Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Don't Forget About Being Born Again


Whenever the lectionary picks up in the middle of a paragraph, there's a good chance something will be taken out of context. I think that's exactly what happens in this Sunday's gospel lesson (John 3:14-21). You might think that it starts at a logical place since verse 14 has Jesus saying to Nicodemus, "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." Given that the reading from Numbers is the actual story about lifting up the bronze serpent in the wilderness so that those who had been bitten by snakes as punishment for their impatient faithlessness could be healed, you might think this is the right place to start. I disagree.

If we begin with verse 14, we miss everything Jesus has to say to Nicodemus about being born again. Remember the story? Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, wondering how to make sense of Jesus' miraculous signs and seemingly conflicting radical message (e.g. turning over of tables in the temple). Jesus' response to Nicodemus? "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." They go back and forth about what this means--Nicodemus still struggling to make sense of Jesus' teaching--until finally Jesus says, "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"

There is a gap, it seems, between what Jesus is saying and what Nicodemus is understanding. This gap cannot be bridged by human thinking. Only one who is born of water and the spirit--only one who is born again--can see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus wants to know whether he is supposed to crawl back into his mother's womb, and Jesus (insert face-palm here) can't believe that this leader and teacher of Israel can be so obtuse. The implication for me is that I won't be able to make sense of what God is doing in my life and in the world around me until I am born again--until I start all over and claim a birth that is given to me through Christ's death and resurrection.

That is the background to the statement about the bronze serpent being lifted up. That is the prerequisite to understanding what Jesus says about the Son of Man being raised. And, as this week's lesson continues with verse 17, it's also essential to understanding that Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world but that, through him, the world might be saved.

This week, Jesus himself does some exegesis on behalf of the preacher. He takes the story from Numbers and interprets it for us as a story about life and hope and promise. He takes it out of the context of punishment, death, and despair and shows us what it is really about--about being born again. When my instincts run counter to that, I'm failing to see the story through born-again eyes. In other words, I'm stuck in the earthly realm and have failed to see the kingdom of God at work.

As Steve Pankey said in his post today, "There comes a time when you realize that snakes have been biting you for quite some time and you are in desperate need of relief." We are all snake-bit. If we want to be healed, we need to look at the one who was raised in the wilderness. We need to be born again.

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