Text: John 3:1-17
Date: Lent II + 3/20/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Welcome to St. John’s Gospel and to the Lenten road to discipleship. That, above all, is the goal of both as the Apostle and Evangelist stated his purpose in penning his account of the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, when he says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31). These words have the ability and power to create saving faith in your heart. “So that you may believe” is the purpose and the goal of John’s Gospel and of the season of Lent. For believing, the creation of saving faith in the heart, is what makes you a disciple, a learner, a follower of the Way, a member of the body of Christ, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church throughout the world. Furthermore, that faith is not something you can conjure up or define on your own. It is the gift of God given through the Holy Spirit’s work through the means of grace, these Words preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution.
Each Sunday during this Lent we hear those texts that have been used by the Church from ancient times to bring those desiring to become Christians through the training of the catechumenate to the reception of the sacrament of Holy Baptism at the Easter Vigil and the fellowship in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. It began last Sunday with our Lord’s temptation in the desert wilderness and His victory over or binding of the devil. The first step in coming to faith in Christ is recognizing temptation and sin, admitting sin, confessing sin, repentance of sin. This Sunday our Roman Catholic friends strangely hear the account of the Transfiguration, while we have the next step to conversion in John’s Gospel, the meeting of Jesus with Nicodemus the Pharisee (though we both share the same Old Testament reading from Genesis 12). After this we all will hear the extended accounts of the Samaritan woman at the well and the living water (John 4), the giving of sight to a man born blind (John 9), and the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11). All of these images of desert, water, light, death and resurrection then combine in the Great and Holy Week where baptismal water and the light of Christ bring us to the death of repentance and the resurrection of faith, so that “by believing we may have life in His name.”
The story of Nicodemus addresses the spiritual darkness out of which the Gospel of Christ calls all men. Nicodemus, an otherwise pretty important man in the community being a member of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus by the dark of night. We know innately even without the truth of scripture as it says right after today’s Gospel that sinful man “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (Jn 3:19). So this little detail has more significance. At any rate Nicodemus obviously did not want his fellow Pharisees to know that he was seeking to speak with Jesus. And how many people today resist the call of the Gospel, avoid checking out the Church simply because they are too embarrassed to be seen there? The darkness of sin really has a hold on us.
Furthermore, because of our spiritual ignorance or darkness, even when we approach God in His Church or in His Word, we don’t know what questions to ask. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night and admits that he and all his friends “know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him;” an indictment, by the way, of their evil opposition to Jesus from the very beginning. But notice Nicodemus didn’t ask a question. And Jesus doesn’t wait for a question but directs the conversation to the important issues. The Lenten catechumenate, likewise, supplies you with the right questions, the questions aimed at faith. Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Coming to saving faith begins with the first step of repentance. But repentance is only the first step. Admitting temptation and sin is one thing. Now, what to do about it? Adam and Eve did the only natural thing. They hid themselves in the bushes making some cheap, disposable underwear out of fig leaves. So the first thing our fallen nature thinks to do about sin is … hide! cover up! Deny it. Pretend it doesn’t exist. But that, after all, doesn’t work, for “the wages of sin is death.” Dressing or covering up death doesn’t make it go away. Neither can any work or plan to pay those wages with anything else but death. No amount of supposed good works can pay off the debt. This is part of what Jesus means by being born again. For to be born a second time implies that the first birth has died.
Nicodemus was flummoxed. He wasn’t stupid. He was just stuck in spiritual darkness. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Fair question. The answer is obviously not the redoing of the first birth. Jesus says it is a spiritual rebirth, “spiritual” not meaning unreal or imaginary or symbolic but given new birth by God the Holy Spirit. And Jesus says it takes not only the Spirit but also water, because God means this new birth to be for both body and soul, without which you become either like an angel or merely an animal. Jesus has commanded His Church to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching….” That’s our goal on this Lenten journey, the possession or renewal of the baptismal faith as the light and the Word of the Easter Vigil lead us to the baptismal pool of God’s mercy. “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Guess what? Nicodemus still remained bewildered and confused. “How can these things be?” Notice that Jesus, in answer, however, doesn’t go into detail explaining how baptism or even the new birth works but calls for simple faith as He lays out the big plan, saying, “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.” As silly or mysterious (depending on your point of view) was that model serpent on a stick in Moses’ day, so the ultimate meaning and substance of baptism, new birth and faith is the crucified Christ, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
I shouldn’t suppose (should I?) that Nicodemus thought the “lifting up of the Son of Man” would mean the literal nailing and raising of the Savior on a cross. Yet despite his initial ignorance we will see him speak up in Jesus’ defense (Jn 7:50-51) and help ol’ Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a proper burial (Jn 19:39-40). It would seem that the Holy Spirit was working saving faith in his heart even before he approached Jesus that first dark night or even understood fully what Jesus was saying.
Neither is faith impossible for you. For faith is not the same as knowledge or understanding. Faith is being drawn to the Savior, listening to the Savior, believing and trusting in the Savior even and maybe especially when you don’t understand everything else that is going on. It is hearing the Word simply because the Father says, “Listen to Him.” It is being baptized simply because Christ has commanded it. It is believing in Christ simply because that’s what faith does. It is living in love simply because the Spirit bears fruit. And so it will be on the Last Day, the Eternal Day, “that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Christ leads (us) through no darker rooms
Than He went through before;
He that unto God’s kingdom comes
Must enter by this door.
Then the “chorus of Nicodemus” (if you will):
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ‘tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him. (LSB 757:3, 6)
To Nicodemus, as to the thief on the cross, and to all whose faith seems weak, and to you is the promise, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).