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Sermons

Born Anew

April 21, 2002

Bible Reading

Nicodemus said to Jesus, “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, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which born of the spir-it is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it will, 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 this? . . . If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (John 3:4–10, 12)

Reading from Swedenborg

We all have inner and outer selves. The inner one is our spiritual self, and the outer one is our material self. For us to be reborn, both of these have to be reborn.

When we have not been reborn, our outer, material self is in control, and our inner self works for it. But when we have been reborn, our inner, spiritual self is in control, and our outer self works for it. So you can see that our life is arranged upside-down from birth. What should be in control is just a worker, and what should be just a worker is in control.

For us to be set free, this arrangement has to be turned the other way around. This cannot happen unless we are reborn from the Lord. (The Heavenly City #179)

Sermon

Check it out! That’s what Nicodemus came to Jesus to do. Yet Nicodemus had many admirable qualities. He was a great soul, bursting through barriers that would stop others. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin; but what a wonderfully open, inquiring mind he had! True, he came to see Jesus furtively by night. Yet considering the stern reprisals in his culture, we can well understand that. Have we never looked cautiously at something or someone new, different, or controversial, not wanting any of our friends to observe us while we “checked it out?”

Nicodemus managed to preserve an open, inquiring mind despite his stuffy, rigid training. While his colleagues muttered and complained, rejected and resented Jesus as an intruder into their temple turf, Nicodemus mustered the nerve to approach him. Yes, he approached Jesus quietly and unobserved by night. But this was not because he lacked courage, as later episodes in this same Gospel show (such as in John 7:50).

Besides being brave and inquiring enough to seek out and discover what Jesus had to offer, Nicodemus demonstrated another desirable spiritual quality: he was not afraid to ask questions that others might consider stupid. Jesus pushed him. A weaker personality would have given up—caved in to the confrontation Jesus offered. But Nicodemus had a quality of persistence, of “hanging in there.” Despite his difficulty in perceiving spiritual matters, he came to admire and revere Jesus, later contributing myrrh and aloes for his burial (John 19:39). What was there in the relationship of Jesus and Nicodemus? Jesus had just pointed out his gross ignorance, yet Nicodemus neither withdrew nor winced, but listened and learned. Nicodemus was a good listener—and learner.

Perhaps it was the way Jesus combined the visible and the invisible; how he used everyday happenings to illustrate spiritual life. People knew about water. John was baptizing people in the water of the Jordan. Jesus had just returned from a marriage at Cana, where he had turned water into wine. Now he spoke of deeper concerns. Of water and spirit. And while he spoke of baptism by water and spirit, and of being born anew, he introduced a parable: a picture story that his fisher-disciples would see and understand. He talked about where the wind blows. The wind. The spirit. The invisible. The mysterious, invisible movement of the Lord’s holy spirit in the innermost recesses of the human soul.

Where the wind comes from and where it goes is a mystery. But the fisher-disciples from the sea of Galilee knew how to use it! That was no mystery to them. They had to learn, of course. As soon as their parents dared to risk their sons going out to sea with their fathers, they would begin to learn where the wind blows, and how to use the wind to get their ships back and forth and around the lake. On the landlocked sea of Galilee, surrounded by hills, no one ever knew where the wind would come from. Yet they could learn how to use the wind by listening for its “voice,” and watching for ripples on the waves. Watching and waiting. And looking. Really looking in order to see and understand.

How often Jesus used these words—especially with the city folk in Jerusalem. Like Nicodemus. Jesus used sea stories to talk of spiritual life and growth. In a way similar to the fisher-sailors, he said, people being born anew need to watch, wait, and see where the wind blows—and be ready to respond. As sailors move the sail and rudder in response to the wind, so those being born anew must respond to the movement of the Lord’s spirit in their life.

The spiritual washing portrayed by John’s baptism is more easily known and practiced. If we look at the symbolism of water through our Swedenborgian “eyeglasses,” we find that it represents divine truth available to us in the Lord’s Holy Word. Truth purifies and quenches spiritual thirst as does a ladle of pure, cool water from a mountain stream.

Jesus brought the two together. A good, perceptive listener like Nicodemus would appreciate that, and become a lifelong admirer. A teacher like Nicodemus would appreciate a master teacher. “Unless one is born anew, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, one cannot enter the kingdom of God.” “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it will, 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.”

How like the Lord to bring the water and the spirit together! For spiritual life, we need to drink and wash with as much water as we can. But the spirit moves invisibly and mysteriously. And we need to learn how to travel, to move, with it.

And how like our Lord to describe our spiritual journey in uncertain terms! The Old Testament describes our spiritual calling in specific terms: Abraham’s call to move from Haran to Canaan; crossing the river Jordan; entering the holy land; worshipping at the holy city Jerusalem. But the Lord describes the spiritual life journey as a sailing trip. Its value lies not in the destination, but in the way of traveling. Its value lies in the willingness to accept and live in response to the hidden, mysterious, and unknown ways of God. Or as Swedenborg says, in “not knowing how rebirth is brought about, for it is brought about by the Lord in countless and inexpressible secret ways” (Arcana Coelestia #10240.2).

The wind is so symbolic of the unknown mysteries of life. Can we, like Nicodemus, watch and wait, listening and learning “unsearchable things that we do not know”? (Jeremiah 33:3).

Prayer

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for living among us so deeply open to the mysteries of life. We come to you in the secret places of our hearts, longing to feel the water of your truth washing over us, and the wind of your spirit guiding us in unsearchable ways. Amen.

Rev. F. Robert Tafel