We’ve started in together on this idea that as huge as spiritual rebirth is, it is just a step in the journey. I point that out because too many times we can treat that “born again” experience as the only event in our spiritual lives that matters. Of course it’s huge, huge. But isn’t it still only a piece of the practical journey? I mean, right now my wife Karen is very pregnant — her due date is actually tomorrow even though it doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen. And God bless her for what’s to come, some of you have given me stories of 28-hour labor and all of that. But however rough, and real, and even looong her labor is, it’s still probably only a tiny fraction of the rest of our baby’s life. Hopefully.
I think maybe it’s the same with spiritual rebirth. It’s a singular, unique, awesome and only-by-God’s-grace experience. But never forget it is a beginning.
A great illustration comes with the earthquake in Chile this past fall. 33 miners were stuck underground, a half-mile below the surface, if we can imagine the darkness down there. Reports tell us that right away after the cave-in, the foreman told the guys, essentially, “We may never see day again, but we’re gonna be about the business of staying alive.” So they split up tasks and tried to stay busy. They worked together and voted on group decisions. Experts say that’s how they managed to survive for the 17 days that they had no contact from outside.
To paint the picture deeper, one survivor said of their supplies thatthey had some canned salmon and tuna, enough that one man’s ration was not quite a soda bottle cap-full. And all they had to drink was mine-water; plentiful but flavored like motor oil for all the mining gunk that got into it. The story goes, after day 17 they had contact, and then came rescuers drilling supply shafts and the start of a constant flow of water, food, and medicine that would sustain them for 69 days. Imagine it. And many of us saw the joy at their escape from the mine, it made worldwide news as an international effort, with a constant countdown as each man surfaced. Remember the extreme joy each time a guy walked out? The president of Chile said it well: “It’s like they’ve been born anew.” After all, they went through that dark labor time in the belly of the earth; they finally had their umbilical cord of supplies flowing to them from the outside. And the celebration of their arrival wasn’t too distant from how we treat our newborns. Surely we can see our spiritual selves there, in our rebirth being delivered up from the pit out into the rejoicing of all heaven.
But I’m more interested right now in what was to follow. Remember, for the miners it was a beginning. Most importantly, it was the beginning of making transitions, adjustments, and really taking baby steps back into life. One transition made headlines: the Oakley sunglasses company jumped at the chance to furnish every survivor with custom-made shades. After months in the dark their eyes would have to gradually adjust to the light of day. A small transition. Another transition story, one survivor Johnny Barrios was greeted by a woman in his life, and that woman was his mistress. His time underground led she and his wife to find out about one another, and so his wife boycotted the moment of his emerging to safety. Needless to say Johnny’s rescue was the start of adjusting to a new life. And most of all, as several agencies reported, what would it be like for these men when the day came for them to finally be released from the hospital after their emergency treatment? I mean, for months their lives had been nurtured by the resources of multiple, international governments; they had literally been kept alive by a constant flow of help. What would it be like to be finally discharged from the hospital and get back to everyday living? To fending for oneself? Adjustments. Baby steps.
I wonder if the same isn’t true for us who consider ourselves born again in Christ. I wonder what follows. After all, at the moment of your first believing, of your spiritual rebirth, did you find yourself with severe amnesia? No. We remember our life before. At spiritual rebirth are we transported to a different planet? No. We go right back to everyday living. To a home, friends, family, work, fun, habits and patterns.
As powerful as rebirth is in our story, we’ll have adjustments to make, baby steps to take, from there.
Just check out John 4:5-42, the story of “the woman at the well.” It’s the story of a Samaritan woman encountering Jesus and coming to believe. We probably witness her new birth in this story. But it also smacks of the adjustments that Jesus provokes in people who are following him.
For one, Jesus challenges the woman’s way of life by talking to her, as a Jew to a Samaritan (let alone a Samaritan woman); he doesn’t respect the man-made boundary that she and many others would’ve put up between them. And he goes right on to push the issue of her deep, dark romantic past, inviting her to open up about it. He challenges her basic understanding of worship by describing it as a spiritual act rather than just cultural/geographical/customary.
And maybe the biggest deal is that when she seems to realize who Jesus is, and to believe he is the Messiah, it provokes her to want to tell the whole town. What’s an adjustment about that? Well, we don’t know for sure but can we assume given her past that she might not have the most credibility with the townspeople? Particularly with moral/religious matters. It’s a pretty good growing process, I think, for her to be willing to head back and proclaim she may have found the Messiah. Baby steps, in a single afternoon with Jesus, from drawing water on a hot day, to believing in Christ, to the saving of an entire community.
And there are some other baby steps going on. With the disciples. From the beginning they seemed to write Samaria off as no part of the Messiah’s mission. When they do stop by this town, are they focused on what Godmight do there, what wonders they might perform, how they might teach/preach? I don’t think so — all we hear about is their desire to find something to eat. It was just a rest stop. While in their hearts they secretly wonder what this Samaritan woman wants, and why on earth Jesus talks to her, all they manage to say is, “Hey, Jesus, eat something.”
He invites them to grow by not letting the issue slide, by going on to preach to them to wake up to why they were there – to reap a harvest.
Taking a look at all of that, let’s make no mistake – spiritual rebirth and the moment of first believing is huge. The moment of realizing Jesus is the Messiah is HUGE. But after that, if we’re anything like these here, it’s time to follow him further, and much further. It’ll be time to reckon with our habits, with our assumptions, with our fears. With our deepest darkest past. It’ll be time to start to stretch and grow and mature. Because there’s a full-fledged spiritual person that we’re intended to be.
John Wesley basically said, sure we have everything we need right now to live solid spiritual lives. By our spiritual rebirth, we’re whole people. Like infants, we have all the vital parts, eyes, hands, legs, etc. But it’s only in time and practice that we grow into using their full potential, to actually being able to see, and work and move and speak. Because birth starts the story. So let’s have a reckoning.