It’s not always easy to be a believer in Jesus. In fact, it’s not always easy simply to be an inquirer. Ask Nicodemus. He was both a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, presumably a member of the Sanhedrin, which put him in a position where meeting privately with Jesus definitely was not a good idea. I love this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus because it’s so completely human. Nicodemus was bright, theologically trained, and held an esteemed leadership position among the Palestinian Jews living under Roman control. There was something about the Person, teaching and signs of Jesus that had caught his attention, and he wanted to learn more. The very fact that he came to Jesus under cover of darkness reveals that he was being cautious. I think this may be the reason that John the Evangelist found this story rivetingly appropriate for inclusion near the beginning of his gospel, where Jesus as the true Light coming into a world of spiritual darkness is a central theme both in his prologue and in chapter 9 where Jesus restores sight to the man born blind.
We hear from Nicodemus two more times in John’s gospel, and he seems gradually to have become more open in his response to Jesus. The next time is an occasion when the chief priests and the Pharisees are questioning the officers, including Nicodemus, as to why they had not seized the opportunity to arrest Jesus while He was preaching in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, or Succoth. When the officers collectively respond, “Never did a man speak the way this Man speaks” the Pharisees ask, “You have not also been led astray, have you?” Then Nicodemus speaks up in a way that’s risky if not yet quite committal. He asks, “Does our law judge a man unless it first hears him and knows what he is doing?” The Pharisees respond, “You are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee” (John 7:45-52).
The third and last time we find Nicodemus in John’s gospel, it seems clear that he has made up his mind about Jesus. He joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of the crucified Christ for burial in Joseph’s tomb. John tells us that Joseph had been a closet disciple of Jesus out of fear of the Jews, and he reminds us that this is the same Nicodemus who first had come to Jesus by night (John 19:38-42).
Returning to that nocturnal visit, we find Nicodemus testifying to Jesus that “no one can do the signs that You do unless You have come from God and God is with You” (3:2). Jesus’ response is enigmatic and inscrutable, and we who have heard about being “born again” all our lives need to have a lot of sympathy for Nicodemus who had never heard such a statement from anyone. All that follows in the conversation and in John’s recounting of it is bathed in mystery, which is precisely the point! We only understand any of it by enlightened hindsight, and even then we have to admit that there’s little here that’s self-explanatory. How can anyone be “born again?” And what does this rebirth entail? Nicodemus asks, “Can a man enter his mother’s womb a second time?” And even though Jesus offers an explanation, He leaves the perplexed Nicodemus asking, “How can these things be?”
Jesus’ answer is that we must be born both of water and of the Spirit in order either to see or to enter the Kingdom of God. What can that possibly mean? And Jesus likens being born of the Spirit to the movement of the wind, something that remained mysterious to any first-century person who did not have the option to watch the Weather Channel. The earth turns and air masses of varying temperatures collide and unstable barometric pressure brews storms and so on. I took earth science both in high school and in college, and I watch Groundhog Day annually, and I still puzzle over wind. It happens that in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, the words for “wind” and “spirit” are one and the same, and Jesus’ play on words might have helped Nicodemus to follow more closely what He was saying. In any case, Jesus leaves off with the wind analogy and moves right on without further explanation. Frankly I find that more comforting than puzzling. But I puzzle much more over being born of both water and the Spirit.
Being born of water may refer to natural human birth, which of course is attended by water. Some have suggested that embedded here is a forward-looking reference to baptism, but that would have been way over Nicodemus’ head (pun intended). It’s also possible that Jesus is rolling together being born of water and the Spirit as being the same thing, something Nicodemus might have understood from both OT and rabbinic writings where water symbolizes the cleansing presence of God’s spirit.
When Jesus speaks in terms of being born again, He defines this as a matter of being born of the Spirit. He actually suggests that Nicodemus as “a teacher of Israel” ought to understand what He means. At this point I would have been squirming if I had been Nicodemus. I said a bit ago that we understand what Jesus means by virtue of our “enlightened hindsight,” but do we really? There’s an element of mystery that accompanies much in the way of spiritual truth. St. John Chrysostom, an early Church Father so highly regarded that he was declared a Doctor of the Eastern Church, wrote extensively and somewhat repetitively against our effort to insert human reason into our acceptance of divine operation and divinely revealed truth. He certainly did not mean to throw in the towel in every area of theological inquiry, and he never did that himself. But he clearly intended that we also should leave plenty of room for mystery.
Accepting the element of mystery in our faith does not mean we’re to shrug our shoulders and offer our personal equivalent of “whatever!” Clearly Jesus thought that what He was saying to Nicodemus was of paramount importance. And so did John the Evangelist, as he works his way to what has become the best-known verse in the entire New Testament. Those who dismiss so fundamental a matter as being born of the Spirit have every right to question whether in fact they ever have been “born again.” And without that step of faith, Jesus suggests that our fate might be like that of the Israelites who, apart from looking up at the serpent raised by Moses in the wilderness, were doomed to perish from the deadly bites of the fiery serpents. For us, looking up to Jesus is our path to gaining eternal life.
Am I leaving you in suspense? I hope so, yet I sincerely hope not. Everyone who presumes to be a follower of Jesus and to have been born again by the Spirit must have some experiential understanding of just what that means. To experience it does not mean that one can write a doctoral dissertation on the subject. That’s precisely the point Jesus is making about the wind. My earth science courses did not qualify me to be a professional meteorologist. And my seminary education did not qualify me to define precisely what it means to be born again, or I would have done that by now.
But that’s the single point of my sermon this morning. “You must be born again” is not just the refrain of a gospel hymn; it’s verbatim what Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 7. And spiritual rebirth of the sort Jesus is demanding is not automatically covered by baptism. It’s a personal faith encounter with Jesus Christ of the sort into which He Himself was leading Nicodemus as an earnestly inquiring ruler of the Jews. The more we try to define it, the less likely we may be to experience it. Without being born again, we cannot hope for eternal life. And spiritual rebirth carries with it a commitment not only to come to Jesus under cover of darkness, but to follow and obey the One Who is the Light of the World and Who challenges us to be the same (Matthew 5:14).
Our Gospel reading stops several verses too soon and easily can leave us with a warm-fuzzy confidence that’s perilously misplaced. In our day, this is where the passage ends for many who profess to be Christians. Their favorite verse is not John 3:16, but John 3:17: “For God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” That’s a wonderful sounding slogan of the “I’m okay, you’re okay” variety. It even suggests universalism. But it’s not by any means the end of this passage. Listen carefully to the verses that immediately follow John 3:17:
18 He who believes in Him is not condemned. He who does not believe has been condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
John ends chapter 3 with this summary statement: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (3:36). What’s being said here? It’s that something more is required than being baptized and attending church services faithfully. That “something more” requires a conscious stepping into the Light of Christ, looking up to Him on His Cross just as those Israelites who were saved had to look up to the serpent that Moses had raised up. Again, while John 3:16 speaks only of believing in Jesus, John also says it is the one who practices the truth who comes to the Light, and he concludes with the statement that “he who does not obey the Son will not see life” (3:21, 36).
Whatever it means to be born of the Spirit, it means a change of life. It means entering into a life of obedience to the ways of God’s Son. It does not mean simply trying to avoid the most heinous sins or trying to be a generally good person with a clear conscience. It means turning away altogether from the life that issues from only being born of water to the life that issues from spiritual rebirth. It means not only coming to hear God’s word, but also letting one’s life be so changed by it and challenged by it that obedience is the only possible response. It means that when we hear the words, “Be swift to love, make haste to be kind and go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” we should be reaffirming the commitment we have made to the One Who gave His life for us and calls us to obey His voice. It means that we are going forth from this place of worship to practice and proclaim God’s truth as revealed to us in the Person of His Son.
Listen to these words of exhortation from the author of Hebrews: “Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:12-15a).
Yes, there definitely is such a thing as the hardened, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God. And yes, such hearts can be found in our neighborhoods, in our families, and even in our churches. May it be that such a heart will not be found in ourselves. The judgment is not our own, the condemnation is not pronounced by us, but it is clear in the message of God’s word this morning: “he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
At the same time, God be praised, the gospel message is one of hope and assurance that God stands ever ready at all times and in all places to hear our repentant hearts, to listen to our confession, and to heal all our diseases as we lay our sins on Him. The only thing that’s required of us is that we accept the once-for-all work of Christ on the Cross, and fall on our knees before Him in faith, saying with confidence and with obedient hearts, “Yes, ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’”
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night as an inquirer. Jesus, the Light of the World, accepted him just as he was. He spoke to him the words of life and Nicodemus, whether or not he immediately and fully understood everything that Jesus was saying to him, went away as a changed man. Jesus stands ready today to meet each one of you wherever it may be that you find yourselves on your faith journeys. If you’ve been an outsider looking in, now is the time for you to take the step of complete commitment, to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, to follow Him in obedience and to hold fast to your faith, “firm until the end.” We have today. Procrastination is a risky choice. Coming to Jesus is always the right choice. “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”
This morning we are going to do something very Lenten if not quite liturgically correct: we will affirm our repentant hearts and our readiness to accept Jesus, by faith, while we sing the familiar hymn, “Just As I Am Without One Plea.” And as you sing it and come to terms once again with its words, I ask you to open your hearts in a way you may never have done before and say to Jesus Christ, “O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”