The Second Sunday After Pentecost June 14, 2009
246, 739 [TLH alt, 234], 243, 465
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”
In Christ Jesus who—along with the Father and the Spirit—is the one true God and our Savior, dear fellow Christians:
How well do you know your neighbors? You are likely aware of their approximate ages, whether they are employed or retired, and how many family members are living at home. But how well do you really know them? Do you know what sets them apart from others and makes them unique individuals? Where did they grow up? What have they experienced in life: what joys, successes, trials, and grief? What are their hopes and dreams?
We may tell ourselves we’re too busy to get to know our neighbor that in-depth. Maybe he doesn’t seem that interesting to make the effort. There could even be fear involved. If the neighbor appears gruff and unfriendly as you see him get the paper each morning, you may not be too inclined to start up a conversation with him. We might be afraid of his reaction. We could live close to someone for years, and yet not really know him.
That’s a shame. When it happens we miss out on relationships which could enrich our lives. The neighbor may be more than we imagined. He might be a war veteran with stories and insights to share on battles our country has fought. He could be a master gardener who could explain why your tomato plants yellow and die every summer. And that neighbor with the gruff exterior could turn out to be your most loyal friend, who is always ready to listen and to offer his help in any situation. Neighbors are worth knowing.
How about God? How well do you know Him? Almost everyone believes He exists. The Bible tells us that even the demons believe and shudder! (cf. James 2:19). Only the fool says in his heart there is no God. The whole creation testifies to God’s power and wisdom. The natural knowledge of God in every human heart tells us that He exists and that we are accountable to Him. But that is all just a superficial knowledge, like being aware of a neighbor, but not much more.
Yet that is as far as many people go. They do not really know God. They are too busy or just not interested. For some, fear stands in the way. They feel guilt burdening their consciences, and they know they deserve punishment. They hope against hope that if they keep a low profile and stay out of God’s way, He won’t bother them.
The truth is, God wants all people to know Him. He doesn’t wait for us to make the first move, come across the street, knock on His door and say, “Hello.” He comes to us. You may have seen the huge billboards scattered across town and in other major cities. They have large white letters on a black background, saying things like: “All I know…is everything,” and they are all signed: “God.” Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if God really did buy billboard space to talk to mankind? He doesn’t do that. What He actually does is far greater. He contacts us in a much more personal way, like a neighbor sitting down with you one-on-one. Jesus did that with Nicodemus one evening.
Nicodemus was a respected member of the Jewish high council called the Sanhedrin. These men were well-versed in the Old Testament. They felt that they, more so than any others, really knew God and were part of His inner circle. They believed that God embraced them because they were true Jews and did so well in keeping His commands. It was a relationship based on law. They would do their part, and they expected God to reward them.
That is always mankind’s approach to God—to make a deal with Him. Suicide bombers strap on explosive vests and blow themselves up believing that sacrificing themselves in the name of Allah will earn an eternal reward. Respected, upstanding citizens trust that if they try their best to be good and do good, God will reward them. There is a self-righteous Pharisee in each of us which tries to use our prayers, faithful church attendance, offerings, and acts of kindness as bargaining chips to influence God’s attitude toward us.
But if we think that, we do not really know God. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Most assuredly, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God…That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” [vv.3,6] We have a fatal problem we can’t fix which keeps us out of God’s kingdom. We were conceived and born in sin. Sinful parents give birth to sinful children. No matter how hard someone tries to make himself pleasing to God, he will fall short. Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisee and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20 NIV). This truth was a huge blow to Nicodemus, and it is still a shock to man’s pride and reason.
The only answer, Jesus stressed, is a total rebirth. Nicodemus asked how that could possibly happen. He knew Jesus could not be talking about a literal, physical rebirth. But similarly, just as we had nothing to do with bringing about our first birth into the world, so the spiritual rebirth is none of our doing. It is the work of God the Holy Spirit. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” [v.5] Jesus is speaking of Baptism: “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” By Baptism the Spirit breathes life into spiritually dead hearts assuring sinners of forgiveness and peace with God.
Nicodemus wanted to know how all this could take place. But the working of the Spirit is not like the logical, mechanical arrangement of an internal combustion engine which can be analyzed and predicted. Jesus said the Spirit’s work is like the wind. Even today with satellites and computer models, meteorologists cannot fully predict, explain, or control the wind. We can’t see it, yet we know it’s real. We can feel its force on our faces, and we can see its effect in moving leaves and branches. We cannot see the Spirit either, but we feel His effect in our hearts, and we see His work in the lives of others.
How well do we know God? If we imagine that we can come to Him on our own terms, or believe by our own decision or will, we do not know the one true God. To really know Him is to hear the Spirit’s voice in Scripture pointing us to the rebirth He Himself worked in us through Baptism. It is to trust the Spirit to preserve and strengthen our faith through His powerful Word. He is the God worth knowing!
To really know God is to know Jesus. Nicodemus thought he already did. He called Him, “Rabbi,” meaning “teacher.” Nicodemus had heard about Jesus’ miracles and recognized them as evidence of God’s power at work. But he still viewed Jesus as only a man. Most people today agree with that assessment. They regard Him as a great prophet like Mohammed or a wonderful teacher or a good example of a loving life which everyone should follow. But if that is all we see, we really do not know God.
Listen again to what Jesus told Nicodemus: “Most assuredly…We speak what We know and testify what We have seen….No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” [vv.11,13] Jesus claims divine authority for His teaching. Up to this point He had spoken about earthly things, the Spirit’s working in human hearts in bringing them to repentance and faith.
Now He goes beyond those to God in Heaven and His saving plan determined in eternity. Jesus knows what He is talking about, because He came from Heaven. He is the Word, who was with God and who is God. He is the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father. He was there when God’s plan was made. To know God is to know Jesus as the Son, one God with the Father and Spirit. “Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who has sent Him” (cf. John 5:23). Jesus came from Heaven, was born of the virgin, and was here talking with Nicodemus. Yet at the same time, He was still in Heaven! None but God alone can say that!
The Son came to earth to rescue sinners from the punishment they deserve. Jesus explained this to Nicodemus with a familiar Old Testament account from Israel’s history. On one of the many occasions when the Israelites grumbled against God on their journey to Canaan, God sent fiery, poisonous snakes into the camp. People were dying by the thousands. They pleaded with God for mercy, and He graciously heard their prayers. He had Moses make a bronze snake and put it on a pole. The Lord promised that whoever was bitten and would look at the snake would live.
It was a foreshadowing of the salvation God would accomplish by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. He would take upon Himself all the deadly sin of the world, that whoever would look to Him in faith would live. The death of a mere man could never have rescued a single soul, but Jesus is the God-Man, our Lord and Savior!
How well do we know God? May we always recognize Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. May we keep our eyes focused on the cross where He died for us. “For there is no other name under Heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
The source of our new relationship with God, given to us by the Spirit through faith in Jesus’ sacrifice goes all the way back to God, the Father. Some picture the Father to be a heartless Judge eager to prosecute sinners to the fullest extent of the Law. Others see Him as a doddering, senile old man who closes his eyes to sin, and who couldn’t do anything about it even if he wanted to do so. Anyone who sees God in either of these ways does not really know Him.
God, the Father is all-powerful and just, which means that He must and will punish sin. But He is more! “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” [vv.16-17] God’s love stands out above all His other qualities. Human love is always contaminated by sin in one way or another, but God’s love is 100% pure. It is self-giving, not self-centered. It is more than a warm feeling. It is strong resolve. It doesn’t just dream. It acts. It doesn’t base its actions on how likable or worthy a person is. It is unconditional and all-inclusive. God loved the world: Adam and Eve, Judas, Hitler, St. Paul, Martin Luther, and you and me. Every human being past, present, and future is included under the umbrella of God’s love. His love is unconditional. It is willing to do whatever it takes. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
Think of a bank check drawn from the First Bank of Heaven. In the amount portion is the blood and righteousness of Jesus, worth far more than all the money in the world. God Himself has signed it. But the payee line is left blank. It is for “whomever,” God says. It is a blank check offered to all people. God says, “Write your own name there. Cash the check. It’s for you.” We are the beneficiaries. By faith eternal life is ours. We are alive in God’s kingdom. We have complete forgiveness and peace with God. We are safe in His promise of protection and care as we journey through this life, and we have the future glory of Heaven to anticipate—all through knowing the one true God.
God is not a mysterious, reclusive neighbor who keeps to himself. Nor does He stand at the window hoping to catch someone trespassing across his lawn so He can load up the shotgun. Rather, He is the loving God who through the Spirit invites sinners to come into His home and stay as His family members forever. He is the God who made it possible through the cross of Jesus. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 NIV). May we come to know Him better every day! Amen.
My guilt, O Father, Thou hast laid
On Christ, Thy Son, my Savior.
Lord Jesus, Thou my debt hast paid
And gained for me God’s favor.
O Holy Ghost, Thou Fount of grace,
The good in me to Thee I trace;
In faith do Thou preserve me.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.