I've preached for the Youth Group before, but never for an entire congregation. Last Sunday, I did. This is the sermon. There's more back story, and I should probably explain about why I haven't been here much, but I'm going to continue not to be here much until probably the end of May, so for now I'm just posting this for the curious who already knew I was preaching and didn't get to hear it. I may repost in context at a later date.
Good morning! Before I begin, I want to thank RevCD, and all of you, for allowing me the privilege of bringing the Word to you this morning. Opening up the pulpit for others is an amazing way to allow individuals to grow in our own faith. There’s a verse in the tiny little book of Philemon where the apostle Paul says, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” We grow in our faith as we talk about our faith. So I’m grateful for this opportunity to grow in my faith, and I pray it will be faith-building for you as well.
It might also be faith-building for RevCD! Opening the pulpit also demonstrates a lot of godly humility on the part of the pastor—which is a pretty great quality to have in a pastor! It’s a risk letting someone else up here to share what the Bible is saying to them. So I don’t want to begin before I’ve expressed just how grateful I am for this opportunity—even though it’s freaking me out a little bit!
The next thing I need to do before we get started is make a confession:
I come from an Evangelical tradition, and I would consider myself what is often called a “born again Christian.”
I can imagine various possible reactions you might be having to this news! I need to acknowledge right up front that I am highly aware that people often use this term like a sledgehammer, like some kind of a label or even a guilt-trip for people who haven’t had the exact same kind of spiritual experience that they’ve had. There’s also a tendency I’ve encountered among people outside of this “tradition” to assume that you can only be “born again” if you’ve lived a really rough life beforehand and something drastic needed to change. I think both of these approaches are misconceptions.
The reason I’m both admitting my background and leanings and pointing out the abuses of this phrase, is that, if you were listening alertly you might have noticed that very phrase in something Jesus says in verse 3.
Jesus says to this guy, Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Born again might be a controversial phrase, but Jesus coined it! It may be that the best I can do is explain what people from my church background really mean when we say it, but I hope that in our time together this morning we are also able to discover what Jesus meant when He said it.
For that, we’ll need to look at the whole story in this passage that Betsy read for us from the book of John, chapter 3. I like to call this story, “Nick at Nite” (I wish I could say I made that up, but I actually got that from one of my seminary professors). Here we have a guy, Nicodemus, who comes to meet Jesus under cover of darkness. Why would he do that? Most of the stories we have about Jesus show Him striding around the Galilean or Judean countryside in broad daylight, preaching and healing and caring for people, and both His supporters and His opponents would approach Him in public and ask Him questions or even confront or accuse Him. So why is this guy Nick sneaking around in the dark?
The text actually tells us, provided we’re aware of some of the dynamics within first century Judaism. In the very first verse, John the Gospel writer says, “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.” We’ve probably all heard of Pharisees before—they’re often portrayed as the New Testament bad guys, but they were actually really religious, really spiritual. They had a lot of faith in God and in the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). They believed Israel was God’s chosen people—that they were “sons of Abraham.” They believed that if they, as children of Abraham, obeyed God’s rules, God would restore them to freedom and greatness that their nation had experienced during the times of King David and King Solomon.
It’s interesting, however, that most of the Pharisees, who had such a high view of the Word of God [hold up Bible] couldn’t seem to recognize Jesus as the Word of God—Human Version. (Just two chapters before this story, John the writer tells us that Jesus Himself is God’s Word—you can look that up later.) Jesus upheld the Scriptures, too, but not in a way that most of these Pharisees—these religious people—were able to discern, and that’s why they opposed Him so fiercely. It’s also why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night—he was completely aware of the way his colleagues felt about the guy, but he must have had some suspicion that they were wrong about Him. Anyway, he was very curious, he wanted to know more, but he was too afraid to investigate publicly. There’s always some kind of peer pressure, right?
Nervous or not, he wants to get started on the right foot, because he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs [these miracles] that you do unless God is with Him.” Then it looks like Jesus just changes the subject! And essentially, that’s what He’s doing. Jesus bypasses the flattery, ignores the implied questions about where He came from and about His miracles (“Cut the small talk, Nick!”) and gets to the heart of what Nicodemus is really there for—Nicodemus, the Pharisee, like all the Pharisees, wants to see God’s Kingdom established on earth. He wants to know if Jesus is there to bring it. Jesus appears to bypass that question, too, and tells Nicodemus what has to happen to him: Nick cannot, and will not see the Kingdom he longs for unless he is “born again.”
At first this does not compute. Nick’s like, “Wait, what? Dude—I have to start the whole birth process over again?!”
This might seem like a ridiculous—or stupid—or disturbing!—objection. It’s even entirely possible Nick was being a little sarcastic. Obviously Jesus is being metaphorical.
Or is He?
Jesus acknowledges the biological process: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” But then He says, “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” He’s saying, “Yep—you’re a human being. Your body has already been born. But now your spirit needs to be born—or reborn—so that you can see the fulfillment of these promises of God you’ve been looking forward to so much.” Nicodemus, like his Pharisee colleagues, is depending on his ancestral credentials for access to God’s Kingdom. He’s Jewish—a member of the race chosen through Abraham. He’s a son of Abraham so therefore he must belong to God, right?
But Jesus challenges that assumption. Evidently, Nick’s biological birth and physical heritage doesn’t quite cut it. Something needs to happen to his spirit for him to be spiritually a “son of Abraham” and one of the people of God. There’s a cliché (which the youth group have heard me use more than once!) that says, “God doesn’t have grandchildren.” Like most clichés, it’s simplistic, but there’s truth in it. Nicodemus had to own his faith for himself—not rely on some ancestor’s faith, or the history of great things God had done for his nation in the past—if he is going to see God’s Kingdom established on earth.
Sound familiar, maybe? We have to own the faith for ourselves, too—not rely on our parents’ faith, or our grandparents’ faith, or the great works that have been done in our church in the past. Nicodemus’ own spiritual identity needed to be reborn. Started over! Made new! God’s Spirit was blowing where it wanted to, as Jesus says it will in verse 8, but Nicodemus’ own spirit needed to cooperate with the regenerating work of God’s Holy Spirit—and our spirits need to do the same thing, when God’s Spirit begins to blow around and through us. I hesitate to use too shocking or distracting an analogy, but sometimes those work the best . . . You’ve heard of “consenting adults”? Well—apparently spiritual consent is necessary. God’s not going to force the issue, or default the issue. God wants our consent to birth us into God’s family.
“Truly, truly, I say to you,” says Jesus in verse 11, “we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”
The Pharisees weren’t doing too good of a job of receiving Jesus’ testimony. They? Were not consenting. Jesus is challenging Nicodemus to receive what He is saying on divine authority. Through the words of this book, Jesus is challenging us to receive the same thing. Then Jesus challenges Nicodemus regarding what exactly it is he needs to receive.
He references what is to us an obscure Old Testament story (it’s in Numbers chapter 21 verses 4 through 9): In the story, the Israelites and Moses have been wandering around in the desert. The people have turned against God (again!) and are being beset by poisonous snakes. It’s an infestation and people are dying of these snakebites. So God tells Moses to make a bronze model of a snake and lift it up over the community so they can see it, and anyone who looked at that snake was healed from their snakebites, and lived. Jesus is using this as an analogy for Himself when He says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” He’s predicting His death right here, although there’s no way Nicodemus would have known that at the time.
“Receive Me,” Jesus is saying. “Believe in Me. Look to Me and live. This is how your spirit will be reborn. This is how you are born into the family of God.”
And then He says what has become probably the most famous Bible verse in at least American Christianity—John 3.16. Say it with me if you know it (or if your Bible is still open to it):
This is the Good News. God loved—and loves—us—the whole world—enough to come to this planet and live life with us, experiencing our joys and sorrows. We have a God who knows what it’s like to be us, from birth to death, and what He asks from us is to trust in Him. That’s what faith really is, after all. It’s trust. Consider this, too—this Good News isn’t just something John the writer, or some other disciple, said about Jesus. It’s something Jesus Himself is saying. “If you trust me,” Jesus says, “You’ll live.” This isn’t the kind of belief that’s just assent in your head. This is the kind of trust that means letting God be the one in charge of your life—trusting God to know what’s best for you, even better than you do yourself. That’s when we truly live.
Then Jesus backs this up—“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world,” Jesus says, “but in order that the world might be saved through Him.”
So let’s think about this not-condemning thing. Jesus isn’t an idiot. He’s living life with us. He hasn’t been crucified yet at the time of this story, but He’s already experienced hardship and oppression, or seen others inflict it or experience it. He knows life is hard. He knows oppression happens. He’s all about justice—He has already been taking the religious oppressors to task, and healing illnesses, and affirming people’s humanity. But: He says He didn’t come into the world to condemn it—even with all these injustices. He came to save it. Hear this again: Jesus didn’t come here to condemn anybody.
But—and I’m going to add one more verse to this passage, because it’s part of the context even though it wasn’t part of the reading—people can condemn themselves, by their own choice and freewill. Verse 18 says, “Whoever believes in Him [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” God is a God of justice, and it’s a good thing, too. There is a lot of injustice in the world, right? Discrimination and homelessness and economic oppression—you name it. There’s no justice if oppressors are not judged.
I’d like to suggest, though, that we all have at least a little bit of injustice inside each one of us. I know I do. (You probably know I do, too!) Even the most upright, godly, respected person of all contains a little bit of the oppressor. Nicodemus was that guy—almost irreproachable, but not quite.
Maybe some of us are that guy, too. Let me rephrase that. I am that guy. I grew up in the church. My mom’s father was a pastor. My dad is a pastor. Both my parents have been missionaries at various points in their lives. They planted a church in Charlton and I grew up in and with that church. I didn’t ever really rebel much (until my 30’s, maybe, but that’s another story). But in spite of that pretty stellar background (much like Nicodemus’), I fail. I fear. I hurt people. My heritage, grateful as I am for it, is not what justifies me before God—and I do have things in my personal history that need to be forgiven. I do need to be justified.
Jesus didn’t want to leave Nicodemus with the impression that he was “all good” on his own, and I don’t believe He wants to leave us with that impression, either. I think if we’re honest with ourselves—if I’m honest with myself—I, and we all, can each acknowledge we’ve had moments we are not proud of, which do not reflect the image of God that is the human birthright. We can’t even help ourselves, at times. But we need help! That help doesn’t come from our own good works outweighing our bad ones. It doesn’t come from our religious pedigree or our church history. It also doesn’t come, by the way, from beating ourselves up. That help comes from Jesus, who was born into this world not to condemn the world, but to save it—to save us—as we are reborn into His life by His Spirit.
As I said at the beginning, sometimes people use the term “born again” to foster some kind of exclusive club mentality. That’s not what it’s for. Everyone experiences God differently, and while some people have what could be termed a “dramatic conversion experience” and that is legitimate, others grow more gradually into owning the faith for themselves. Speaking for myself, as I said, I grew up in “Christian land.” I did not have a dramatic conversion experience—but I still consider myself born again, because at some point I can’t even pick out for sure, I agreed with God’s Spirit that I wanted the trajectory of my life to aim at Jesus, and—not always consistently, but overall—I’ve been choosing Jesus ever since. The point with this born again stuff is that when God’s Spirit blows around us, that Spirit is ready to show us who Jesus is, ready to form us into new people with God’s own supernatural power to live the image of Christ. We just have to cooperate with the Spirit, by trusting Him. Sooner or later in our lives, whether as little children or as adults, there is the need for a new spiritual birth. There is the need for spiritual consent. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to us, “unless one is born again, he [or she] cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
I think we all want to see it. Let’s pray that we do.