Always Pain Before a Child Is Born

Part 2 of the sermon series “Lent and Easter with U2
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
March 20, 2011—Second Sunday in Lent
Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17

Genesis 12:1-4 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

John 3:1-17 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“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.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Yahweh by U2

Take these shoes–Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes–And make them fit
Take this shirt–Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt–And make it clean, clean
Take this soul–Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul–And make it sing

Yahweh, Yahweh: Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh: Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Take these hands–Teach them what to carry
Take these hands–Don’t make a fist
Take this mouth–So quick to criticize
Take this mouth–Give it a kiss

Yahweh, Yahweh, Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh, Still I’m waiting for the dawn

Still waiting for the dawn, the sun is coming up
The sun is coming up on the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean
This love is like a drop in the ocean

Yahweh, Yahweh, Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, tell me now: Why the dark before the dawn?

Take this city–A city should be shining on a hill
Take this city–If it be your will
What no man can own, no man can take
Take this heart
Take this heart
Take this heart–And make it break.

 

I. INTRODUCTION

Let me take you back to a distant time long ago.  It was  1976, in the middle of a presidential campaign, that Jimmy Carter revealed that he was a “born again Christian”, a declaration that caught pretty much everyone by surprise.  Not because they didn’t imagine he could be a “born again Christian” but because most people had no idea what he was talking about.

In fact, Walter Cronkite reported to his viewers that they’d checked it out and this was apparently not unheard of.

Chuck Colson, one of the convicted Watergate criminals, also published a book that year entitled Born Again, creating even more currency to the phrase, which had previously been known only among certain evangelical corners of Christian faith, or 1960’s era “Jesus hippie” types.  There were a lot of people who were confused by the concept.

But it would be safe to say that the concept had been causing a fair amount of confusion long before that presidential race.

II. THE TEXT

It caused a fair amount of confusion with Nicodemus, way back in the first century.

At first glance, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Jesus says that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” which prompts Nicodemus to say, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  That’s seems a really odd question given that Jesus said nothing about being born again a second time.  Well, in English, anyway.  In the Greek text there’s a pun at work.  The Greek phrase “from above” means both, literally “from above” and figuratively, “again”.  Perhaps “from the  top” is a better way to render it. At least our musicians would understand what we were talking about.

And so what we see is that Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from the top” meaning “from above” and Nicodemus hears it as “being born again.”

Now, there’s some irony and humor in the text in that Nicodemus wonders how a person can literally be born again but that’s not what Jesus is talking about.  Jesus is talking about a spiritual birth.  Jesus says that in order to see God’s kingdom, one must have had this spiritual birth.

III. NEW BIRTH

The new birth, or being “born again” is an important part of evangelical Christianity, that strain of Christianity that emphasizes a personal experience of conversion and the personal relationship with God.

It is a strain of Christianity of which Methodism is a part.  Methodism is an evangelical tradition in Christianity; not a lot of people know that.  Most of those people who don’t know that are Methodists, too.  But John Wesley spoke a great deal about the New Birth and even referred to it as one of the “fundamentals” of Christian faith. [1]

Wesley described the New Birth as “the great work which God does in us” and went on to describe the nature of the New Birth in the following way:

It is that great change which God works in the soul when he brings it into life; when he raises it from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is “created anew in Christ Jesus;” when it is “renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and true holiness;” when the love of the world is changed into the love of God; pride into humility; passion into meekness; hatred, envy, malice, into a sincere, tender, disinterested love for all mankind. In a word, it is that change whereby the earthly, sensual, devilish mind is turned into the “mind which was in Christ Jesus.” This is the nature of the new birth: “So is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

In the words of the Charles Wesley hymn we just sang, it is that “joyful day… when old things shall be done away, and all things new become.”

The new birth, then, is the beginning of a process of renewing the image of God within us.  This was an important element in Wesley’s thought.  The new birth and the assurance of salvation with it were considered by Wesley to be the birthright of a Christian.  It was a spiritual event that was a cornerstone of Methodist evangelical thought.

The new birth is that letting go of the old self, the birth of a new self within.  This new birth is the beginning of new life for the believer.  For Wesley, the new birth was not only the key to the reclamation of the image of God, but to the soul’s true happiness.

IV. WHY THE DARKNESS BEFORE THE DAWN

But this new birth does not always come easy.  Given how people talk about being “born again” you’d think you could just go out and get reborn.  And sometimes, that’s certainly the expectation that some in the church seem to give.  The altar call at the end of some church services that suggests that the time for conversions and new births is a scheduled part of the service.

But a true new birth, has much in common with the regular old birth.  Wesley said that the similarities were many: before a person is born she cannot see, she cannot hear, she has no sense of the world in which she lives.  For Wesley, the new birth was the same:

While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up: He is in the same condition as if he had them not. Hence he has no knowledge of God….

But there is another parallel that could be made: there is a great deal of pain that precedes the new birth.  As the song says, there’s “always pain before a child is born.”

Perhaps the most painful part of the process for us is the realization that we are not the people we want to be.  We are not the loving, caring, compassionate, just people we wish we were. The people we know we were created to be.  Instead we look in the mirror and we see ourselves, broken, fallen, clothed in a “shirt–polyester white trash made in nowhere” and we long for it to be made clean.

In their song “Yahweh”, U2 sings of that longing

Take these hands–Teach them what to carry
Take these hands–Don’t make a fist
Take this mouth–So quick to criticize
Take this mouth–Give it a kiss

It is a plaintive piece.  The words of a man longing to be made better than he is.  The song of one who longs to be  remade into the image of the one who made him.

“Yahweh, Yahweh,” Bono sings.  “Always pain before a child is born. ”  And then words that speak to hope and expectation: “Yahweh, Yahweh, still I’m waiting for the dawn.”

For some, the experience of the new birth is sudden.  Like a flash of light along the Damascus road.  For a great many others, the new birth is a gradual realization.  A dawning awareness of God doing something new in one’s life.  And for those who experience it that way, there is still a ways yet before the dawn.

We very often look at ourselves and see individuals in need of rebirth.  Not in order to get into heaven.  Not as something a part of our religious checklist to consider ourselves good little Christians.  But because we long to be the people we were created to be.  We long to live into our truest selves: selves not meant to cause harm, but to reach out in caring; selves not meant to think only of our needs, but of others; selves not meant for fear, but for love.  As with any change, it only happens when we open ourselves up to the reality of our needing the change. Only when we realize just how broken we are, do we open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in us to remake us anew.

That is a painful process.  As it is with any birth, there is pain associated with it.

That pain isn’t always limited to us as individuals.  Communities can go through pain in realizing that they need to be reborn.  Sometimes a rebirth can only come after pain; a new vision rising out of the ashes of some dashed hopes or broken dreams.

We here on this campus experienced the pain of the hate of the Westboro Baptists, but that visit gave birth to a rededication to openness, inclusiveness, and love for all.  A birth that is still having repercussions around the nation.

There are communities all across this country feeling that kind of pain.  We as a nation are feeling that kind of pain.  The consequences of excess or irresponsibility. Of living beyond our means for too long.  Just as with individuals, when we as communities take stock of where we are, it can be painful.  But when that happens, we are open to the work of the Spirit to remake us anew.

We are open to the promptings of the Spirit—as Abram was—to go out from what we find safe and familiar to something altogether new, but rife with possibilities and hope.

And so we understand that when we are in places of pain, when we are in places of suffering, when we are in the darkness before the dawn, we are in precisely the place where God is able to work something new.  Where God is able to take our broken, frail nature, and empower it toward holiness.  To take the much-tarnished image of our creator and make it shine.  To take this soul “stranded in some skin and bones” and make it sing.

We are broken and hurting creatures longing to be made whole.  Longing to be born again.

We do not seek showy religion.  We do not seek to check an item off our list of things to do to get into heaven.  We seek to be remade, as God would have us be.

And so we open ourselves to the potential of rebirth by owning the pain of our existence.  By owning the brokenness we share.  And by embracing our need for healing.

V. END

There is a lot of debate among scholars as to the role or importance of the New Birth.  For evangelical Christians, it was an essential component.  For others, they point to the uniqueness of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and wonder why Matthew, Mark, and Luke never bothered to say how important the New Birth was.  They point to the pun as making sense only in Greek and wonder whether Jesus would ever have even said it in Aramaic.

And of course, there is the debate as to whether the new birth is a one-time thing, a long process or can happen a number of times.

Let all these other points stand aside and know this:

If you are hurting, if you are feeling unsatisfied with the state of your life, if you are feeling keenly the brokenness of our existence, convicted and overwhelmed by it, do not lose heart.  For these are but the the birth pangs, the pains before a birth takes place.  These are but the workings of God’s spirit in us to prompt us toward the rebirth that is possible in our souls.  A rebirth, that like the birth of a child, fills our hearts with joy.

We may wonder at the dark before the dawn. We may have questions as Nicodemus did.  We may feel that anguish.  But God can take our hands and teach them what to carry.  God can take our hearts, and make them break.  God can take our souls, stranded in some skin and bones, and make them sing.

Notes

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