Just Words: New Life
John 3:1-17 – v. 3 - Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Today we begin a four part sermon series centered on the chief article of the Christian faith –in the courtroom of the Holy and Triune God, we are justified by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ. That whoever believes in Jesus as Savior will not perish but have eternal life. In this sermon series, the Gospel, the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ would be front and center. The Gospel is the first and the final word we want you to hear. We lean in a strong way on a book written by J.A.O. Preus, who has written a book called “Just Words: Understanding the Fullness of the Gospel.” In it he writes that the Gospel is more than words, but it is still words – words about the Word made flesh for us, words that convey the Word made flesh to us….is the Gospel just words? No! Never just words. Rather words that make us just.”
Four Gospel metaphors we put before you in these four Sundays of Lent. Next Sunday, Jesus is Living Water, the following Sunday – Jesus is Light in the midst of Darkness, the Sunday after that – Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. Today, the Gospel is new birth, Jesus is synonymous with new life. the coming to faith in Jesus and receiving his life giving benefits is like being born anew by the power of God We contribute as little to our spiritual birth as we do to our physical birth – nothing.
Martha’s distress. Little four year old Martha loved dolls. She carried them wherever she went. She took them to bed with her. She changed their clothes. She spent all kinds of time loving them, talking to them, and spending time with them. One day she looked up at her mom with a distressed kind of a face and cried out, “Mama, I love them and love them and love them, but they never love me back!”
Could it be that our God in heaven above has had similar thoughts all the way through Old Testament days, “I have loved all of them with an everlasting kind of love, but so many of them do not love me back.” No doubt Jesus had similar thoughts one day when He looked out over Jerusalem and wept, “I love all of them and yet so many of them do not love me back.” Two lessons we want to put forward today about the love of God that came down from heaven above so that we you and I could be born again, so that you and I might have new life.
Lesson #1 is that New life comes from above for everyone but is received by (just a few). Or as Matthew records Jesus saying, “ For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. And again at the end of the parable of the great wedding banquet, perhaps with tears in his eyes, teaches “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
And in our text for today, Jesus wonders out loud how Nicodemus can a teacher of Israel and yet not understand that a man would have to be born again to be saved. Jesus had been doing all kinds of signs and wonders, but the religious leaders of that day would not believe that He was the Son of God. He had been bearing witness to truth, but Nicodemus and so many Pharisees would not receive his testimony. Jesus is that great light who has come into the world, but in so many ways people prefer darkness. That’s another way of saying that new life has come into this world, but in so many ways, people prefer the old and comfortable life.
Two simple truths we want to learn again about the new life that comes from above for everyone but is received by just a few. First, it’s at the same time free and (expensive). Salvation is free for us, but expensive for our Father in heaven – it cost Him His only Son. The forgiveness of sins is free for us, but so very costly for the Son of God, it cost Him His life. There’s no charge in this place to get your babies baptized, but if that water is going to be anything more than simple water, it has to be connected to Jesus Christ crucified, dead, buried, and risen again. Holy Communion is pure Gospel in this place, the forgiveness of sins is given freely and without condition, come just as you are, but as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we do proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.
A second truth about the new life coming from above is that it’s at the same time predictable and (surprising). When I say that the grace of God is predictable, I’m referring to what Lutherans call the means of grace. The means of grace are the ways by which the Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts. They include the Word, Baptism, and our Lord’s Supper. In Baptism, babies are born again into the family of God, they are claimed as sons and daughters by the Triune God. That is predictable. When sinners hear the Word of God and believe it, they get new hearts. That’s predictable. As often as broken and contrite sinners eat and drink at their Lord’s Supper, their sins are forgiven, their faith is strengthened, the mercy of God sweeps over their souls and spills out into the lives of others. That’s predictable.
When I say that the new life coming from above can be surprising, I think of how it comes in all the seasons of life, at all times of the day or night, often when you least expect it. New life came into Abram and Sarah’s family, long after it was humanly possible for her to have a baby. New life came to Nicodemus at night time, as he wrestled with the idea that a grown up Pharisee would have to be born again if he wanted to see the kingdom of God. New life often comes to people in days of crisis.
The kingdom of God is like a middle aged man who hasn’t come to church for years, but now that he is recovering from a heart attack, he asks his pastor whether he would still be welcome at the Lord’s Table. The kingdom of God is like a young married man whose wife has left him for greener pastures, he cries out in prayer to His God why life has to be so hard. The kingdom of God is like parents whose teenager has committed suicide and they ask a thousand questions of themselves, to nobody in particular, and to God.
In all three stories just told, new life came from above, as they asked good questions, as they listened like they had never listened before, as the Holy Spirit taught them. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
One observation we can make about Nicodemus in John chapter 3. He asked good questions of Jesus. He put himself in a position where the Spirit of God could work on him. In a position where new life could come into his heart and mind. The next time we hear of Nicodemus is at the trial of Jesus,where he reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged. The final time we hear of him, Nicodemus is assisting Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial.
Are you asking good questions these days? Are you asking the kinds of questions which put you in a position where the Spirit of God might teach you? The kinds of questions that could lead to new understandings, new insights, new directions in life?
Lesson #2 is to learn both from the stories of Abraham and Nicodemus that to believe in the promises of God means that life will never be the same again. New life takes us from the familiar towards the (unfamiliar). Our text says it this way, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit.” As often as we drown the old sinful adam inside of us with all of its crabbiness and orneriness by daily contrition and repentance, that often a new man, a new woman rises up on the inside of us with a spirit of kindness and patience. The old has passed away, surprisingly, the new has come! As often as the Spirit of God is ruling inside of us, that often we see the old sinful nature in the rear view mirror. As often as an infant is delivered into this world, that family has to look in their rear view mirror to see the old days of pregnancy and the pains of child birth. The familiar has given way to the unfamiliar.
In his rear view mirror, Abraham saw (idolatry). God was calling Abram to leave his surroundings of paganism an false beliefs and go to a land he would be shown when he arrived. He would be leaving a lifestyle where there was nothing but condemnation and death and to go to a place where he would live by faith in the promises of God’s grace. The familiar would give way to the unfamiliar.
In his rear view mirror, Nicodemus saw (self-righteousness). Jesus was calling Nicodemus to leave the teachings of the Pharisees and to be born again of water and the spirit. He would be leaving a lifestyle where men were still living according to the flesh and go to a place where he would live by faith in the Son of God. The familiar would give way to the unfamiliar.
What is it you need to be leaving behind these days? The Law of God is like a mirror, it can only show you where you are, what you look like, and what is wrong. The Gospel on the other hand shows you where Jesus has gone on your behalf, it gives you new life, it takes you in a whole new direction. The Law will always accuse you of being in the wrong place, the Gospel will take you to new places. The Law will always distress you, the Gospel will grant relief.
Delilah’s relief. The kingdom of God is like an elderly lady named Delilah we used to visit in the Waterville Nursing Home. She couldn’t remember much about life, but she trusted in Jesus as her Savior. Every month, I would ask her if she was sorry for her sins, if she believed in Jesus as her Savior, and if she wanted to amend her sinful life. She would answer yes. Every month I would tell her that Jesus loved her and that Jesus had died for her…..at which point every month Delilah would be very distressed. She would look me in the eyes and ask, “Jesus is dead? To which I would reply, “yes, Delilah, but He rose up again. He is alive.” At which point she would be visibly relieved. And say something like “thank goodness He’s not still dead.”
The kingdom of God is like a large church in a small town where the folks are more and more understanding the fullness of the Gospel. More and more the Spirit of God is taking them from the familiar to the unfamiliar. More and more new life is coming from above and their God is getting all the glory. Amen.
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