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High and Lifted Up!

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Second Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2008

Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church. San Diego, CA

INTRODUCTION: This morning Jesus confronts us with this question: Who do you believe I am? Now if we answer this question by faith, and we say you are our savior, then we will find everlasting comfort, but if we think like the world, that is if we think sinfully we will find only despair and fear. Such was the predicament of Nicodemus in our gospel lesson this morning and such is the predicament of many in this world today.

I. Nicodemus could not understand Jesus’ teaching because he was still living in the world of flesh; “That which is born of flesh is flesh.” [Vs. 7a] Nicodemus was by all accounts, a “good” man. He was a leader in the church and his community. He was a respected man, people cared about what he thought; they sought him out for his opinion. He was what we would call today an honest lawyer. He was an expert in the Law of God, and with his expertise, he helped his fellow Jews live a life that would hopefully be pleasing to God. He was a man that would have thought hearing Jesus teach God’s Word beneath him, and yet he found himself drawn to Jesus. Perhaps he was drawn to Him because of the miracles and the changed lives that were reported everywhere Jesus went. Surely he thought, Jesus was a teacher sent from God. Nicodemus for reasons unknown to Him, felt compelled to visit Jesus, but that would be dangerous because you see, Jesus was hated by His fellow councilmen. If anyone found out that He was with Jesus it would mean political, professional, and personal ruin for him and his family—but still he was drawn to the Lord. So Nicodemus decided to approach Jesus at night, under the cover of darkness. He must have thought that Jesus would be impressed with him—everyone was; surely Jesus would recognize his reputation as an honest teacher of God’s law, one who seeks after the righteousness of God and teaches others to do the very same thing. When he finds Jesus he says, (Rabbi), “No one can do (the miracles) that you do unless God is with him.” [vs. 2]

Now Nicodemus is quite pleased with this compliment, and he certainly expects one in return, but Jesus does not respond in kind. Instead he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” How strange! Why did Jesus say this? He said it because he was responding to the real question buried deep in Nicodemus’ heart: “How can I be sure that God will be pleased with me?” So in answer to this real question, Jesus explained, “Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of heaven.”

With these simple yet strange words, Jesus is telling all of us: “Since you think of Me as a great teacher and a prophet of the truth, then let me inform you of that truth. If you have come here expecting to hear a sermon on better living towards personal, professional, and financial success, or even a sermon on what you must do to please God, then you will be sadly disappointed. The teaching that I have come to deliver is far different than anything you have ever heard preached or taught in your schools and churches. You see friends, even if you give all of your time, talent and treasure to the poor, you will never see heaven. Even if you attend church daily and memorize all of scripture you are damned and doomed! No my friend, as you are now, you are dead right along with all of your works, conduct, and life.” These are hard words indeed. Nicodemus could not understand them and the world today refuses to hear them as well. Why? Because the doctrine of the devil controls this world. It is a doctrine of righteousness or salvation by good deeds. A righteousness of works. But Jesus is saying there is just one work that must be performed for salvation—we must be born again.

ILLUSTRATION: Suppose there is a child who will be born to a young woman who is a member of Trinity’s youth. This child that is to be born two years from now is still nonexistent. At present the young girl who is to be the mother of this future baby is still unmarried. This child which she will give birth to is at present nothing and can do nothing. All of us must admit that a person can’t do a thing until that person is born. It is the same thing for Nicodemus and everyone living today; no matter how wonderful and good their deeds and acts of charity might be, they are absolutely nothing if they are done before their spiritual birth; they are nothing but sin and death. This is what saint Paul means when he says that before God, our righteousness is like filthy rags. So our Lord Jesus judges Nicodemus and everyone after him, who do not accept Christ and believe in Him, as nothing at all; for they haven’t been reborn yet. Now you might be an upstanding citizen in your community, and because of your reputation and wealth you can live an easy life here. But in regards to the kingdom of heaven, the church, and the kingdom of Christ are concerned, you must become a new person. You have to think of yourself as an unconceived child who not only is incapable of a single good work but, in fact doesn’t even have life yet!

II. We like Nicodemus need a change of heart; we need a new heart and soul. We must be born anew or we will never truly see Jesus or His kingdom. [vs. 4-5] “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” God’s Word teaches us that through this new birth we become a completely different person. Reborn we must be, but not from our mothers once again, because that birth would be no different from our first birth. No, we must be born of the Spirit and of water; without this no one can be saved.” [vs. 5]

Poor Nicodemus, no matter how in depth Christ should explain this new birth to him, he could never understand it. He cannot understand it because he has not experienced it; he is still flesh. He has not yet been born spiritually. You dear Christians, do understand it, but you cannot explain it. Try as you might there are no words to explain this new birth, so we do not even try, instead, we simply let our Lord’s simple words stand as they are, and we believe. While it is true that we cannot explain just how we were born again, we do all know exactly when it happened. Yes friends, we all know that here our Lord is speaking of Baptism, of real and natural water that was wonderfully applied with God’s own Word.

It was in your baptism that God provided you a new and eternal spiritual rebirth. It was Holy Spirit-filled water that was applied to you on the day you were baptized. It was water in which the Holy Spirit was present and active; in fact, the entire Holy Trinity was there. Just as our creator God spoke the world into existence long ago, He used the same Word to recreate a new you! This is why a person who has been baptized is said to be born again.

Now just as this was a hard teaching for Nicodemus to comprehend, it is also a hard teaching for the world outside of the church to grab onto. “How can mere water bring new life” they ask? But this is not mere water; no it is Holy water, because with it is the very word of God! And with that Word we can confidently say to anyone, “I HAVE BEEN BAPTISED IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT!” Concerning the work of this Holy Water, St. Paul says that it is “a washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” [Titus 3:5] Jesus also says that “he who believes and is baptized will be saved” [Mark 16:16]. Dear saints, have no fear in the words of unbelievers who scoff at your faith in simple water. But simply remind them that because the Holy Spirit has been added to it, we have much more than mere water. It becomes a life giving bath, a living bath that washes you clean of sin and death.

Dear friend, if you have not yet been baptized, then Christ is speaking to you along with Nicodemus. “He is saying, “You are not yet born anew. But I have brought you here today to hear these Words of mine; I have come to bring you a new way of being born, namely, a rebirth by water and the Holy Spirit, and I have come to proclaim to you the necessity of this rebirth. I bring you a washing that will transform you into a new person.”

III. This morning, Christ speaks to all of us and asks us to realize that our entire life outside of faith has been made null and void. Everything that we have ever done on our own, outside of faith has been crucified with Christ upon the cross. We must forget about those things that lay behind us and we must keep our hearts and minds on Jesus. Jesus is assuring us that when our old sins come back and knock on the door of our heart to discourage us with their memory, we must remember that we are born again. We are a new person in Christ. Jesus asks us not to wrestle with how this can be, but instead belief that it must be. This morning Jesus has told us that we don’t even understand the origin of the wind, [vs. 8] so how can we expect to understand how God has given us new life? Only Jesus Christ can truly understand how this new birth within us is possible. Only He who exists both in heaven and on earth, who is fully God and fully man can make this “new life” a reality for us. He did this for us upon the cross and he applies the benefits of this work to us in our baptism. But Jesus is not finished working this new life in us friends, no He continues to do this good work within us when we see Him high and lifted up upon the cross, our cross and our punishment that He has now made His own.

Dear friends, we see Him there lifted up for us when we read and hear his Word proclaimed and taught; we see Him there lifted up for us when we hear the sweet Words of the absolution, “You are forgiven!” and we see Him there lifted up for us when we gather around His table eating and drinking His body and blood given and shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. God continues to work this faith in our hearts and it is wonderful in our sight!

ILLUSTRATION: There were once two brothers who were convicted of stealing sheep. For their crime they were each branded on the forehead with the letters "ST," for "sheep thief." This was a common thing done in England in the early 1800’s to anyone who was caught stealing sheep. One brother immediately ran away from the area and attempted to build a new life in another country. But even there, people asked him continually about the "ST" burned into his forehead. He continued his wanderings and finally, he was unable to bear the burden, he committed suicide. The other brother heard the gospel message one day. He heard that his sin was forgiven, that in Christ there are no brandings, or scarlet letters, and he repented of his sin and found new life in Christ. He said to himself, "I can’t run away from the fact that I stole sheep. But that’s the past. I can stay here and work hard and repay the debt." The years passed and he was able to repay the sheep he had stolen and went on to build a life of integrity in England.

One day a stranger saw this brother, who was now an old man, with the letters "ST" branded on his forehead. He asked a resident of the town what the letters stood for. The townsman replied, "It happened a long time ago. I’ve forgotten the particulars, but we who know that man think that the letters are an abbreviation for Saint."

CONCLUSION: Well I say to you this morning that you may have done something in your past, or been someone in your past that you wish you could undue or un-be. You may feel like you have a scarlet letter, or something branded into your forehead that you can hardly bear. Well I say to you that with Jesus there is new life, a new beginning where sheep thieves are washed and made new and become precious saints of God. I say this with certainty, because our Savior has said that it is true.

So there is only one final thing to be done now, and it is this: You must now hear the most often quoted gospel words and make them your own. You must by faith trust and believe that Jesus is speaking to you and say, “For God so loved ME that He gave his only begotten Son to ME, that if I believe in Him I will not perish but I will have everlasting life!”

May Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of your faith keep your hearts and minds stead fast in this faith…

In Jesus name…AMEN!

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