8 March 2020†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ††††††††††† ††††††††††† St. Athanasius Lutheran Church
Lent 2†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Vienna, VA
ďA Sit-down with JesusĒ
Text: John 3:1-17
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
What if you got a sit-down with Jesus? You won a contest or a drawing for a night with Jesus. Just you and Him, one-on-one, no interruptions. What would you say? What would you ask? Iíve heard Christians - some of you - say things youíd like to ask Jesus when you get to heaven. We have so many questions.
Well Nicodemus got such a sit-down. Just Him and Jesus, one-on-one. And thatís quite remarkable, isnít it? We have a God who sits and talks with people. How often does that happen today? We who are too busy to squeeze much into our busy schedules. And surely God is busier than we are! Surely He has more important things to do than sit down and talk with a Pharisee. Yet there He is. And Iím sure Nicodemus has a lot of questions teed up and ready to ask Jesus, just as we do.
But Nicodemus never gets a chance to ask! He barely gets through His opening comment about Jesus being a teacher come from God and that no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with you when Jesus seems to interrupt him. And the point is clear: Jesus isnít going to tell Nicodemus what he wants to know, but what he needs to know. For the answers to what Nicodeums - and we - want to know may satisfy our intellectual curiosity; but what we need to know is what saves us. And Jesus didnít come to satisfy our curiosity and answer all the questions we have - He came to save us. To save us by going to the cross. So Jesus is going to take Nicodemus to the cross.
And the first step to do that is to teach Nicodemus that he canít do it - something that no Pharisee would believe on his own. Because the Pharisees were all about knowing the Law and keeping the Law; being the best that they could be. And they were very good at it. And the people of that day looked up to the Pharisees and thought that surely, if anyone was good, if anyone was pleasing to God, if anyone deserved to be saved, it was the Pharisees.
So step one: Jesus blows that out of the water. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Itís a great line! And the meaning is unmistakeable. Because you have nothing to do with being born. It wasnít your idea. You didnít decide to be born. You didnít pick your parents. In fact, babies sometimes donít want to come out of the womb and have to be forced out! No, being born is just something that happens to you. And so it will be with the kingdom of God. If you want to see it, if you want to be there, you canít do it, you canít achieve it - God must do it. You must be born all over again. Born into life in this kingdom.
Well, Nicodemus is flummoxed. This kind of thinking is the exact 180 degree opposite of the way a Pharisee thinks. A Pharisee whose identity is all about doing and achieving. In fact, so ridiculous is this to Nicodemus that he asks Jesus a ridiculous question about it - taking Jesusí words to an absurd extreme. How can someone crawl back up into his motherís womb for this to happen? How am I supposed to do this? How am I to achieve such a thing, Jesus? Nicodemus is still focused on what he is to do.
So Jesus tells him again. But a little differently this time. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That is, itís not about your mother, Nicodemus. Itís about the Spirit. You donít do it, the Spirit does. This is a new kind of birth, Nicodemus. A spiritual one. You may be a child of Abraham by your natural birth, by your maternal birth. But you are a child of God by spiritual birth, a second birth, a new birth. Born again with a new life and a new name and a new identity.
Now if you were a first or second century Christian hearing these words of John read, you would recognize that this is exactly what happened to you in baptism. This is (kind of) Johnís Great Commission. Go and make disciples of all nations. How? Baptizing them and teaching them. Give them this new birth of the Spirit, and teach them about it. And realize thatís who you are - whatever century you live in. A child of God. A child who doesnít do but receives everything - your life, your identity - from God. And so it must be. If you try to do it or achieve it yourself, you will fail. This birth is the work of the Spirit alone. The Spirit who comes through water and the Word.
Well, Nicodemus is like the baby in the womb that doesnít want to come out! This is so foreign to the way he is used to thinking; that he doesnít want to come out of. And many people today are the same way, and try to stay in the world they know, the world of what they do, rather than be born into a new world and a new life. So, Nicodemus asks, how can this possibly be true?How can these things be? And I wonder: did Nicodemus ask that mockingly, like he didnít believe it, or earnestly, like he wanted to?
Either way, Jesus is now ready to move on the second step of Nicodemusí education. Nicodemus is having a hard time wrapping his head around heavenly things, so Jesus reminds him of an earthly thing . . . Remember that story from Israelís time in the wilderness, Nicodemus? You know, the one you learned in Sabbath School when the serpents were biting the people of Israel and the people were dying? What happened? The people couldnít save themselves, could they? But God could. And did. He told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. Lift it high up so everyone could see it. And God attached His Word and promise to that bronze serpent on the pole - a Word and promise for Moses to shout to all the people. To save them. That if you got bit, all you had to do was look at that bronze serpent lifted high and you wouldnít die. You would live. God provided a way of life. A way to live. You loved that story growing up, didnít you Nicodemus?
Well that story is going to happen now. The real thing. For that story from so many years ago was great, and a lot of people were saved. But Nicodemus, you ainít seen nothing yet! Because that was just the shadow of the real thing. Yes it really and truly happened,† but it was also pointing to something even bigger and greater that was going to happen. Because just 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. That whoever is bitten by satan and injected with the venom of sin and cannot save themselves, thereís a way. To life. Nothing you do, just as there was nothing those people in the wilderness could do. Just look in faith at the one God was going to lift up.
And Nicodemus, it wonít be just a man lifted up, but the very Son of God!
Because Nicodemus, God isnít about you doing it - you canít. All you can do is die from your bite, your sin. But God could then, and God can now. Because He loves you. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. Thatís what itís all about Nicodemus. Thatís what Iím all about.
We donít hear anything else from Nicodemus. No rebuttal. No objection. Nothing. Stunned silence, I suppose, at such words. Such astonishing words. That if he were to be saved, it wasnít anything he could do. Was it really not enough being a descendant of Abraham? Did he really need to be born again? Was he really just a newborn and not an accomplished Pharisee? Was it really all about seeing the Son of God lifted up on the cross? Was the Exodus really happening again - only bigger? Not an exodus from Egypt, but from sin and death? Nicodemus had started by saying that no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with him. But truly, no one could speak these words that you do unless . . . Could it be?
Nicodemus didnít get all his questions answered that night. In fact, he may have left with more than he came with! He didnít get what he wanted to know, but he did get what he needed to know.
And he would see the Son of God lifted up on the cross. In fact, he would not only see him there, Nicodemus helped Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross and place Him in the tomb. Did he know? Did he believe? Iíd like to think so . . . just as Iíd like to think that those who do not now believe will before it is too late. I pray so.
But this season of Lent isnít about what happened to Nicodemus, but what happens to you. Because God didnít just so love the world - He loves you. And He sent His Son for you. And He baptized you. And He preaches to you. And He feeds you. And He bids you to find your life in Him. In His Words and promises. In His forgiveness as the anti-venin to sin and death.
Lent is about realizing how we have been trying to save ourselves, even though we know better. Or ought to. How weíve been trying to be grown-up Christians instead of newborns. Looking at what we do, rather than what Jesus has done for us.
Lent is about repenting of ourselves and our wanting - or demanding - all the answers, and believing the Words and promises of God. That what Jesus spoke that night to Nicodemus is true for us today. That the Son of Man, the Son of God, was lifted up on the cross for us, that whoever believes in Him may have a life that is eternal. A life that doesnít end with death, but goes on. Past the grave. Through the grave. Because He when through the grave to life again. And so He raises us as well. From the dust of death. A real exodus, from a real wilderness, to a real promised land.
Lent is about looking to that cross again, and seeing our life in Jesusí death. That just as God used a serpent on a pole to save from serpentsí bites, so He used death on the cross to save us from death. Look there, He says, and see your salvation. Your saving.
So maybe you have a lot of questions youíd like to ask God. Have a sit down with Him, one-on-one. But Iím not sure youíd get all the answers you want to know. I think, instead, Jesus would tell you what you need to know.
That when He baptized you, you were born again of water and the Spirit.
That when He absolves you, your sins really are forgiven and the venom of sin and death in you counteracted.
That when He gives you His Body and Blood, thatís the very same Body that Nicodemus helped lift down from the cross, and the very same Blood that stained his clothes that day, but now risen from the grave Nicodemus laid Him in and given to you for forgiveness and life.
That when He was on that cross, He was there for you, with your sin, and happy that it was on Him and not on you. Because He came then and He comes now not to condemn you, but to save you. So look to Him and live. You canít do it, but He can. And did. For you.
So when the devil bites, when death stings, when sin comes bursting out of you, or crashing down upon you, when your mind is filled with questions and your heart is filled with doubts, when you are troubled, when your sin and failure seems too much to forgive, when the cares and fears of this world seem too much, when sorrows seem to be your daily bread, when evil seems to be winning and there seems to be no end in sight, when you think you canít go on . . . look at the cross, the Son of God lifted up for you. There is the atonement for your sin. There is your deathís death. There is the defanging of the devil. So there is the promise of life for you. For God so loved. . . you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.