Unless…

Mighty God, may we come to know your glory, as we listen to your holy word.

Loving Christ, may we be born again with you, as we listen to your holy word.

Living Spirit, may we claim our inheritance as children of God, as we listen to your holy word, Three-In-One, transform us by your word this day. Amen.

John 3:1-17

Jesus and Nicodemus

3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”

Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”

10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

“Unless…”

Jesus said, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”

Jesus said, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the spirit, it’s not possible to enter the kingdom of God.”

When Jesus assures us of something — we better pay attention.  And just like Nicodemus, we ask what does it mean to be born anew? What does it mean to be born of water and the spirit?

Nicodemus is a very interesting character.  I think if we look at the life and actions of Nicodemus, we have a wonderful example of what being born anew means and what that looks like.  Today’s scripture says that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a Jewish leader, and he had an impressive resume.  The Pharisees were the Jewish men who were set apart and who pledged to spend all their lives observing every detail of the Jewish law. The law is the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Jewish people believed that a perfect life would consist of following the law of God to a “t” – without any variation.  But as the faith Jewish developed, the belief became that it wasn’t enough for the people to simply follow God’s basic law, rather regulations were created for every kind of situation that might come up in life.  And so regulation upon regulation were created regarding working on the Sabbath and eating certain foods in a certain way and all kinds of minute details about every aspect of life.  For instance, the Bible simply says to keep the Sabbath holy and to not work on the Sabbath.  But William Barclay says that “not content with that, the later Jews spent hour after hour and generation after generation defining what work is and listing the things that may and may not be done on the Sabbath day.” (Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible  Series: John, p. 121).

The extent of these rules was so excessive that this was the kind of thing they did according to Barclay.

“To tie a knot on the Sabbath was considered work.  But then a knot had to be defined.  The following are the knots the making of which renders a man guilty: the knot of camel drivers and that of sailors; and as one is guilty by reason of tying them, so also of untying them.  On the other hand knots which could be tied or untied with one hand were quite legal.  Further, a woman may tie up a string in her [dress] and the strings of her cap and those of her girdle, the straps of shoes or sandals, or skins of wine and oil.”  (Barclay, p. 121).

So here is what happened, Barclay says: “Suppose a man wished to let down a bucket into a well to draw water on the Sabbath day.  He could not tie a rope to it, for a knot on a rope was illegal on the Sabbath; but he could tie it to a woman’s girdle and let it down, for a knot in a girdle was quite legal.  That was the kind of thing which to the scribe and Pharisees was a matter of life and death; that was religion [to them]; that was pleasing to God.”  (Barclay, p. 121-122.)

A whole set of laws about tying and untying knots.  And that is just one little part of the law developed by the Pharisees.  The Pharisees’ entire lives were devoted to studying the law and seeking to follow the law with every thought and action.  But Nicodemus wasn’t just an ordinary Pharisee – he was a leader of the Pharisees – he was a member of the Sanhedrin – a council of 70 leaders which had authority over all the Jewish people.  He was one of the top Pharisees.  And interestingly, the Sanhedrin had the duty to examine and deal with anyone suspected of being a false prophet.  (Barclay, p. 123).  So, maybe this is what initially piqued Nicodemus’s interest in Jesus – his desire to check Jesus out and see if he was from God or if he was a false prophet.

And, so I can just imagine that Nicodemus is safe and secure with his life.  He’s enjoying his prestige and his power.  He’s educated; he’s important; he’s powerful; he’s rich.  He’s risen to the rank of Sanhedrin.  And he’s got this God thing all figured out.  He’s got the rules to follow, and as long as he goes by the book, he’s a holy man – he is close to God.         But something must be nagging at Nicodemus.

Something feels not quite right in his soul.  He’s apparently heard about the miracles of Jesus – maybe he’s even seen Jesus heal the lepers or feed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fish.  And he feels a need to find out about Jesus.  Nicodemus is drawn to the power of Jesus.  But unless Nicodemus gives in to this feeling within him, he will never know.  And so Nicodemus goes to Jesus.

We read about Nicodemus going to see Jesus at night.  We don’t know why Nicodemus goes at night – maybe it’s just a quiet time to talk.  But it makes us wonder if Nicodemus went under the cover of darkness so that no one would know he was paying a visit to Jesus.  We wonder if Nicodemus was afraid to associate with Jesus.  And if you’ve ever studied the book of John, you know that light and darkness are often used as symbols.  So it may be written that way as a beautiful symbol of Nicodemus seeking the light of God in the darkness of evil and separation from God that is in the world.

Nevertheless, Nicodemus goes at night, and he says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”  There’s that word again – unless.  Nicodemus recognized that unless God was with Jesus, he couldn’t have been performing the miracles that he had heard about.  And this intrigued Nicodemus.

And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”  And when Nicodemus asks, “How is that possible?” Jesus said: “Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that no matter how carefully he obeys the law, something more is required of him.  Unless he gives his life to God, and gives up control, he will not be reborn.  (Dick Donovan).  Jesus explains that he is not talking about a physical rebirth, but instead a spiritual rebirth where we become entirely new persons.

And when we become new persons, when we become God’s children, we experience the presence of God – both on this earth and in heaven.  When we experience new birth, not only do we receive eternal life, but God’s kingdom comes here, and we get to live our lives in the joy of the Lord.  This experience of being born anew is a gift from God.  There is nothing we can do to earn this gift of grace.  But we do have to do something to experience this gift of new birth.  We have to accept it – we have to receive it.  God loves us so much that he gave us minds to think and freewill to act.  God is not going to force us to love him.  God is not going to pry our hands open to make us accept this gift.  So we do have to do something to experience new birth.

Unless, we accept God’s love, we can’t experience it.  Unless we take the first step, we will never experience the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in our lives. But when we do accept it, we become new persons – chosen, and holy, dearly loved, forgiven – reborn and remade.

We are new.

We are new.

I love it when Nicodemus says to Jesus, “We can’t go back into our mother’s wombs and be born again – that’s impossible.”  And Jesus says don’t be surprised that I’m telling you this.  God can do anything.  The Spirit works any way it wishes.  I think Jesus is saying the Spirit of God can change us so much that we are not who we once were.  The Spirit of God can transform the most hardened heart, the most sinful mind and the angriest soul into a new creation – born anew!!

You can be born again – when we take that step of acceptance, we are born anew in Christ.  We are starting our lives fresh – with all the innocence and hope of a brand new baby.  Our past is gone –we are forgiven.  Our failures are wiped clean – we are righteous and holy in God’s eyes.

Last week 8 month old Jovanni was in our congregation, and I noticed that some of you weren’t listening to the sermon at all.  Because he was looking at you over his mom’s shoulder, and you were looking at him.  I’ve learned he is a charmer.  He was probably smiling and making faces at you.  He might have even been winking at you by squinting his eyes.  And you were all smiling back at him and enjoying him being there. I think Jovanni was giving a better sermon than I was last week.   But don’t we just smile at the innocence and hope and promise of a new life in our presence.

It’s the same for a spiritual birth – when we are reborn, we experience the innocence and hope and promise of a new life in Christ.  What a joyful thing!  We get to start over.  What an amazing thing to experience personally and what a wonderful thing to witness in others.  It makes us smile, doesn’t it?

Today we are having a baptism at the lake.  There are several people, whose names you see on the screen, who are saying yes to God today.  They are coming to take that first step today.  Like Nicodemus going to see Jesus at night, unless he had taken that first step, he wouldn’t have known Jesus.  This is the first step for our brothers and sisters today.  And isn’t it interesting that the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus are the words that we will use this afternoon at the baptism.  We will use water.  Some will be immersed and some will have the water poured on their heads.  And I will name each person’s name and say “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  I will place my hands upon their heads and say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”

Those who are coming to be baptized will be born anew through the water – the water that cleanses us and wipes away our regrets and our sins.  And they will be born anew through the spirit of God — which gives us the power to love God and our neighbors more each day.

What an amazing day it’s going to be for them and for all of us who get to witness their new births.  But I want you to know, today is just the birth day for them.  They are as innocent and new as Jovanni and full of promise as a new born.  But this is not the end.  This is the beginning.  They are remade by water and the spirit to walk as faithful disciples of Christ.  Today is a day of hope and new beginnings for a new life in Christ.  In the vows that they take today, they will make some promises for tomorrow.  They will reject evil and sin in their lives.  They will accept God’s power.  They will confess Jesus as Savior – agreeing to trust him and to serve him.  It’s a new way of life.  And it’s good for us all to remember our own baptisms and renew our promises to God.

Nicodemus must have experienced a new birth.  He appears three times in scripture.  Each time we see Nicodemus, he seems to have changed – he seems to have been transformed into a new person over a period of time.  He goes from a Pharisee seeking answers from Jesus in the dark of the night to a person who boldly follows and serves Jesus in broad daylight, even risking his life to do so.

In John 7, Nicodemus speaks up for Jesus in his last days when the other members of the Sanhedrin are trying to put Jesus on trial for his teachings.  Nicodemus puts himself and his position as an elite leader at risk.  And in John 19, we see Nicodemus appear one more time — a changed man.

I want to share the last thing we read about Nicodemus.  Let me set the stage: Jesus has been crucified.  The disciples are hiding in fear.  And here is what the scripture says – listen for Nicodemus to appear:

John 19:38-42

Jesus’ body is buried                         

38 After [Jesus was taken down from the cross] Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. 39 Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all.[a] 40 Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. 41 There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.

Something had changed radically in Nicodemus’s life.  He once was a top ranked Pharisee – a slave to the law.  He first came in the dark seeking Jesus.  And he became a follower of Jesus – a true follower of Jesus – honoring and serving Jesus by tending to his broken body.  The last we hear of Nicodemus, he is willing to put his own life at risk and his own position of authority as a member of the Sanhedrin at risk.  Nicodemus was a totally different person, and he was openly expressing his love for his Lord.  He didn’t care who saw him.  Nicodemus and Joseph took the battered body of Jesus.  They wrapped it with the burial spices and in linen cloths.  They laid the body in the tomb.  Do you think Nicodemus and Joseph saw God’s kingdom through their act of love for Jesus?

Unless we are born anew – we can’t see God’s kingdom, not on earth or in heaven.  Unless we are born of water and the spirit, we can’t enter the kingdom of God.

This gift is from God, but unless we open up to God we will never experience the glory of the presence of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Unless we seek to walk daily with God, we will never become disciples.  Unless we fill our lives with God, our lives will be filled with something else.

That first step is up to us.  How precious is the day when we first say “yes.”  How precious is Jovanni —how full of newness and hope and promise is he in our eyes.  And that is how we all are in God’s eyes.  But Jovanni’s going to grow up, and his family will expect him to act a little differently next year and the next and when he’s 25.  We expect him to grow and mature.  And so, really, the second step is up to us, too.  The third step is up to us.  It is up to us to receive God’s gift every day.  As we open our hearts every day to be filled with God, we are being remade in the image of Christ.  Like Nicodemus, we become whole new persons.

Baptism is only the beginning of a great adventure living in the presence of God.  I invite you to join us tonight, as we celebrate the beginning and as we remember our baptisms and praise God for it all.

So may we be born anew — daily.  May the Holy Spirit work within us that being born through water and the spirit we might be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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