Born again

Good morning, Friends!

Thank you all for coming today. I appreciate each and every one who comes to worship, and I’m so glad you’re here.

Today we’ve got a Scripture with a whole lot going on in it.

  • We’ve got everybody’s all-time favorite Bible verse. We’ve got Jesus going head to head with one of the national leaders of Israel.
  • We’ve got one of the most controversial phrases in the whole gospel to deal with.
  • We’ve got one of the greatest descriptions of the Holy Spirit.
  • We’ve got a really unusual metaphor that Jesus uses to describe himself.

We’ve got a message of God’s infinite love, and it’s all in the next 20 minutes!

Let’s get started.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 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.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“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!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.”
“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.

John 3:1-20

There is so much going on here, I almost don’t know where to start. Let’s start with the two characters we meet here – Jesus, and a Jewish teacher called Nicodemus.

Nicodemus is an extremely interesting character. We only meet him in John’s gospel. And in a way, he’s kind of a sad character.

Nicodemus is a leader. He’s a Pharisee, one of the strictest people in Israel. He and his friends believe that keeping all the rules is what saves people. He’s a legalist at heart. He can quote you any verse in the Bible to support his position.

He’s not just a Pharisee, he’s a teacher, a major rabbi, an expert. People look up to Nicodemus. He’s a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish people. People from all over the Jewish world bring their disputes to Nicodemus and his fellow rulers. Their word is law.

At heart, Nicodemus is really a decent guy. He’s honest, and he realizes that Jesus is doing things that nobody else has ever done. He knows that Jesus is super special, but he can’t put this together with some of the things Jesus says.

And saddest of all, in his heart, Nicodemus is afraid. He’s afraid that Jesus might be a prophet, might be the Messiah. But he’s also afraid of what his fellow leaders might say, if they knew that he was even talking to Jesus.

So, he comes to Jesus by night. He waits until nobody can see him. Then he slips out of his house. He pulls his cloak over his face, eases through the shadows and comes and knocks at the door of the place where Jesus is saying, and he whispers, “Hey! Is Jesus there? Can I come in and talk to him?”

There’s a famous picture of Jesus and Nicodemus, by a French Artist, Jacques Tissot. It shows the two of them sitting in a dark corner of a room, with a candle between them. Even indoors, Nicodemus has his face covered up. Jesus is reaching out to hold Nicodemus’ hand, but Nicodemus is too scared to take it. It’s really sad!

Jesus and Nicodemus by Jacques Tissot

It’s sad, because Jesus wants to be friends. Jesus isn’t afraid. Jesus is willing to talk to anyone. Jesus has got nothing to hide. Jesus lives in daylight. He says what he has to say in public. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. . .” (John 8:12)

Anyway, Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you’re a teacher who has come from God. Nobody could do the things you’re doing if God wasn’t with him.”

Nicodemus is a famous teacher. And he calls Jesus, Teacher. He acknowledges Jesus’ place. He acknowledges that Jesus has done amazing things that no one else can do.

Jesus knows Nicodemus’ heart. He’s willing to be Nicodemus’ friend. But Jesus tells the truth, all the time. He says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

Now, I’m not going to argue about what exactly Jesus meant by that. “Born again” has come to mean so many different things to different groups of Christians. Some people say it means this, some people say it means that. It only applies to the way we understand being “born again”. Anybody who believes differently, is out.

I’m not interested in that. Just stick with Jesus’ words. Forget what somebody else told you.

Nicodemus couldn’t make it out. His mind was locked in literalism. It’s really sad. He says, “How can a person like me be born a second time? I can’t go back into my mother’s womb!”

Jesus said, “You don’t get it? You’re a top teacher in the whole country, and you don’t understand what I’m saying? We’re talking about the Spirit here. We’re talking about a spiritual birth. It’s beyond our control. The Spirit is like the wind – you can feel it, you can hear it, but nobody can see it. It’s free. It blows wherever it wants to. That’s the way God’s Spirit is!”

And Nicodemus still doesn’t understand. Or, maybe, he doesn’t want to understand. Because all his life, he’s put his trust in rules, in iron-clad laws and customs set in stone. There’s no life outside those things, he thinks.

Nicodemus thinks it’s all about God’s written law, a law which he loves and respects. But Jesus says there’s a higher law, a deeper law. A law of the Spirit, a law of love, a law of truth, that’s written on our hearts.

Jesus was willing to break God’s written law, even though Jesus knew it backwards and forwards, if he thought that God’s law of mercy and forgiveness and grace applied instead. Jesus put his own life at risk, by talking with people he wasn’t supposed to talk to. Jesus made himself an outlaw, by healing people when it was “against the rules”.

Nicodemus knew all this, in his heart, and he was afraid of what Jesus was saying. He knew Jesus was from God, but he was afraid to speak up or to risk losing being respected. He was afraid that he would be kicked out, if anybody knew that he was Jesus’ friend.

Jesus knew the cost, too. He reminded Nicodemus of a story, a story that both of them knew, a story from back in the days of Moses. People were out in the desert, and they were dying, from hunger and thirst. They were even dying from plague and snakebite.

God told Moses to make a shiny brass metal snake, life size, and attach it to the walking staff that Moses always carried. God told Moses, “Lift up that shiny metal thing, so everyone can see it. Whoever looks at that shiny metal snake will live, and be healed of whatever is plaguing them!” And they did. It worked. (see Numbers 21:4-9)

Kind of a weird story. But Jesus and Nicodemus both knew it. And Jesus said, “That’s what I am. I’m going to be lifted up, so the whole world can see me. I’m going to be the one the whole world looks at. They will see me, and live!”

Nicodemus must have been terrified. He never asked Jesus another thing. But Jesus went on. And that’s where we get everyone’s favorite saying in the whole gospel.

Actually, it’s two sayings. First, there’s John 3:16: “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.”

That is such a promise! Those are words to put your trust in. Those are words to live by. God loved the world so much, that he sent his only Son. Whoever sees Jesus, whoever sees him lifted up, whoever puts their trust in Jesus, will never die, but will have the life that goes on forever. Amen!

But then there’s the second part. Then there’s part B, John 3:17, which is just as important. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

So many people go through their whole lives thinking that God is angry at them. They think that God can’t wait to catch them breaking a rule.

People think that God is just waiting for any excuse to condemn them, or to condemn anyone else that they don’t approve of.

But Jesus says that God didn’t send him to condemn anyone. Jesus’ whole life, his whole reason for coming, was to save the whole world. That’s you, and me, and everyone we meet. Jesus came to save.

Jesus came to show God’s love to everyone he met. He showed God’s love to foreigners. He did that not just once, but many times. He showed God’s love to people who everyone said didn’t deserve it.

Jesus told the legalists, “Go back to the law and learn the part where God says, ‘I want mercy, not laws and sacrifices.’” (Matthew 9:12, quoting Hosea 6:6) He said, “I didn’t come for the legalists, but for people who are hurt and broken.” (Matthew 9:13)

In the very first sermon Jesus ever gave in his own home church, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom to all who are locked up. He has sent me to give light to the blind, to set people free, and to proclaim the time of God’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

That’s always Jesus’ agenda. Not to condemn anyone, but to save everyone. You, me, and everybody else. And Jesus will do anything, whatever it takes, even giving up his own life, to make that happen.

It doesn’t say how the evening ended. Did Nicodemus believe what Jesus was saying? Or was he too afraid to come out of the darkness and try to live Jesus’ teaching? We don’t know.

We only meet Nicodemus two more times. Once was when they tried to arrest Jesus. Even the police wouldn’t lay hands on Jesus, because they knew what Jesus was saying was true. The leaders were bickering about it behind closed doors. They said that everyone who listened to Jesus was accursed.

Nicodemus found some courage. He tried to speak up on Jesus’ behalf. He said, “Does our law judge anyone without first giving them a fair hearing to find out what they’re doing?” (John 7:50) But they all shouted Nicodemus down, and he didn’t say anything more that time.

The other time we meet Nicodemus is on Good Friday, after Jesus was killed. Nicodemus and another man asked for Jesus’ body to be given to them, so they could bury him. And it says that Nicodemus brought 100 pounds of precious spices to embalm Jesus’ body. (see John 19:38-42)

It was an extravagant gift, a tremendous gift. More precious spices than a really strong man could even carry. Even though Nicodemus was too scared to speak up when Jesus was alive, he took the incredibly risky step of coming forward to bury him. We hope that Jesus remembered his love and his courage at the very end.

That’s the story. That’s what it’s all about. Whatever you take home, don’t forget: God loved the world so much, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will never die, but will have the life that goes on forever.

And no matter what anybody tells you, remember this: God didn’t send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but so that everyone – you, me, and everyone you meet – might be saved.

Hang on to those two things, for the rest of your life. God loves, and God doesn’t condemn. God loves everyone, and God wants all of us to be saved.

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