Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

This Lent, we have the privilege to walk through several stories in the Gospel of John, which demonstrate to us the power of God for salvation to all who believe. We’ll stop in John 3 today, where we meet Nicodemus who learns the grace of the Kingdom of God. Next Sunday, we’ll hear about how important forgiveness of sins is for entrance into the Kingdom. Then we’ll ponder the nature of sin with the man who was born blind. Finally before Palm Sunday, the Lord will bring us down to the very grave before raising us up with Lazarus, whom He calls forth from the tomb. That brings us to the Palm Sunday procession in John 12, which was largely populated by people who had seen Lazarus rise.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, because he thinks he can identify the things of God. After all, he’s a trained expert in them. It stands to reason if you want to know about God, you study the Scriptures and that makes you well-qualified to know what God is doing. But Jesus points out the fatal flaw in man-knowing-God. Human understanding doesn’t recognize the fullness of God’s work of salvation. It can behold the miracles, but not the fuller reality behind them. “You must be born again.”

Without being born again, people profane God’s Name. Without being born again, they just go through the motions of religion because its what their family does, or it’s to get their spouse off their case, but they are only inspired by the order and the moral example the Bible gives. Likewise, without being born again, people shun religion and say it’s nothing but judgmental people. They turn away from God because they either view Him as an angry judge or as something that people in the dark ages made up in the name of social control.

“You must be born again” says that we are born incapable of recognizing God’s work, rightly knowing how God thinks, or even understanding how to read His Word (even if it’s in plain English). By the Holy Spirit we see the fullness of God’s heart. He doesn’t just love the people who meet certain criteria. He loves these people of the flesh—sinners with real lives that have real doubts, guilt, fear, etc. He loves the world, and if you are in the world, He loves you.

His love, though, doesn’t come to us merely on human terms; it come on God’s terms. If it were on human terms, it would be subject to our biases—who we think is worthy of His kingdom. The recognition of God’s love in Christ is wider than human expectation, and it is better.

Unfortunately for us, hearing these words in 2020, “love” has been mutated into a strange version of its original intent. Love is a strong feeling, love is permissiveness, love is…altogether human. But we heard this in last week’s Epistle reading, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Human love takes that to mean a blank check, that between the Old and New Testaments, God had a change of heart and decided to not be so hard on people. Instead what it really

means is that God loved us enough that, in spite of our wretchedness, our rejecting Him, that He still gave the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son. That was what we truly needed to be saved.

Our salvation being the result of God’s work alone is called monergism—meaning God alone has the power to save. And this makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable to be out of control of something so important. The Spirit moves where He wills. “He creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who believe” (Augsburg Confession V).

Because God doesn’t hold out on His salvation based on what we’ve done, we can take confidence that He forgives the sins of all who have been born again. But how do we know when we’re born again?

“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.” This refers back to the incident with the fiery serpents in Numbers 21, when God sent serpents to bite the people who grumbled against the Lord so that they died.

It means that all who feel the pangs of death and acknowledge that they have offended not just social standards or their own expectations for themselves, but have sinned against God. All who believe this—not only that He exists and He saves theoretical sinners, but that He has saved you, a sinner, have eternal life.

Today it’s all too common to over-simplify this message, and cheapen the Gospel into Good news for bad situations, regardless of sin. But how much this harms people, because if sin is not serious, then why was Christ condemned? If sin doesn’t actually lead to us perishing, then why was God’s Son treated so cruelly?

Today the Church is challenged two-fold: one that God receives sinners, and two that God calls sinners to repent. If you lose either of those points, you miss out on the Gospel. This is why the cross remains such an enduring and powerful symbol for God’s Church. It’s more than two lines to form the lower-case ‘t’ on “co-exist” bumper stickers. The cross shows the darkness in all people, and what God did to bring us back to Himself. Every human attempt to do this has resulted in disillusionment or delusion. Some get “burned out on religion” because all they hear is a demand to do more, be better, and stop sinning. Others will want a message that says God just wants us to accept each other as we are.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017
Text: John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world.,.,” (you know it, finish it!)  This passage contains one of the most beloved verses in the Bible, the Gospel in a nutshell.   Let’s go deeper, though.  Hearing these words of Jesus in context opens us up to the full depth of what it means to not perish but have everlasting life, and what that gift cost.
 
God granting eternal life to all who believe is not to be thought of the way H&R Block advertises tax refund money.  God is not holding out on people, waiting for them to unlock the right way to discover everlasting life.  The way He gives eternal life to mortal, sinful people is not just a matter of making a change in His records.
 
Eternal life is a costly gift.  We understand that preserving someone’s years is a costly thing.  A couple weeks in the hospital is likely to cost more than a family makes in a year.  But after all that money is spent, you still only have mortal life.
 
Instead, the Lord purchased and won eternal life not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.[1]  In order to gain eternal life, He bore rejection by all, the agony of body and soul, the nails, and death.  This is what it cost to undo the power of sin and death so that “everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
 
How is this gift bestowed?  Jesus compares it to the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  “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.”  On Jesus’ part is the bloody agony and death, on our part is the faith which looks to Him.  Yet even that believing is God’s work,[2] for no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again by God.
 
Then there’s the flip side of eternal life.  What would we have if we had no Son of Man on the cross in which to trust?  We ought to look back to the account of the bronze serpent in Number 21:5-9:
 
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
 
What came first was the people’s impatience and rebellion against God and His servant, Moses.  God gave them what that sin deserved: death.  They perished in their sin instead of reaching the Promised Land.  Yet, God in His mercy commanded a way of salvation: raise a bronze serpent on a pole and every bitten rebel who looks upon it will live.  Though they rebelled, God forgave them and gave them life in the Promised Land.
 
The same is true for each of us.  We are children of Adam and Eve, whose rebellion we heard about last Sunday in Genesis 3.  “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die…My Spirit shall not abide with man forever but his days shall be 120 years…Death spread to all because all sinned.”[3]  The bite of the fiery serpent has touched us all, and we deserve temporal and eternal death.
 
Yet God in His love sent His own Son to be lifted up, nailed to the tree of the cross, that every sinner who looks at Him in faith should not perish—should not die under the wrath of God, should not be condemned to hell with the devil and his angels—but have eternal life.
 
But for all who refuse to look upon the Son of Man, who turn away from His voice and deny both that they have rebelled and the fiery serpent’s bite, they shall perish.  Sure, they may seem to be alive today, going about their business, enjoying family time, eating and drinking.  But without faith in the Son of Man, they will surely perish.  Their good things will come to an end, and their eternal inheritance will be the fires of hell.  “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
 
But God gives eternal life to all who believe.  When you reach 100 years old, it’s a milestone.  You get a letter from the President and everyone wonders what your secret was to such a long life.  What would you say if you met some of the patriarchs before the Flood?  Methusaleh, what’s your secret to such a long life of 969 years?  I don’t know, my father Enoch only walked with God for 365 before God took him.[4]
 
Eternal life is not something we can measure by the standards we know.  We need a new way of thinking about eternal life.  It’s not just an extension of status quo life as we know it.  Maybe that’s a shortcoming of the word “everlasting” as King James English translates it.
 
Eternal life is a present possession of all who believe.  “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life”—not “will have,” but has eternal life.  You and I, and all who belong to the Lord through faith have eternal life already.
 
That means death’s power over us is empty.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”[5]  Because God, who raised Jesus from the dead, has given us eternal life, we live even if we should be taken by God.
 
That’s why Enoch is significant.  We might say he lived only 365 years before God took him, but what does that matter?  Whether he lived on earth or with God, he had eternal life.
 
It’s the same for us when we’re smitten with dreadful illness and even when our bodies succumb to death.  What does death matter?  It’s an empty shadow.  Painful? Yes, but it is powerless over the one who has eternal life.  So our prayers for those who are sick are to the end that God preserves them in faith that they keep the gift of eternal life and their Savior’s victory over the grave.  The prayer is not necessariy answered by restoration of health, but by keeping them in the true faith until they are delivered from evil and lie down in their grave.  Our prayer for those who have wandered from the faith or are in doubt is that they would believe so that they too would not perish, but also have eternal life.  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, Creed, 2nd Article, alluding to 1 Peter 1:18-19
[2] John 6:29
[3] Genesis 2:17, Genesis 6:3, Romans 5:12
[4] Genesis 5:21-24, 27
[5] Psalm 23:4 KJV