Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 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.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
Dear Fellow Redeemed:
Our nation has been in turmoil this past week. What a sad thing that so much division of people can exist. It’s sad that people have to struggle for equality. All of us certainly desire peace and justice among peoples. There isn’t any room as far as God is concerned, for prejudice or bigotry. It certainly destroys lives and prevents peace in this world. In case there would be any doubt that God sees all people the same, Jesus makes all of us equal in His words to Nicodemus in our text.
We’re equal in our need. Jesus isn’t excluding anyone when He says, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” All are flesh who are born of flesh, He says (flesh is often synonymous with sinfulness in the Bible). We’re all equal in our sinfulness. Every human with a beating heart is united with every other human in what divides us from our God.
We see this need that unites us just from Nicodemus’ questions in our text. He calls Jesus Rabbi and teacher. He even says that he and his fellow Pharisees know that He must have come from God because of all of the signs they’ve seen Him doing.
All people could see the things Nicodemus had seen, and come to the same conclusions: this is a very interesting individual; look at these amazing things he is able to do. But those conclusions don’t quite get to what matters in terms of a person’s standing with God, or in terms of eternal security. He wasn’t seeing Jesus for what He really is, and for what we really need Him to be. And therefore, he wasn’t in a situation to benefit from what Jesus has brought.
We see this need that unites us also in our Old Testament lesson for today. God speaks to the house of Israel through His prophet Ezekiel. He speaks to the ones He has made His covenant people in this world. But they have abandoned Him. And He speaks to them as if they are not His people. They are unrepentant in their sin. They are determined to be apart from Him, ignoring His Laws. They are in need of a transformation that only God can bring about - a transformation that would restore them as His people. Their unbelieving hearts that reject God’s mercy must be replaced with new ones that receive Him.
You are like every other person in this world in that you have a sinful nature. That’s not the kind of unity we’re usually excited to hear about, is it? Every person - white, black, and otherwise - has inherited a nature that rejects God. Every person is born of flesh, Jesus says. Every person must be born again if she or he is to see the kingdom of God.
You have seen this in your own life. The turmoil this past week has been about a failure to love one’s neighbor, hasn’t it? It’s been about a horrible example of it that the world watched on TV. It’s about what that seemed to symbolize to a group of people who have felt unloved, and been unloved in many ways.
I’m tiptoeing very lightly around this, because, while I believe it needs to be talked about here, I don’t want to tempt you to think politically right now. Don’t do it. We are in the spiritual realm at this moment, addressing a commandment that binds all of us to love neighbor as self, to do no bodily harm to one’s neighbor, but to help and befriend him in every need.
You must address in your prayers your own failure to love your neighbor. The evil behind it is the same as that which kicked off the turmoil in our nation. In your case it doesn’t come out in violence on the streets, but maybe it comes out in what you’re thinking about the people who are commenting about it online. Maybe you have hated them in your heart. Have you? Maybe for you it doesn’t come out in police brutality, but it comes out in the way you have treated your family members or co-workers. Has it? Maybe you feel guilty about opportunities you’ve had to love your neighbor by speaking up; but you remained silent. Your failure to love your neighbor unites you with every other person in this world.
Jesus talked with His disciples one time about the difficulty of entering God’s kingdom. When they began to worry about their own situation, they said, “Who, then, can be saved (Matt. 19:24-26)?” Isn’t that also what Nicodemus is doing in our text. Jesus tells him that salvation comes through something impossible for man. “How?” He says. How can a man be born when he is old? How can it be possible for me?, he means. Surely, I can’t enter a second time into my mother’s womb and be born. Without question, all are equal in our need before God.
We ask in the Collect this morning, that the Lord keep us steadfast in the faith in the Triune God. We are asking to remain in the knowledge that we are equal to all other people - not just in our need; but also, we’re equal in God’s grace. Whoever believes in Him may have eternal life, Jesus says. Whoever, anyone! Whoever believes in the One Who was lifted up, as Jesus says in our text. He means literally lifted up; lifted up onto a cross.
He refers to a time hundreds of years before, when the people had grumbled about the food God had given them in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land (Numbers 21). God had sent poisonous serpents that bit many of them so that they died. When Moses prayed for the people, God instructed him to put a bronze serpent on a pole - an object of His grace, really. When the people looked to that object in obedience, and in faith, God made them well. The object on the pole in Moses’ time was a foreshadowing. The true object of God’s mercy would be put on the pole of a cross to save all who looked there in faith. Jesus directs Nicodemus to Himself as that object.
You were directed to that same object of God’s grace for salvation. Though you share with every other human being, a sinful nature that opposes God, He has enabled you, along with all others, to share in His mercy. You have come to know of it through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit through Baptism, and through God’s Word. You have been reborn in this way, so that you know - not just that Jesus was a man who did some amazing signs and wonders, but that He is the object of God’s grace to Whom you may look for forgiveness of sins and eternal life.
How is this possible? Nicodemus asks in our text. You need not ask it. You know what he didn’t know at that moment, but what he came to know later: that God’s grace for salvation is to be found in Christ. In Him, your sin of failing to love your neighbor is fully and freely forgiven. It is forgiven in the innocent One Who loved by being lifted up so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. The Father sent this One. The Spirit has enabled you to know it. You know God’s love that is the solution to everything that divides people in this world. God grant that all come to know it, and that there might be true peace - in this world, and in the next world. Amen.
collect of the Day
Almighty God, by Your grace alone we are called into Your kingdom to confess the true faith to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and in the power of the Divine Majesty to worship the true Unity: We beseech You that You would keep us steadfast in this faith and evermore defend us from all adversities; for You, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, live and reign, one true God, now and forever. Amen.
“Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. [addressing them as unbelievers] 31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? 32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.”
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?”
35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.