Sermon Text: John 3:1-17
You’ve probably heard that next month, Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, are resigning from the Royal Family. Their resignation becomes official next month, in April. Prince Harry will no longer be called “prince.” He will no longer be referred to as “his royal highness.” When asked last week what he’d like to be called now, he said, “Just call me Harry.” Officially he will be “Harry, Duke of Sussex.” But he doesn’t want to be called duke of anything… so speculation is that he’ll take a last name, like the rest of us. What will his last name be? When he was in the army, he was called “Harry Wales,” since his father is the Prince of Wales. Now he might go by “Harry Sussex.” But as far as he’s concerned, he’s “just Harry.”
Most remarkable of all is that he’s giving up his royal salary, or allowance, or whatever… He and his wife are going to have jobs and earn paychecks—just like the rest of us!
Now, we’re Americans… we don’t have an aristocracy; we don’t have kings and queens, princes and princesses; we don’t have royal families. So we completely sympathize with Harry. We don’t believe that anyone should have extra special privileges in life simply because they happened to be born into the right family.
If someone is wealthy, if someone is powerful and influential, if someone rules over us, we want it to be because they’ve earned that privilege; they’ve paid their way; they deserve it. We Americans love the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. We want to believe that everyone can be as successful as they want to be—if only they work hard enough; have enough gumption. We believe in the American dream. We don’t want to believe that someone’s position and place in the world depends mostly or entirely on something over which they have absolutely no control whatsoever—like, for instance, being born into the right family.
So if we feel this way, we sympathize with good old Harry and Meghan.
And guess what? We ought to also sympathize with with good old Nicodemus in today’s scripture—because he’s so much like us! I mean, for him, success in the world isn’t defined so much in terms of material success—having lots of money and power—although he was probably doing okay in that regard. He was, after all, a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish “senate” of his day. But no… Success for Nicodemus was defined mostly in terms of his relationship with God, his personal righteousness. And make no mistake, by all outward appearances, Nicodemus was doing better in that regard than the vast majority of his fellow Jews.
And he had been teaching his fellow Jews how to be like him, how to be righteous, how to make yourself acceptable to God: which included faithfulness to God’s law, obedience to God, devotion to God—it included prayer, fasting, tithing, almsgiving, serving the poor—and these are all good things, and these are the things that characterized Nicodemus. He was by all appearances a perfectly nice guy—respectable, responsible, dependable, reliable, faithful. And make no mistake: he is open to Jesus and his teaching; he’s humble enough to want to know more about Jesus, to learn from him. He’s not like Pharisees we encounter elsewhere in the gospels. Notice in verse 2 he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do”—by which he means, Jesus’ miracles—“unless God is with him.” Because remember what some other Pharisees said about Jesus’ miracles: they didn’t deny that Jesus was doing supernatural things; only that he was able to do these things because of the power of Satan, not God.
So Nicodemus isn’t like that… He already believes that Jesus’ supernatural power comes from God. So Nicodemus, by all outward appearances, is a good man…
And yet, and yet, and yet… he just needs one more thing, Jesus says… Just one more! Verse 3: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” He can’t enter it, Jesus says in verse 5.
“Hold on a second, Jesus… I’ve spent my career teaching others the ‘entry requirements’ for the kingdom of God. If you want to enter the kingdom of God, do these things. Live like this. Follow all these laws. And now you’re telling me that I’m wrong? You’re telling me that’s not enough? You’re telling me that I’m not good enough?”
I was a child of the ’70s and ’80s. And I remember the popularity back then of the expression, “born-again Christian.” I think it became popular after one of President Nixon’s chief advisers, Chuck Colson, went to prison for his role in the Watergate cover-up. While he was in jail, he was converted to Christ, and he later wrote a best-selling book about his experience, called Born Again.
But that expression rubbed a lot of people the wrong way; people felt judged by it. “Are you saying you’re a better Christian than me?” And listen, I was Southern Baptist back then. You should have heard what we said about y’all Methodists! “We’re not like those Methodist Christians. You see, we’ve been born again.”
The irony here is that “born again” started to mean exactly opposite of what Jesus intended by the expression: See, we said we were “born again” as a way of signaling our virtue: “Unlike you regular Christians, I’ve been upgraded to a higher class: I’m a born again Christian. Look how righteous and holy I am!” But Jesus’ point in saying that we needed to be “born again” was exactly opposite: “Not only are you not righteous enough now to be acceptable to God, you can never, ever be righteous enough, holy enough, good enough, on your own—not even close. You are helplessly sinful and helplessly separated from God because of your sin. And if not for what I’m going to do for you by grace, you would be hopelessly separated from God. And even after you’ve been born again, you accomplish literally nothing apart from my grace! Born again hardly means you’ve got it all together. The very opposite, in fact!”
I remember reading an interview with Johnny Cash in Rolling Stone magazine back in the ’80s. Johnny Cast got it… Cash had been an outspoken Christian for years and was best friends with Billy Graham. So the interviewer asked him about his faith: “Are you a born-again Christian?” And he said, “Let’s just say ‘Christian.’”
Cash wasn’t denying that he had been born again—Jesus is telling the truth: all Christians are born again; there’s no other kind. But he also understood that we only needed to be born again in the first place because of our utter helplessness before God—that we are hopelessly sinful, in spite of whatever good, religious, and spiritual things we do. Cash himself struggled throughout his life, on and off, with drug addiction. Yet he could say he was born again. Didn’t mean he was better than anyone.
That we need to be born again is a sign that we’re not good enough!
And Nicodemus received this message loud and clear. “You’re saying, Jesus, I’m not good enough on my own? You’re saying I can never be good enough? You’re saying my only hope for salvation is divine intervention? You’re saying I need a miracle of the Holy Spirit to be saved?”
And that’s precisely what Jesus was saying.
And if that’s true for Nicodemus, that’s true for you and me… if we want to be saved, that’s the first fact we need to acknowledge about ourselves! The first half of the gospel is coming to terms with who we are as sinners!
In early January of this year, an award-winning journalist named Ken Fuson, who spent most of his career with the Des Moines Register and then the Baltimore Sun, died. He literally wrote his own obituary before he died, and it’s funny and deeply moving: First sentence: “Ken Fuson… died Jan. 3, 2020 at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, of liver cirrhosis, and is stunned to learn that the world is somehow able to go on without him.” He wrote that he got a big pay raise to go to work for the Baltimore Sun, but he “[blew] most of the money at Pimlico Race Track.” After listing some of the awards he won, he wrote, “No, he didn’t win a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s dead now, so get off his back.” He wrote, “[Ken] was diagnosed with liver disease at the beginning of 2019, which is pretty ironic given how little he drank. Eat your fruits and vegetables, kids.”
But then he wrote this:
For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean… Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but it was faith in Jesus Christ that transformed his life. That was the one thing he never regretted. It changed everything.
He then thanked the people at his church: “If you want to know what God’s love feels like, just walk in those doors. Seriously, right now. We’ll wait. Ken’s not going anywhere.” Oh, brothers and sisters, please let that be said about our church!
My point is, if you said to Ken Fuson—who despite all outward signs of success had an addiction that nearly destroyed his life—if you said, “Ken, you are helplessly enslaved to sin; you’re not good enough, you can never be good enough, to solve your compulsion to sin; you need divine intervention to be rescued from its deadly, destructive power. You need to be born again”—would Ken be offended? Hardly! He would he say, “Don’t I know it! Tell me how I can be born again!”
[Martin Lloyd-Jones and the “of course-ness” of nominal Christianity.”]
And Jesus’ answer to the question of how to be born again is found in verse 14: “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.” Nicodemus, a Bible scholar, would have gotten the reference. It comes from Numbers 21:4-9. The Israelites were grumbling to Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!” This “miserable food” referred to the miraculous manna from heaven by which God had graciously sustained their lives for 40 years. This was blasphemous what they were saying! They had no fear of God!
So God sends deadly serpents among them, and these snakes are killing the Israelites. This is a lived-out parable of God’s wrath toward sin. So the Israelites repent and turn to Moses: “Pray that the Lord will take these snakes away!”
And what is God’s remedy for Israel’s deadly problem with sin? God has Moses create a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Verse 9: “Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.”
Very strange! Notice that God doesn’t simply take the snakes away; he could have! And he doesn’t stop the snakes from biting. Only… after they bit you, after the deadly venom began coursing its way through your body, you had to perform one small act of faith: look up at the snake; look up at this symbol of the very thing that was killing you. And then you would be saved from the deadly poison, saved, in other words, from the consequences of your sin.
When you’re dying of deadly snake venom and have no way other way of saving yourself, it doesn’t take a lot of faith to do what God says and look up at the snake. [cliff… vine… faith is in Christ; faith is not in your faith!]
Similarly, Jesus says, when he is lifted up, on the cross, he will become like that snake… except on a cross instead of a pole. But if the analogy holds, that means that Christ becomes a symbol of the very thing that’s killing us. That’s right! 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake”—to save us from our sins—“he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin [in other words, the Father transfers our sins onto Jesus, and Jesus endures God’s wrath for our sins], so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In other words, Jesus receives our sins; we receive his righteousness. But when we see Jesus on the cross, we see the very symbol of the thing that’s killing us—we see our sin; and we see God, in Christ, receiving that just penalty for our sin.
Look to the cross, friends… Look to the cross and see the ugliness of your sin! Look to the cross and see what God did to save you from its deadly consequences… Look to the cross and see how much God loves you, that God the Son would endure God’s wrath for you, suffer hell for you… Look to the cross!
To be “born again” means being born into God’s family… to become his beloved sons and daughters. Earlier I mentioned Harry and Meghan. They’re leaving the Royal Family because they want to earn what they receive; they want to be worthy of it; they want to deserve it.
By contrast, Jesus, the world’s true King, is telling us this morning: “I want to make you part of my Royal Family, which is infinitely wealthier and more powerful than any earthly family. And unlike with earthly families, you’ll be part of my family forever. And the main requirement for becoming part of this family? Recognizing that you can never earn it, you can never be worthy of it, you can never deserve it.”
You have no control over being born. You’re not responsible for making it happen. It happens to you.
But one thing you can do… Look to the cross!