St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 7th June 09
I’m sure I don’t need to remind any of you here this morning that this month is peak examination season. For the students and teachers among us, June is the culmination of a year’s hard work, when they are tested to the utmost. And even if we or a member of our family are not facing exams at the moment, the chances are nearly all of us can remember those long hours cooped up in a boiling hot school hall as we struggled to dredge up facts from an obscure part of our memory, and the anxious weeks of waiting as we anticipated the brown envelope dropping through our door. Examinations, like it or not, are part of the growing-up process, and they are something most, if not all of us, are glad to leave behind.
But for Nicodemus, who features in today’s reading, life was one long examination. Not in the sense that each year he got behind a desk and wrote a paper on, say, geography or maths. But in the sense that each year, each month, each day, he was always looking at his life and seeing if he had done enough to please God. Because that is the way people approached God in those days. You spent your life trying to keep the law as best as you could, and offering sacrifices when you failed. You were aware that God had set a pass mark of 100% and you spent your entire life striving to get as near it as possible.
And then along came Jesus. A carpenter, of all people, from some out of the way place called Nazareth. Not a religious expert, indeed someone who as far as anyone knew had never taken an RE exam in His life. But He was going round teaching a new way of being right with God, a way based on repentance and faith and love. And the way He talked about God, too, was altogether different. Not as a stern teacher figure who de-manded perfection from His pupils, but as a Father you could get to know, who provided for you, who cared for you, who delighted in your prayers.
It’s not too surprising, then, that Nicodemus decided he had to visit Jesus. Not in the middle of day, when his friends might ask him awkward questions, but at night, when no-one was looking, when Jesus would more likely be free to spend some time with him. And so, with one last glance round, to make sure no-one is looking, he slips out of his house, along the city streets, and with his heart beating loudly, knocks at the door of the place Jesus is staying.
Because clearly Nicodemus can see there’s something special about Jesus. Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no-one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him. That’s quite statement of faith, isn’t it? For someone who has taken every RE exam under the sun to call a carpenter from Galilee Rabbi, to acknowledge that He has come from God, is surely quite a compliment.
But for Jesus it wasn’t enough. In reply Jesus declared, I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. I can only imagine, but I’m sure that wasn’t the reaction Nicodemus wasn’t expecting. My guess is, he would have anticipated Jesus returning the compliment, or talking about theology, or finding out a little more about this eminent Pharisee who had come knocking on his door. But, no, right from the off, Jesus comes back at Nicodemus with a direct challenge, and forces him to look afresh at what he believes.
Why does He do this?
Well, maybe the way to answer this question is to think what people nowadays often think of as a Christian. Like Nicodemus, they believe that the way to please God is to do the best you can. And like Nicodemus, they accept Jesus as a special teacher, possibly as someone sent by God. Because that’s what being a Christian is all about, isn’t it?
Well, the short answer, according to Jesus, is “no”. Why not?
First of all, you haven’t understood the grace of God.
That’s what Jesus is talking about when he mentions being “born again”. Now I know that the phrase a “born again Christian” has in some circles a bad reputation. It conjures up images of sweaty evangelists demanding lots of money or Bible-bashers haranguing people into conversion. And if it’s a problem with you, then maybe you might find it helpful to use the alternative translation “born from above”. Because the point Jesus is making is that the way we get right with God is not by always striving to meet His standards, by treating our whole life as one long examination, but by allowing God to come into our lives and for Him to do His work.
Being saved, you see, is not a matter of what we do but of what God does in us. Our salvation is not something we can earn, or something we can control, but something we receive from God as a free, undeserved gift. And that’s why Jesus talks about being born , because the process of being born is something none of us has any say in. I know that sometimes we look in the mirror and wish we had been born ten years later, or maybe we’re in a hurry to grow up and wish we had been born ten years sooner, but the fact remains, the decision wasn’t up to us. And in one sense the same is true when it comes to becoming a Christian. Becoming a Christian doesn’t depend on whether we have lived a good life, or how many exams we have passed, or how clever we are. Becoming a Christians depends on recognising there is nothing we can offer a good, holy and loving God and simply asking Him to have mercy on us.
Now I know this is a hard teaching for many to accept. When Jesus says, I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again He is going right against the grain of human nature. We feel there must be something we can give, something we can offer which pleases God. And if that’s true of us, imagine how Nicodemus must have felt when he heard Jesus’ reply. He had spent his whole life trying to earn his way into God’s favour. So maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on him when he asks what is surely the daftest question in the whole of Scripture. “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” You see, he hasn’t yet understood that salvation isn’t about what we do, but about what we receive.
And that’s why Jesus moves on to make His second point that builds on the first, you haven’t understood the work of the Holy Spirit.
Now when I talk to most people about God they have a pretty clear idea of who God the Father is. They un-derstand Him to be out there somewhere, all-powerful, all-knowing. And they know about Jesus who lived 2000 years ago and is now risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. But that’s only 2/3 of the story (or 66.6% recurring if you are taking your maths exam). What about the Holy Spirit.
Well, Nicodemus would have known a little about the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit came upon special people like David, and Samson, and Saul, at special times to help do them a particular task from God. And I guess that’s a little bit how people see the Holy Spirit today. A special presence of God in special people like Mother Teresa, maybe, or Desmond Tutu, but not really for ordinary Christians like ourselves.
But is that really who the Holy Spirit is – God’s special presence for God’s special people? Listen carefully to what Jesus says in verse 5, I tell you the truth, no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. So if you want to be a Christian, if you want to be counted as a member of God’s kingdom, then you need the Holy Spirit in your life. A Christian is not in the first instance someone who does the right things, or knows all about matters of religion, but someone who simply says to God, “I need you to save me. I need you to fill my life with your Holy Spirit to give me your peace and your presence”.
And the good news is that thanks to Jesus, everyone who prays this prayer receives the Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 8:16 when he says, The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Because the proof we are a child of God, and that we are part of His kingdom is the Holy Spirit filling us with His presence and His peace. With what result? That we can know God as Father – not in some abstract theoretical way, but in a living, growing relationship of prayer and worship and praise. And this relationship really is open to everyone – whether young or old, male or female, rich or poor. You can too can have the Holy Spirit in your life right now, right here this morning.
Of course it may be that you are wondering how all this is possible. Certainly Nicodemus did. As he listened to all this new and wonderfully different teaching of Jesus, I am sure that all kinds of questions came tumbling into his mind. But the most fundamental one was this, How can this be? After all, it’s no small thing asking God to fill your life with His Holy Spirit. Indeed the more you think about it, the more it seems to be an impossible request. Because you know that deep within you are things you really know need sorting, secrets that maybe nobody else knows, temptations and fears you try your best to hide, and letting God into those kind of dark places – well, it’s kind of scary, admittedly all the wrong things you have done.
That’s why Jesus makes his third point, you haven’t understood the cross of Christ.
Let’s talk for a moment about snakes. The one thing we all know about snakes is that in most parts of the world they are poisonous. I understand, for example, that when you go to the toilet in certain parts of Australia you have to be particularly careful if you want to avoid being bitten. Now there is a story in the Old Testament – in the book of Numbers – of how God sent a plague of snakes upon the people of Israel who were grumbling against His goodness and His love. It sounds a harsh, primitive kind of story, but really it is a picture for us of the pernicious influence of sin. Sin is like a snakebite that spreads its venom throughout the human race – and none of us are immune. It’s no use saying we are better than our neighbour down the road or we’ve never hurt anybody. When it comes to the final examination at the end of our lives, all of us will be found wanting before the throne of God. Whether we are vicar or a churchwarden, a housewife or a schoolboy – the verdict is all the same. Our profession, our qualifications, even our religion, all will count as nothing.
So what’s the remedy? Well, in that story from Numbers Moses put up a bronze snake on a pole so that anyone who had been bitten could look at it and live. And however we precisely understand that story, it is clear from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus that He saw it as an illustration of the true meaning of the death He soon would die. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. Because the point of Jesus dying on the cross is quite simply to draw the venom and the sting of sin once and for all, that we might look to Him and live. That’s why the Christian faith ultimately begins and ends at the cross. It involves accepting that Jesus died in my place for my sin, that although I am weak and unable to save myself, Jesus came to be my Saviour and offer His life for mine. And on the basis of Jesus’ death for us, and on that basis alone, that we can turn to God to have mercy on us and to fill us with His Holy Spirit.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. And should anyone examine your faith and ask what it means to be a Christian, here is a verse which sums it all up. Nothing to do with trying to please God by your good works, nothing to do with accepting Jesus as a good teacher. But everything to do with belief, with looking to the cross of Christ for life and forgiveness and a fresh start, with asking God to show mercy and to fill you with His Holy Spirit.
Now some people here this morning may well know all of this already. And it’s easy in that case maybe to think this sermon isn’t really for me, that somehow I can let it pass me by. But my question to you is this: do you simply know these facts as facts, or are they truths that burn deep into your lives and set your heart on fire? The grace of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, the cross of Christ are never meant to be dry, dusty an-swers to the questions of life, but lived realities that should thrill us, that should cause us to rejoice, that should make our lips sing with thanksgiving. So do they? How much does this love of God for the world, this love of God for us, really impact on my life, or on yours?
And if there’s someone here who hasn’t perhaps ever really thought what being a Christian is all about, then let me say that this sermon is also for you. Because you need the grace of God in your life to bring you to salvation and you need to receive His Holy Spirit to make you a child of God. And so my question to you is this: why don’t you take some time this morning to come before the cross of Christ and realise just what Jesus has done for you? And at the end of this service have a quiet word with me, and I can tell more about the most wonderful decision you can ever make.
But for all of us now, let’s be still and use this time to respond to God’s word and let His Holy Spirit minis-ter to our hearts.
Let us pray…