Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sermon: John 3: 1-21 Hard Truth for the Religious: You Must Be Born Again

From as far back as I can remember, I’ve been going to church. Our Sunday School was before the service, and I was at that too. Mum and dad realised that they could get some peace, so I also went to holiday clubs and Bible clubs in the local Presbyterian, Methodist and Elim churches as well. It seems as if I’ve known that Bible verse for my whole life - and that might be the case for you as well. With a little prompt, ‘For God so...’ you could say it off without thinking. Children in Sunday Schools know it from an early age. It’s a great promise to hold on to, and yet, when it was first spoken, it was shocking for the one who heard it.

As chapter three opens, we’re introduced to a very religious man. ‘Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.’ Nicodemus was at the top of the tree when it came to religion. He’s a Pharisee, the strictest group of Jews, and he’s a ruler of the Jews. He’s part of the ruling council. Later on, Jesus also calls him ‘the teacher of Israel’. So imagine a bishop coming to Jesus. Someone very religious, one who you think Jesus is going to be very impressed by. One who strives to live a good life and to obey God’s law. One who carefully tries to be good. And Nicodemus comes to Jesus - by night - and he says what he knows: ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one could do these signs that you do unless God is with him.’

There’s probably a wee bit of flattery there - but perhaps also an earnest searching. Jesus, are you really from God? So what would Jesus have to say to Nicodemus? Or what would Jesus say to a decent member of the Church of Ireland who tries very hard, and turns up, and pays in? What does Jesus say to this very religious man?

Do you notice how Jesus says in v3, 5, 11 ‘Truly, truly, I say to you...’? Jesus (who John tells us in 1:14 is full of grace and truth) tells this religious man the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s the truth this religious man needed to hear - and the truth that we who may have a tendency towards religion also need to hear. The truth is this: that religion will not save you. [If you take nothing else from today, or if you stop listening in a rage, or decide to fall asleep, remember this truth - religion will not save.]

Jesus tells us this in his first hard truth: ‘unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ (3) Nic said what he knows, from what he has seen, but Jesus says that to see the kingdom of God, you have to be born again.

Sometimes these words have been used as a slur against what some people see as the ‘serious’ Christians, maybe from small independent churches. Ah, they’re just the born againers. But Jesus says that you can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again Every Christian is a born again Christian, or else they’re not a Christian at all.

But what does Jesus mean? Nicodemus begins to wonder about the mechanics of entering into his mother’s womb and revisiting the maternity ward and delivery room. his question is: How? But he just doesn’t get it. Being born again is about starting over, a fresh start, a whole new way of life - not just improving the old way of living. As Paul puts it in 2 Cor 5:17 ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.’

And, as Jesus goes on with his second hard truth, being born again means being born of the Spirit. V5: ‘unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.’ You see, flesh gives birth to flesh - every so often the zoo shows off its new baby animals - the mummy giraffe gives birth to a baby giraffe; a mummy tiger gives birth to a baby tiger. Flesh gives birth to flesh - humans give birth to humans; but only the Spirit can give birth to those born again by God. The new start doesn’t come by effort or religion, but only by being born of the Spirit. That’s the only way to get into the kingdom of God.

Just as you can’t see the wind, you can only see the effects of the wind, when the trees sway about or are blown over, or the slates come off your roof - in the same way, you can’t see that someone has the Spirit of God in them - but you do see the effects.

Again, Nicodemus is baffled. Again comes his question - and maybe it’s the question you’re asking as well. ‘How can these things be?’ How do you get this fresh start of being born again? How can you be sure of entering the kingdom of God if it isn’t of your own efforts and good works? How do you make sure you don’t end up knock, knock. knocking on heaven’s door only to be kept out?

Jesus gives Nicodemus the third and final hard truth. And it’s the truth that links in to what we’ve already seen in John’s gospel. Listen for the familiar words in v11: ‘we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.’ So far we’ve seen how John the Baptist and then Andrew and Philip bore witness. Here, Jesus is the witness, speaking what he knows, bearing witness - but ‘you do not receive our testimony.’ [The ‘you’ is plural - youse-ins]

So what is the testimony Jesus shares, which they don’t receive? It’s what he knows, having come from heaven, the testimony of God’s saving purposes. Jesus has come to earth to bear witness by his life - and by his death. Will we receive it?

The testimony comes in verse 14 onwards. ‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ When Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt at the Exodus, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness, always on the journey, never reaching their final destination. And they grumbled - not the ‘are we there yet’ or ‘I’m hungry {or the new hangry - angry because of hunger}’ or ‘I need a wee’. They moaned about Moses. About God. About the wilderness. So God sent serpents to kill some of them. But then the people repented. God didn’t take away the problem, but he gave a new solution - this bronze serpent. A representation of the problem, which became the solution. If you were bitten, all you had to do was look to the serpent, believe that God would heal, and you would be healed. If you turned your back, there was no hope. You had to look to live.

In the same way, Jesus would be lifted up on the cross. A representation of the problem - a sinner’s death. Yet he is lifted up so that all who look to him will live. The curse of sin is on him - the curse you are cursed with - so don’t die on your own; look to him, and be saved, and have eternal life.

This is the truth - religion will not save. The only thing that will save is faith in Jesus. As our famous verse tells us: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ God loved the world, he gave his Son, to be our Saviour. Anyone, whoever believes in him, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done - believe, and you will not perish. You’ll have eternal life. This testimony leads to belief, leads to life. (John 20 all over again!).

You see, Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He didn’t come to wag a finger and give off and make you feel bad. He came in order that the world might be saved through him. He came that you might be saved through him - not through religion.

Attending all those Sunday schools and bible clubs, I was a proper little Pharisee. I thought that God loved me because of all that I did for him. I won the BB scripture cup every year. I tried really hard, but in the end, the verse I knew so well was what I actually needed - a new start, being born again by the God who loved me in spite of my efforts, and in spite of my sin, and who sent Jesus to be my Saviour.

But this is a hard truth for religious people to hear. It’s like going into your garage or your basement on a dark winter’s night. You turn on the light, and the wee furries and creepies dash to get back into the darkness. Jesus, the light of the world has come, but we prefer darkness, so that our evil deeds aren’t seen. Nicodemus came by night, under cover of darkness. Will he step into the light?

As you follow John’s gospel through, Nic makes two more appearances - (7:50 where he speaks up to ask for a fair hearing for Jesus in the council, and 19:39 where he asks for Jesus’ body, to aid with the burial). Eventually, he comes into the light. He identifies with Jesus, and follows.

What about you? Will you step into the light? Will you hear and receive these hard truths from the one who is grace and truth? You can’t see the kingdom of God without being born again, a new start. You can’t enter the kingdom of God without being born of the Spirit, as he brings about the newness of life. You have to accept the testimony of Jesus, about his saving purpose rooted in God’s love.

You know the verse so well, but today, make it your own. Put yourself in the verse. Personalise it, so that you know it for yourself, receiving God’s love, and his free gift of grace.

‘For God so loved _ _ _ _ _ _ that he gave his only Son, that [as _ _ _ _ _ _] believe in him, I should not perish, but have eternal life.’

Let’s take a moment to let that sink in. And as we close our eyes, I’ll give an opportunity for you to raise your hand as a sign that you are believing this for the very first time, or coming back to it. No one will see. Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 27th September 2015.

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