In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nicodemus that “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Another translation of “born from above” is “born again.” Apparently, birth is not a one-time event.
The idea that birth could be repeated puzzled Nicodemus, who takes Jesus literally. He asks, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb?”
That is NOT the kind of birth Jesus is talking about. Of course. But what is Jesus talking about? Christians today often use the phrase “born again,” but it is not always clear, at least to me, exactly what they mean by it.
As you might guess, I am not an expert on giving birth, never having done it. (Of course, humanly speaking, Jesus might not have known much more about birth than I do.)
But as it happens, birth has been on my mind a lot lately. Carrie and I are watching a television program called “Call the Midwife.” Every episode is about giving birth, and we have seen more than seventy of them over the last few months. That’s something like sixty hours of watching people give birth. Women are not giving birth the whole time. But I suspect we have seen well over 200 births on the program at this point.
Inevitably, for better or for worse, I have come to have opinions.
Every birth on the show is different, with its own complications. But two things seem to be pretty nearly universal.
First, giving birth hurts. Most obviously the birth itself. Carrie and I have seen a lot of exhausted women with red, sweaty, scrunched up faces groaning and having painful contractions and pushing as hard as they can to get their baby born. It doesn’t look fun.
But it’s not only the birth. Pregnancy looks hard, too. When Carrie was pregnant, I once told her I was a little jealous. It seemed like a cool thing to carry a child. Carrie told me to try walking around with a bowling ball strapped to my waist for a few days and then get back to her.
It’s not over after the birth either. Adjusting to the reality of a new child is hard. That’s true even under the best of circumstances. And circumstances aren’t always the best. In addition to sleeplessness and worry about the baby are the messy, shifting family dynamics as the whole family gets used to the newest addition.
The whole thing, starting right after conception, pregnancy, birth, new parenthood, the whole thing is a struggle for most people.
But the second thing about birth more than makes up for all the pain. In most cases, giving birth leads to new life and deep joy. That has certainly been my own experience, although Carrie reminds me that I didn’t do the hard part.
Whatever else Jesus meant by being born from above, I suspect he meant those two things: pain, and the joy of new life.
Our Isaiah reading helps us to see what that pain and that joy look like in one man’s spiritual life. This is the story of Isaiah being born again, born from above. This is the moment when God first calls Isaiah to be a prophet.
Isaiah’s new birth begins with an incredible vision of God. A vision of God might seem like a good thing. But that’s not how Isaiah experiences it, not at first.
Isaiah’s first reaction is terror. Confronted with the power and the holiness of God, Isaiah worries that he will die. And he was right to worry. If one of the seraphs—that’s a kind of angel—hadn’t acted quickly, Isaiah would have died.
Instead of dying, Isaiah has to go through a painful ritual of purification. The angel takes a live coal from the fire at the altar and touches Isaiah’s mouth with it, effectively burning away his sin.
I don’t know how all that would compare to giving birth, but it must have hurt.
Then comes the new life. God wonders out loud who to send with a message for Isaiah’s people. On this Trinity Sunday, I picture the Father addressing his question to the Son. The Son gives Isaiah a meaningful look as he replies that he doesn’t know. All the angels are busy. The Holy Spirit, with another meaningful look at Isaiah, promises to empower whomever the Father chooses.
Finally, Isaiah can’t contain himself any more. Isaiah waves and calls out, “Here I am; send me!” As I picture it, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all smile at each other, pleased with Isaiah’s enthusiasm.
Isaiah’s obvious joy in the presence of God, his excitement at the opportunity to serve God, his willingness to go where God sends him and to say what God tells him, is a clear sign that the Spirit is at work in him, bringing forth new life and new joy. Isaiah has been reborn as a prophet.
We still need to reflect on what all this means for us. But let’s stick with Isaiah for another minute because there is more to learn from his example. What we see in Isaiah is that this new birth was not a one-time event.
Our reading describes Isaiah’s first call to be a prophet. But this is not the beginning of Isaiah’s life with God. When God called him as a prophet, Isaiah already had a calling. Isaiah was already a priest serving at the altar of God in the Jerusalem Temple. That didn’t change. Isaiah continued to serve as a priest, and his priestly service shaped his prophetic message in important ways.
Not only that, Isaiah received more calls from God, including one in the very next chapter of his book.
In our reading, Isaiah is born again, born from above. But this was not the first time Isaiah would be reborn, nor would it be the last. Isaiah was born again, and again, and again, doubtless each time with some pain and some joy.
Now bring it forward, to us gathered this morning, in person and online. We have been born from above, born again. We have been reborn by water and the Spirit in baptism. We have been called by God over and over again to fulfill our different ministries, and each time is a new birth of sorts.
And of course, we have been going through a pandemic, which required us to think and to pray long and hard about what it means to be Church, to be God’s people in this time. We have listened for God’s call to us. We have experienced the pain that comes with new birth. And we have had moments of the new life and joy that results from hearing God’s call and embracing God’s mission.
The pain of new birth hasn’t ended. Indeed, it can never entirely end because we are constantly being reborn, renewed by God’s Holy Spirit, called into new life.
And our joy is not yet complete. It can never be complete until the kingdom of God is fully and truly established.
But it is comforting to know that with the pain we inevitably experience comes new life and joy.
And so I give thanks to God who created us. I give thanks to Christ who continues to call us, to renew us, to give us new birth from above. And I pray that God will fill us with the Holy Spirit so that we can answer God’s call and experience the life and joy that comes with living as God’s newborn people.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan