Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Sermon for December 29 - John 3:1-16 "The New Birth"

Read  -  John 3:1-16
Imagine this scene.  It is night time.  Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a religious ruler and teacher, comes to talk to Jesus while it is dark. 
Boys and girls, why would someone sneak over to visit when it is dark?  Why didn’t Nicodemus come to talk with Jesus in the day time? 
-          Maybe because he doesn’t want anyone to recognize him, or to see that he is going to talk with Jesus. 
Most of the Pharisees didn’t like Jesus or the message he was teaching.  Most of them didn’t believe that Jesus was God’s Son, the Messiah.  But it seems like Nicodemus is interested in Jesus and his message.  Nicodemus thinks the miracles Jesus is doing might be signs which show that God is with Jesus in a powerful way. 
We know from later in John’s gospel that Nicodemus is sympathetic to Jesus. 
In Jn. 7 when the religious authorities want to arrest Jesus, Nicodemus reminds them that the law requires a fair hearing and a fair judgment Jesus’ actions. 
In Jn. 19, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea, who is a disciple of Jesus secretly because he is afraid of the religious leaders, and Nicodemus, take Jesus’ body and prepare it for burial (here it doesn’t mention that Nicodemus is a secret disciple).
It seems like here in Jn. 3, Nicodemus is drawn to Jesus and wants to know more about his teaching, but he is afraid that certain people might see him with Jesus. 
Jesus tells Nicodemus something that sounds very strange:  he says that to become one of God’s true children, you need to be “born again.”  At least it sounded strange to Nicodemus. 
Nicodemus doesn’t understand Jesus.  He asks Jesus how an old man like him can get into his mother’s womb to be born a second time.  Even you girls and boys know that can’t happen, right?
Jesus says, “that’s not what I am talking about, Nicodemus.”  Jesus explains that to be “born again” means that God makes us into new people, into his own children; that God gives us new hearts. 

Well, let’s get right to the point of what Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about.  We are going to look at what Jesus means when he says that to enter the kingdom of God, a person must be born again.  

**  We are going to look at what it means to be ‘born again’ in terms how our passage speaks of the three persons of the Trinity –  God the Holy Spirit, God the Son, and God the Father.  **

So…. Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus by night to speak with him. 
v.2:  Nicodemus says to Jesus, “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs unless God is with him.”  Nicodemus recognized that God was with Jesus, but not that Jesus was God-with-us.  Jesus is Immanuel, God in the flesh, come to dwell among us and bring salvation to a world lost in darkness. 
Jn. 1 tells us that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:1, 14). 
v. 3:  Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter: he says that “unless one is born again they cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Nicodemus doesn’t understand what it means to be born again. 
Let’s look at Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus……

1)  First, lets look at what Jesus says to Nicodemus about the Holy Spirit.
The term “born again” can also mean “born from above”.  I think it has this double sense here.  To be born again is to experience heavenly birth, spiritual birth, a rebirth from above.
It is through a special work of God’s Spirit that someone can enter God’s kingdom, or become part of God’s family. 
As Calvin says, by ‘born again’ Jesus “means not the amendment of a part but the renewal of the whole nature” since every part of us is affected by sin.  It is not merely a case of thinking new thoughts, or of doing new actions.  To become part of God’s family, to enter God’s kingdom, one must be given new life by the Holy Spirit. 
In v. 5, Jesus uses different language for being born again: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” 
Being “born of water” probably means several things here, including baptism and baptism’s relationship with repentance.  But most importantly, if we look at Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in the next chapter (Jn. 4), he tells her of living water that he gives.  If someone drinks his living water, it will “become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).  The water Jesus gives is a metaphor for new life of the Spirit, new life in God by the Spirit.
The language of being born of water and of the Spirit comes from Ezek. 36:25-27.
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you….
This passage comes right before Ezekiel 37, which is one of the OT’s most powerful images of re-birth and new life.  There God tells the prophet Ezekiel to preach to a valley full of dry bones, and as he preaches the bones become living people once more.  God tells Ezekiel that someday he will send a servant-king of David’s line who will accomplish this kind of regeneration, who will shepherd God’s people, and through whom God will dwell among his people forever.
So, taken together, being “born of water and of the Spirit” means to be born again to new life by a miraculous work of God’s Spirit; it means the life-giving Spirit dwelling inside a person, graciously given by God through Christ, and not attainable through any human effort.
It is good to remember here that baptism, because it is a sacrament, commanded by God and not an optional statement that some serious Christians make about their personal commitment to Jesus, is not a work but part of the grace of God in the process of the new birth.  It is ineffective without faith, which is itself a gift of God, but it isn’t a human work.  It is a gracious work of God.
Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:50 that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”  Jesus explains “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v.6). 
Jesus uses the imagery of wind to describe being born again by the work of the Spirit:
We can witness the effects of the wind, but we can’t see it.  So it is with the Spirit:  we can witness the effects of the new birth – people go from spiritual death to life and their lives are different (Jn. 3:21).  But because it is a work of the Spirit, like the wind, it is not something we can predict or control. 
This is the Spirit’s part in new birth. 
Ø  Is this new life something you have experienced?  Do you think being ‘born again’ is only for radicals?  Jesus says that unless someone is born again, they cannot enter the God’s kingdom, God’s family.

2)  Second, lets look at the work of the Son in the new birth.
v. 9-10:  Nicodemus asks how these things can be.  He is a teacher of Israel, but he doesn’t understand Jesus.  It is here we see the Son’s work in the new birth.
In vv. 11-13 Jesus says that he knows what he is talking about because he himself comes from heaven.  Jesus is God the Son, the Word made flesh as John ch. 1 puts it.  Jesus is the Son of Man, who has descended to earth in order to do the work which makes the new birth possible. 
v. 14 Jesus recalls a story from Numbers 21: 
After God freed Israel from slavery in Egypt, Israel grumbled against God.  God sends poisonous serpents among the people.  Some people are bitten and die.  The rest of the people repent of their grumbling and cry out to God for mercy.  God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and raise it up on a pole, so that whoever is bitten may look to the bronze serpent in faith and live. 
v. 15:  Jesus says that just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness and all who looked to it were saved, so also the Son of Man must be lifted up so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life”. 
* Jesus is talking about the cross.  This is the Son’s role in the new birth. *
He gives “his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28).  He makes atonement for the sins of all those “who like sheep have gone astray and turned each one to their own way” (Is. 53:6).  Jesus came to pay the penalty for our sin by his death on the cross, so “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (v. 15). 
The bronze snake was a symbol of the judgement of sinful Israel, a bronze rendering of God’s wrath against sin.  And Jesus became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21), and in our place received the penalty that our sin deserved when he was lifted up on the cross.
It is this belief in Jesus that Jn. 1 speaks of when it says that “to all who did receive him, to all who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of human will, but of God” (vv. 12-13). 
This is the Son’s part in the new birth. 
“Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
Ø  Can you say that you have looked to the Son of Man as he is revealed to us as lifted up on the cross for the sins of the world…..for your own sin?  Can you say that you continue to look to the cross of Christ, daily, and trust in Christ’s own sacrificial giving of himself “for us and for our salvation”? 

3)  Now for the Father’s part in the new birth. 
v. 16 is perhaps the most famous verse in the NT.  Like many of you, it was one of the first passages of Scripture I ever memorized.  We had it on a wooden plaque in our home when I was a kid.  It speaks of God’s love for the world, a love so deep that the Father gave his Son to accomplish salvation by his death on our behalf.
This interpretation of Jn. 3:16 has fallen on hard times lately.  What kind of a loving Father would send his innocent Son to die in the place of the guilty?  Some say this isn’t a demonstration of love; it is divine child abuse. 
But this criticism can only come from a faulty view of the Trinity.  When the Father, out of his great love for the world, sends the Son, the Son for his part, out of that same love, willingly offers himself to make atonement for sin. 
The Son says, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:18). 
It is important to remember that the love of God the Father for the world is also the love of God the Son and God the Holy Spirit for the world.  Their love is one, for they are one God. 
When one person of the Trinity acts for our salvation, all the triune persons act together.
v. 17-18 tell us that in his great love, the Father sent Jesus not to condemn the world but to save the world from the condemnation that it was already under due to sin, rebellion against God, and alienation from God.  It tells us that any who reject God’s Messiah, Jesus, remain under that condemnation because they refuse and reject God’s Rescuer, who is himself God come in the flesh.
This is the Father’s loving part in the new birth.
Ø  Do you view the Father as the cranky person of the Trinity?  As a God of wrath and judgement, whereas Jesus, the Son, is the loving one?  Do you need to readjust your understanding of God?  Further, do you know God’s love personally?  Do you see yourself as an adherent to correct Christian doctrine and moralse, or do you know yourself even more fundamentally to be a child of God the Father, your Father, beloved by God?
Conclusion:  To wrap up…..
God’s triune wisdom planned our salvation, and then his triune action accomplished salvation. 
The language in each collect we pray throughout Advent and Christmas is trinitarian.  However, none more overtly so than today’s.  In our collect today, we thank the Father for giving his only-begotten Son, born in flesh, so that we might be born of the Spirit, “born again and made God’s children by adoption and grace.”  And we pray for daily renewal by the Holy Spirit for those who are born again. 
Because of the Father’s great love, whoever believes in the Son should not perish but have eternal life through the Spirit.

Let us pray our collect together again (Dec. 29):
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honour and glory, now and for ever.  Amen. 

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