We just heard two classic texts of Judeo-Christian tradition. From Genesis, the story of God calling Abram at Haran, begins Israel’s foundational story. And for many Christians, scripture doesn’t get much more foundational than John 3:16. Complete it with me if you can: “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.”
These scriptures have been read and interpreted so many times, we may be tempted to simply review our last recorded memory, nod our heads, and move on: yes, I know that one. I know what it means, and I know how to apply it in my life. These are texts that come with expectations.
Today, John’s gospel gives us a double portion of classic verses. We also get Jesus’ famous words to Nicodemus: “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (the same word can also mean again or anew). Church tradition has often focused on these words as a command or prescription for entering Christian faith. “Are you born again?” you may have been asked, which is another way of saying, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” The question is asked with a sense of urgency, provoking a life or death decision each person must make. I believe those who ask this question have good intentions. They want to invite others to a relationship with Jesus. All believers have a call upon us to share Christ’s love with others.
But sometimes this strategy has an opposite effect. It can alienate people who experience it as a “litmus test” to determine whether one is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of God’s chosen people. If you affirm your born-again status—or at least your interest—it’s a sign that you are worthy of attention; answering “no,” on the other hand, means you must be well-warned of the eternal danger to your soul, and if you still won’t accept Jesus, you are left to your unhappy fate. The message people sometimes get is, believe in Jesus and be born again so that you can live forever (like us) if you do not, you’re already condemned. Sad for you, but oh well, you had your chance. Have any of you had this kind of experience?
But when we go back to the text itself and look again, this use of Jesus’ words turns out to be painfully ironic. This text from John’s gospel in no way offers us signs for determining another person’s potential for spiritual survival, nor does it give us a formula for receiving eternal life. And frankly, it’s not so much an evangelistic tool as it is an invitation for believers to release the expectations which keep us from growing into mature faith.
I would agree, however, that this scripture raises life or death questions about our relationship with God. Birth, after all, is a life and death experience. It is also a profound mystery. Just when we think we know the mechanics of it, how to best make it happen for mother and child, the best prenatal care and best birthing practices, something unexpected happens. There are tragic deaths, and there is miraculous life.
Birth is the metaphor Jesus chooses when Nicodemus comes to him in the middle of the night with his urgent question. Only he doesn’t phrase it as a question, does he? “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God; no one can do the signs you do apart from God.” It’s a statement which sounds like an authoritative spiritual fact. “We know,” he says, and that statement has all the weight of status as a Pharisee with rigorous religious practice. “We know what faith is all about and how to manage it,” he might as well be saying.
Except that Jesus has just done something which confounded everyone’s expectations. This conversation with Nicodemus comes on the heels of the Jerusalem temple episode, when Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables with prophetic zeal.
I imagine there is a push-pull in Nicodemus between his head and his heart. His mind wants confirmation of what his heart is sensing. Jesus has the feel of the Messiah, the anointed one of God, but his mind cannot accept what that implies for his faith. Following Jesus puts everything at stake, his previous plans and expectations for life, his status in the community, the comfortable warm container of the faith he’s practiced for so long. But giving them up might mean the difference between life or death.
At about 9 am in May 2002, four mountain climbers were descending Mount Hood. The safest practice, using fixed belay points, can be time-consuming, and after their summit, the climbers anticipated the rest and safety of Timberline Lodge. The group had practiced using ice axes to stop themselves in a fall. So they chose to descend without fixed protection, roping themselves to one another. In Deep Survival, author Laurence Gonzales notes that Mt. Hood has a reputation as “a beginner’s mountain.” But, he writes, “It’s a dangerous illusion, because success depends on doing everything perfectly.”
Of course, things rarely go perfectly on mountains or in life. The conditions keep changing. If our plans or expectations keep us from changing with them, we are in real danger. The climbers hadn’t noticed that the snow had become less solid, and they were ignorant of the physics of their rope system. Their top man was their most experienced climber, but he slipped, and all the men on the rope went down with him. When they landed in a crevasse, two of the four climbers were dead.
Gonzales notes how the group’s prior experience, training, plans and expectations betrayed them. “Secondary emotions, emotional bookmarks, and mental models all conspired to encourage a sense of confidence…even as stress worked to stifle any warning voice and mask cues about the changing environment.” Gonzales writes, “A closed attitude, an attitude that says, ‘I already know,’ may cause you to miss important information…Survival instructors refer to the quality of openness as ‘humility.’” 
I don’t know about you, but “humility” is not one of my favorite spiritual virtues. I want to believe that my abilities, experience, and hard work are things I can rely on to sustain my life. I want to hold onto what I was taught, growing up in our culture: that survival and future prosperity depend on our efforts to manage and control ourselves and our environment. It feels vulnerable and risky to give up this expectation.
And the truth be told, being born is a vulnerable and risky proposition the first time around, let alone being “born again.” Jesus chose this metaphor well aware of how messy and painful the birthing process can be, how between the dark, close safety of the womb and the full light of day is a passage which might make us feel we are being turned inside out.
Furthermore, none of us can manage or control our birth—or our rebirth. None of our knowledge, training, or experience makes it possible for us to birth ourselves. It is God’s gift to give and accomplish.  It is God who labors with and for us, and God who births us from above, anew, again, that we may see and enter God’s kingdom, so that we may experience not merely life after death, but partake, here and now, in an eternal kind of life.
“Be born of water and the Spirit,” says Jesus. It’s not a command, but an invitation. God wants to conceive and give birth to something new in Nicodemus and in us, a faith, freed from the bondage of expectations, open to see and respond to the changing conditions of the Holy Spirit’s movement in our world.
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asks, straining to see beyond the literal outrageousness of these words. Maybe he wants know what he’s supposed to do. Jan Richardson notes that he sounds a lot like Mary responding to the angel Gabriel’s outrageous invitation earlier in Jesus’ story. Before she says “yes” to bearing and birthing the only Son of God, she asks, “How can this be?”
Richardson suggests that this question, from the lips of a biblical character or from our own mouth, indicates that the Spirit is “up to something.” We may speak these words in the darkness of a time when all seems to have gone wrong, a job lost, a relationship broken, an unbearable loss. “More often,” writes Richardson, “when the question appears, it is a dead giveaway that God is in the midst of bringing about something big, something life-changing or even world-changing, something we could never have dreamed up on our own.”
A new vocation, direction or relationship. New freedom to innovate vital ministry in our changing world. Something glorious and gracious we never before imagined. How can this be? “The wind blows where it chooses,” Jesus tells Nicodemus. “You can hear it but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
We see how Abram responds to God’s outrageous invitation—“Go, leave everything you know behind, to a place I will show you, and I will bless you to be a blessing for every family of the earth.” Abram released his expectations and went.
And we know how Mary accepts God’s outrageous invitation with incredible openness, incredible humility, allowing new life to be birthed through her. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
How does Nicodemus respond? We don’t know exactly. We see him anointing Jesus’ body before burial, but we are left wondering if resurrection faith was birthed in him. Our gracious loving God will not force us to be born anew, but is willing to labor with us no matter how long it takes or how messy our rebirth. But I think we still have a life or death choice. We can hold onto or let go of prior expectations; we can remain where we are, or we can welcome the life God wants to birth in us.
My friends, the good news of the gospel is that God has issued us the outrageous invitation. God wants to birth us into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ; the Spirit is already at work, inviting us to give up our expectations, that we might grow into open, humble, resilient, and mature faith; that we might “become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” God so loves us and our world, God already gave us the only Son, but God wants make us God’s children, too, and bless, through us, the world. How will we respond to Christ’s invitation?
May it be with us according to your Word, gracious Life-Giver, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
 a phrase Jan Richardson uses in a reflection on John 3:16 in Week 2, Day 5 of her Beloved Lenten Retreat.
 Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival, New York: W.W. Norton, 2003, 97-98.
 Gonzales, 124.
 Gonzales, 91.
Jan Richardson again, as above.
 Deborah J. Kapp, Pastoral Perspective on John 3:1-17, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 72.
Jan Richardson, as above.
 John 1:12-13