[Texts: Genesis 12:1-4; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
“May God bless and keep you always;
May your wishes all come true.
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung.
And may you stay
Those words, which were quoted by the valedictorian of my graduating class at Spartanburg High School, make up the first verse of one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs, entitled “Forever Young”.
The song goes on to pronounce several other blessings on the listener: may your hands always be busy and your feet always be swift, may you always be courageous, may your heart always be joyful, and may you always know the truth, and so on.
Each verse ends with the same wish: “And may you stay forever young.”
I was nineteen years old– almost twenty– at the time, and, like many of my fellow graduates, I suspect, I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be anything but forever young.
Well, fast-forward to age twenty-five. Instead of attending my high school classmates’ basketball games and school plays, I’m now attending their weddings and baby showers. Instead of eyebrow piercings, I now have reading glasses. And instead of dyeing my hair blue to annoy my parents, I now dye it my natural hair color, because otherwise I’d be about one gray hair away from looking like my parents.
Whatever happened to “forever young”?
Today in John’s Gospel, we have the story of a man– a leader in the Jewish community– named Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus one night and tells Him that he’s pretty impressed with all these signs and miracles Jesus has been doing lately.
The response Jesus gives Nicodemus is one of the most oft-quoted passages of scripture– and one of the most misused.
He says that, if anyone wishes to see the Kingdom of God, they must be γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (guh-NAY-thay ANN-owe-thin). This is sometimes rendered in English as “born again.” That’s not technically incorrect, but it’s not an especially faithful translation, either.
Generally the prefix “kat-” or “kata-” connotes an upward motion. καταβαίνω is the Greek word for “I go up”. Conversely, the prefix “an-” or “ana-” tends to be talking about a downward motion. The opposite of καταβαίνω is ἀναβαίνω, which means “I go down”.
And ἄνωθεν– the word Jesus uses here– talks about something that starts at the top and works its way downward. In other words, it means “from above” or “from the top”. The same word is used in the book of James to talk about wisdom that comes ἄνωθεν– from above– and how that wisdom bears the fruits of the Spirit, contrasted with human ambition, which begets discord and strife. We also see this word in the Passion narrative, when Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no authority unless it had been given to him ἄνωθεν– from above.
It can mean “again,” or “from the beginning”– we see it used that way in the Bible a few times– but that’s not the best translation here.
If I were to translate that third verse, it would say, “And Jesus answered him, saying: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you: except that a man has been born from above, he lacks the power to experience the Kingdom of God’.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you: except that a man has been born from above, he lacks the power to experience the Kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus gets hung up on the word “born”, mistakenly thinking Jesus is talking about being physically born a second time.
“What do you mean, born? How can a person who’s already fully grown be born?”
And, granted, the word Jesus used is the same word you would use to talk about physical, literal childbirth– it means “born” or “begotten.” (You know in the Gospel of Matthew, where it starts with, like, a million verses of “and such-and-such begat so-and-so, who begat what’s-his-face…” and it goes on forever with all the “begats”? That’s the same Greek word. It’s also the same word used to talk about Mary giving birth to Jesus.) So, maybe we can cut Nicodemus some slack here for missing the point. Jesus is definitely being a little cryptic in his response.
But He isn’t talking about crawling back up into your mother’s womb and coming back out again– obviously that’s impossible for an adult. And it’s not what Jesus means. (I think all of our moms are grateful for that.)
Nor is He talking about some one-time magical experience you’re supposed to have at one point in your life when you say a special prayer, and all of a sudden you’re going to Heaven when you die instead of the other place. That’s not it, either.
He’s talking about a constant process that begins at baptism–when we are “born by water and spirit”– and continues for the rest of your life.
Being born from above is a process of surrendering our will to God’s, of exchanging our desires and hopes for His, of desiring and seeking after Him more and more, and being perfected a bit each day by the transforming power of God’s redeeming love.
Like Abraham, we are called to be willing to leave behind whatever is safe and comfortable, trusting that whatever we are asked to give up will be trivial in comparison to what God has in store for us.
Like Nicodemus, we are called to be willing to seek God even in the midst of deep darkness.
Like the Psalmist, we are called to remember where our help comes from, and continually lift our eyes up to Him in faith, trusting that the God who never sleeps or takes a day off will never stop hearing and answering our prayers.
Our spiritual re-birthing is not something that happens once; it’s something we experience over and over again, every day. This process of birth and rebirth can be painful, but it is necessary for us to be made new in Christ– as individuals and as the Church– and get a little closer to experiencing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.
It’s what St. Richard of Chichtester meant when he prayed, “May I know Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, and follow Thee more nearly, day by day.”
It’s what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote about our being, “…changed from glory into glory, till in Heaven we take our place; till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
You know, I don’t think Bob Dylan was talking about actually staying nineteen years old forever when he wrote “Forever Young”–that’s a bit too literal.
I think what he meant by those lyrics– and what the valedictorian of my class meant by referencing them– is something like this: no matter our age or how many gray hairs we have, we can still refuse to let the world make us bitter, or jaded, or complacent. We can choose to keep seeing life through fresh eyes, even if we need bifocals to see our hand in front of our face.
We can’t literally stay young forever, but we can approach the world with the same joy and wonder, the same passion, and the same sense of anything being possible that we felt the day we graduated from high school.
And Jesus wasn’t talking about being literally young, either, in that conversation with Nicodemus– He was talking about the call to be born anew in Him daily. That is His hope for all His children, young and old.
Beloved children of God, I pray that each of you may continue to receive a deeper knowledge of God, a renewed zeal for building His Kingdom, and the newness of life that comes from knowing Him each and every day of your lives.
“May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true.
May you always know the truth,
And see the light surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
And may you stay
 The phrase I chose to translate as “lacks the power,” contains a form of the verb δύναμαι (DOO-nuh-my), which it is the root of “dynamic,” “dynasty,” and “dynamite,” and is very closely related to the root of the word “dinosaur”. Our text says “cannot,” which I didn’t think packed quite the same punch as the original Greek.
 Also, the word I rendered as “experience” comes from a Greek word that can mean “see”, but “experience”, “behold”, and “perceive” are all much more correct and precise translations– which one of those it is requires context clues and some educated guessing. The word is a form of ὁράω (ho-RAW-oh) which has a connotation of deeply looking at something, even to the point at which one becomes a part of what one is beholding.