Monday, March 17, 2014

Sermon on John 3:1-17, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, "Where do God's children come from?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. He came to Jesus at night; undoubtedly to hide his meeting with the famous teacher. It’s not hard to figure out why. He was a Pharisee, prominent Jewish religious leaders and constant rivals of Jesus, who frequently challenged His authority and teachings. Not only this, but he was one of the Sanhedrin, a ruling council of 70 influential men in Jerusalem. His secrecy was easy to understand at a human level, but his curiosity and his questions drove him to this nighttime meeting with Jesus. If there was something to what Jesus had to say after all, Nicodemus had to find out. If there wasn’t, no one would need to know about this late night interview.
Nicodemus opens the conversation with an honorable and respectful greeting, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” While this was still far short of recognizing that Jesus was God’s own Son, the Savior, Nicodemus was nevertheless honoring Jesus as a teacher and a prophet from God. Surprisingly, Jesus appears to ignore the praise, and shows no special regard for Nicodemus’ high ranking or position, but abruptly drives to the heart of the matter. Readers of the New Testament may often find it unnerving how blunt Jesus is, always seeing right into a person’s heart, and knowing exactly what they needed. Did Jesus see that Nicodemus needed a dose of humility? Or that Nicodemus thought he was worthy to approach God, when he really wasn’t?
In any case, Jesus drives right home to Nicodemus’ spiritual condition, (and ours as well) telling him that “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus steers the topic of conversation to answer, “Where do God’s children come from?” Nicodemus, like a kid hearing for the first time about the “facts of life,” is mystified by Jesus’ words. Be born again? How does that happen? Just like understanding the natural process of childbirth first comes as a mystery to a child, so also understanding the heavenly birth, the birth from above, of water and the Spirit, was not something he was ready to grasp. Had Nicodemus been asked, “Where do God’s children come from?”, he probably would have thought the answer was easy—they are the Jews! By birth they were God’s chosen people Israel. And in particular, those Jews who are faithful to the Law of Moses. This was after all, what the Pharisees strove after with all their natural ability and willpower. And people thought highly of them for it.
But Jesus saying that a requirement of the kingdom of God was to be born from above? Of water and the Spirit? These ideas were plainly incredible to Nicodemus, even though He was a teacher of God’s Word to Israel. Jesus chides that he should have known better. He must have thought that his life was already sufficiently good and spiritual to enter into the kingdom of heaven. The problem was that he was approaching it all from his natural mind, and a “legal” way of thinking. But Jesus wasn’t talking about something that depended on human will or effort, as we’re reminded in John 1: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12–13). Whether we’re as morally upstanding and religious as Nicodemus, or not, no one enters heaven under their own steam, by their own effort. And no one enters heaven without being reborn from above. Why? Because from our first birth, our natural birth, we are by nature sons of wrath (Eph. 2:3). We are born into sin.
Jesus forcefully breaks through our natural understanding by teaching that we need an entirely new life, apart from the physical birth from our mothers. Even apart from any man-made religious beginnings we thought might commend us to God. Jesus teaches that being children of God only comes by rebirth from Him. The spiritual life in Christ is not a new and improved extension of our old life. It’s not a self-help program putting us in the driver’s seat. It’s not the fine-tuning of an already pretty decent life. It’s not even life support for our dying sinful nature. The rebirth by water and the Spirit is nothing less than putting to death our old sinful nature by baptism into Christ’s death, and rising in the resurrection of Jesus’ Christ in the new life of the Spirit. Rebirth is nothing short of death and resurrection—the total surrender of our former life under sin, and receiving the new life granted to us in Jesus Christ. And life just can’t be the same after that. God changes us from a life ruled by sin to a life directed by the Spirit.  
Jesus said that the work of the Spirit is impossible to control or  trace, just like the wind, but no less visible in its effects. Those born of the Spirit will inevitably be changed, even in remarkable ways. Plainly the faith that Jesus calls us and Nicodemus to is not a faith that can remain hidden or protected, but that must venture out and trust in Jesus, whatever the cost. Nicodemus may have left undecided that night, early in Jesus’ ministry, but when the cards were all on the table, and when his fellow members of the Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus to death, and Jesus died on the cross—something dramatic changed in Nicodemus. He was no longer hesitant about following Jesus, after he saw Jesus lifted up on the cross. No longer a disciple in hiding. Perhaps he remembered how Jesus said that night that He would be lifted up so that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life. But in any case Nicodemus finally believed. Though it may have seemed too late to become a disciple of Jesus—suddenly Nicodemus wasn’t afraid anymore. He and another Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, took Jesus’ body and gave him a respectful burial. A risky action that plainly set them against the will of the Sanhedrin, that had condemned Jesus to death. This was a costly change of heart, to be sure, but it was undoubtedly the working of the Holy Spirit.
Faith is not just a little wishful thinking. As I said before it’s not a self-help program where you “believe in yourself” either. That might work for changing bad habits or learning productive ones. But faith is the trust that would stake everything on Jesus a thousand times. It’s anything but looking to ourselves—and all about looking up to Jesus. Faith is God’s work in us—it’s what happens when we are born from above by water and the Spirit. Faith is God’s vital transformation of our heart—from self-reliance to reliance on Jesus Christ. Faith is God’s work of receiving Jesus Christ for who He is—God’s beloved Son sent into the world as our Savior from sin and death, and believing that He is your Savior as well. Faith is God’s work in all His children, and it is the knowledge and trust in Him that leads to eternal life.
Faith in Jesus leads to eternal life because the power of Jesus’ dying and rising is the power of our rebirth. 1 Peter 1:3 explains, “He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Jesus resurrection is our rebirth. For this reason the Bible calls Jesus the “firstborn from the dead” and the “firstborn of many brothers.” Our rebirth from above comes from the resurrection of Jesus, and follows after the death of our sinful nature, just as Paul describes in Romans 6:3-5, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Baptism buries us with Christ and raises us with Him. Death to sin, and newness of life in the Spirit. Being born from above is to be joined to Jesus and His death and resurrection.
This new birth is available to everyone. God sent His Son into the world, not to rescue a select few—not to harvest the “cream of the crop” and bring down fury on everyone else. His mission was not of judgment, but of salvation. “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Having the new birth is knowing and believing in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. It is the complete dying to our old life, and any attempts to build our own way to God, and surrendering ourselves and our sin to Jesus Christ. And in the drowning death of water and the Spirit, in baptism, God plunges us down together with Jesus in His death, and raises us up a new child of God in the Spirit, in Jesus’ resurrection. This is where God’s children come from, and it is a marvel and a mystery—but the power of Jesus’ resurrection is the power of our new life, and it is the source of a confident and lively trust in Jesus, and the promise of eternal life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Point
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  1. The Pharisees were the most influential and popular Jewish sect, and emphasized strict obedience of the Law. They believed that in order to gain God’s favor, they had to maintain separation from the Gentiles and their ways, and obey the law of Moses (The Lutheran Study Bible, 1557). As a member of the Pharisees and the Jewish ruling council of 70 (the Sanhedrin), Nicodemus was one of the most influential Jews in Jerusalem. Why did he come to Jesus at night? How did he later evidence growth both in faith and in courage? John 7:50; 19:39.
  2. Jesus does not allow Nicodemus to stand on his dignity, nor does He accept his praise, but challenges Nicodemus’ faith. Being “born from above/again” is a requirement of the kingdom, Jesus says. In vs. 3 & 5, what two things does Jesus say a person is unable to do, if they are not born from above, of water and the spirit?
  3. What is the new birth from above, of water and the Spirit? 2 Corinthians 5:17; 1 Peter 1:3; 3:20; Titus 3:5-7; John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:9. What are the effects or implications of this new birth? Why is this change impossible without the birth from above? What is the nature of our flesh? Matthew 26:41; John 1:13; 6:63; Romans 7:18; 1 Corinthians 2:14.
  4. Jesus is described in Scripture as the “firstborn from the dead”. Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18; Revelation 1:5. How is Jesus’ death and resurrection the source of our dying and rising—our spiritual rebirth? Romans 6:3-5; 1 Peter 3:20. How does John 3:16-17 explain God’s purpose and intention for sending Jesus into the world? 

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