2nd Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2020
“Do You Not Understand These Things?”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the Gospel lesson which contained perhaps the most well-known Bible passage in the history of mankind: John 3:1-17
My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. I know what you ‘re thinking! You want me to rush right to John 3:16 and preach a sermon on those well-known words: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” The temptation is certainly there to do that. They are comfortable words…reassuring words…words we know by heart and treasure. But I must admit that I do not want to preach on John 3:16 because there is so much more for us to discuss and consider from the lesson taken from John 3:1-17.
In this lesson, a man named Nicodemus came at night to speak to Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee (fanatic Jewish law experts) who also happened to be one of the ruling members on the Sanhedrin (the ruling, religious, and judicial council in NT Israel). Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, which seems odd but it could have been that way because (1) Nicodemus didn’t want other Jews to see him confess his belief in Jesus since he was a member of not one but two groups of people who dislike Jesus, and (2) it simply may have been too hard for Nicodemus to get near Jesus during the day because of the crowds. Whatever the case, Nicodemus gets his wish. He is granted a private audience with Jesus who uses this opportunity to teach one of Israel’s teachers.
It is an interesting dialogue these two have. Jesus is trying to speak and teach regarding spiritual truths, and poor Nicodemus remains kind of clueless throughout. Yet their discussion must have had some kind of impact. We will see Nicodemus again in John chapter 7 and again after Jesus has died. Nicodemus is with Joseph of Arimathea as they prepare Jesus’ body for burial according to Jewish custom (John 19:39). But here, in their encounter in the dark, Jesus repeats the same phrase three times: “I tell you the truth” and in verse 10 Jesus asks, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” While none of us are Pharisees and none of us are members of the Sanhedrin, I think that same question applies to us, too. Do you not understand these things?
First of all, do you understand what it means to be born again? Actually, in the Greek, the phrase also means “born from above.” Doesn’t matter if it was English or Greek; Nicodemus didn’t get it because he was thinking strictly in human terms. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4). Seriously? Of course not. Well, okay then, what does that really mean?
This new birth that Jesus is talking about – “water and Spirit,” – is not of the water and of the Spirit as two separate experiences. Water and Spirit work together in the new birth. Jesus was clearly speaking of Baptism. In Baptism, the Spirit works saving faith. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit connects us with God’s love and grace. He works a new birth, a birth that makes us children of the heavenly Father and a member of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul said the same thing when he wrote, “(God) saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Sadly, Baptism gets a bad rap in this modern world. It’s seen as a traditional thing you do to make grandma happy; just go through the motions and she’ll stop bringing it up. Baptism is a low-tech Sacrament in a high tech world. However, the modern misconception does not change what Baptism IS and what it DOES. Water and Spirit, water and Word, working faith, forgiving sins, opening the Kingdom of Heaven to us. Baptism. That’s what Jesus meant by being “born again.”
Secondly, do you understand what it means for God to really love the world as Jesus taught in the so-familiar words of verse 16? Valentine’s Day, which is all about love, came and went last month with an estimated 145 million cards being sent in the US. What did you send or get? Do you still have the card or the candy? The trappings of Valentine’s Day – cards, candy, and flowers – are very much like human love. They come, they go, they’re fun at first but lose luster (and life) over time. But God’s love is totally different.
Such love we do not easily understand because no human can love like God. But we need to know about it. Many Christians like to refer to it by its Greek word, agape. This kind of love is more than a feeling; it’s a resolve. It doesn’t base its actions on how likable or worthy the object of love is; it acts first and foremost in the best interest of its recipient. Verse 16 says God loved the world, a world trapped in sin, and so God had to deal with sin.
God’s love brought results. He offered the ultimate sacrifice for the world he loved. He gave his one and only Son as the necessary sacrifice for the world’s sins. God gave his one and only Son for the butchery of the cross. Jesus repeated what God’s gift meant: “Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith saves. But not just any faith – faith in the Son of God, who was given as our sacrifice. Those who believe in him “shall not perish.” We enjoy life with Jesus now already, but even after our eventual death, we will still know life in full glory because of our Baptismal faith and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Did Nicodemus understand all of this? The Bible doesn’t say. Does the world understand all of this? It sure doesn’t look like it. Yet we know, we believe, we teach, and we proclaim this truth to a world that badly needs to hear that we DO have a loving God who calls us to repent, receive the birth from above that comes through Baptism, and to trust in him every day of our lives. We can do that because we know what Nicodemus knew: “…God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.