LENT 2, A – March 12, 2017

SCRIPTURES – Genesis 12:1-9; Rom. 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." John 3:3


From now until we arrive at Palm Sunday, we will hear of four encounters that Jesus has with various people on His way to the cross.  Today, it is with a man named Nicodemus.  Next Sunday, Jesus will meet a woman at a well.  After that, He will come upon a man who was blind from birth.  Then Jesus will be summoned to a village called Bethany to help a friend, Lazarus, who was sick but who, by the time Jesus arrives, lay dead in his tomb. In each of these encounters, it will be important to watch and listen carefully for two things. 

First, we must carefully watch and listen to Jesus.  As He journeys to Jerusalem, where He will be crucified, each encounter along the way tells us something more of what He has come to accomplish and whom He has come to save by His death on the cross.  With each encounter, Jesus is revealing Himself, opening the curtain wider and wider to us, so that when the nails pierce His hands and feet and the sword pierces His side, we may know that He is reconciling us to the Father. 

Second, we must be sure to see ourselves in each and every one the people Jesus encounters.  Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind and Lazarus each bear a striking resemblance to us. As Jesus reveals Himself to them for their salvation, so He reveals Himself to us for our salvation. 

Today we consider the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Who was Nicodemus? He was a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews: a man with credentials. Since so many of the encounters that Jesus has with people involve Pharisees, let’s be sure we understand just who they were. 

It helps to start with the “Rabbis” and the “Scribes.”  “Rabbis” were Israel’s teachers of religion. The Jewish religion is especially based upon the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. They were all written by Moses and are known as “The Five Books” or the Pentateuch. They contain the 10 Commandments – the law of God, which is also called “the Torah.” “Rabbis” taught the Torah, what it meant and how to live according to it.

The “Scribes” were religious men who dedicated their lives to collecting all of the teachings of the Rabbis, recording them, and consolidating them into rules for daily living. Eventually, these rules for living according to the Law of God became consolidated into 613 rules for daily living. If you keep these 613 rules, you can be sure that you’re keeping the 10 Commandments.

This brings us to the “Pharisees.” Pharisees were religious men who dedicated their life to living by these 613 rules for daily living.  As you can imagine, these rules touched on every aspect of daily life and permeated every thought and every action of every minute of every day. To become a Pharisee required a total commitment to a religious life. Among the many religious people in Jesus’ day, the Pharisee was the most religious and the most respected. This was Nicodemus.

But Nicodemus was not just a Pharisee; he was also “a ruler of the Jews.” The “rulers of the Jews” were those religious men who sat on Israel’s ruling council and court of justice, which was called, “the Sanhedrin.” These “rulers of the Jews” were the most respected of all religious men in Israel.

Nicodemus, then, as a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, came to Jesus with the best of credentials. He 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.” This was really a remarkable address from Nicodemus, the pious, elder statesmen to Jesus, a young Rabbi. According to good, middle eastern custom, he would expect Jesus to respond by saying something like, “Honorable sir, I am flattered that a man of your great devotion and high status would be willing to seek me out and listen to what I have to say. You are truly a most gracious and open-minded man.”

Here’s where we are a lot like Nicodemus. We, too, hold onto our credentials. We’re good; law abiding people who take our religion seriously. We may have our own interpretation of what it means to keep the law of God and our own set of rules for daily living that we follow. But of this much we are sure: we take our religion very seriously. We’re sincere. What we believe, we believe with our heart. And isn’t that what really matters?

We expect Jesus to appreciate this in us. Like Nicodemus, we expect that Jesus will compliment us for being smart enough to come to Him and accept Him as our Lord and Savior. We expect Him to affirm us for our wisdom in deciding to live according to God’s law and our desire to see the Kingdom of God. And then, with Nicodemus we hear Jesus say, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Now, in the language that Jesus spoke the word translated as “again” can actually mean either “again” or “from above.” Nicodemus chooses “again” and replies, “How can a man be born when he is already old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Thinking as a Pharisee, he wonders: is Rabbi Jesus introducing a new teaching, which must then be added onto the list of 613 rules for living? But this would be the most difficult rule of all to keep. How can a man be born again?

But, Jesus did not mean “again.” He meant “from above.” “Above” is beyond our reach. It is over our heads and is not something that is open for our input or decision. “Born from above” means that this is not something that is controlled from here below. As a baby with its birth, we have no say in our being born from above. We must simply rely entirely upon God who is above to take care of this and bring us into His Kingdom. 

There stands Nicodemus with all his credentials. And we, with all of ours. And they are worthless. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  Jesus declares our credentials worthless and shatters every last hope that is based on ourselves. But then, He goes on to say, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  With Jesus, there is not only shattering; there is also rebuilding.

The water that Jesus speaks about here is the water of holy Baptism. It is the water of God’s creation. Through baptism, all that Christ accomplished by His cross and resurrection is given to you. Through baptism, the Kingdom of God is opened to you and before you realize what has happened, you’ve been taken up into God. Through baptism, all of Christ’s credentials are given to you – freely, by grace alone, not because of your good works, but for Christ’s sake alone. A new life – eternal life – is given to you, for those who are born into Jesus are born into a life with God that will never end.

You can be sure of this, for God does not desire to condemn you, but to save you. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) You cannot ascend into heaven by holding onto your credentials. Let go of them, then! They are nothing but filthy rags! Cling instead to Christ crucified, and your Baptism into Him. Christ is your credentials, given to you by God Himself.

This is the way it is in the Kingdom of God. This is what we learn from today’s encounter. We do not ascend into heaven. Jesus comes down to us. He, who was lifted up as a serpent on a pole. He, to whom Nicodemus came at night. Through His Word and water, and also His bread and wine this day, He comes to you “[giving] life to the dead and [calling] into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom. 4) He comes and gives you all of His credentials. By Christ’s credentials, and His alone, you may enter the Kingdom of God! To the Triune God alone be glory and praise. Amen.