Second Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2020
Throughout my adult life, I’ve enjoyed reading the great myths of western civilizations. Myths are epic stories told to enlighten a particular point. Odysseus wanders for twenty long years, reminding us that warfare is always followed by wandering. Icarus crashes into the sea, a harsh lesson about pride. Moby-Dick is not a story about a whale, it’s a myth about humanity’s eternal desire to conquer nature. But one of the most pervasive, and I think harmful myths in western civilization, is the myth of the self-made man.
Henry Clay first named this myth in a speech on the Senate floor in 1832. “In Kentucky,” he said, “almost every manufactory known to me is in the hands of enterprising self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.” There is truth in this sentiment, namely that hard work is the backbone of the American dream. But taken too far, trusting too much in the myth of the self-made man, is a dangerous idea. More than everything, the myth of the self-made man endangers our relationship with Jesus.
Jesus discusses this very idea with Nicodemus in their famous meeting by night. Jesus says that you cannot see the Kingdom of God without being born again, without being born from above. This is a hard pill to swallow for Nicodemus. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus is incredulous, partially because he knows that you can’t actually be born again from your mother. But there is something else going on here. Nicodemus is flummoxed because Jesus is intimating that you have no choice in the matter of whether you’re born again or not. Jesus is calling into the question the very notion of the self-made man.
Think about it – no one asked you if you wanted to be born. You had no choice to come out of the womb or not. You are a decidedly not self-made – you were begotten by the will of others. In the same way, being born from above, being born into the Kingdom of God is accomplished not by your will, but by the will of God. Taken to its logical conclusion, this teaching from Jesus tells us that we actually have very little choice in the matter. The Spirit, the wind, blows where it chooses. You cannot make the wind blow, you cannot will yourself to be born again, you cannot pull yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps.
This irritates your sensibilities. As it does mine. I want Jesus to give me a spiritual checklist, an easy to follow, step by step plan of salvation. I want to self-make my way into God’s good graces. Tell me what prayers to say, when to say them, what exactly to do and how hard to work so that I can earn my merit badge and become a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
But the good news of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is that there is no such thing as a self-made disciple.
To be born again, to be born from above, is not up to you. The gift of the Holy Spirit is just that, a gift. Your entrance into the land of light, into the Kingdom of God, is not accomplished by your will. And listen to me closely on this – that is a good thing. You don’t really want your discipleship, your place in the kingdom of God, contingent upon your work ethic, do you? That is a cold, lifeless, heartless utilitarianism.
More than anything, this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus describes the grandness and the generosity of God’s grace. That God has chosen, that God has chosen that we be born again by water and the Spirit. We are the babies in this framework, the Holy Spirit is the loving mother who gives us new birth, whether we are ready for it or not. This befuddles Nicodemus, because according to the world, we have to earn our stripes. In the world, there is no grace. But what the world does not have is exactly where we start. With grace, a free gift from God.
This whole idea subverts and ridicules the the notion of the self-made disciple, it also undercuts the popular notion of the “born again” Christian. That distinction, it is not a badge of honor for something you have chosen or accomplished. “Born again Christian” is not a demographic sub-category in a political poll. That distinction, that glorious title of being a “born again” Christian is and only ever will be a gift from God. You and I are born again Christians because God has chosen to birth us again.
We are raised to believe that if we work hard enough, that if we do good enough, then we will have proven ourselves to be good disciples. Good people. So let’s go ahead and burst that bubble. The work that we do, the good lives that we lead, are a response to the gift that God has given us. Our life, our labors, our prayers are signs of gratitude for the grace of the Holy Spirit. The things we do to dig deeper into a life with Jesus is not to prove to God that we are worth it. Oh no, our life as Christians – our worship, our study, our service – is all about becoming more and more grateful for the gift that has been given to us.
Because there are no self-made disciples.
If this is disturbing, then we find ourselves standing there with Nicodemus. And so I will simply quote the words of Jesus: “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).
This is the utter power and the scandal of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The wind blows where it chooses, and it chooses you. And while this frustrates us, while we want to be made self-made men, women, and disciples, Jesus brings us into a better way. A way that is a free gift.
The wind blows where it chooses, we don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. We don’t know why some receive that great gift and some turn their backs to it. William Temple put it this way. He said, “Don’t ask for credentials. Don’t wait till you know the source of the wind before you let it refresh you, or its destination before you spread sail to it. It offers what you need; trust yourself to it” (Readings in St. John’s Gospel,46).
And that’s where I’ll end. With trust. See, the problem with the myth of the self-made man, woman, or disciple, is that in that story, the only person you trust is yourself. That is a recipe for disaster. Today I am calling upon you to trust in no other thing, idea, or person other than the Lord Jesus Christ. While this may sound like a challenging sermon, I hope that you hear this as a sermon of comfort. That the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ is freely given to you by the blood of the cross. And yes, I think you should work hard, be diligent in our daily tasks – remember that your status as God’s beloved child is not contingent upon your actions or inactions.
So open your heart, turn your face to the wind. Allow that Spirit to blow right through you, set your sail by this wind, not by your own compass. “Trust yourself to it.” And in that moment of trust, when you are completely dependent upon God, you will know just what it means to be born again.