Monday, March 6, 2023

Sermon, Second Sunday in Lent

 '[T]o enter the kingdom of God is really not a choice we can make for ourselves.

We are utterly powerless in the one thing

that can make an eternal difference to us.

To be born, whether once, again, or from above,

is completely outside of our control.'

The Second Sunday in Lent

March 5, 2023

The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz III

St Stephen Lutheran Church


Grace and peace...


If only in the common Greek language

in which the New Testament is written

the words for ‘from above’ and ‘again’ were different.

Then we could have avoided this whole confusing mess.

For most of us, in the English Bibles we grew up with,

Jesus said ‘ye must be born again.’

But the committee which produced

the New Revised Standard Version of 1989

translated what Jesus says as ‘You must be born from above.’

and in this instance at least, I think they got it right.

A word can mean more than one thing.

Nicodemus misunderstands,

thinking that Jesus means ‘born again.’

And he patiently explains to Jesus

that it is impossible to be born again.

Nicodemus is bemused, 

but perhaps also a little bit annoyed.


But Jesus is very serious.

One must be ‘born’ to enter into the kingdom of God.

It is not the same kind of birth

that one endures when one passes

from the womb within one’s mother

to the world outside.

Another good reason to think

that Jesus doesn’t mean ‘born again.

But it is a birth nonetheless,

and this is no less unsettling to Nicodemus and to us.


For there are many things that are

in the power of human beings to do and to decide.

One can decide whether to get out of bed on a Sunday morning,

what to have for breakfast,

whether to have one or two cups of coffee,

whether or not to go to church.

One has many choices in this life,

but to be born is not one of them.

To be born, as indicated by the use of the passive voice,

is something that happens to someone.

The decision is made for you,

you are not involved except in the sense that it happens to you.

Nicodemus may be bemused or annoyed,

but he should be and may well be terrified.


We desire some sort of control over our life,

to choose whether to do this or to do that or to do the other,

depending on what will be good for us.

And we Americans are told, practically from our birth,

that we are free to make our own choices.

So we see a sign by the road, ‘Ye must be born again’

and we think,

‘That’s what I should do.

Maybe I’ll get born again tomorrow.

Maybe I’ll get born again next week.

What do I do to get born again?’

And if I don’t want to be born again,

I’ll choose not to be.

Or I’ll worry whether I have or haven’t chosen to be born again.

Or, if I feel I have been born again,

I might congratulate myself on my good choice,

take pride in the accomplishment,

and wonder why more people don’t make the same choice I made.

All of this is, of course, ridiculous nonsense.


What those signs should really make us think

is that to enter the kingdom of God

is really not a choice we can make for ourselves.

We are utterly powerless in the one thing

that can make an eternal difference to us.

To be born, whether once, again, or from above,

is completely outside of our control.

Just as we cannot cause it to rain or snow,

or as we cannot cause the clouds to dissipate

and allow the sun to shine down on us,

we cannot do this.

But where human possibility ends,

there God can begin his new creation.



The book of Genesis tells us of Abraham

that he was minding his own business,

not choosing anything

but to get up each day and take care of his flocks,

and God said to him, ‘Go,’

and he went.

Abraham did not know God before God called him,

and could not have made a choice for him.

Certainly a new birth if ever there was one.


St Paul talked about Abraham

in his letter to the Christians in ancient Rome,

reminding them that God had called Abraham

before there were any rules for him to follow,

before the Law and the ceremonies had been given.

Abraham was not a good person, and therefore had faith in God,

Abraham had faith in God and therefore became a good person.

St Paul could speak with some knowledge of this,

because he himself had some experience with being born from above.

On the road to Damascus he had been encountered

by the last person he would ever choose to encounter,

Jesus, whose followers he was persecuting,

and Jesus did not curse him, but chose him,

and sent him into a new and different life.


So it is when, in our day,

atheists and agnostics and people of other religions

tell their stories of coming to faith in Jesus Christ,

they always tell them not in terms of a decision they made,

but a decision that was made for them.

a decision made not without them, but within them.

Whether experienced as a gradual dawning or a sudden flash of insight,

a journey of understanding, a still small voice or a vision in the night,

conversion was not something that they did

but something that happened to them.


So should we be worried if we do not have such experiences?

To ask this question is to fall back into the same trap

of believing that we must make our spiritual life ‘happen’ in some way.

Personal stories vary with each individual.

What is consistent is God’s initiative.


A baby is brought to the church,

is brought to the water

and hears the word of God,

‘baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’

and is anointed with the oil and hears,

‘Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit

and marked with the cross of Christ forever.’

What more could represent both our inability to choose God

and God’s great love in choosing us

than baptism received in this particular way?

Before that child can choose or even understand,

out of his infinite love God chooses that child for his very own.

And everyone who comes to the font

whether an infant or a young adult or an old person,

comes to the font as a child,

for what is happening at the font is not personal choice,

is not a ‘decision for Christ,’

but birth from above, new creation,

the Spirit of God like a mother over her chicks

brooding over the face of the waters

as at the very beginning of the world.


Lutheran pastors love to say things like ‘Remember your baptism.’

If we were modern-day Nicodemus’s,

we might say something like this,

‘How can someone baptized as an infant remember the experience,

before the ability to retain memories had developed?’

But, like Nicodemus,

we need to learn that a word can mean more than one thing.

I am to remember not the experience of my baptism,

but the fact of my baptism:

that when I was baptized in God’s church,

God claimed me for his own,

united me to Jesus Christ,

anointed me with the Holy Spirit,

without any decision of mine,

without any worthiness of mine,

I was born from my mother’s womb as a child of my earthly parents,

and from the baptismal womb as a son or daughter of God,

and I am to live in faith that this is most certainly true.