Nick at Night
A preacher sees he's losing the congregation. So he blurts, "I spent last night in the arms of another woman!" The congregation was all ears now; the preacher went on, "She was my own dear mother." I'm not willing to say context is everything,' but it is important. The words of our text are well known to you, but do you know the context? [Read John 3: 1-13]
See? Our text is a sharp rebuke of a Jewish teacher named Nicodemus. He came to Jesus at night with flattering words, "Rabbi, we know you have come from God as a teacher." To this one who came at night Jesus says, "Men love darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed."
Nicodemus, as a teacher in Israel and part of the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin, had specific duties to perform. One was to evaluate people who claimed to speak in the name of the Lord. John 1 says Jewish officials were sent out to evaluate the ministry of John the Baptist. If Nick wasn't one of them, he had at least heard their report rejecting John's ministry. Yet, Nick comes saying Jesus is a true teacher from God and that God is with Him.
And what does Jesus say? He tells this prestigious church official that he wasn't even able to see the kingdom of God let alone make judgments for it. Why? Because he wasn't reborn by water and the Spirit. He hadn't been baptized by John the Baptist. But any talk of water being able to give the Holy Spirit and some sort of rebirth were totally impossible to Nick. "How can these things be?" he asked in disbelief.
Then Jesus goes into a wonderful statement of how He, the Son of Man, had eternal origins and how as Moses had lifted up the bronze serpent to save from physical death, so He would be lifted up on a cross to give eternal life. Jesus speaks the familiar words of John 3:16, saying whoever believes in the only begotten Son is not condemned. But then Jesus tells Nick that he is condemned already because He doesn't believe in God's only begotten Son.
Nick hasn't fared very well with his nighttime visit, has he? Do we fare any better? The light of the knowledge of the glory of God is in the face of Jesus. Where do we see the face of Jesus? In Word and Sacrament. But the only reason we can see the face of Jesus in the Waters of Baptism and in the Bread and Wine of Communion is because the Word tells us He is there. So the Word is where God's Light shines. Psalm 119 says, "The unfolding of your word gives light," "Your Word is a lamp unto My feet and light unto My path."
Yet, we stay away from God's Word. We hear the minimum we think necessary because we love darkness instead of light. We hear the Word as little as we can possibly can get away with and study it hardly, if, at all Why? because we fear that our deeds and doctrine will be exposed for what they really are: of men, by men and for men. We don't want to hear the One who speaks from heaven because it will expose our beliefs to be of the earth leading us where all earth is heading: ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But we've been baptized! We've been reborn by water and the Spirit! Baptism is not foolishness to us like it was to Nick! It might a well be for all the use we make of it. When someone poses the question, How do you know you're going to heaven,' what is our knee-jerk reaction? To turn inward rather than outward. We turn to the certainty we can find in our spirit rather than the Spirit of God at work in the waters of Baptism. We don't say, "How can these things be?" as Nick did, but we act that way. Though we've all been taught to make daily use of our Baptism, how many of us do?
Well Pastor at least we believe in the only begotten Son of God. Do you or do you really trust in some generic God, a Supreme Deity, a nameless, faceless Supernatural being? Maybe your trust isn't even that religious. Maybe your real trust is in money, in medicine, or in men and that's why your thoughts and worries, your plans and futures are all tied up with them.
See what grievous, great, and grand sinners we are? Thanks be to God if you do because God reserves His sweetest Gospel for the greatest sinners. It's in the darkest days of the Old Testament Church that the Lord sends Isaiah and Jeremiah. It's when there was hardly a Church at all in Northern Israel, when the prophets of Baal ruled, that the Lord sent Elijah and Elisha.
And so it is to the benighted, unbelieving, sinful Nick at night and to us poor miserable sinners today that Jesus speaks the sweet Gospel of John 3:16. God loved the world so very much, to such an extent, that He gave His only begotten Son. But don't just think of the Christmas hymn, "Today He opens heaven again and gives us His own Son." It's not just that God gave His Son to the world, but more importantly, He gave Him for the world.
The Law demands complete, perfect keeping. The Father gave the Son to do that for the world. The Law demands suffering and affliction as payment for our sins. The Father gave the Son to endure that for the world. Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins, Hebrews declares. So either you would bleed for your sins or Jesus would. The Father choose Jesus and so gave Him over to whipping, beating, nailing, and blood-letting. The soul that sins shall die, says Ezekiel. So either you would have to die for your sins, or Jesus would die in your place. The Father choose Jesus and so gave Him over to a sinner's death. Holiness can have no fellowship with sin. So either the Father would have no fellowship with you or with Jesus. The Father choose Jesus and so abandoned Him on the cross.
All this takes place on a cross, lifted up above the world, for the same reason Moses put the bronze snake on a pole. So everyone can see it. Are you wondering if God gave His only begotten Son for you? Was it for your sins that He groaned upon the cross? Was it for your neglect of His Word and His Baptism that He suffered so? Was it your sinful death He died? Was He abandoned by the Father so the Father would never abandon you? Can you see that cross? Do you see Jesus hanging there? Then you can know it was for you, it is for you, it will be for you; the Son was, is, and will be forever given to and for you. Look and live.
"Live," I said, not "exist." "Live," I said, not "Get through the day." Live," I said, not, "Keep looking over your shoulder to see if God might be coming to get you." Jesus didn't say, as so many of you think He did, that there is some condemnation or not that much condemnation. He said there is no condemnation to those who believe on the crucified Jesus. He said, "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned" at all, no way, never.
You know where the fly is in this ointment of the Gospel? You know what keeps you living in, with, and under condemnation? The words "whoever believes." I'm sure you heard them prominently in the Gospel reading. "Everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life." "Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." And, "Whoever believes in Him is not condemned." You hear this as if your belief is necessary to make God give His Son, lift Him up on the cross, and make Him not condemn you. God's part is giving, lifting up the Son, and not condemning you. Your part is believing. To complete the sale, you must add your belief. It's not really done at all if you don't add your belief to it.
Context is important. The rest of that opening story goes like this. A young preacher found he was losing his congregation and tried the same ploy. He blurted, "I spent last night in the arms of a woman other than my wife." He paused, and then said, "For the life of me, I can't remember her name." He forget the context. We forget the context of this text when we let the words "whoever believes" become the center.
We forget who's doing the talking and who's being talked to. Jesus is speaking to sinful Nicodemeus who has rejected the baptism of John and doesn't believe in Jesus. Jesus doesn't tell Nick what God might or even will do, but what God has done. The words gave,' save,' and even be lifted up' are not future actions. Jesus doesn't tell Nick that God is waiting to give the Eternal Son, lift up the Son of Man, or save Nick once he has closed the deal by believing. No, Jesus tells Nick what God has done already. The giving of the only begotten Son, the lifting up of the Son of Man on the tree of the cross, and the saving of the world through Him is a done deal. Nicodemus, and you too, are to believe this.
Faith is not your work; it's God's miracle in you. Faith is not your work, says Paul, but "the gift of God." Faith is not coming to a conclusion based on calculations, arguments, or reasoning. If it were, it would be no miracle. Who wouldn't believe if it was a matter of figuring out these equations? You + your sins = eternal hell; you + Jesus = eternal life? Faith is the opposite of walking by sight, figuring out calculations, following arguments, tracing out reasons. Faith is what God brings forth in the human heart by His Word of Promise. Faith is the God-given means of having salvation. It is not the manmade cause of salvation.
A beggar is literally starving to death. You bring him into a room full of food saying, "This food is yours; eat it." His eating doesn't cause the food to be there. Eating is the means of receiving the food. You and I starving beggars. On our own, we will starve for eternity. The Law convinces us of this. The Gospel shows us the Son has been given for the salvation of the world. The Gospel shows us the Son of Man has been lifted up in our place on the bloody cross. The Gospel says, "This salvation is yours; believe it." Our feeble believing doesn't cause Jesus, the Gospel, or salvation to be there anymore than eating causes food to be present. But believing is the only way to receive salvation as eating is the only way to receive food. Nick, maybe not this night, but one day did receive. How about you? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Lent (20060326); John 3: 1-22