Below the sermon audio is the sermon text; the passage from John 3 with its talk of being “born again” and of “God so loving the world…” suffers the danger of over-familiarity. Please God, let it not be so. After the sermon, I suggested that some people might be puzzled, challenged, concerned about the sermon; I tried as best I could to encourage such people to come chat with me… and, unlike Nicodemus, there is no need to come “by night.”
As always, what you hear in the audio is not necessarily what you read in the text. Alan Neale
Sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI
Sunday March 12th 2017
The Reverend Alan Neale
“You’re Never Too Old”
John 3:4 “How can anyone,” said Nicodemus, “be born who has already been born and grown up?”
Or, AJRN translation (mine!), “After years of life, can I expect something new to happen?”
This year I enjoy three significant anniversaries. This past Wednesday 30 years of marriage (and I know your sympathies extend to Wendy); in April 65 years of life and in June 40 years of ordination.
Each anniversary presents me with a Nicodemus-like question “After years of life, can I expect something new to happen?”
Well to Nicodemus, to me, to you, to this faith community, Jesus answers with a non-disputable, resoundingly firm, non-wavering “Yes, you can.” In fact the writer of John uses an Hebraic formula of “Verily, verily” that underlines, emphasizes that this is no alternate fact based on a non-existent world view… this can be trusted… trusted as much as God is truth.
We tend to find such questions – even the intimation of such questions – a little embarrassing. Will we be considered odd, strange, weird, peculiar, not satisfied with our lot? So I for one understand that Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night” (John 3:1); under the cover, protection and shade of darkness. He yearns to ask this primal, psychic, crucial question but he does not want to be ridiculed by peers and friends and family. In some way Nicodemus foreshadows the quintessential Episcopalian who considers matters and questions of faith to be private, quiet matters. By the end of the Gospel Nicodemus has “come out” and is public in his discipleship; it took a while but then God is always patient. The great Matthew Henry writes, “Nicodemus was afraid, or ashamed to be seen with Christ, therefore came in the night. But though he came by night, Jesus bid him welcome, and hereby taught us to encourage good beginnings, although weak.”
But back to the question, “After years of life, can I expect something new to happen?” or more traditionally ““How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up?”
Look at Jesus’ response.
First, he says (John 5:6) “You’re not listening. Let me say it again” and so Jesus repeats the glorious truth of regeneration in a different ways.
And second, he says (John 5:7) “Don’t be surprised, do not be astonished.”
As life moves on so sadly it brings with it a disinclination to hear something new, to be astonished at something novel. We listen but do not hear, we consider but are not amazed. We mirror the jaded, cynical tourist who visited Niagara Falls; the man was told with wonder that 3,160 tons of water flow over Niagara Falls every second. His dour response, “Well it would, there’s nothing to stop it.”
Friends, you have heard and read this Gospel story many times so beware… the tendency is not to listen, not to be astonished and, thereby, to miss the miracle and possibility of “being born again.”
In the Greek text of John 3:4 two words are used that only appear once in the whole of the New Testament; it is as if the writer, the compilers, of the Fourth Gospel are straining to make us listen and make us wonder. “We can be born again even if we have been born and are now grown up” – oh, how boring “grown up” can sound, yes?
The koine Greek word for “born again” [“gennaithainai” (γεννηθῆναι)] speaks of the energy to be productive, generative, creative; it is with such a hope that Abram sets out (in Genesis 12) from his own country, people, culture and though ancient of days takes God at his word that he, Abram, will be the generating agency of a great nation. Such news causes Sarai to laugh but God is patient and new life begins.
Friends, the word for us today is this “you, I, we can be born again.” By the mighty operation of the Holy Spirit we can observe, experience, enjoy new life especially in our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. Those awful, devilish, life-denying words (“it’s too late”) should not be entertained in the presence of the living God.
And how is this to be? Well through surrender and through attention.
Surrender, oh the word and the attitude are readily welcomed in a “can-do”, self-sufficient, wildly independent world. Our pride resists such commitment and our fear of vulnerability justifies our resolve. But until we accept, as deeply as possible, that “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that only the spirit can create spirit” we are doomed to frustrating and constant disappointment.
And, attention. These past days we have been forced to pay attention to the brisk and frigid wind; to walk in sheltered places, to prepare for fallen tree limbs and to shovel where mounds of snow have been placed. Oh likewise we should pay attention to the moving of the Spirit, increasingly sensitive to those stirrings of the Spirit within us and the gentle whispers of counsel from outside. And pay attention to the one “lifted up in the wilderness” who promises life, forgiveness, acceptance and renewal.
Surrender, pay attention to these stunning words from today’s Epistle (Romans 4:17) “Abraham was first named “father” and then became a father because he dared to trust God to do what only God could do: raise the dead to life, with a word make something out of nothing. When everything was hopeless, Abraham believed anyway, deciding to live not on the basis of what he saw he could not do but on what God said he would do.”
I dare you, I dare myself to believe these words and look for God to create new life… even today, well at least sometime this week! AMEN