The story is told of a little boy who was set a project at school to investigate his family tree. So he came home, found his mother and said, 'Mummy, how did I get here?' Well, she didn't want to get into the birds and the bees at that point so she said, 'The stork brought you.' 'Oh.' he said. So off he went and found his father and said, 'Daddy, how did you get here?' And his father didn't want to get into all the details either, so he said, 'The stork brought me.' 'Really?' said little Johnny. And since granny happened to be staying with them at the time, he went and asked her, too: 'Granny, how did you get here?' And granny said, 'The stork.' So next day he went off to school and began writing his project: 'There has not now been a natural birth in our family for three generations.'
Well I was born on 29th April 1966 at 3.30am - the first and last time I've been an early riser. And as far as I know, my birth was entirely natural. But on this Mothers' Day we're going to look at some words of Jesus about a supernatural birth that we all need and that only Jesus can make happen.
So would you please turn in the Bible to John 3. Being a Christian is all about a relationship with this person Jesus Christ - who really lived and died and came back from the dead 2000 years ago. And if you're just looking into it, trying to make up your mind about it, the best thing is to read one of the eye-witness accounts about Jesus. John's Gospel is one of them. And chapter 3 records a conversation between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus. And it's all about this supernatural birth - why we need it, and how it can happen to us. So:
Firstly, WHY WE NEED THIS SUPERNATURAL BIRTH ( vv1-8)
Let's pick up this conversation at v1:
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."
Ie, Nicodemus thinks he sees who Jesus is and what he's come to do. He thinks Jesus is a good teacher and he's come to tell us how to be good. Which is what a lot of people think. But they're wrong - v3:
3In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. "
Ie, 'Nicodemus, I've actually come to bring in the kingdom of God. And you'll never see the kingdom of God - ie, you'll never be part of it - unless you're born again. You need something far deeper than being told how to be good. You need to be made good. You need to be born again.'
Now before going any further, let me explain what Jesus meant by 'the kingdom of God.' If you read the Bible, the very beginning says that God created everything good. There was nothing wrong. Next, the Bible says what went wrong. It says we humans rebelled against God: decided to ignore him and live as we please. And that rebellion and its consequences are why the world is like it is today - full of evil, suffering and death. But the Bible also says God won't let that go on forever. It says that one day he's going to wind up history and bring about this amazing place called 'the kingdom of God' (or heaven). And the kingdom of God is simply the place where everyone recognises God as King and lives his way - so that there's no rebellion and none of its consequences. It's a perfect world.
Just think what that'll be like. No locks. No keys. No hospitals. No doctors, dentists or nurses (no practising ones, that is). No banks, no insurance companies, no lawyers, no emergency services or armed forces (there go half your career options). No broken homes, no broken hearts. No fighting, no fear, no funerals. No goodbyes. A perfect world.
And Jesus is saying to Nicodemus, 'That's what I've come to bring about. And you'll never be part of it unless you're born again. Unless I change you. Because unless I change you, you'd ruin it.
I grew up in the country and one of my childhood memories is of coming back from playing in the woods absolutely filthy, and being apprehended at the door and picked up by Mum or Dad - with my legs still spinning, like in the cartoons - and being told, 'You're not coming in here like that.' And Jesus is saying to Nicodemus and to us, 'You're not coming into my kingdom like that. If I let you in the way you are, you'd ruin it. It would no longer be perfect because of you. So unless I change you, you don't come in. Ever.' Verse 3:
"I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. "
Now I wonder how you react to talk of being 'born again'. I think it makes us feel a bit uneasy. It sounds a bit fanatical, doesn't it? A bit un-British. But above all, we don't like it because it implies there was something very wrong with us the first time we were born.
New babies seem to appear here in church almost every Sunday. And I try to say the right thing when the proud parents present junior. And the conversation generally goes something like this. 'Hey, isn't she gorgeous? What's her name?' 'Tom,' comes the slightly frosty reply.' So you try to recover and talk about how he's got his father's nose - despite the fact that at that stage they don't actually seem to have noses. But just imagine I was to say something like this. 'Gosh! His eyes look a bit close together. And his ears are a bit sticky-out. And his hair's a mess. He could really do with being born again.'
It's a very insulting thing to say, isn't it? But that's what Jesus says to Nicodemus and to you and to me. 'You need to be born again.' Because something was very wrong with us the first time we were born. And Nicodemus doesn't like that any more than we do, so he laughs it off (humour's a great form of defence, isn't it?). Verse 4:
4"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!"
And that must be every mother's nightmare. To give birth a first time is tough enough. The Guinness Book of Records says that the biggest birth-weight recorded in the UK was on Christmas Day 1852 in Cornwall - a mind-boggling 21 pounds. Just imagine trying to give birth to an adult…
Now Jesus obviously didn't mean it literally. But Nicodemus deliberately takes it literally so he can laugh it off. Because he's feeling defensive. That's his reaction. I wonder: what's yours? 'I'm OK'? Or, 'I'm basically a good person'?
You may have read Nick Hornby's latest book, How To Be Good. The main character is a married woman and mother of two called Katie. She's a doctor - which makes her feel good. But she's having an affair - which makes her feel bad. And thinking aloud about the affair, she says this: "When I look at my sins… I can see the appeal of born-again Christianity. I suspect that it's not the Christianity that is so alluring; it's the rebirth. Because who wouldn't wish to start all over again?"
You see, can I ask: are we really the people we ought to be? The mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, lovers, friends we want to be? If we can say 'Yes' to that, either our standards are virtually zero, or we're out of touch with what we're really like, aren't we? I certainly can't say 'Yes.' And underneath his defensive reaction I'm sure Nicodemus couldn't either. And so, lovingly, Jesus doesn't let him off the hook. Verse 5:
5Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.
Again, Jesus doesn't mean 'water' literally. Water is a picture of what he, by his Spirit, can do inside us. He's saying we need him to clean us up on the inside - all our wrong desires and character flaws. I remember when we were kids, my friend next door, Mark Finch, was caught swearing by his mother. And she said, 'I'm going to wash your mouth out with soap and water.' And to our astonishment she reappeared with a sponge and a bar of soap and actually had a go. It was a memorable bit of mothering. But after the scuffle that ensued, Mark was completely unchanged. Because what needs cleaning up in us lies much, much deeper, doesn't it?
And Jesus says only he can do that, by his Spirit. Only he can get out of me what shouldn't be there. And only he can put into me what should be. When I play football, I'm a defender. That's the natural way I play. That's 'me' - I can't score goals to save my life. But if somehow the spirit of Alan Shearer could come and live in me, that would change. And Jesus says we need his Spirit - the Spirit of God - to come and live in us - and change us.
Which is why he uses the picture of being born - because it's not something you do yourself, or to yourself. It's something that's done to you. And becoming a Christian isn't something you do yourself. It's not turning over a new leaf. It's not trying harder. It's not cleaning up your own act. It's Jesus coming into your life by his Spirit and cleaning it up for you. It's him changing you from the inside out. And that's the only thing that'll truly change a human being. Because, v6:
6Flesh gives birth to flesh…
We talk about 'the weakness of the flesh' and that language comes straight out of the Bible. Jesus is saying, 'Moral weakness gives birth to moral weakness.' I'm imperfect and rebellious against God because my parents were. And if I ever have children, they'll be imperfect and rebellious against God because I am. 'Flesh gives birth to flesh'. Which is why you don't need Early Learning Centre games to help your children get the hang of being selfish; they were born selfish, just like we were. And it's why Enid Blyton never had to write stories with deceitful heroes to help us pick up the idea of lying. We're born liars. 'Flesh gives birth to flesh.' And there's no way we can break out of that chain of moral weakness and failure. 'But,' v6:
… the Spirit gives birth to spirit.
Jesus coming into our lives by his Spirit can break that chain and give birth to a new you, a new me. Not a perfect you or me - at least, not yet, not this side of heaven. But a you or me in the process of being changed from the inside out because deep down we now want to live for God. That's what we need. So, v7, Jesus sums it up:
7You should not be surprised at my saying, `You must be born again.'
Because you must be. You must be. That's why we need this supernatural birth. And I want to ask: will you admit you need it? Will you admit that you're not the person you ought to be? Will you admit that you can't change yourself? And will you admit that if you're not changed, you deserve to be left outside God's kingdom?
That's why we need this supernatural birth. Then,
Second, HOW THIS SUPERNATURAL BIRTH CAN HAPPEN TO US (vv9, 16)
Look onto v9. Because fortunately for us, Nicodemus asks:
9"How can this be?"
Ie, 'How can this supernatural birth happen in someone's life?' Well the next bit, vv10-15, is Jesus' answer to that question. And the bit after that, v16, is how John sums up Jesus' answer in a single sentence - probably the best-known sentence in the Bible. We haven't time to unpack Jesus' answer, so to end with, we're going to look just at v16. And it answers the question, 'How can this supernatural birth happen to me?' Let me read out v16:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
By his Spirit, Jesus has to do three things in us to make this supernatural birth happen.
We've already seen the first. He has to get us to admit our need. You see, I can tell you what the Bible says: that you and I are rebels against God, that we've ignored and offended God and deserve, end of v16, to 'perish' - ie, to be shut out of the kingdom of God. I can tell you that. And I'm convinced it's true of me. But I can't convince you it's true of you. Only God by his Spirit can do that for you - only God can give you a sense of how you really look in his eyes.
He has to get us to admit our need. But secondly he has to get us to believe that Jesus died to forgive us. Verse 16 again:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Where it says, 'gave his one and only Son', it means he gave his Son to become a human being and die on the cross to pay the price of our forgiveness. Because God cannot just sweep all our wrongdoing under the carpet. His justice means it has to be judged. But in his love he made a way for our offences to be judged without us having to face the judgement.
One of my friends, soon after passing his driving test, crashed his family's car. And his mother - being a mother - wanted to save him from the inevitable judgement. So she owned up to crashing the car. She 'swerved to avoid a dog'. She took responsibility for my friend's wrongdoing, took his place.
And that's a tiny, imperfect picture of what Jesus did when he died on the cross. God's perfect Son, stepped in for us, took responsibility for all our wrongdoing, and took the judgement we deserve - so that, on the one hand, justice was done; and on the other, we can be forgiven. And again, I can tell you the Bible says that. And I believe it for myself as the only thing that could possibly have put me right with God. But I can't get you to believe it. Only God by his Spirit can do that for you - as you hear about Jesus death, only he can bring it home to your heart and mind that Jesus did that for you. That God so loved you that he gave his only Son to be there on that cross.
He has to get us to admit our need, to believe that Jesus died to forgive us. And thirdly, he has to get us to come to Jesus and ask him to forgive us and be King of our lives from now on. That's the 'believe' in v16:
16For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. ['Eternal life' means a relationship with God that starts now and lasts through death into eternity.]
And again, I can tell you what the Bible says. It says Jesus will forgive you and have you back like a shot if only you'll come to him - v16, 'whoever' you are, whatever you've done. But I can't make you want to come. Only God's Spirit can do that for you. And he does that by bringing home to us the fact that Jesus loved us enough to die for us. Because in my experience, once you see that Jesus loved you that much at your worst, loved you before you'd even thought of making a move towards him - it makes you want to come back to him. It changes what you want. Because nothing is more life-changing than being unconditionally loved.
A friend of mine, Ken, has the ability to put things memorably. Eg, when he asked his wife to marry him, he did it by going out early one morning and stapling the question along a line of trees in her street - a word per tree: 'FIONA - WILL - YOU - MARRY - ME? - KEN' (in case she might think it was John or Steve or Mike…). Well equally memorably, Ken said this to Fiona in his speech on their wedding day: 'I am amazed that you know me better than anyone for the idiot that I am, and you still love me. Every day it makes me want to be a better man.'
That's what unconditional love does. It changes what you want. And nothing does that more deeply than the perfectly unconditional love of God shown to us in Jesus.
Only God by his Spirit can get you to admit your need; to believe Jesus died to forgive you; and to want to come to him. That's how this supernatural birth happens to people.
A few more minutes and I'm done. Imagine I drew a line to represent all of us here. At one end of the line would be people who know this supernatural birth has happened to them. You admit your need, your sinfulness, all the time; you trust in Jesus' death for forgiveness every day; and you want to live for him as your King - even though you never do it perfectly or consistently for a single day. If that's true of you, you've been born again. And it may be that you've just realised that for the first time this morning.
But you might be right down the other end of the line - saying to yourself, 'I'm not even sure any of this is true.' In which case, can I say, which bit are you unsure is true? Maybe you're not sure what I've said about Jesus is true - did he even really exist, let alone die and come back from the dead so he can change people's lives today? Well, can I say, please investigate. Do come back on a Sunday and hear more - you're always welcome. Do pick up: a leaflet about our Christianity Explored course; a copy of one of the Gospels to read for yourself; a copy of this booklet, Why Jesus? - all on the Welcome Desk. Or maybe you're not sure that what I've said about us is true. You'd say we're not that bad; we're basically good. In which case, can I simply say one word: Really? Really?
But it may be you're somewhere in the middle of the line. You do admit your need. And maybe you sense you're right on the brink this morning of daring to believe that Jesus died to forgive you; that Jesus would have you back like a shot - if you came to him this morning. And I want to say on his behalf, why not come?
I'm going to finish with a prayer that would be a way of coming to Jesus. Let me tell you what I'll pray so you can think whether it would be appropriate for you to pray:
Lord Jesus Christ,
I admit that I have lived as a rebel in your world, and I am sorry.
I believe that you died to forgive me, and I am full of wonder.
I now come to you. Please forgive me, and by your Spirit help me to live for you as my King from now on.
If you would like to come to Christ this morning, you could echo that prayer in your own mind as I say it out loud. If not, why not pray something else appropriate to you?
Later on in John's Gospel, Jesus promises this: 'Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.' (John 6.37) Ie, 'I'll have them back; and then I'll never give up on them.' And if you've prayed that prayer and meant it, that promise now applies to you. It's a new birth into a new life with Jesus, and you'll need the help of other Christians to work out how to take your first steps. So please do tell a Christian you know what you've done. And if you don't know any, I'd be really glad if you wanted to tell me.