Birth is a wonder and a mystery. In the Bible, the birth of a child is a festive occasion. Elizabeth and her neighbors, for example, celebrate joyously when her son John is born (Lk. 1:57-58).
Birth can also be a mixed blessing. Mothers well know that the miracle of birth is accompanied by pain and suffering. The pangs and agony of birth are frequent figures of speech in the Bible (Isa. 42:14, Rev. 12:2).
In our New Testament Lenten scripture for Sunday from John 3:1-17, Jesus uses birth as a metaphor for the new life God wants to give us.
But as with human childbirth, being born through God’s Spirit does not come easily. Just ask Nicodemus, whom we meet in this text. He simply cannot grasp the idea of being “born again.”
“You must be born again” has been a frequent theme of evangelistic preaching, through revival meetings and highway billboards. In such usage, the one needing to be “born again” usually is understood to be an unbeliever outside the family of faith.
But Nicodemus is not this kind of person. He is not an outsider to faith, but an insider. He is not a sinner on the road to ruin because his deeds are not wicked but good (or at least respectable). As a teacher of Israel, not unbelief, but belief–careful exposition of the traditions of Israel’s faith–has been Nicodemus’s business for a long time.
But it is solid, devout, righteous Nicodemus the believer whom Jesus says must be “born again.” And the alarming thing is that Nicodemus misunderstands and resists Jesus’ words. He is unable to grasp the depth of his need.
As with physical birth, spiritual rebirth, too, often seems to be accompanied by birth pangs.
The good news is that God wants to bring more abundant and joyful life to birth in us. Some questions for Lent might be: how well do we know Nicodemus? What new things might God want to bring to birth in us? Do we have the courage to undergo the stretching, perhaps anguish, that may be necessary for this new life of God to be born in us?