A sermon preached
at the Mint Methodist Church, Exeter,
by the Minister, Rev Andrew Sails
at 10.30 a.m. on 20th February 2005,
the 2nd Sunday in Lent

Reading:  Genesis 12:1-5, John 3:1-8



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"Visit of Nicodemus to Christ"
John La Farge (1880)
oil on canvas 42 1/4 x 35 1/8 in. (107.2 x 89.1 cm.)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Gift of William T. Evans



“No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”  (Jn 3:3)



I think it was Katherine Whitehorn who once said
(with more wit than Christian charity):
Why is it that born again people are so often the sort of people
you wish had never been born the first time around?


I suspect she was talking generally about the zeal of the newly converted –
but it is sad that for many people the phrase “Born Again Christian”
has become increasingly identified with
(and maybe even sometimes hijacked by)
a very narrow group of Christians
at the extreme conservative fundamentalist end of the theological spectrum.


Which may mean that for some of us here,
who may taken a wider more questioning view of the Gospel and its implications,
the phrase “born again Christian” may become somewhat problematic.


Which is a shame.   

Because the concept of being born again in the Spirit

is actually rich in meaning for all Christians.


And of course at the heart of our set lesson which we look at today -
Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus


We are not told a lot about Nicodemus in this story –

but we do know that he is a senior and well respected religious leader.

And he comes to Jesus by night –

Is this because he just didn’t want to risk people
knowing he was talking to such a questionable character as Jesus?

Or maybe John wanted to tell us symbolically
that Nicodemus was a man in the dark about himself
– a benighted soul?


One of my favourite Snoopy cartoons shows
Lucy talking to Charlie Brown.   

Discouraged again, eh, Charlie Brown?" says Lucy.

"You know what your whole trouble is?
The whole trouble with you is that you're you!

Charlie asks, "Well, what in the world can I do about that?"

Lucy answers,
"I don't pretend to be able to give advice...
I merely point out the trouble!


We don’t know why Nicodemus comes to Jesus –
but given how Jesus responds, I wonder if he is saying

“I’m here in the dark and the problem with me is me.   
And I’ve worked on my life to live a good and Godly life,
but somehow I don’t seem to have the answer –
what do I do about being me??


Jesus says –
you’ve got to be born again, or born from on high
(the phrases are the same in the Greek).

You need a Spiritual birth to parallel your original physical birth.


Jesus analogy for spiritual renewal is physical birth,
being born -
So think for a minute: 
How do you go about getting born? –
I mean physically born,
the thing you do just after you are minus one minutes old?   
How do go about doing it??

Basically it’s a silly question, isn’t it -
Being born isn’t anything you achieve at all –

Being born is done to you.     
It is often a great labour of love
– but the labour & the love aren’t yours.


And from the baby’s point of view,
being born is a totally unplanned and indeed unexpected
new beginning in an unknown new world..


So, says Jesus,
God, like the mother she is,
will give us Spiritual birth
And what is offered is great – it’s a new life.

And its God’s gift, not our achievement


It is also a slightly scary gift of life –
because it’s in a new world we can’t choose, control or predict,
outside all the securities of our present existence


So Jesus says to Nicodemus -
”Let the Spirit push you down the birth canal.
Let go of the safety of the womb.  

Risk the world outside.

Breathe the fresh air of the Spirit.”


That is what Jesus offered Nicodemus.


It is what in our OT reading God offered Abraham and Sarah –
a journey from barrenness to birth –

and also a journey from the security of the known

to the uncertain future with God.


But Nicodemus says

“How can you be born again when you are old?”     

Surely the die is cast – I am who I am –

and as Charlie Brown and I both know,

there’s nothing to be done about that –
this is the only life I got myself born into,
so I’ve just got to make the best of it.


When Jesus talks about being born again,

you can almost hear Nicodemus saying

“Born again? Chance would be a fine thing!” -
Nicodemus was doubtless like the rest of us –

yes he’d have loved the chance to press the rewind button on life sometimes –

put things right –

takethe road not taken” in the yellow wood on some long gone fateful day ….

But says Nicodemus, life isn’t like that –

you don’t get a fresh go at life when your old and grey.


So Nicodemus says “I can’t go back to the womb at my time of life”

But Jesus says – “It’s never too late to start again –


There is an ancient Native American Indian Ceremony
called the Inipi.   

About 6 or 8 adults squeeze tightly together
inside a small covered dome-like structure

constructed of thick bent branches
and fully covered over with hide or cloth.  

In the centre, a pit is dug
and in it are placed a dozen or more stones

which have been heated to a very high temperature.   

As the ceremony begins, water is poured over the stones,

thereby creating a tremendous veil of steam within.

The process is continued until all of the stones are cooled.

This can take anywhere from an hour to two hours.   

During the time the water is being poured over the stones,

the participants offer prayers and sing sacred songs.  

It is a cleansing and renewing ritual –

physically, mentally and spiritually.
I guess we might think of a cross between a baptism and a sauna.
It has been said that being inside the domed structure of the Inipi
is symbolic of being in the womb.  

There it is as though the body and soul were re-formed.   


When participants finally emerge into the light of the rising sun
and gulp the cool fresh air of the outside world,
they feel themselves on many levels, to be reborn.

Based on a passage by Rev. Robert W. Two Bulls


This is what Christ offers Nicodemus –

to be born of water and the Spirit –

to be cleansed and propelled into a new beginning in God’s power.

And it is what Christ offers to you and to me.   

And as we struggle with life maybe we need to be reborn again and again

in the Spirit if we are truly to learn what it means

to walk in Christ’s way and the Spirit’s power.


For make no mistake, if you will be reborn,

the Spirit will push you into a new world –      

Yes - it is a world filled with the new oxygenated air of the Spirit’s breath,
but it is also a world of new demands, new values, new service.

It is a world in which we become the Body of Christ –

Christ is reincarnated, born again, in us,
as we are born again in him, that his work may be done.


Donald Soper used to say that being born again

wasn’t just about a new personal spirituality –

it was also about a new social and political commitment.




So today on this 2nd Sunday of Lent we bring more symbols
to the Lent Cross – a towel and a bowl –
signs of Christlike service and humility.


How appropriate that on the day

we remember Christ taking a bowl and towel

we are also raising money for Action Water –
For the work of Action water is also the Work of Christ -
that Christ may still kneel with

healing, cleansing, thirst quenching water

before the needy of the world in this generation
as once he did in an Upper Room long long ago.



·        So, in this moment, let us ask the Spirit to enter our lives
and to propel us in his power
into whatever rich new and exciting life he has awaiting us.

·        Let us commit ourselves to live that life as one of such loving service
that it may indeed be as if Christ himself were reborn within our new selves.

·        And when finally, like Sheila and Denis
and all the saints before us,
we finally complete the earthly life
begun in our earthly birth,
let us rejoice that we have a new birth from heaven -
And that the new life we have begun here below
is but an infant foretaste of heaven above.



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