My mother, Grace C. Hawbaker, passed from this life into the presence of Jesus on November 25, 2014, at the age of 94.
She had asked me to bring the message at her funeral service. I told her that because her favorite biblical theme was that of being born again, I thought I would speak on the Gospel of John, chapter 3, the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. She agreed that would be good. So that is what I did.
Here is the text of my message, given on December 1.
“Born of the Spirit”
A deeply spiritual experience can take place in an ordinary physical setting. So it happened one day in the basement (or cellar, as we called it) of our family farmhouse along the Edenville Road.
An experience with God in the musty cellar of an old farmhouse? Yes. We will return to that basement scene in a few minutes.
When Jesus was here on earth, he had significant conversations with many people. Fortunately for us, because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and the writing skills of four men named Matthew, Mark Luke and John, we have a written record of many of those conversations.
For the message today, I want to read one conversation.
The story is well known to many of you. That means it takes mental effort to really enter into the story and see how radical it was at the time, and still is. But I invite you to make that effort and enter into the story.
The story is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 3. I will read the story in sections, making a few comments as I go.
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemuswho was a member of the Jewish ruling council.2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
Nicodemus – a Pharisee. The Pharisees were a sub-group of the Jews. They followed the religious rules in the strictest way possible. People would look at Nicodemus and say: “If that’s what it means to be acceptable to God, there’s no hope for me. I could never be that good.”
Nicodemus acknowledges that something special is happening in Jesus. “You are performing miraculous signs. God must be with you.”
And Jesus abruptly introduces a totally new thought.
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
Well, that sets Nicodemus back a peg.
The kingdom of God – that was Jesus’ favorite theme when he was here on earth. The rule of God, the reign of God. Jesus said it was breaking through. It would come in its fullness in the future, but it was present in a measure here and now.
Now Jesus is saying that no one will see this kingdom unless he is born again.
Born again? What’s that? Nicodemus is mystified, just as you and I would have been if we had been there and had heard those words for the first time in our lives.
So Nicodemus just blurts out his confusion.
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
So Jesus explains a bit more.
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c]must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Here Jesus explains that there are two kinds of birth – born of the flesh, and born of the Spirit – with capital “S” referring to the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit.
Born of the flesh – natural physical birth that gives you physical life.
Born of the Spirit – something different from physical birth, something from heaven, from God; something that gives you spiritual life. Made alive on the inside, so that your inner spirit is no longer dead because of sin, but is made alive by God’s Holy Spirit.
Now, as you notice, I’m borrowing a few phrases that come from other parts of the NT, to try to explain what it means to be born of the Spirit. But in this conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus doesn’t explain everything fully. He just lifts up a profound spiritual truth and leaves Nicodemus to think on it.
“The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear the sound, but you can’t be sure where it comes from or where it’s going. So is everyone that is born of the Spirit,” Jesus says.
Jesus points out there is mystery to this new birth. You can’t package it or control it or produce it by human effort. This is God at work, coming to a person who is dead on the inside and making that person alive in a new and powerful way.
I will skip part of the conversation and go on to two more verses.
Being born again involves a clear understanding of what God has done for us in the life death and resurrection of Christ. That’s why this conversation that begins with talk about being born again goes on to include one of the most famous verses in the Bible.
16 For 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.
And v. 17 goes on to give further emphasis to this same truth.
17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
The NT is rich in language to describe the salvation that God brings to us.
So when the Bible describes the change that happens when a person repents of his sins and believes in Jesus Christ as his Savior, it uses words such as these: forgiven, pardoned, cleansed, justified, saved, enter the kingdom of God – and “born again” is one more NT term to describe that inner change.
So Jesus says to Nicodemus: Don’t be surprised when I say, “You must be born again.” And Jesus says the same thing to everyone.
All this talk about being born again fits the life and personal testimony of my Mother.
I could talk at length about the memories that we four children have of our Mother:
her delight in babies and young children; her hard work as a farm wife and mother; her whistling as she washed the piles of laundry; her cooking and warm hospitality as a hostess; her skill as a seamstress; her collection of fine glassware; her habit of saving everything because “you don’t know – we may have a use for it someday;” the poetry and religious tracts she wrote; her telling spiritual stories at Shalom Christian Academy, holding both students and teachers spellbound; her support of various missions and relief ministries; her formidable skill at playing Scrabble; and her hearty laugh.
But the most pivotal experience of her life was the fact that she was born again.
Like Nicodemus, she came from a strict conservative religious background.
Like Nicodemus, she had no spiritual understanding.
Like Nicodemus, she wanted more.
Mother recalls sitting in a River Brethren meeting in the Hawbaker farmhouse. The preacher was a Daniel Hawbaker, Sr. He had a long beard and sunken eyes and looked just like you would expect of a prophet from the OT. Daniel stood between the living room and the parlor as he preached. He said: “I don’t care what church you belong to – you must be born again!”
At the time Mother didn’t understand what “born again” meant, but the preacher’s bold statement stuck with her.
Later Mother and Daddy attended Brethren in Christ services, where they heard more about being born again. And they heard Christians who were clear in their testimonies, saying that they knew their sins were forgiven, they knew they were saved. So Mother pressed on in her journey, hungry for spiritual certainty.
That brings us to the cellar of our farmhouse in November 1954.
Mother was scrubbing the floor, thinking about all these things, especially wondering about the assurance of salvation. Her 2-year-old son Clifford was sitting on a chair entertaining himself.
Then there came to her a deep inner peace and assurance – that through faith in Jesus Christ her sins were forgiven and she was accepted into the family of God.
The words of Jesus came to her: Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. And she realized – this is the new birth I was seeking for.
She said to God, “You can take me to heaven now if you want. This is what I was searching for.” He didn’t take her then, so she said to God, “Whatever there is down the road, I am yours.”
She picked up Clifford from the chair and came upstairs to the kitchen. Daddy had just come in for lunch. She said, “Do you know what just happened to me? I was born again!”
“Well, good for you!” Daddy said.
An experience with God can take place in an ordinary physical setting, even a farmhouse cellar.
I should point out that not long after that Daddy, too, came to an experience of the new birth.
Ever after Mother’s experience in the cellar, she regarded November 2, 1954, as her spiritual birthday. When she gave her testimony at Roxbury Holiness Camp in 2010, she said, “The new birth is so real to me that if you want to send me a birthday card, don’t send it to me in May, when they tell me I was born the first time. Send it to me in November, when I was born again.”
And a few of her friends have done just that!
For Mother (and Daddy), this was not just a brief experience of joy and emotion. It was the beginning of a life of growing faith, obedience, holiness, love and service to God and other people – which is exactly what the NT describes: a deep personal faith in Christ as Savior, leading to an ongoing life of righteousness, holiness and love, and living in true community with others in the church.
One more thing about the story of Nicodemus:
Through this story God speaks to all of us – to every person here.
Perhaps you have entered into the truth of what Jesus said about the new birth.
You have repented of your sins and put your faith in Jesus as your Savior and are born again. If so, you are humbly grateful to God and are living in the joy of his salvation.
Perhaps you are more like Nicodemus – asking questions, not sure, not yet fully committed to Christ.
If that is you, we invite you to take the next step that God is prompting you to take. Bring your questions to Jesus. Trust him fully for the new beginning, the inner transformation that is the new birth. Then come and follow Jesus for the rest of your life.
Your experience will not be exactly like Mother’s, or like anyone else’s – because God is a God of infinite variety, and he will meet you in a way that is real to you.
And to you who are believers, remember how big and all-encompassing is the salvation that God has planned.
We serve God in the power of the Holy Spirit all our lives long.
Then when we die, our spirit goes to be with the Lord – just as the spirit of Grace Catherine Bricker Hawbaker has left us.
But there is more to come. At the end of the age, Christ will return, and our decayed bodies will be raised from the dead, to a new kind of body, the kind Jesus had after his resurrection.
Then still later, God will set up a new heaven and new earth, and in this way he will restore the Paradise that was lost when Adam and Eve sinned.
How great are the wisdom, love and power of God, who lives and reigns forever!
We turn now to a song of hope and confidence in God – a song that has become the theme song of the Hawbaker family.
It started out when Mother was a child. She occasionally went with her Grandmother Peckman to the Lutheran Church near the mountain, near Letterkenny. There, for the first time, she heard the song “It Is Well with My Soul,” and she noticed that her Grandmother joined in singing it heartily.
Later, in her adult life, she came to understand the rich spiritual meaning of the song – and the circumstances of its writing.
Horatio Spafford lived in Chicago in the 1800s. He was a successful lawyer, a Presbyterian and a devoted Christian. Mr. Spafford and his wife had four young daughters. Mrs. Spafford was in poor health, so the whole family planned a trip to Europe, hoping the change of climate would cause improvement in her health. At the last minute, Mr. Spafford had to stay home, but he sent his wife and the four daughters without him. Unfortunately, partway across the Atlantic the ship they were on was rammed by a larger vessel and sank just 12 minutes later.
Mr. Spafford waited apprehensively for news of survivors, and finally, from Cardiff, Wales, came a cablegram from his wife. Two words: “Saved alone.” Their four daughters had perished at sea.
Mr. Spafford set sail for Paris to join his wife there. As the ship neared the general area where the first ship had been destroyed, he sat down and wrote:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billow roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
“It is well with my soul.” And two more stanzas.
Mother cherished the rich spiritual meaning of this song, with its profound statement of confidence in our gracious God. So when Daddy passed away unexpectedly in July 1982, Mother requested that this would be one of the songs used in the funeral service.
During the service, when the congregation sang this song, her oldest son Delbert was seated beside her and observed her singing loud and strong, and he thought: “Here is my Mother, who has just lost her husband to an untimely death, and yet she can sing ‘It is well with my soul.’ She has something I do not have. “
That led Delbert to a time of serious reflection. In the days after the funeral he listened to that song repeatedly on tape, and it was instrumental in his committing his life to Christ in a life-changing way.
So for all these reasons this song has become the theme song for our family, and we would be pleased to have you sing it with us.