. But in English, faith is a noun, and a noun only. There is no verb form; “faithing” is not a word. When faith is used as a verb in Greek, it’s translated as “having faith” or “believe.” Which still makes it sound like faith is an object you possess and carry around with you, instead of something you do. When Jesus talks about “having faith” or “believing” in our English translations, he’s not saying that we need to memorize the right beliefs and be able to recite them on cue. He’s talking about trusting God. He’s talking about living faithfully, and trusting God to bring us through the labor pangs. Jesus is talking about putting our belief into action, living with the reality of God’s salvation as the motivating force in our lives. Jesus is talking about letting the Spirit work God’s will in us, opening us up to the power of God.
We can’t see the Spirit directly. We don’t see where it comes from or where it goes. We can feel it working in us; we can see it in the love of God poured out for all the world. We can experience it in the new life that brings God’s love more clearly to all the world.