Sermon – John 3

this is the sermon i preached at my internship church a few weeks back.

John 3:1-8 — Nicodemus Visits Jesus
Covington Community Church
March 20, 2011

      Good morning! It is an honor for me to be here this morning with you all.  I’ve enjoyed my time interning here at CCC, but much of what I have done has been behind the scenes. So it is great to actually be here with you, to see your faces, and to share a bit with you from God’s Word this morning. I am in my third year of seminary at Mars Hill Graduate School.  This is not my first time preaching, but it is ONE of the first times. Thank you for the allowing me the opportunity to practice and hone my preaching skills, as well as to bring words of God’s love, mercy, and justice to you this morning. And special thanks to Jeremy & members of the Leadership Team for saying “YES!” when I asked for a chance to preach.

      The text this morning is from the Gospel of John chapter 3:1-8. We’ll read read the whole passage in a few moments, but in the mean time I’m going to pull one verse out that I will focus on today: verse 5, “I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” What does Jesus mean by this? What does it mean to be born of water and Spirit? It is my hope that as we look at the rest of the story, some light may be shed on what Jesus was getting at. Please pray with me…

      Gracious God, by the power of your Holy Spirit open our eyes, ears, hearts, and very lives to your presence so that today we may worship and serve you in faithfulness, be blessing and healing reminders of your love to all whose lives we touch. In Christ’s name, Amen.

Listen to the words of the Gospel of John, chapter 3 verses 1-8:

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.”

      This story about Nicodemus is found only in the gospel of John. The story is the first of a series of stories in John chapters 3-4 in which a few different individuals—Nicodemus, then John the Baptist, then the Samaritan woman—are main characters in narratives which illustrate Jesus‘ offer of life to all, and each encounter elicits a different response. Nicodemus was a male Jewish leader, a member of the ruling elite who made every effort to follow the letter of the Law and to enforce the Law among the Jewish people. Pharisees get a really bad rap in the Bible. It is, then, quite surprising that through Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisee, that the heart of the Gospel message is proclaimed: new life is given to God’s people through the faith of Jesus Christ. New life is given in being born again, born anew, born from above. What does Jesus mean when he says this?

      This is precisely Nicodemus‘ question to Jesus: How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” or, in my own paraphrase, “Jesus, what in the world do you mean?!” Nicodemus’ question to Jesus is kind of comical. Of course someone cannot be physically born a second time. But Nicodemus misses the nuance in Jesus‘ language. Jesus is not just referring to a physical birth. He is also referring to a birth-like change that God’s people undergo, that is effected through the Spirit.

      Jesus‘ language about water draws out certain things in our imaginations. Many of us hear that phrase and think of physical birth, water from a womb. You might also think of baptism. Both are probably correct. But notice that Jesus doesn’t stop there. It’s not just about being born of water, but also of the Spirit. We see beautiful picture of this in the prophecy of Ezekiel where God cleanses the nation of Israel and brings them into renewed life in His presence. Ezekiel 36:25-28 reads,

“25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

I love that last part which tell us that God’s Spirit in us moves us in certain directions, moves us to follow in the ways He has set before us.

      One theologian says that often this passage from John has been interpreted to make people feel that they have to prove that they’ve been “born again” or have experienced some highly emotional conversion to faith in Christ in order to enter the Kingdom and find salvation. It becomes a rite of passage of sorts. The theologian says “Some people experience their entry into Christian faith as a huge, tumultuous event, with a dramatic build-up, a painful moment of decision and then tidal waves of relief, joy, exhilaration, forgiveness, and love. They are then easily tempted to think that this moment itself is the centre of what it means to be a Christian, as though what God wanted was simply to give people a single wonderful spiritual experience. But that’s a bit like someone framing their birth certificate, hanging it on the wall, and insisting on showing it to everyone who comes into the house. What matters for most purposes is not that once upon a time you were born. What matters is that you are alive now, and that your present life, day by day and moment moment, is showing evidence of health and strength and purpose and moving toward maturity.

      I want to be clear that I am not saying that conversion experiences are bad or unnecessary. Jesus does not say anything, good or bad, about conversion experiences. But there seems to be more — its not just about getting born, its about living now.

      I thought I knew what this passage was about. I thought I knew what the phrase “born again” or “born from the Spirit” meant. But as I spent more time with it, I realized that I didn’t know what it meant. In fact, it was quite confusing.

      This week I had a friend say to me, “Since when do we think we have any choice in being born?”  I have only ever read this passage with an understanding that it requires a choice from me. This birth that Jesus speaks about here is not really about us choosing. It is about God’s labored pains in bringing His people into rebirth, new life through God’s own Spirit.

      Again, I’m not saying that making a choice to live in a new way, in the way of Jesus, isn’t important or necessary. But we didn’t choose to be born. Jesus says, “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.” Jesus’ offer of new birth is like the wind, like the Spirit — it is a mystery beyond what we can imagine, know, or control.

      So where does that leave us today? Right now we find ourselves in the season of the church calendar known as Lent. Lent can sometimes be a confusing, sometimes unpleasant season in which many people around the world give up things like chocolate, eating meat, brushing their teeth, facebook, impulse shopping, exercising, and the list goes on. But I think there is more to the season than this world gives credit to. One of my favorite authors describes Lent in this way, “Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to the implications of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now. But that demands both the healing of the soul and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both a purging of what is superfluous in our lives and the heightening, the intensifying of what is meaningful.” I love that. This time is about intensifying what is meaningful in our lives and renewing our commitment to living as though we really believe the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true and true enough to change us forever.

      A number of years ago I became involved in a project called the 40 Days of Water through a ministry called Blood:Water Mission. The Blood:Water Mission’s challenge to participants of the 40 Days of Water is to give up all drinks through Lent except tap water. But that is not all—the mission also asks that you keep track, as best as you are able, of how much money you are saving by not drinking coffee, soda, tea, etc… and at the end of the 40 days, donate it to the mission so that it can be used to bless communities in Africa with clean water wells and water purification systems. Lent is not just about giving something up or proving something. It is both about sacrificing of ourselves in a way that benefits someone else and gives greater meaning to our lives. It is about seeing the signs of God’s presence and love in our lives and the lives of those we encounter, and nurturing every sign of that presence. It is allowing God’s Spirit to move us in a direction that gives glory to Him and gives love and dignity to His people.

      We see in the story of Nicodemus that he seeks Jesus and comes to him with a genuine, generous openness. He acknowledges that Jesus is a respected Rabbi who has come from God, he knows that Jesus has done wonderful miracles. But he is confused. His questions and confusion about the things Jesus was speaking about were not asked because his faith was inadequate. He was confused and had to really open his eyes, ears, heart, and life to the words of Jesus and the work of the Spirit in order to begin to understand what Jesus was telling him.

      Can we set aside what we think we know in order to allow the Spirit to help us understand the radical newness of which Jesus speaks? I thought I knew what this all meant. It was only through letting go of what I thought I knew to be true that I was able to come to understand a little better what it means to be born in the Spirit, what it means to be fully alive now. This takes a lot of practice. We may never reach full understanding, instead we must continually let go of things we’d rather hold onto and let new things be birthed in us.

      I hope and pray that you see these small signs of God’s presence in your life, and the lives of those around you. I pray that you would know of your birth in the Spirit and nurture those signs that you see through the way that you live and act in the world. What hoped-for change in your mind and heart do you pray for this Lent? Lord, may it be so.

      Let us pray.

      Gracious God, thank You for Your Word which teaches us to nurture every sign of Your presence in our lives and the lives of those we encounter. Give us open eyes to see beyond what others say is possible. Give us a generosity that pushes back the boundaries, for even death by You has been defeated. The Light shines on, and life is lived in You. Amen.