Trinity Sunday Proper B
Rev. Dr. D.K. Schroeder
John 3:1-17 Sermon
June 3, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
240 "Father Most Holy, Merciful And Tender"
243 "Oh That I Had A Thousand Voices"
250 "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name"
246 "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty"
“BORN, LIKE NICODEMUS”
TEXT (v. 14-17): “14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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.”
Have you ever seen a condemned house or building? I would imagine that almost all of you have, even if it has only been from a distance. You drive down the street, and you pass an old ramshackle house or building. And right by the front door, you see a bright orange sign that has been placed there by the Department of Building and Safety. On the front of the sign in large black letters, it says, "Condemned; unsafe to enter or occupy." Someone has determined that this house presents a real threat should you want to venture in to it. You're liable to fall through the floor, or something might come down and hit you on the head. The place is dangerous.
There was a house that fit this description behind where I live, red warning signs and all. The elderly lady that lived there had moved into a HUD apartment because the house was in such bad shape. A friend of mine was even contemplating buying it, but the real estate company wouldn't even so much as let him in the front door so he could have a good look at it. So it was bulldozed, and a new house was built in its place.
When I was a boy, I was staying with an older farm couple that had no children of their own. One day, I was in the car with them, and we turned off the main road and drove down this overgrown lane. It wasn't too long, and we came upon this old deserted house, just standing there amidst a small grove of trees. The weatherboard siding was gray from years of no paint and harsh weather. The front verandah was sagging and broken, and there wasn't a single window that was intact. The front door was standing open. So we got out of the car, and went into the house. Even though there wasn't a bright orange sign by the door, this most definitely was a condemned house, and would be absolutely unsafe to occupy.
You can just about imagine what the house looked like. There was this stale musty odor throughout. The wallpaper hung in shreds from the crumbling plaster. As we slowly walked from room to room, there was the odd stick of furniture here and there, but it was mostly just bare rooms and dirty wooden floors.
After we had walked through this old house, the woman said she wanted to be alone. So the gentleman and I left the house and went back to the car. I could tell that she was becoming very emotional about everything.
It was then I learned that this was the house she knew growing up. In fact, this house and the one she now lived in with her husband had been the only two houses she had ever lived in. The farmer who owned the land on which her childhood home sat wanted to have it removed. So he organized with the local fire department to use it as a practice house. They would set fire to it, and it would be burnt to the ground. She just wanted to come and have one last look before it was gone forever, just one more walk down the memory lane of her earlier years.
As we look at our Gospel lesson for today, we are going to be meeting up with a man by the name of Nicodemus. But before we do that, I want to go to the very last verse of our Gospel lesson for today, which is verse 17. It says, "God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved." I can't think of a more hopeless word in the English language than the word "condemned." If something is condemned, then it is doomed. Its fate has been sealed. There's no hope ahead, only destruction. A condemned building is only marking time until it is destroyed. A condemned criminal is only marking time until the governing authorities put him to death by some sort of capital punishment. A condemned soul is one that is marking time on earth waiting for the final judgment and an eternity of hell. The word "condemned" is not a pleasant one at all.
Like I said a few minutes earlier, we're talking today about a man by the name of Nicodemus, who was a Pharisee. When he approaches Jesus, the idea of condemnation would have been in the back of his mind. He knew that hell was a very real place. But most importantly, he knew that the answer to this whole issue was Jesus himself. And so he seeks him out.
Like I mentioned before, Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the Jewish experts in the law. Not only that, but he was a very high-ranking Pharisee, because he is described as a ruler of the Jews. He was a highly respected, and probably also a highly feared member of society.
As such, he was faced with a dilemma. In general, the Pharisees were enemies of Jesus. If he were to be caught going to Jesus, we can only guess as to how severe the consequences might be. So he goes at night, under the cover of darkness, lest he be discovered.
Verse 3 records the first words out of Nicodemus' mouth: “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.”
So Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus' connection with God, which is a strong statement of faith from him. And then he says that he is aware of what Jesus has been doing in his ministry. Nicodemus was keeping careful track of his preaching, his ministry, and his miracles. He knew and acknowledged that Jesus did things only God can do. He knew that by approaching Jesus, he was also approaching God himself.
As I said before, Nicodemus was a Pharisee. And we know that frequently when Jesus was faced with a dialogue with them, they were intent on asking him questions in order to trap him, or to paint him in the proverbial corner. This is what happened in Mark 12 when he was asked about paying taxes to Cesar. Or when the Pharisees got after Jesus about traditions, he replies in Matthew chapter 15, verses 7-9: "You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”
But Nicodemus was not like that. He came to Jesus because he had some burning questions he needed to have answered for the sake of his own soul.
Now Nicodemus was nobody's fool either. He was extremely intelligent, or he would not have been in the high position he was. He didn't care about all of the politics of his peers and their self-serving interests. His concerns were spiritual, and he knew that Jesus could answer what he wanted to know.
Nicodemus had to know that there was something big missing in his life. He had been an expert student in the Holy Scriptures. Through the Scriptures, we know that God the Holy Spirit was at work in his life. He would have known the commandments and how he had not kept them. He knew his sin, despite the self-righteousness the Pharisees claimed for themselves. He knew that God had promised a Saviour that would come into the world. He knew that something had to happen in his life for him to be saved.
When Nicodemus first came to Jesus, he is complimentary toward him. He identifies him as a teacher sent from God, and that he was doing the Lord's work. This is in stark contrast from what the Pharisees said about him in Matthew chapter 12 when he cast the demons from the man. They accused him of having Satanic powers. Nicodemus knew better.
Immediately Jesus cuts to the chase. He knew why Nicodemus had come. So he says in verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And Nicodemus then asks the question in verse 4: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Do you see the element of faith in this question? He doesn't immediately come back with a "that's impossible" retort. Instead, he asks "how?"
Mary, Jesus' mother asks the same question when the Angel Gabriel says that she is going to conceive and bear a son. Mary asks, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" You see, the voice of faith doesn't question or doubt God's ability. Faith asks the question of how it's going to happen.
The whole concept of being "born again," or more literally translated as "born from above," is something that is of God's doing. If we consider our own physical birth, we had no part of it. We didn't choose to be conceived or born. We didn't say, "Well, I want to be part of this household, so I choose this husband and wife to be my parents." It just doesn't work that way. We are a physical product of God working through our parents' procreation. Our role in our birth was a completely passive one.
We have to look at our spiritual rebirth, our being born from above or born again in much the same way. In verse 8 Jesus says, "The wind blows where it wishes, 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.” That's a great analogy.
God the Holy Spirit works through Word and Sacrament. We talked about that last week on Pentecost. In Isaiah chapter 55 verse 11, God reminds us: "...my Word...shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it." And in Hebrews chapter 4, verse 12 we read: "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
God's Word is living and active and working because of the work of the Holy Spirit through that Word. The Holy Spirit creates the faith we need so we can be convicted of our sin, and so we can have a relationship with our Saviour Jesus Christ. Having a simple knowledge of Jesus isn't enough. Even Satan knows who Jesus is. What saves us is the faith that is in our hearts when we are born from above. We know Jesus as our Saviour, and that makes all the difference between knowing him, and having a relationship with him.
I began this morning by talking about condemned buildings. As I think of that old homestead I visited when I was a boy, I can just imagine what it would have been like. Instead of that musty old smell, I think about those mornings when the air in the house was filled with the aroma of bacon, toast, and coffee. I can imagine the voices of the many children in that family. I can think of what it must have been like on Christmas morning. I can think of what the dining room table looked like on Thanksgiving. I can imagine the family gathered around the old radio in the living room. There was life in that house, and now it was ready to be burnt to the ground, where all of those memories would lie there smouldering amongst the ashes.
Nicodemus was able to see his life like that condemned house. He knew that the Pharisees' work righteous answers were empty and meaningless. He was like the condemned building, just waiting for his final demolition. So he came to Jesus to find hope and a new life. He came to Jesus to be born again, born from above.
We have been born just like Nicodemus. We experienced physical birth from our mothers, and now we've experienced a new birth of faith through the Holy Spirit, which brings us right into the forgiving and loving arms of our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Jesus saw us as lost and condemned creatures. He saw us as just empty shells with a huge "condemned" sign hanging on us. When we came to him in faith, in effect he tore that huge red "condemned" sign off of us, and placed it on himself. Then he took that sign we deserve, and he carried it with him all the way to the cross. Our condemnation became his condemnation as he paid the price for your sins, for my sins, and for the sins of the entire world. He paid that price so we would not be condemned any more, but rather be alive, active, and have the hope of eternal life in heaven awaiting us.
In Romans chapter 8, just a few verses before our Epistle reading for today, we read in verses 1-4: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."
In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that in order to be saved, we have to believe in him as our Saviour. We need that relationship with him. In verse 15 we read: "Whoever believes in him shall have eternal life." In verse 16, it's even clearer: "Whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life." And then in verse 17 we read: "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved."
Condemnation is not a pleasant thought at all. It conjures up images of a structure being ready for demolition. But through our faith in Jesus, we will not be condemned or demolished. We have been born like Nicodemus, born again, born from above by the Holy Spirit, giving us the assurance that through Jesus our Saviour, we will never perish, but have eternal life.