by Jeff Lindsay
Three men died and were standing at the Pearly Gates.
Saint Peter asked what have you done to deserve Heaven?
First guy was a police officer. He said I enforced the law, fought crime, you know, cop stuff. Peter said, “okay, go on in.”
Second guy was very wealthy and gave lots of money to charitable causes. Again Peter said, “okay, go on in.”
The third man was the director of an HMO. He told Peter he had helped save millions of dollars for health care and insurance companies. He had helped cut down on waste, fraud, and abuse in the system. So Peter said “okay go on in, but you can only stay for 3 days.”
We have all heard jokes about people showing up at the Pearly Gates seeking entrance into Heaven. While many of these jokes bring a smile to our faces, behind most of them is the notion that WE do something to get into Heaven. Our nature desires something we can do to merit God’s favor and achieve whatever we imagine about heaven.
The backdrop of our passage today describes someone like that – like us – Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a very religious man who had a hard time realizing the difference between religion and relationship.
Nicodemus, decided to pay the teacher Jesus a visit and there has been a lot of questioning raised as to why he went at night.
For whatever reason, Nicodemus goes at night in hopes that Jesus can answer some of his spiritual questions. Maybe you can relate maybe you have come today with questions? Questions about this season and its significance or maybe just a question about what it really means to believe its story. Welcome! I have questions too.
Nicodemus was no ordinary citizen. He was rich. He was respected. He was religious. He had given his life to studying and obeying the Law and traditions. He was a ruler. He really had it all according to His culture. He was a well-respected, admired Jewish citizen that people would have considered a role model.
He also had an interest and deep respect for Jesus. His designation of Jesus as Rabbi shows great admiration for Jesus. Although he is a trained religious ruler and Jesus is just a common man.
To address Jesus with the title “Teacher” reveals Nicodemus’ deep admiration for Jesus. Its as if Nicodemus understands Jesus as his equal?
His words, suggest he recognized Jesus’ ministry as blessed by God. “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him,” he said. He acknowledges the divine presence of God in Jesus. So Nicodemus falls into the category of believer because he believes in Jesus, but that because Jesus did miracles, wasn’t it. Nicodemus admires Jesus but was he a real believer and all that that would mean?
Jesus knows Nicodemus’ heart, so he cuts straight to the heart of the matter of what it means to be a believer when he says: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Jesus knows why Nicodemus has come to Him so he says to him. “If you want to enter God’s kingdom, you must believe and be born again.”
“Born again” is a pretty common expression today but somewhat confusing as to its meaning.
What Jesus is talking about here is a supernatural event. It is perhaps best translated “born from above.”< It is a new beginning, a spiritual new birth, a divine transformation if you will. To be born again is to be made new by the Spirit of God. So it’s not something we do but we invite God to do. Such language and teaching confuses Nicodemus because the religious thought of the day was that all Jews would be admitted to God’s kingdom because of their ethnicity. But Jesus tells Nicodemus, a respected scholar, that he cannot enter God’s kingdom unless he is born again. Nicodemus must rethink all he has known, been taught, and believed. Sometimes we do as well.
Nicodemus responds, “How can a person be born when he is old? We can’t enter our mother’s wombs again!” Jesus is speaking on a spiritual level and Nicodemus is hearing on a physical level. Don’t be silly he says, I can’t be born again!
Jesus clarifies, “Nicodemus, I am speaking of a spiritual birth. Unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, they cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus then further clarifies by saying that the one who is born from above is born of the Spirit. “That which is born of the flesh is fleshly, but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” To be born again, one must be born of the Spirit.
Jesus states that Nicodemus should not be surprised by these words. He should not be shocked that a person must be born from above. He should not be confused by Jesus’ reference to spiritual birth. Just as the wind is unexplainable in many ways, so is the new birth. It is a divine act by God. It’s God that gives this new life. This new birth is a supernatural act that changes people. One can see its effect, but in many ways, not explain it.
Nicodemus is still confused: “How can these things be?” He asks. Jesus answers, “Are you the teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?” You are one of the main guys. You have given your life to the study of spiritual truth, and yet, you cannot comprehend this very basic element of spiritual truth.
So to offer clarity to his point, Jesus turns to a familiar Old Testament story for Nicodemus. He refers to the time God sent venomous snakes into the Israelite’s camp to judge them for their lack of faith. As these snakes began to strike the people, God instructed Moses to make and erect a bronze serpent. All those who looked up at the serpent were saved. Jesus makes the correlation to what He will do on the cross and declares that those who look to Him will be saved as well. “Whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Nicodemus was religious in every sense of the word but didn’t recognize Jesus for who He was or what He would do. Do you?
The important distinction here is that being born again is not about human efforts. It is not about position, popularity, prestige or piety. Its about a personal relationship with God which God initiated in a little manger in Bethlehem and emphasized on the cross in Jerusalem. It is not about religion but about relationship. It is about being born from above. It is about new birth and transformation. It is about spiritual birth that comes only through an acceptance of the gracious invitation from God’s Spirit in Jesus.
This spiritual transformation only takes place when one surrenders their life to Jesus in faith and again, as Jesus explains to Nicodemus, the new birth is a heavenly matter. It is difficult to explain but it can be experienced through God’s grace.
In the 9th chapter of John is the story of a man born blind who cannot explain all of what happened to him. One thing he did know was “once I was blind and now I see.” It is difficult to explain a new birth by the spirit but one knows that, “once I was lost and now I am found. I was blind and now I see.” It’s beyond human explanation. The new birth comes graciously through a relationship between a holy God and a sinful people. How can this be? How can a holy God have a relationship with His lost people?
Did Jesus come in our Advent story so that He might one day be lifted up on the cross and so those who look up, those who believe in Him will experience this transformation and receive eternal life?
There probably is no greater summary of God’s love for creation than our passage for today, John 3:16.
John 3:16 was the verse through which Dwight Moody the famous preacher, evangelist, and missionary, of the middle 1800s learned to appreciate the greatness of God’s love.
Moody had been to Britain in the early days of his ministry and there had met a young English preached named Henry Moorhouse. One day Moorhouse said to Moody, “I am thinking of going to America.”
“Well,” said Moody, “if you should ever get to Chicago, come down to my church and I will give you a chance to preach.”
However, he was merely being polite.
So when Moorhouse showed up in Chicago while Moody was to be out of town. Moody said to his wife and to the leaders of the church, “I think that we should let him preach, once. Let him preach once; then if the people enjoy him, put him on again.”
Moody was gone for a week. When he returned he asked his wife, “How did the young preacher do?”
“Oh, he is a better preacher than you are,” his wife said. “He is telling people that God loves them.
“That is not right,” said Moody. “God does not love sinners.”
“Well,” she said, “you go and hear him.”
“What?” said Moody. “Do you mean to tell me that he is still preaching?”
“Yes, he has been preaching all week, and he has only used one verse as his text, John 3:16.”
Moody went to the meeting. Moorhouse got up and began by saying, “I have been hunting for a text all week, and I have not been able to find a better text than John 3:16. So I think we will just talk about it once more.” He did. Afterward Moody said it was on that night that he first clearly understood the greatness of God’s love, which transformed his famous ministry.
The topic of God’s love that offers this new birth is truly an overwhelming subject to try to fully understand.
That’s why A.W. Tozer, pastor, preacher, and author in the mid 1900s once said, “I can no more do justice to this awesome and wonder-filled topic than a child can grasp a star. Still, by reaching toward the star the child may call attention to it and even indicate the direction one must look to see it. And so, I stretch my heart toward the high, shining love of God so that we may be encouraged to look up and have hope.”
In John 3:16 Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This one verse clarifies our true relationship with God and His love. A love that offers new birth that can and will transform us.
At a comparative religions conference in the 1950s, the wise and the scholarly were in a spirited debate about what is unique about Christianity. Someone suggested what set Christianity apart from other religions was the concept of incarnation, the idea that God took human form in Jesus. But someone quickly said, “Well, actually, other faiths believe that God appears in human form.”
Another suggestion was offered: what about resurrection, the belief that death is not the final word. The declaration that the tomb was found empty. Someone slowly shook their head and said other religions have accounts of people returning from the dead.
Then, as the story is told, the famous author C.S. Lewis walked into the room, tweed jacket, pipe, arm full of papers, a little early for his presentation. He sat down and took in the conversation, which had by now evolved into a fierce debate. Finally during a lull, he spoke saying, “what’s all this rumpus about?”
Everyone turned in his direction. Trying to explain themselves they said, “We’re debating what’s unique about the Christian story.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” answered Lewis. “It’s grace.” God’s unconditional love. The room was silent.
Lewis continued that the Christian faith uniquely claims God’s love comes free, no strings attached. No other religion makes that claim. At the end of the discussion everyone concluded Lewis had a point. Only Christianity dares to proclaim God’s love is unconditional. An unconditional love that we call grace.
Christianity boldly proclaims that grace really has little to do with us, or our inner resolve, or lack there of. Rather, grace is all about God and God freely giving to us His rebirth in the gifts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.
So God’s love for us is unconditional and is something only He can do.
Contemporary author Philip Yancey once wrote: “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more. There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”
In a footnote in the English Standard Version of the Bible is an alternate translation of the first part of John 3:16: where it says, “For this is how God loved the world…”
How did God love us? He loved us by giving, by serving, by sacrificing. So here we learn something important about the nature of true love. We love others often because of what those people do for us or how they make us feel. God shows us that true love has nothing to do with what you can do for God, but everything to do with what God can do for you. That’s what being born again is all about. Being born anew. Transformed by Gods Spirit in love.
Another contemporary author Max Lucado wrote:
“There are many reasons God saves you — or for our discussion today, offers us rebirth — to bring glory to himself, to appease his justice, to demonstrate his sovereignty. But one of the sweetest reasons God saved you is because he is fond of you. He likes having you around. He thinks you are the best thing to come down the pike in quite a while.
If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. If he had a wallet, your photo would be in it. He sends you flowers every spring and a sunrise every morning. Whenever you want to talk, he’ll listen. He can live anywhere in the universe, and he chose your heart. And the Christmas gift he sent you in Bethlehem? Face it, friend. He’s crazy about you!”
Years ago when I worked at First Presbyterian Church of South Saint Paul I was helping with Vacation Bible School when the Children’s Director asked the kids if anyone could quote John 3:16, She was looking for the KJV “For God so loved the world He sent His only begotten Son that whosoever would believe in Him should not parish but have eternal life”. A little girl raised her hand and said, “I know that one!”
As this sweet child quoted the passage the director and I tried not to laugh. The child misquoted it and said, “his only forgotten Son.” It was one of those oops, misquotes, that carried more truth than we would like to admit.
May we remember in this Advent season what God has done in Jesus and avail ourselves to the spiritual rebirth He alone can do.