Pentecost 1b - Trinity - Graduate Sunday

Preached: June 3, 2012

A Night That Changed My Life
John 3:1-17

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit brings us the words of Jesus is John 3

There was man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus during the night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could do theses signs which you are doing, unless God was with him.”

Jesus replied and said to him, “Truly, truly, I tell you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a person be born after he’s old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?”

Jesus replied, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless someone is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. What’s born from flesh is flesh, and what’s born from the Spirit is spirit. Don’t feel bewildered that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wants and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who’s born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus replied and said to him, “How can these things happen?”

Jesus replied and said to him, “You are a teacher of Israel and you do not know these things? Truly, truly, I tell you: We speak of what we know and we testify about what we have seen, and you do not receive our testimony. If I tell you about earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has gone up into heaven, except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven. Just as Moses lift up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up in order that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his Son, the Only-begotten, in order that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world in order to condemn the world but to save the world through him.” (John 3:1-17).

This is the word of our Lord.

My name is Nicodemus. I was a Pharisee and also a leader and teacher among the Jews. Thank you for this privilege to speak to you, as you graduates, Shae and Tara, pass this milestone in your life. Please let me share with you a night that changed my life.

People had been talking about this new, young rabbi from Nazareth. Usually we in the leadership did not pay much attention to small towns in the north. Jerusalem was the center of life for us. Here was the temple. Here had been the throne of David and Solomon, our illustrious kings of old. But this rabbi was different.

He had down miracles: healing the sick, driving out demons, making the lame to walk and the blind to see. These were signs, clear signs, that he had come from God. How could a mere man do such things unless God was with him?

Many of my colleagues dismissed him. They had done the same with that other man down by the Jordan River, who had come out of the desert wearing clothes of camel’s hair. The common people had flocked to him to be baptized in the water. The leadership had sent delegates to investigate only to make sure that his man, called John, was not a threat to our influence.

But now there was this second man, Jesus of Nazareth. I couldn’t ignore those miraculous signs he has doing, and he taught with such great authority. I had to investigate and learn more. Who was this traveling rabbi? Might he be the one foretold? Might he usher in the kingdom of God? If so, I certainly wanted a share in it. But if not, I didn’t want to lose my current prestige if others saw me talking to someone who would prove a fake. So I visited him at night.

Do you sometimes feel that way? You know that Jesus is important, but you don’t want to be seen with him, so to speak. You don’t want others to know that you follow him too closely. It’s okay if he is there in the background but not front and center. You might have to live up to certain expectations then. Or you might lose out on certain opportunities. I confess that’s how I had felt in wanting to see Jesus only under the cover of darkness. But that would change as I got to know who he truly was and faith began to grow in my heart. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I came to him that night, and he got right to the point. He knew that my heart was concerned about God’s kingdom and my place in it. Isn’t that the ultimate concern for each one of us? So he says to me, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3 NIV84).

But how could I be born again? Wasn’t my Jewish birth into a god-fearing family enough? Didn’t that automatically make me part of God’s kingdom? And what about all the good I had done as a Pharisee? The people looked up to me and respected how strictly I kept the letter of God’s law. Surely if anyone was part of God’s kingdom, we Pharisees were! But Jesus says that no one including me could even see the kingdom of God, much less be a part of it, unless we were born again. He can’t be talking about another physical birth. But how could a spiritual rebirth happen? What could bring it about?

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus says, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5, 6 NIV84). He’s pointing me to the work of that man named John down by the Jordan River. Were we leaders to quick to ignore him? The common people eagerly listened to his preaching calling them to repentance so that they would believe in the coming Messiah for the forgiveness of sins. They were baptized in water by him. Now Jesus says that the Holy Spirit was powerfully working through the water and the word.

“Flesh gives birth to flesh,” he says. Sinful parents have sinful children. How could I ever do enough to satisfy the holy God? I was born of sinful parents. I was flesh, sinful flesh. Flesh gives birth to flesh. No wonder God’s kingdom requires rebirth. But just as I was powerless to bring about my physical birth, I’m powerless to bring about my spiritual birth. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. “The Spirit gives birth to spirit.”

I could not explain how the Holy Spirit would give rebirth. Why would he bring people into the kingdom of God in such a way? It didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t fit my way of thinking. But then I can’t explain the way the wind blows, yet I know it does. I hear its sound.

So I should have seen the change in those people that heard John’s message at the Jordan and were baptized. Oh, they didn’t start following the rules of us Pharisees, but hadn’t they changed for the better? Those who had more shared with those who had less. Believing tax collectors no longer overcharged. Believing soldiers didn’t extort people with false accusations. Wasn’t this the Spirit’s work? Hadn’t he given them a birth into a new life through John’s preaching and baptizing?

As a teacher and leader in Israel shouldn’t I have known this? I thought I knew so much. But I had missed again and again in the Scriptures how the Holy Spirit brought people into God’s kingdom not by their works but by faith. And even though the Holy Spirit and the faith he creates are invisible, they show that they are there, just as the wind shows its presence by the sound it makes. Moved by the Holy Spirit, God’s people do what is good in God’s sight. Their good works are the evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in their hearts. I thought I knew God’s Word so well, but I had failed to believe its true message and to put it into practice.

Don’t fall into that trap as I did, dear graduates. You’ve learned much not only in school but also in growing up. You’ve matured into young adults. You know so much more now than you did when you started school. Is learning about Jesus as important to you now as it was on that first day of Sunday school? It’s tempting to figure you’ve learned enough about him. Now maybe you’ve learned enough about grammar or multiplication so that you don’t have to go back to those elementary books. But that’s never the case with Jesus. There always more for you and me to learn. Take it from me who was a teacher among God’s people. And as you and I learn that word, taking it to heart, it’s continually changing our lives. Don’t cut its power short.

For, dear graduates and friends, the Bible reveals the divine counsel of heaven, the plans of the eternal, almighty God. As Jesus spoke to me that night about the Spirit’s work of rebirth through Baptism, he was speaking of what happens here on this earth. Next he pulled back the veil to reveal God’s heavenly plan. Only Jesus could do that. For only Jesus came from heaven and is always in heaven.

How could the holy God save a world infected by sin? Even before that: Why would he want to do that? Satan, that ancient Serpent, had ruined his creation, leading the whole world astray. The poison of sin filled each one of us. God did not like the world or us sinners. He hates sin. He hates sinners. For he is the holy God. He is a consuming fire. Death, hell, and damnation were our rightful lot.

But now Jesus revealed the greatest secret of all: “God so loved the world” (John 3:16 NIV84). His love fully knows how bad the world and each one of us is. He still hates sin and all who do wrong. Yet his love earnestly wanted to rescue and save sinners, despite our wickedness and hostility against him. His love deeply desired to change sinners from his enemies into his dear children. His love fervently planned out how to bring you, dear sinner, eternal life.

What is that heavenly plan? “He gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16 NIV84). The Father gave his Son, Jesus Christ, sending him into this world born of the virgin in all lowliness. The Father gave his Son, offering him up on the cross as the full payment for all the sins of the world.

He did that for you and me, dear sinners. “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” Believe this Good News and live.

But maybe your thinking, “If there’s any part of the Bible I know well, it’s that part.” But do you truly know it with all your heart, soul, and mind? I don’t. If I truly knew how great the Father’s love is I’d have no fear. For what could separate me from his loving protection that guards and defends me from all danger? If I truly knew how lavish the Father’s love is I’d have no worries. He’s already given me his Son, won’t he provide me with all that I need? If I fully grasped what it meant that I have eternal life through faith in Jesus, wouldn’t I be content, happy, and satisfied in all circumstances? Eternal life is mine, what more do I need? Wouldn’t I always repay evil with good, forgiving others, praying for my enemies? Eternal life is mine. What harm can others do to me? Do you see that I haven’t fully learned even this one passage that so many can recite from memory?

You have graduated from high school, but you have not graduate from God’s Word. None of us have. Cherish his Word. Each day think about what it says. Hear it regularly. Read it as a precious letter of love from your dear Father in heaven. Let it’s Good News fill your heart and mind and overflow into your words and actions. In Baptism you have been born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t lose that new life by willful sinning or by neglecting the Spirit’s testimony in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. Rather rejoice in the Father’s love that gave you his Son. Through faith in him you have eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313