Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Conversation in the Night

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

John 3:1-21

Father: When we gather for worship each week, of course, Your Holy Spirit speaks Your Word of Law and Gospel to us. But, in the tradition of the Old Testament psalms and worship as Jesus knew it, we also speak words inspired by Your Spirit: Words of praise and supplication to You and Words of challenge and encouragement to one another. In an old hymn that helps us to speak both to You and to each other, we find these words, “Come home! Come home! You who are weary come home. Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling, 'O sinner, come home.'” Use the words of this sermon today to call not only sinners who feel they’ve wandered from You, their home, but also to encourage we forgiven sinners—the people Your Word calls saints—to call others from the darkness of life without Jesus into the eternal light of heaven. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen

Today we’ll move, verse by verse, through our Gospel lesson. It records a conversation that took place one night between Jesus and Nicodemus. Hopefully, speaking their words aloud together this morning will help bring their conversation to life for us.

Please pull out the special insert and read verse 1 aloud with me:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 
Nicodemus was an important man. If Jesus had been politically correct, He would have buttered Nicodemus up. But Jesus had no interest in being politically correct. Instead, as we read here, His interest in Nicodemus is the same as His interest in all of us: Whether Nicodemus would spend eternity with God or be separated from God in hell. That was the issue that concerned Jesus most!

Let’s read verse 2:
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 
It was risky for Nicodemus to be seen with Jesus. That’s why He came at night. Nicodemus didn’t believe that Jesus was the Word made flesh—God with us. But he did see God working in Jesus and so had gone to see Jesus.

Verse 3
Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 
Here we see that Nicodemus has an agenda. But Jesus has His own agenda! He wants to help Nicodemus (and all of us) to be born into a new life from God.

Verses 4 through 8, please:
Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 
Nicodemus is confused by Jesus’ saying that Nicodemus will remain in the dark, unable to see the kingdom of God, unless He is reborn. Jesus explains that just as fleshy human beings give birth to other fleshy human beings, God’s Holy Spirit can re-create us spiritually.

Jesus then speaks of the wind blowing where it will. What's that all about?

As you know from our Read the Bible in a Year readings of this past week, in Genesis 1:2, we’re told that, in the beginning, a mighty wind or the Spirit of God (depending on your translation of the Bible) moved over chaotic waters and brought life and order and peace into being.

Later, the verb form of the word translated as either wind or Spirit describes the breath of God that entered inanimate dust to make the first human being, Adam. The Hebrew root word in each case is ruach.

Jesus uses a similar word when He talks about wind here. The word in the Greek of the New Testament is pneuma. (Which is the root for common English words like pneumonia or pneumatic brakes.) The same word, pneuma, is used when the New Testament tells us about how God’s Holy Spirit came to bring Christ’s Church to life on Pentecost through a violent wind.

It’s God’s Holy Spirit, bringing the Good News of new life for all who believe in Jesus, blowing where it will, that brings life to us. It happens at the Baptismal font.

We can’t control or direct the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit, Third Person of the Trinity, goes where He will.

This past week, I was talking with a member of the congregation who said that he used to be stymied by people who asked him, “When were you saved?,” expecting him to name a specific time and place when he came to believe in Jesus. “I don’t ever remember not believing in Jesus,” he told me. A friend told him how to answer that question, “When were you saved?” “On a cross outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago. That's when I was saved!"

Our relationship with Jesus Christ is not limited by our experiences. The Wind—the Holy Spirit—blows where He will and if the Spirit makes it possible for you to truthfully believe what we confess in the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, then you can be sure you are saved even if you can’t remember your baptism or the hour you first believed!

Now read verses 9 and 10:
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” 
Nicodemus wonders if the things Jesus speaks of are possible.

Faith entails believing that God can and does and will do what is otherwise impossible.

Some four thousand years before Jesus was born, God spoke to a man named Abraham. Abraham was old, his wife was old, and they were childless. But God challenged Abraham to imagine by faith that he would become the father of nations. The Old Testament says that Abraham believed and God counted Abraham righteous for his belief in the same God you and I know through Jesus Christ.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus is frustrated that Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, can’t believe that God does things that Nicodemus thinks impossible.

Listen, folks: If Christian preachers and teachers cannot affirm...
  • that Jesus was born of a virgin, 
  • that Jesus led a sinless life, 
  • that He physically rose from the dead, 
  • that He ascended into heaven and will one day return to this earth to judge the living and the dead, and 
  • that believers will rise bodily to live with God forever, 
then those preachers and teachers aren’t from God.

You can bet that teachers and preachers like this are as frustrating to Jesus now as they were on the night Nicodemus came to see Him.

Please read verses 11 through 15 with me:
“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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.” 
In verses 14 and 15, Jesus refers to a famous incident in the Old Testament, when, during their wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel were punished by God. Poisonous snakes bit them. Many died. God told Moses to forge a bronze serpent, put it on a pole, hold it aloft, and tell the people to look at it. The serpent, reminiscent of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, reminded the people of their sin. Looking at it represented their confession. Those bitten who looked at the serpent were healed by God.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that, like the bronze serpent, He too will be lifted up—on a cross bearing our sins—and that all who look to Him—believe in Him—will be saved.

Please read verses 16 and 17:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” 
Martin Luther called Jesus' words in John 3:16, “the Gospel in a nutshell.” After humanity fell into sin through Adam and Eve, God didn’t give up on us. He refuses to let any human being go to hell without a fight! He waged that fight—a fight for you and me--ultimately through Jesus Christ.

All who entrust their lives to Christ will have eternal life with God! This is the best news anyone will ever hear!

Let’s read verses 18 through 21:
“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” 
This is the politically incorrect Jesus, the Jesus the first century world crucified, the Jesus that the twenty-first century world, including much of what calls itself His Church, wants to ignore.

Jesus insists that in order for us to be beneficiaries of His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, we must believe in Him.

He must be the sole foundation on which we build our lives.

We condemn ourselves if we refuse to believe in Him.

Jesus says that those who forthrightly come to Him, who—unlike Nicodemus—refuse to skulk in the dark and instead acknowledge their sin and their need of Him for life will live with God forever!

This past week, I met several Lutheran colleagues who just returned from Ethiopia, for a conference attended by 20,000 Ethiopian Lutherans.

The Lutheran Church there—the Mekane Yesus Church—is experiencing incredible growth.

At the same time, it’s experiencing persecution.

There have recently been 57 Lutheran churches or mission stations burned to the ground by radical Jihadists. Thousands of Christians have been displaced or lost their lives.

Yet, the Church still grows.

In fact, one colleague reported walking down a street and seeing 200 people waiting under a tree by a church to be baptized.

They wanted Jesus.

They wanted the life that only Jesus can give.

How does this happen?

Why aren’t 200 previously unchurched people waiting outside of Saint Matthew’s building on Sunday mornings, desperate for the new life that comes from Jesus Christ?

It’s not for a lack of people who need Christ. There are thousands in Hocking County mired in futile lifestyles who don’t know Jesus and who need Him.

Another colleague helped me to see one reason the unchurched and spiritually disconnected aren't waiting by our doors for Baptism and spiritual nourishment: Every member of the Mekane Yesus Church sees the great commission—Jesus’ command that we make disciples—as their own person responsibility.

The Lutherans there are desperate to share Jesus. I can’t always say that’s true of this Lutheran. Maybe you can say the same thing about yourself.

The Ethiopian Lutherans are like Jesus. He looked at Nicodemus, and didn’t see a prominent person to be buttered up (or an unimportant person to be ignored), but a lost soul who, without faith in Him, would go to hell.

Each of us must see the personal responsibility we bear for sharing the Good News with those with whom we work, study, party, play, and live.

God doesn’t want to condemn anyone.

Through Jesus Christ, He wants to save them.

Ask God what you can do to help those around you who live in darkness to see how much they need a Savior and how Jesus and Jesus alone is the Savior they need. Then tell them about Jesus. Remember: Jesus loves them too. Amen

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