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Born in the Darkness

There are times in your life when the questions don't seem to have answers--when all that you thought you knew runs through your fingers like water and you're left holding air, when things are going on around you that you just don't understand, when you want to face God and say, "What does this mean? What are these signs? Can you tell me what this is about?"

In today's Gospel reading, our brother Nicodemus is at just such a juncture. He has seen things occurring that he doesn't understand. He thinks maybe God is connected, but he isn't sure how. So he sneaks away from his home in the dark of night to knock on the door where Jesus is staying.

When the good rabbi opens the door, Nicodemus asks not a question but, instead, makes a statement. "We know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." You sense there's a question underneath it all, but that he won't just out with it. "What really is going on here, Jesus? Who are you really? And what difference should it make if I find out the answer?" He can't quite bring himself to say it, but you get the feeling it's there. He has bothered to get up in the night and find his way to Jesus and engage him in a conversation. It's sometimes like that with God. You have something to say, but you just aren't sure what it is yet.

Jesus answers him in that way he habitually does by replying with a totally different subject. "No one," says Jesus, "can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Now is this what Nicodemus has asked about? Has he even mentioned seeing the kingdom of God? He hasn't, of course, but it's where Jesus seems to think that the conversation should go. "You have to be born from above," he says. And right there is one of the places that we'd all be better off if we spoke Greek.

The statement Jesus makes simply doesn't translate well when you take it from one language to another. In Greek, Jesus has told Nicodemus that you have to be "born anothen" and that little word there, anothen, has two simultaneous meanings. It means "born from above," as today's translation has it, but it also means "born again" or "born anew," the translation that many of us are familiar with. But my hunch is whichever way your Bible has it, it relegates the other meaning to a little footnote at the bottom of the page, those tiny ones that put the word in italics where you need a magnifying glass to read it. The problem with this is that it makes one or the other meaning seem secondary. You either think, "Well, it really means born again, and this other meaning was the next best choice," or "It means born from above, so why do all those people insist on born again? The trouble is, it means both. At the same time. Jesus intends for the meaning to be just that rich, just that multivalent (which means for it to include both categories).

And so you can see the trap that Nicodemus falls into. He flattens out the meaning, misses the categories that Jesus is using, and answers from the surface level only. He focuses on born again and considers only its physical aspect. "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Now in the past year, there are two reasons why his answer has seemed to me more absurd than ever. The first is that I'm 42, undeniably now into middle age, so this notion of returning when one has grown old seems even more silly than it used to. And the second reason is that during this 42nd year, I gave birth to my first child, a daughter named Hannah. With recent memories of being a huge nine-months pregnant and the process of labor fresh on my mind, the notion of reversing that process seems very, very absurd! "Come on, Nicodemus! You've got to be kidding! Of course, that's not what he meant--not the category he was using!"

But I wonder if sometimes we're not a little too hard on ol' Nick, if we shouldn't cut him a little more slack, because I'm not sure we all get God's categories very well either sometimes, that we all understand the picture about this born again stuff a whole lot better than Nicodemus does.

It's a well-used phrase in our culture, this born again notion, and in some circles, it's a regular litmus test. If you claim to be born again, then you're in, and if you don't, then you're out. If you claim born again, say those folks, then you must believe the right way.

But to use the phrase this way is to miss what Jesus is saying. To use it this way flattens out the meaning just as much as Nicodemus did. And lest those of us who tend not to use it this way get too self-righteous, I'm not sure folks on the other side of the translation fence fare a whole lot better sometimes. Because the point Jesus is making is that this rebirth or new birth or being born from above is something that turns everything inside out and upside down. That makes our previous perceptions about ourselves and about God seem dead wrong or at best incomplete. When this new thing happens in us, we recognize how little we really understood in the old days, before the change occurred.

And this process of being born is always just that--a process. We can't understand it and we can't control it. It's a mystery, like the wind blowing in--just as Jesus says. It's true of physical birth, as I can surely attest from recent memory, and it's true of spiritual birth. Sometimes it's a quick process with little warning and little labor before the birth is complete. And other times, the birth is on its way for some time, but hasn't quite gotten there yet. Or the process gets started, then takes a very long time and a great deal of energy, because birth is always a mystery and always a grace, always something that comes from outside us, always something that comes as gift. We simply have to be ready and waiting, as any mom in her ninth month will tell you. The process of God being born in our lives is a project we never control on our own.

Nicodemus wants the process to fit categories he knows, and we can surely understand that. But Jesus means to tell him and us that the kind of birth God has in mind is broader and deeper and wider and richer than anything our human minds will concoct. And Jesus also makes it clear that he will come to us where we are, limited categories and all. Nicodemus shows up at night, and that's not just a chronological detail. For the writer of John, night and darkness mean separation from God, mean disbelief which, for John, is never a cognitive category but a relational one. The question is not, "Do you believe the right things?" but simply "Are you in relationship with this Jesus who has come from God?" Nicodemus is in a dark period of his life. There are things he doesn't understand. He is not sure who Jesus is or what difference it should make if he did. And Jesus lets him come just as he is. He doesn't say, "Sorry, come back in the morning. Come back when it's light."

God doesn't ask that we figure things out and then come, doesn't ask that we wait for the light. If there are dark places in your life today, Jesus welcomes your knock and will be pleased with your visit. For the mysterious, gracious gift of birth always begins there in the darkness. It begins in a place where all is not clear, where questions reside and certainties are few. It begins in the darkness and moves toward the light.

So take a chance as Nicodemus did and show up at the door. Move ahead, even in your darkness. Jesus is there, and his promise is sure. If you knock on that door, he will open.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, who sent Jesus to be the light of the world, give us grace to recognize the light of his presence in the midst of our darkness and to knock on the door that he might be born more fully in us, and make us, like him, the light to our world, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.