Another Beginning & A Second Birth

by susan on August 10, 2017

Throughout the month of August, we are reflecting on the meaning of baptism & preparing to celebrate baptism together. These “Words for the Journey” were shared on Sunday, August 6, 2017 & are based on Genesis 1:1-2 & John 3:1-8

I have had the privilege of celebrating baptism with several people in my short life as pastor. While some of those baptisms have gone off without a hitch, others have produced some rather awkward moments – like the time I baptized a teenager at our church in Atlanta.

Kelly was part of our youth group. I was her youth minister & I was super excited when she asked if I would baptize her. She’d been through a lot & her choosing to be a learner of the Jesus way was no small step.

I was a little nervous as I climbed down into those chilly baptismal waters (the heater wasn’t working!) wearing a robe several sizes too big. The robe began to float to the surface the deeper I walked into the water. Everything was off to an awesome start – I looked more like a giant water  balloon than a minister about to baptize someone.

Despite my trembling knees and shaky voice, I remembered to say the right words. I remembered to ask Kely who she was choosing to make Lord of her life & to do all the little things I was supposed to do to keep her calm & to keep us both from drowning.

There was just one other glitch.

She may have been younger than me, but she was not smaller, so getting her all the way under the water was a tough task. As she was coming up from going down, I noticed something. There was a not-so-small dry & fluffy patch of hair still sticking up. Apparently, she had not been fully immersed.

I hoped no one noticed, but of course I would not be that lucky. Her older sister could not wait to tease me – she told me we needed a do-over, and that next time, I should also probably stand on a step stool. It was hard to even see me from where she was sitting.

Thankfully, baptism is not so much about the logistics, although Christians throughout the ages have certainly argued those to death. Baptism is not about getting it right or getting everything figured out before you take the plunge.

It’s about the beginning that baptism represents.

But just what kind of beginning do I mean?

Am I talking about an extreme-home-makeover kind of beginning where everything is suddenly shiny and new? Or something more like the beginning of a journey or the beginning of life itself?

Scripture has lots of stories about beginnings,
starting at the beginning with Genesis,
a word that not only means “beginnings”,
but that tells us about our beginnings.

Picture this.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, we are told the earth was a formless void, and that darkness covered the face of the deep.

Things were dark & desolate & seemingly unproductive until a wind (or Spirit) from God swept over the face of the waters. This is our first introduction to God: God is a Creator. Out of chaos & darkness, water & Spirit, God creates life. That’s Genesis.

As scripture unfolds, everything seems to hinge on this image of God. Story after story depicts God as maker, builder, author and giver of life. God is all about birthing something new.

Fast forward some 1400 years later to the time that the gospels were written. That’s skipping over a lot – a lot of time that humans both participated in God’s love, justice & beauty and a lot of time that they rejected God altogether. Scripture tells us that the people God was forming, the Israelites, had moments of connecting with God’s purposes & moments of rejecting God in favor of their better ideas –
like when they demanded an earthly king like the other nations,
like when they worshiped other gods,
like when they rejected prophets who demanded they share their wealth and care for the poor.

Fast forward through all of that though, and we get to another creation story.

The beginning of John’s gospel tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14). This is how John introduces Jesus. He then tells stories of how Jesus invited people into a new way of being in the world. He called this new way the kingdom of God & even more often, the way that leads to eternal life.

In short, Jesus was inviting people to begin again – people like Nicodemus.

John’s record of this encounter is full of imagery – starting with the detail that it was night when Nicodemus comes to Jesus.

Coming at night means it was not only a secret, but according to other stories in John, it was the time when barely anything productive was happening (think Peter fishing at night 21:3); it was the time when betrayal was at hand (think Judas, 13:30); and, it was a time of stumbling around unable to find our way (Jn 11:10).

During the day, Nicodemus may have had things figured out, but at night he’s not so sure. He’s in the dark, as we say. Perhaps even his work, accomplishments and status in society have lost significance.

Does that sound familiar?
Can we relate to feeling that our status and striving are not enough?
Can we relate to our religion feeling empty & not pointing us toward anything new or significant?

Darkness, though, is fertile ground for God’s creative work – at least it was in the first beginning. Let’s see what happens here.

Nicodemus is a Pharisee – he’s a religious leader. If he were like his friends, he’d be criticizing Jesus, but instead he comes at night in search of answers. He knows there’s something God-like about Jesus. He’s not coming to criticize – he’s coming to find out more. Perhaps he also comes at night because as curious as he is, he’s also scared. In Jesus’ radical teachings, he hears about the costly, counter-cultural nature of life in the kingdom of God. Following Jesus may cost him his reputation, his wealth, his status and he has no idea how he can make that kind of shift.

It is in the middle of a conversation with Nicodemus that Jesus introduces an analogy that has troubled Christianity since the beginning.

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:5)

Nicodemus, like the church today, has no idea what to do with Jesus’ words, so he takes them literally.

So, what, do I go back in my mother’s womb?
How can I be born a second time?

We, too, have struggled with these words of Jesus, haven’t we? We’ve so often heard the phrase “born again” used to manipulate, coerce or condemn, that even hearing the words “born again” causes us to cringe.

That’s unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because these words hold a central claim for Jesus followers.

The words “born again” speak to a radical new beginning in which we conceive of the world differently.

To enter the way of Jesus is as radical a shift as being born.

We may not remember it, but we’ve all experienced birth.
We all left the safety & secure world of our mother’s womb.
With water & air, and probably lots of pushing (& maybe even some cussing), we entered a whole new world.

And, what did we have to do to be born?
Did we have to figure everything out?
Did we have to do the pushing & the deep breathing?

Nope. We just had to surrender.
We had to stop resisting and just be born.

I don’t know about you, but I get tired of trying so hard to do everything I think I should be doing. I get tired of re-thinking my faith & my theology & my politics & trying to make sure I’ve got it all right now. I’m wondering if maybe Nicodemus felt the same way. Maybe he came at night because he just couldn’t sleep. All that thinking & re-thinking.

And, while thinking is so important, there’s something that’s even more fundamental.
Jesus said to “be” born from above.

To be born again is to wake up in God’s new world. It’s to become like children who are just learning how to live. It’s to grow into the kingdom.

Now I would like to tell you that at baptism, we get it. That we emerge from the water with our eyes fixed on Jesus’ way of love & justice & compassion, but I know we still lose our way. I know we still revert back to our bad ideas.

So, maybe baptism is not about that one moment in time and is more about surrendering to a life of being born again into the kingdom.

Maybe for Nicodemus & for us, it’s not about getting everything resolved, but about beginning.

Where are you in the birthing process?
Are you curious yet concerned like Nicodemus?
Are you feeling like there is something stirring you toward the Jesus way,
but knowing it will be costly – knowing you will have to leave behind some things that make you feel secure?
Are you tired or troubled or ticked off? Tempted to walk away all together?

Wherever you are, you are invited into this story of beginnings.

You are invited to know & to remember that out of darkness & chaos, spirit & water, God can & God does birth something new.

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