Since I haven’t posted in a while, here is a sermon I preached in chapel this morning. The text is John 3:1-16, and once again it was supervised by Pastor Torgerson. I can’t wait to be able to preach on John 3 every Trinity Sunday; this text is so rich!
Dear Friends in Christ,
In our text we find Nicodemus, a teacher of the Jews, coming to talk to our Lord. He admitted that Jesus was a great teacher, yet he came to visit Jesus by night. After all, he was a member of the council, and other Pharisees probably would not have looked well upon him if they saw him talking to Jesus in plain daylight. What does Nicodemus want to talk about? He begins by complimenting Jesus, telling Him that He must be a teacher of God because of all the great works He has done. But before Nicodemus is able to ask his question, Jesus answers Him: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Now the discussion has begun! Nicodemus has just entered into a theological conversation with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ. And Jesus has some important points to make in his conversation with Nicodemus, which we can learn from as well. First Jesus explains conversion to Nicodemus. Jesus not only makes it clear that conversion is necessary, but He also explains how it happens, who is in control, and how it is preserved. Finally, after he explains to Nicodemus the nature of conversion, He explains the foundation and confidence on which conversion rests.
Conversion is necessary. Jesus says that before anyone can see the Kingdom of God, he must be “born again”. Nicodemus himself assumes, of course, that there is a standard that must be met before anyone can enter the Kingdom of God, but he is unable to under-stand what Jesus is saying. And therefore his almost ludicrous question, “Can a man enter into his mother’s womb a second time and be born again?” He not only cannot fathom the idea that one can be born again, but he also assumes that being born again is something he must do.
This is, of course, exactly what the opinion of the law tells us. It clings to our conscience and tells us over and over again that we need to do something to inherit eternal life. Nicodemus is not being malicious, rather his problem is that he cannot understand a conversion without it being a decision of his own will. Indeed, many pious Christians today think this way, and even we Lutherans are often vulnerable to slip into this way of thinking.
But Jesus could not possibly have expressed salvation in a more passive way. “One must be born again.” When was the last time you saw a baby just walk out of his mother’s womb and say to the nurse: “I’ll take it from here!” and then proceeds to cut the umbilical cord and hop on the scale. … I believe it safe to say, never!. That isn’t how it works! Instead, the baby is completely dependent on the one delivering him.
Surprisingly, Jesus does not scoff at Nicodemus’ question. He tells him how “being born again” happens: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” Jesus did not say, “unless an adult” or “unless a child who has reached the age of accountability.” He says, “Unless one (someone, anyone) is born of water and the Spirit.” That is man, woman, child, or infant. Everyone must be baptized, because everyone is born with the sin of Adam. Just as Jesus says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Baptism, Jesus says, is necessary for salvation, and this is how God brings children of the flesh into His fold: By making them His children through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.
The fact that we are baptized with water and the Holy Spirit shows who is in control of our conversion. Jesus say: “The wind blows where it wills and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The Spirit is in control of our conversion. As the 5th Article of the Augsburg Confession reminds us: He works faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel. He works through His Word of promise united to the waters of baptism. In fact, the Spirit does not work anywhere outside of or apart from his Word. He has bound Himself to the Word of Christ, the word of promise, that grants eternal life to all believers. God’s Word is truth, and Jesus says in John 16 that the Spirit leads us into all truth. But the truth and the Spirit are only accepted, received, and known by faith. Jesus compares it to the wind. We hear its sound, but we can’t completely figure out where it is coming from.
This is also why Jesus says: “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” Just as our own sinful nature and the sinful world cannot understand the Word of God and the power of the Holy Spirit through that word, so they cannot understand those who have been baptized and continue to live by the grace and in the faith of their baptism. Admittedly, through schisms and heresies in the Church, the Gospel is often distorted and turned from forgiveness into a shallow message of let’s-all-be-nice-to-each-other.
With the growing creed of “It’s my body, and I can do what I want,” less people in Western civilization understand why a Christian woman would want to sacrifice a life of freedom and independence to live in submission to her husband as unto Christ and care for her children as Jesus’ little lambs. Or why Christians should abstain from sex until they are married. More and more religious leaders call us intolerant when we assert what God’s Word says concerning homosexuality, about women pastors, or abortion, divorce, adultery, and anything else that does not meet up to their politically correct standards.
But this is how it must be. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, remember that they hated Me first.” And as we walk this earth as Christian, our lives don’t always seem so exciting. The Spirit breathes faith into people through the Gospel, but the sinful mind does not know where the Spirit comes from or where it goes. It simply isn’t impressed. That’s how it is for the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. And so it is for those who are baptized into Christ: the Christian mothers who struggle to get as much as they can out of the church service while they take care of their squirmy toddlers and crying babies; those Christian fathers who have devotions at home, hoping and praying that their children will stay in the faith as they get older; the faithful pastor who, in the face of adversity, preaches the Word of God in its truth and purity.
These vocations are never neat and tidy. In fact, we often fail in various ways. So while we live our Christian lives, we might wonder to ourselves, “Sure, I was converted. I was baptized. But how will I stay in the faith?” It is truly a constant struggle. The desires of our heart cling to all sorts of things, wanting what is not ours, speaking with contempt toward or about our neighbors, or burning in the sexual desires of our flesh.
If you look with your eyes, it certainly seems that the battle against our sinful flesh is futile and a lost cause, but God reveals something completely different to faith. He reveals Himself. That is because our faith is grounded on God. It is grounded on His will, His action, and His promise. And this brings us to the part of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus in which He explains on which our conversion, our baptism, and our preservation in the faith rest.
When Nicodemus still does not understand Jesus’ words, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what We have seen, but you do not receive Our testimony.” Who is the “We?” Jesus is speaking of the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus, speaking for the other teachers of Israel, says, “We know that you are a teacher come from God.” And Jesus, speaking as God-made-manifest, says, “We speak of what we know.”
You see, the Father is in complete agreement with what Jesus promises. The Father sent his Son to be lifted high up on a cross, as He promised in Isaiah 52:13: “Behold, my servant shall act wisely; He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” This servant is Christ who has surely borne our sorrows, on whom God has laid the iniquities of us all. This is why John the Baptizer called Him the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He was lifted up for our sake. Jesus said, “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.” This is your Heavenly Father’s will for you, and The Holy Spirit does not deliver anything more or less than what Christ has won by His obedient life and death.
This is where your entire life in the Spirit is grounded: on God and His decree. Your redemption is not merely an opportunity which the Man Jesus gave you apart from the will of the Father. Rather, your redemption is the eternal and unanimous decree from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus says, “We speak of what we know.” This is why we are baptized in the name of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
God gave His eternal decree for you, and this decree was fulfilled when the sinless servant of God was lifted high for your salvation. It was in this way that God loved the world. God’s love cannot be measured in any way other than Him rejecting his own sinless Son, lifted high, stricken, smitten by God and afflicted; “who like a silent lamb went patient on, grew weak and faint, to slaughter led without complaint; that spotless life to offer, who bears the stripes the pain, the death, anguish and mockery and says, all this I gladly suffer.”
That promise stands and does not fall, that by Christ’s passion we all share the fruit of His salvation. By His passion, we share the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptism, forgiveness, life, and salvation. Without Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, the promise is empty and Baptism is simply water. Without this promise, your faith is only wishful thinking. Without this promise, you cannot remain in the Spirit much less obtain the Spirit or even know God’s love.
And it just won’t do to explain God’s love as loving the sinner but hating the sin. Do you want to see God’s love for you? Then look to His eternal and righteous hatred of sin and the sinner which all took place in the body of His own Son lifted up on mount Calvary. Are your sins great? Does death pursue you all the way? The sin of Jesus’ cross was greater, and by it, He has abolished your sin and replaced it with His innocence. And His death has put your death to death, replacing it with His life. But do nagging sins still storm your conscience? Do you find yourself in despair at times? Does your sickness of body, mind or soul only remind you of how sin-sick you are? Well, so are those who are born of the Spirit.
You see, the Christian life is not an easy road. It isn’t fun to mourn over sins, to constantly struggle with temptations and selfish desires. But this is the life of us who have been baptized and live by the Spirit; while we mostly see sin, sickness, and the devil’s behind, with eyes of faith we look to the face of God who justifies the ungodly. And we can only trust Him if He mortifies our flesh, sending us the Spirit of His Son.
So to answer Nicodemus’ question of how one can be born again, we say this: To be born again, you must die. And you did. You were crucified with your Lord Jesus in baptism, and you were therefore born from above. This is because only He who has descended from heaven has ascended to heaven; He not only was lifted up on the cross, but He was exalted to the right hand of God the Father. Therefore, if you are born into Him through water and the Spirit, you are truly born from above. So while you continue to battle against the sin of your past and present, take heart in that free gift of God, that gift that does not stop giving, that brought you into His fold and keeps you in. God has sent His Spirit into your hearts to cry out for mercy on your behalf. But don’t look inside yourself for the Spirit. Instead, hear the promise of God! Take heart in Christ’s suffering and His resurrection! There is your death, your birth, and your life. Let us pray:
Let me never, Lord, forsake Thee
E’en though bitter pain and strife
On my way shall over take me,
But may I through all my life
Walk in fervent love to Thee,
In all woes for comfort flee
To Thy birth, Thy death and passion,
Till I see Thy full salvation.