Born from Above

Sunday, January 30, 2022
Pastor Deb Kielsmeier

John 3:1-21

It was early December, and my daughter Stina was four. After picking her up from preschool, I decided to swing by the grocery store to pick up a few needed items.  There she was, little pigtails sticking out of her head, excited for whatever free samples we might taste. (Yes, grocery stores used to hand those out in the days before COVID.)

As I lifted her up to put her into the shopping cart she suddenly blurted out,

“Mom, Jesus was always alive in heaven, right?”

“Yup” I said, somewhat distractedly.

“BUT… then how did he get so small that he fit inside of Mary to be born at Christmas?”

Full Stop. WHAT?!

A man getting a cart next to us smiled at me with raised eyebrows, like he was saying “Good luck with that one mommy!”

Nicodemus in our gospel lesson for today had a very similar question for Jesus.  He was “a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews,” most likely a member of the Sanhedrin. An educated holy man with a righteous reputation to keep.

Perhaps that is why he comes to this renegade rule breaking rabbi Jesus under the cover of NIGHT.

But Nicodemus was “in the dark” about Jesus, and what it means to enter the kingdom of God. In John’s gospel, being in the dark is another way of saying you are ignorant. You can’t see the truth. Even if it is right in front of you.

And night? Well, the night is more than night.  It is ignorance, confusion, and seeing without understanding. Nicodemus was in the dark – literally and figuratively.

Which is odd because Nicodemus is a man who knows. A Lot.  He is a teacher who knows the Mosaic law inside out and the scriptures backwards and forwards.

In fact, “We know …” are the first words out of his mouth. We know. Words of confidence and certainty.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God because of your works.”

“Actually, Nick, you do not really know anything” You are in the dark…Jesus responds, because nobody can see or understand God’s kingdom without being born again.


Nick blurts out incredulously–  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Now, we must give Nick some credit here.

The Greek word – an-o-then – has a double meaning.  Anothen can mean ‘from above’ as we heard in our scripture lesson. You must be ‘born from above’…. but it also means ‘anew’ or ‘again’ as in ‘born again’.

Nicodemus obviously heard the more literal meaning and marveled like my daughter Stina about how a grown person could physically fit inside their mother to be born again – It is ridiculous.

But being born from above…. Now, that makes a bit more sense.

This new birth is a SPIRITUAL birth, not a physical thing.

What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit,” Jesus explains. 

And the Spirit, like the wind, moves of its own accord: You don’t know where it comes from or where it goes; all you can see are the effects.  It bends trees, it moves clouds, it sails the ships, and it lifts the eagle’s wings and lets her soar. We can’t see the wind, can’t see God’s Spirit; but it’s there. He concludes by saying,

“… so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Jesus speaking about a spiritual reality, but Nicodemus is stuck on the concrete, and physical.

In the same way, the faith of the Pharisees was largely external. It involved a lot of laws and rules and trying hard to please God. (Hold up fists.)

But for Jesus, it is a spiritual relationship, involving trust. (Hold out palms)

Pleasing God meant knowing and keeping the law for Nicodemus. It meant fasting, praying, giving alms and temple sacrifices. (Hold up fists.)

But for Jesus, pleasing God involves opening oneself up to receive a new life in the Holy Spirit. (Hold out palms.)

Titus 3:5 reads, “God saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”

And Ephes. 2:8-9 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

Those were favorite verses of Martin Luther, who in his early years strove anxiously for righteousness through works, fasting, penance, prayer. When he grasped that God’s righteousness was not earned, but a gift that we receive by faith, he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” 

Nicodemus strove for righteousness and God’s favor – but in Christ we are given not only the gift righteousness but a new and eternal life. The gates to paradise are flung open.

“How can this be?” Nicodemus finally asks. Jesus tells him that the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “

But when Nicodemus leaves, he is still in the dark.

In Greek there are a few different words for life. One is bios (bee-os). It is from this word that we get biology.  Bios relates to our physical mortal life. Or it refers to the necessities of life such as food, shelter, or clothing.

The word Jesus used here for life is “zoe” (dzo-ay) It is where we get the girl’s name Zoe. It is the life that belongs to God.  And “zoe” life is qualitatively and quantitatively different from bios.

It not limited by time, nor hindered by death. This life is God breathed and it never ends.

When we were born into this life, we were given bios. When we are born from above, from the Spirit, we are given “zoe” – eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

ZOE life – a life marked by new vitality, meaning, purpose, hope, and joy. Derived not from our own striving or external circumstances, but from God.

Later in John’s gospel Jesus says, I have come that they might have “zoe,” and have it to the full – an overflowing super-abundance.

Hear the good news. All you who are bone weary of all the striving.

It is not about your efforts. It is not about how much you KNOW. It is not about praying enough. Or doing enough. Or being good enough.

Because Jesus is enough.

Instead, God invites us to lay all that aside.

And simply come. To the source of all life.

Hands open. And receive the “zoe” he offers.


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