2nd Sunday in Lent, Proper 2A
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
John 3:1-17 Sermon
March 20, 2011
Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
245 "God Loved The World, So That He Gave"
409 "Let Us Ever Walk With Jesus"
390 "Drawn To The Cross Which Thou Hast Blest"
388 "Just As I Am, Without One Plea"
IT'S WHAT'S INSIDE THAT COUNTS
TEXT: (vs. 3-8) “3 In reply [to Nicodemus] Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is 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 must be born again.’”
Several years ago, I met a particular woman who was very outspoken and opinionated. Upon meeting me, after she found out what I did for a living, she gave me an icy stare and said, "I'm not a religious person."
After she said that, I immediately replied, "Well, I'm certainly happy to hear that. I think that religious people are a huge pain in the neck!"
I know that my answer wasn't what she expected to hear. A pastor who thinks religious people are a pain in the neck? What kind of a pastor is that? Isn't it my occupation to turn so-called "normal" people into religious people?
Now I didn't tell her that just for shock value. I was being honest. Being a religious person does not mean a person is saved. In fact, there are many so-called "religious" people who are heading full-tilt down the road to hell.
I know I've told some of you the story about this woman before; but in light of our Gospel lesson appointed for today, I think it is very appropriate. When it comes to being outwardly religious and practicing obedience, Jesus directs us to something different. In his eyes, it's what's on the inside that counts.
In our Gospel lesson for today, we meet a man by the name of Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee, and a member of the Jewish council, which is known as the Sanhedrin. He is what we would call a very religious person.
It's at this point where I need to do a bit of an explanation. When I began study on this text, I came to the sudden realization that the subject for our midweek Lenten service this coming Wednesday is this man we know as Nicodemus. Since this is the case, I'm going to have Dan Sheafer elaborate more on Nicodemus himself on Wednesday, while I focus more on the theology of John chapter 3. Hopefully the two sermons will dovetail nicely together, and we can have a much better grasp on the whole situation. So consider this an advertisement for our Lenten service this week.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, so he had the mindset of a Pharisee. It's what he knew. The Pharisees believed that God was pleased through outward obedience. As long as you did the right thing, then you were good to go. Little, if any attention was given to what was going on inside a person. Righteousness was measured according to human standards, with the idea that God looked at things the same way, according to human reasoning.
So when Nicodemus goes to Jesus under the cloak of darkness, he realizes that something is missing in his life. The outward obedience just wasn't cutting it for him. He realized that Jesus knew what he was talking about, and that he would get a straight answer from him. He wanted to know what it would take for him to be saved.
God has a lot to say in the Bible about the Pharisees and their idea of righteousness. We'll start with the words God speaks in the Old Testament, in 1 Samuel chapter 16, verse 7: "For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." This is a clear example of the importance of what's going on inside a person.
Then in Matthew chapter 23 verses 23-28 Jesus makes a pointed application right at the Pharisees. He says, 25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. 28So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness."
This is the type of logic that Jesus is dealing with in our Gospel lesson for today. Nicodemus realized how empty all of this was, so he goes to Jesus to get the straight story.
The first thing Jesus hits him with, is the fact that a person needed to be "born again" in order to be saved. What was Jesus driving at? It would be impossible for a person to enter their mother's womb and experience childbirth again. So we need to hear how Jesus explains it.
The Greek word translated "again" is "anothen." According to my Greek lexicon, "anothen" means "from above, from a higher place of things which come from heaven or God from the first, from the beginning, from the very first anew, over again." Now that's quite a definition of just one little word!
If we think of it in terms of our own birth, we know that we were completely passive in our own natural birth. We didn't decide to gestate for nine months inside of our mother. We didn't bring about our own conception or birth. That was a matter entirely out of our control. Even though our parents had an active role in things, still the actual conception and eventual birth was something in God's total control.
Now as we apply this idea to what Jesus is explaining to Nicodemus, the "born again," or "born anew," or "born from above" is equally something outside of our control. It isn't brought about by a personal decision, or any other outward act of obedience on our part. God is in total control here as well. Our rebirth as a child of God is entirely an act of the Holy Spirit. We give God the credit for our conversion; therefore we can't be tempted to take credit for it ourselves, just like we can't take credit for our own natural birth.
Nicodemus desperately wants to understand this. He doesn't doubt what Jesus is saying; he just wants to know how this happens.
Listen to Jesus' response in verse 5: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." As clear as this passage is, yet there are those who seem to throw the basic rules of grammar and other portions of Scripture right out the window, and claim that there are two baptisms.
Grammatically speaking, "water" and "Spirit" are inseparably connected. To illustrate this, think of the chemical makeup of hydrogen peroxide. It consists of two parts hydrogen and two parts oxygen. You can't separate the two and still have hydrogen peroxide.
Considering our own baptism, we know that when we were baptized with water according to the way Jesus tells us in the Bible, then this is a baptism of the Holy Spirit. This certainly defies human logic; thankfully God doesn't reckon things the same way we might.
The Apostle Paul leaves no doubt when it comes to a question of one or two baptisms. In Ephesians chapter 4 verses 4-6 we read: "4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
This rebirth Jesus speaks about is something that God does within us. It comes about by the Holy Spirit working faith in our hearts, and we accept Jesus as our Saviour through nothing but faith alone. We didn't choose him any more than we chose to be born in the first place. The very same God who gave us life in the beginning, also gives us new life as his dearly loved child.
But we're sinful human beings. We still have this mindset that the Pharisees had. We tend to ignore what's going on inside of us, and focus more on outward obedience instead. It's something like carefully driving the speed limit when a highway patrol car is following us, while on the inside we want to be flying down the road at 100 miles per hour. We envision God somewhat like a divine patrolman. We want him to see us being compliant with his law and reward us accordingly, and basically ignore our sinful souls.
The inner self, the thoughts and desires of the heart is an area where Jesus really focused. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus states this at the beginning in Matthew chapter 5, verse 20: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Considering the way the Pharisees were about outward obedience, that was a pretty tall order. Then he proceeds to cut right to the heart of things. Murder wasn't just the outward act of taking another person's life. The anger that motivates such an action is the problem. In a similar sense, adultery wasn't just an outward act either. The burning desire that caused it in the first place is the problem. That shows the sinfulness that affects what is on the inside of us.
Jesus caps it off by the words of verse 30: "And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell." If sin were the fault of our external body parts, then this is what we would have to do. But we know that sinfulness and righteousness aren't due to external actions, but it's what's inside that counts.
Sometimes our logic thinks that way. For example, people suggested that we can cure alcoholism amongst the American Indians at Pine Ridge, South Dakota by closing the liquor stores across the border in White Clay, Nebraska. But all that will do is send them another 20 miles down the road to Rushville. Or people think that outlawing gaming and casinos can cure gambling addictions. But we know that doesn't work either. That's only dealing with what's on the outside, or the external things. It doesn't provide a cure for where the problem really is.
I don't know about you, but when I look inside myself, I see some pretty disgusting things. Sin is not a pretty sight. And all of the good deeds and nice words that I might do or say just won't make up for the rot that's underneath. For me to try and make myself righteous on my own would be like trying to fix a rusty old car by filling the holes with bog, sanding it down, and painting over it. It might look nice for awhile, but eventually it would fall to pieces.
That's why Jesus came in the first place. He came to take care of what is on the inside of us, because that's what needs the attention. He came so that we could be born again, born from above, and therefore we have a new life as one of God's dearly loved children. We have this, not by being religious, not because of any pious words and actions, but through nothing more than faith alone in Jesus our Saviour. And when the inside stuff is fixed, then the outward things follow suit.
Jesus concludes our Gospel lesson for this morning by some very concise and comforting words for sinners the likes of you and me, sinners who have been born again by the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus. Verses 16 and 17 are most familiar: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."
That is the promise of Jesus we cling to, and what secures our place in heaven for eternity. Therefore, as we live our lives on this earth, we can pray together with David in Psalm 51: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me."