Lent 2 Series
A John 3:1-17
(Also Holy Trinity, Series B)
There are times
when life gets a little stale, boring and empty, when you do the
same things over and over and over and over again. You go through
the motions but that inner motivation is not there.
It happens to us in
so many different aspects of our lives. In our jobs for example. We
go through the motions. In many ways, we go through parts of our
jobs over and over and over again, for one year, two years, twenty
years, forty years. Over
and over again. At one time, the job was quite exciting, but time
has gone by and the inner enthusiasm isn’t quite there. Jobs can
become stale. You personally, not just the job, can become stale on
the job. We can become washed out, worn out, burnt out. We all know
Of the same thing
can happen to you at school. You know inside when you are going
through the motions at school, when the inner enthusiasm isn’t
there. You know those feelings, especially in late May or early
June, during the last weeks of school. You have had the same teacher
for about nine months now and often the inner motivations just
Or the same thing
can happen in marriage. You know when you are going through the
motions of marriage. At one time, your marriage may have had a touch
of excitement to it, but time has passed by and that enthusiasm is
no longer there. The marriage becomes a little stale, a little
repetitious. You end up being married a long time and you get into
this conversation with your spouse, and within two minutes into that
conversation, you know where it is going. You have been there
before. Or, in you get into a fight, you often say, “O no, honey,
not again. We have had this argument some 10,000 times. So you go
through the motions of marriage, but the inner motivation is not
And, the same thing
can happen in your religious life, in your relationship with God,
where you go through motions with God again and again and again. You
come on Sunday morning and you experience the same old routines and
the same old prayers and the same old liturgies and the same old
sermons said by the same old pastor, with the same old hymns, and
you sit in the same old pew with the same old people who hold the
same old bulletins. It is the same old same old, Sunday after Sunday
after Sunday. And so there comes a time in one’s religious life
where one begins going through the motions but the inner motivation
is no longer there and the inner heart is not quite alive.
It is with these
images in so many aspects of our lives…job, school, marriage,
religion…that life can become repetitious, stale and boring with
the same old thing over and over again, that we approach the story
of Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a man who was going through the motions
of religion without the inner motivation of God.
Let me briefly
retell the story of Nicodemus for you.
Now, I imagine that
Nicodemus was a man in his mid fifties or mid sixties, gray haired,
physically distinguished, accomplished, trim, successful in his
work. He was a teacher of the law, a professor of religion at the
temple in Jerusalem. He was one of the primary teachers of the law.
Now, according to the story in the Bible, he is “older in life;”
that is, an older man. That means he probably had about twelve
children, all gone from home. He probably had fifty grandchildren
plus ten great grand children. He probably heard that the eleventh
great grand child was to be born and he thinks to himself,
“Another great grandchild? I can’t keep track of all their
names.” Nicodemus was a man who had pretty much seen it all.
In his relationship
with God, Nicodemus was a man who was going through the motions. He
knew the law; he was a teacher of the law, but his inner enthusiasm
for God wasn’t there any more. It was not quite right in his
relationship with God anymore.
So Jesus of
Nazareth showed up in town, and Nicodemus had gone to hear Jesus
preach in the temple. Nicodemus sensed that Jesus had something
inside of him that Nicodemus no longer had. Nicodemus was touched by
Jesus’ preaching and decided to talk to Jesus.
So quietly, one
night, Nicodemus quietly went over to the home of Jesus about
midnight, not wanting his fellow religious professors to know. About
midnight, Nicodemus came to Jesus’ house and rapped on the door.
(Knock, knock, knock). Jesus came to the door and said, “Yes?”
“I know it is
late, but my name is Nicodemus. I am a professor of religious law
down at the temple, and I would like to speak with you a minute.”
Jesus said, “OK.
Shall we go out for a walk?”
“O no. No, no, no, no, no. We don’t want to be seen outside. Do
you mind if I would come in?
Nicodemus came into
the room. Jesus invited him up to the roof of the house where it was
cooler and offered him a glass of wine. Jesus asked, “How can I
“Things are not quite right with me. They aren’t quite right
inside of me. I sense that you have something that I don’t have
anymore. I am tired. My lectures are stale. I am getting old and
slow. I am interested in what advice you would have for me?”
Jesus, of course,
had this uncanny ability to look right into a person’s heart, and
he said, “I know the problem that you are having Nicodemus. It is
not that you are old; it is not that you are tired; it is not that
you are worn out. The problem is this; you are no longer close to
God. You have drifted away from God. God is no longer living in the
center of your heart. Nicodemus, you need to be born again.”
“Born again? Take and push me back into my mother’s womb? Come
on, now. I can’t be born again.”
“”You don’t understand Nicodemus. You need to be born anew, to
experience a rebirth in your relationship with God. You need to be
born of the water, the cleansing waters of God. You need to be born
of the Spirit, you need to be born from a above. You need to
“I’m not sure if I understand. It is time for me to go. Thanks
for the wine.”
left, close the door behind him, looked down the street both ways to
make sure that nobody was in sight and he then disappeared into the
darkness of the street.
So how does this
story end? Did Nicodemus become born again? Was Nicodemus born anew?
Did he experience a rebirth? How does the story end? The Gospels
don’t exactly explain what happened to him.
We have to go
seventeen chapters forward in the Gospel of John to hear the very
end of the story. The story comes from the events of Good Friday,
after Jesus had been crucified. There is a story about a rich man by
the name of Joseph of Arimathea and another wealthy man by the name
of Nicodemus who came to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. These two
older men took one hundred pounds of perfumes and spices. Can you
imagine a bag of grain that weighed one hundred pounds? But this bag
was filled with perfumes and spices to anoint Jesus’ body for
burial. The two men put Jesus’ body on a table, and wrapped his
body in a linen shroud, folding the spices into the linen folds. And
Nicodemus? He was there, for this most sacred ritual. This old man
Nicodemus? He was there attending the dead body of Jesus.
Yes, I believe that
this Good Friday story about Nicodemus reveals that Nicodemus had
become a disciple of Jesus Christ. That he had been born again, born
anew, born from above. Yes, Nicodemus was reborn in his relationship
So…what does it
mean to be born again? What does it mean to be born anew? What is
God’s lesson for us in the Gospel story for today?
Well, far too often
in life, we have drifted away from God. In our relationship with
God, we are going through the motions without the inner motivation.
You can be a person
who is fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five or forty-five or
fifty-five or sixty-five or seventy-five and eighty-five and you
have drifted away from God. Things aren’t quite right. The
Nicodemus’ in this room do not have to be older or more than
sixty-five. Nicodemus’ can be fifteen or twenty-five or
You start to have
the habits of faith without the heart of faith. You have structures
without the Spirit. You are going through the rituals but you
don’t have the real thing. You are going through the patterns of
faith but you no longer have the power of faith.
And if you have
ever come to that time in your life, when things aren’t quite
right, when your religion has become more of a ritual than a real
thing, when it is more of a pattern than power, when it is more
structure than Spirit, we then need to come to Jesus’ home, rap on
his door and say, “Jesus, I need some help. I’ve got a problem
… here… in my heart. It is not quite right.”
And Jesus will say
to you and me, “Come right in. Sit down for a while. Let’s talk.
And Jesus has this uncanny ability to look deeply into your heart
and mine and he says, “You need to be born again, to be born anew,
to be born from above, to experience a rebirth of God’s love in
your heart. You need to be born of the water and the Spirit.
That is what I
would like to talk with you about: What does it mean to be born
Jesus said that
there were two parts of being born again. To be born again is to be
born of the water and be born of the Spirit. Two parts. It is a
combination of those two parts that results in being born again.
What does it mean
to be born of the water?
Just as a child
cannot live without water within the uterus, you and I cannot live
without the water of God inside of us and around us giving us life.
Water, both in us and around us, gives us life, just as water is in
the unborn child and around the unborn child when that child is in
In order to be
spiritually alive, you must be cleansed by the waters of God. We
need to have our sins washed away daily. Because we are sinful by
nature, we need to be constantly washed of our sins, cleansed of our
sins, purified of our sins. All the time. Why all the time? Because
by nature, we are sinful and unclean. That is just the way it is
with us human beings. We
are in need of the cleansing waters of God.
Let me explain.
What story should I tell you? There are so many stories to chose
from. Let me tell you the story of me getting ready to give a
lecture. Preparing for that event, I created a great stack of papers
for twenty-five people. Twenty-five stacks of paper with sermons and
plays and stuff for twenty five pastors. The stack of papers was
nearly 300 pages. It was a thick book of papers, a tall stack. These
stacks of papers were in a big box in the back seat of my car as I
drove home that night at 10:00. I was going to leave the next
morning early to fly someplace and give these lectures. As I came
home that night, tired and exhausted, in a down pouring rain, I
opened the car door and the box tipped over and all the papers fell
out onto the wet, dark pavement. I was stunned. Then rage and short
temper took over and the fuse blew and I shouted my wife’s name at
the top of my lung power: “Jan.” As if my wife would rescue me
from my tragic dilemma. Homes four blocks away heard me shout that
night. … Now, when I look back at that night from the safety and
security of distance, I am aware that I was in need of the cleansing
waters of God. I was in need of God’s forgiveness, of my wife’s
forgiveness. Oh, I could use the excuse that I was over-extended,
hyper-exhausted, in order to justify my flashing rage, but I have to
admit that was me. That is me. That was you. That is you.
That happens to all of us human beings.
By nature, we are
unclean. By nature, we get stressed out. By nature, we do all kinds
of dumb things. And we constantly need our sinful lives washed clean
with the cleansing waters of God’s forgiveness.
A few years ago, as
I recall from my notes and memories, it was my children who caught
the fire of my temper. Here was the gravity of the situation. My
children hadn’t fed the dog that night. The big issue that night
was the barking dog. The dog was yelping because the dog was hungry
and neither kid had fed the dog. Both kids were arguing that it was
each other’s responsibility to feed the dog. It boiled down to
another family argument about feeding the dog. In coolness, I came
into the kitchen, shouted angrily at both children, got the kids
crying, got my wife upset, got the dog barking more, and then went
back into the living room to sit in my chair and try to read the
evening newspaper. Of
course, I was totally miserable. What a cad, when my wife and family
had been in the kitchen and I should have been in there all along. A
short time later, something clicked within me and I said, “God,
there I go again.
Yes, we are forever
in need of God’s cleansing waters.
What does it mean
to be born again? Jesus says, “You must be born of the water. You
must live in the water and the water live in you and around you on
every side, like an unborn child in the mother’s womb. Without
water inside and around side, the unborn child cannot live. And
without the inner water and surrounding water of God’s
forgiveness, you and I cannot live. God is constantly washing us of
our sins. That is true of everybody here. There are no exceptions.
You never grow to
become so religious that you outgrow the need to be daily washed of
But there is a
second half to be being born again. It means to be born of the
Spirit. What does that mean? To be born of the Spirit?
To be born of the
Spirit is not just to have a religious high, kind of like having
religious champagne, becoming all spiritually bubbly inside. Tell
me, what does an open bottle of champagne taste like the next day?
It is flat. And yesterday’s religious experiences are often flat
One person told me.
“I went to church one day, and I was filled with unspeakable joy.
It was an incredible experience. I know I was filled with the Holy
Spirit, with the unspeakable joy of the Holy Spirit inside of me. He
then said conclusively, “You can’t build your life on it.
experiences, like bubbly champagne, will be flat tomorrow.
Our young people
often go to Camp Nor’Wester and have grand religious and emotional
experiences at that camp. Sometimes, after time has passed and they
have dropped out of a consistent worship life and prayer, they
attempt to live off those religious highs from their childhood.
So then, what does
it mean to be born of the Spirit? If it does not mean to experience
religious highs like religious champagne at great campfires or great
religious gatherings which last such a short time, what does it mean
to be born of the Spirit?
To be born of the
Spirit means to have the Spirit of Jesus Christ living inside of
you. It means that God’s gracious love comes and lives inside of
And what is this
gracious love of Christ that comes and lives in your heart? It is
the Spirit of Christ coming and living in your heart. Christ’s
Spirit in your heart, in your mind, in our hands, in your feet, in
you. It is a way of loving, a way of forgiving, a way of caring, a
way of prayer, a way of worship, a way of thanksgiving and praise, a
way of being in tune with the Spirit of Jesus. It is loving another
person in their uniqueness; no longer trying to change that person
to meet my expectations but to truly love them in their
individuality rather than trying to remake them into the kind of
person I want them to be. Gracious love is loving another person in
their sinfulness. That person falls so far short of maturity and
perfection. I fall so far short of maturity and self expectation.
And to love a person, including myself, in all our sinfulness. That
is grace. That is gracious love. That is the Spirit of Jesus.
Born of the water.
Born of the Spirit. Two births. A birth of water. A birth of Spirit.
That is what it means to be reborn.
If you come to that
point in your life where you say, “God, I am going through the
motions but I don’t have that inner motivation any longer.
I have the patterns of religion but not the power. I have the
rituals of faith but not the real thing. I have the structures but
not the Spirit. If you have come to that point in your relationship
with God, whether you are fifteen or twenty-five or thirty-five or
fifty-five or seventy-five, and you sense that something is wrong
with your life. One night, you may come up to the home of Jesus and
knock on his door and say, “Jesus, things aren’t right in here.
Things aren’t right here in my heart.” Jesus will reply, “ I
know. It happens to people all the time. You need to be born again.
You need to experience a rebirth. You need to be born of the water
and born of the Spirit.
Thank heavens, it
happened to Nicodemus. Thank heavens, it happens to you and me as
SERMON. Props: a fish bowl filled with water and a goldfish swimming
in that fish bow. The fish is named Charlie. Charlie was coming to
church today in order to be part of the children’s sermon, but the
fish bowl tipped and fell on the floor of the car on the way to
church. Charlie was on the floor of the car, flopping all around.
Charlie would have died almost immediately because Charlie needed
water. Charlie needed water to be around him and in him. Without
water, Charlie the fish would die.
So it is with Christians. We need the Spirit, the Word, the
community. Without them, we die.