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 that feeling.
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 isn’t there.
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 there.
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?”
Nicodemus replied, “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 help you?”
Nicodemus said, “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.”
Nicodemus replied, “Born again? Take and push me back into my mother’s womb? Come on, now. I can’t be born again.”
Jesus said, “”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 experience rebirth.”
Nicodemus said, “I’m not sure if I understand. It is time for me to go. Thanks for the wine.”
Nicodemus then 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? Does 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 with God.
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 thirty-five.
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 again?
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 the uterus. 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.
And that is half of what it means to be born again. It means to be washed clean of your sins.
Now, 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. 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 your sins.
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 tomorrow.
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.
Today’s religious 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 your heart.
And what is this gracious love of Christ that comes and lives in your heart? 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 well. Amen.
CHILDREN’S 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.
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