A Gift Only God Can Give

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 28, 2018

John 3: 1-21 (CEB)
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. 2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.”
3Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.”
4Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?”
5Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ 8God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?”
10“Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One. 14Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One be lifted up 15so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him isn’t judged; whoever doesn’t believe in him is already judged, because they don’t believe in the name of God’s only Son.
19“This is the basis for judgment: The light came into the world, and people loved darkness more than the light, for their actions are evil. 20All who do wicked things hate the light and don’t come to the light for fear that their actions will be exposed to the light. 21Whoever does the truth comes to the light so that it can be seen that their actions were done in God.”

Earlier, you heard the youth tell you about their favorite parts of Resurrection last weekend. Now I want to tell you about mine. One of the great things about Resurrection is that even though it’s geared toward youth, the speakers are usually of such a high caliber that their message is almost always relevant across all ages. That was most certainly true of Rev. Rachel Billups who spoke last week. Among many memorable messages, like “don’t eat the stew” (if you want to ask me about that, I can fill you in), I was struck by one story in particular. Rachel told this story last Sunday morning, and I want to share it with you now.

When Rachel was in college, she spent her summers working for the Ohio Department of Transportation. She was one of those people who held the traffic signs around work sites. You know the signs that say “Stop” on one side and “Slow” on the other. But there were also times when people would call in, or not show up, and the supervisors would reassign jobs for the day or maybe the week. Rachel tells this story about how on her last day of the job, the very last day of the last summer she worked for ODOT, her supervisor paired her up with another young employee and asked them to go around picking up trash from the roadways. So on that day, Rachel and her peer set out driving around the county to find and collect any trash on or around the state highways. As they drove around, they came to the church where Rachel grew up, which also happened to be the church she was serving as a student pastor. Rachel said as they passed by the church, she pointed it out and told her co-worker that was her church. Then she expanded, “Not only is that my church,” she told the young man, “I’m the pastor of that church.” Rachel said at that moment, her colleague looked at her, looked at the church, looked at her, looked back at the church. You could see the wheels turning. After a few moments he said, “Rachel, you’re a pastor? I didn’t even know you were a Christian!”

As Rachel let that bomb drop last weekend, I was immediately convicted. Because I am a young, female pastor, too. I don’t fit the “preacher” stereotype in any way, shape, or form. And I am sure there are people who know me who have no idea I’m a pastor, much less a Christian. Pastors are supposed to have it all together. Pastors are supposed to exemplify and model the Christian faith to the highest degree. It’s why we often feel like we live in a fishbowl, because we feel like our every move is scrutinized and measured against the bar of “appropriate Christian behavior.” I’m not trying to complain, because I know we all deal with this in our lives from time to time. But what I am getting at is that we are, all of us, living in the dark; perhaps me most of all. We show up a worship every week, we read our Bibles, we pray, we participate in studies. We think we’ve got it all together, we think we know who’s in and who’s out, but then we step out of these doors and we might as well be “out”, because no one knows the difference when they encounter us.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a religious expert. He thought he had it all figured out; he thought he had it all together, but then this other teacher came on the scene, a rabbi named Jesus. It was enough to get Nicodemus curious, but not enough for him to want to appear rebellious, so Nicodemus goes to Jesus under the cover of darkness. Nicodemus is a reminder “that even the best educated and most authoritative among us are still searching.” We want to give the impression of perfection, but we stay hidden behind these walls, we approach Jesus only in darkness. It’s a testament not only to the fact that our faith is hidden from the world, but also that our understanding of what it means to be a child of God is often shallow, or muddled, or incomplete. But the story of Nicodemus is also a story about how Jesus changes all of that.

When I was growing up, I regularly made trips to the Lost Sea in Sweetwater. The Lost Sea is a cave with a huge lake inside of it. If you haven’t been there, maybe you have been to some other cave. One of the regular activities on these trips to the Lost Sea was to get deep into the cave and then everyone would turn off their flashlights at the same time. And we would stand there together, trying to let our eyes adjust to total darkness. Except total darkness is so total that your eyes aren’t really adjusting to anything because there’s absolutely nothing to adjust to. You can’t see anything. It is truly complete blackness. We could think of the world in the same way; our eyes can’t really adjust or make any sense of what is around us. But when we turn the light on, that changes. And in the world, Jesus is that light. John wants us to understand that Jesus is the light that helps us to see. But it’s not only that we can see, Jesus illumines the world in ways we haven’t seen before. But more than seeing things in a new way, we also have to live in a new way. Once we have seen the light, we have to step out of the darkness and start living in the light.

Nicodemus was in the dark. He thought he had it together. We think we have it together. But as much as Jesus challenges Nicodemus here, he also challenges us. Christ shakes up the status quo. We cannot assume that we have a clear “view” of everything. We cannot “rest on our laurels” thinking we’ve got it made. The lesson to be learned here is that seeing the kingdom of God and knowing how we are to live as God’s people requires a radical break, a new identity, a rebirth. And maybe, just maybe, a rebirth is needed most by religious people who think they don’t need it!

When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he said to Jesus, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Jesus responded to Nicodemus by saying, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” What Nicodemus says next is rather humorous. He essentially asks Jesus if he, an old man, is supposed to go and jump back inside his mother’s womb. I think Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of Jesus’ words is indicative (on a lot of levels) of the darkness and misunderstanding that we all experience in this life of faith. For one thing, Nicodemus has in mind a literal birth, but Jesus is speaking of being “born from above” by “water and the Spirit.” Then, Nicodemus presumes that this is something he must do, an initiative he must take, to go and put himself back inside his mother’s womb so that he can be born again.
Over the years, such misunderstanding has grown in some pretty awful ways. We use Jesus’ words here like insider language. “Are you born again?” is code for “Are you saved like us, or are you crazy like them?” We use this to measure a person’s salvation, or to judge others as religious fanatics. It’s as if salvation is all about what we do, and has nothing to do with God’s action. This really gets right to the heart of what Jesus is trying to teach Nicodemus. Being a part of the kingdom of God is all about God shining the light into the darkness, it’s all about God opening our eyes, it’s all about God’s Spirit washing over us like water. For “God so loved the world…God gave his only Son.” This new birth is a gift. We cannot give ourselves a new start. We cannot enter the kingdom of God, we can’t even see the kingdom of God, without being born from above, born of water and the Spirit. Life, the life that God promises us in Jesus Christ, is a mystery beyond our understanding. Life is a gift that only God can give.

Jesus invites Nicodemus, and each of us, to come into the light of day and become mature believers, full participants in the abundant life he offers. Jesus knows that neither Nicodemus nor any of us, can do this on our own. It is God who will give birth in water and the Spirit. Rebirth is God’s work to accomplish, it is God who labors to bring us new life; this is God’s gift to give. We are mere recipients.

You know, as I read this story of Nicodemus this week, I was really convicted; not because I read John 3:16, but because I realized just how “in the dark” I am. I like to think I’ve got it all together. I like to think that I have all the answers and maybe even some authority (sometimes I think that with some sense of superiority). I like to think I have this “Christianity thing” in the bag. But what I realized is that at the end of the day, I’m a long way from where God wants me to be. At the end of the day, I’ve still got a lot to learn. At the end of the day, I’m a Christian who doesn’t always show it. And ultimately, at the end of the day, I need to receive God’s gift as much as the next person. I need to “be born by water and the spirit.” I need God’s “so” love, the love he gave us through his only Son. I need the light that shines in the darkness. I need the new life that only God can give. And the good news is, God is offering it. For “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.”
What an amazing, amazing gift.

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