We all ought to love the story of Nicodemus and his conversation with Jesus in John chapter 3. It is a fitting text for modern readers of the Word of God and plays well with our own understanding and practice of the faith. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and like all the Pharisees of his time the discussion of Jesus was first and foremost on his mind. He was not a figure anyone was going to ignore. Yet, like most of you he prefers to explore this faith in a secretive, private way. We like our faith experienced safe within the walls of our homes or even just within our own minds but not in the public square, not before others. We tend to think of our journey as a personal, me and Jesus sort of thing. So, Nicodemus going out to find Jesus at night, all alone, makes sense to us. It is exactly what we would do if we could.
“Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs, that you do unless God is with him.” He comes to Jesus because you cannot deny God is with Him. How else could you explain the miracles, the healings and wonders He does? So, he is there to figure it out, there to work though the nagging questions of his budding faith. But the immediate response of Jesus is not at all what he wants to hear. He does not ask Nicodemus about how well he understands the Law and the Prophets. He does not let him ask a bunch of questions delving into the mysteries of the divine. He does not give him a checklist to work through to get everything worked out just right. No, he offers the exact opposite of all that. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
The conversation that flows from this is a serious one. It may sound a bit funny at first when Nicodemus says, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” But think about his struggle to really understand what Jesus is saying. The language of a new birth is confusing. If someone said to you that in order to enter Paradise you needed to be reborn, how would you go about doing such a thing? What steps would you take to make sure you could get in? Where would you even begin? The real struggle with the image of birth is, from the point of view of the one being born, there is not much you can do about it. The one in labor has something to do. The doctors and nurses standing-by are there to help, to coach, to guide them through the process. But the child being born is just along for the ride. When you were born the first time you did not play much of a role in the process. So, how is it supposed to work the second time?
Nicodemus, a man after our own heart who is getting out there and working hard trying to figure out the mission and ministry of Jesus, is left dumbfounded. In fact, the biggest problem is not how confused he is but, rather, his feeling of being left out of the driver seat altogether. He is rendered passive. Birth is not something he controls. Jesus continues and says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is sprit” (John 3:5-6). You need to be born of water and the Spirit. The image here is clear. You need to be baptized. Baptism, the connection of water and Word, the physical application of the promises of God, this is what He is talking about. In order to enter the Kingdom, you must be born again. You must be baptized. But this does not happen in secret meetings with Jesus. It also does not happen alone at home. You need someone else to do this, to speak the Word, to make the promise to you.
To be sure, the Spirit of God is the one doing the work, but He does not do it by some magical incantation. He uses regular people and regular water to give His gifts, to give entrance into to the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not something of your own doing, something of your making, it is something you receive. Think of how we rail against this simple and life-giving gift. Think of how common it is to reject and mock this new birth. We do not want to be passive. We cannot stand being reduced to such a role. We want something to do. We want to have a hand in our birth. So, baptism is often twisted into a thing of the flesh. It is forced into something where you are the one in control, you are making a decision for Jesus, you are dedicating your life, you are moved by the Spirit. Gone are your empty hands, for now you have something to offer your God. Look at what I did!
But He refuses to allow any room for your work here. He does not care about your feelings or your desires. He has not set out for you some golden ladder you can use to climb up to Heaven. He has not established a secret checklist tailored just for you so you can do all the right things and then ascend through the pearly gates like the angels themselves. No, you are sinners. All your deeds are filthy rags. Your thoughts and your desires are soiled with sin. Stumbling, falling, and failing is your track record. Jesus says, “No one has ascended into Heaven except He who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). There is no climbing up for you, which is why He has come down.
Jesus has come down, all the way down. Let us not cheapen the gift He has given. He came all the way down into your darkness, into your sin, into your shame. He sees it all. He sees you as you are, not as you want to present yourself to the world, but as you really are. He takes all of it, all your sin, and declares it to be His own. He declares, “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” (John 3:14-15). Do you remember that story? The lifting up of the golden serpent to save the Israelites from the poisonous bites of the serpents in their camp. This is why He came. This is the gift He has to give. The lifting up of the Son of Man on the cross of Calvary is the giving of eternal life for you. As Saint Paul will remind us, it is into this very death you are baptized. It is into this sacrifice you are given a new birth, a new life.
All of this has stopped good, old Nicodemus in his tracks. He has nothing to achieve but only something to receive. He is not going to be able to keep this a secret, for he will learn what you already know full-well. You need others to speak this promise into your ears. You need others to wash you in the life-giving water and remind you again and again of what has happened. When I was at the Jordan river last year, my wife and I watched a man get into the water and baptize himself. It was the most perverse and bizarre thing I had seen. He just kept dunking himself and making the sign of the cross. He wanted to have his secret meeting with Jesus. He wanted to figure it out on his own and was consumed within himself.
But you, you are set free by the voice of another, by the use of the means of grace that God has employed to give you life and hope and confidence that you are and remain His children. Jesus hammers this home when he speaks what Luther called, “The Gospel in a Nutshell.” He it is. Here is the whole thing.
God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
God is still doing His great work; still saving the world through His Son. He saves by giving a new birth, a birth form above, a birth of water and the Spirit. If you have received such a birth, He will surround you with others to remind you of His promise, to remind you how forgiven you are and loved and welcome into eternal life. If you have not received this gift, He longs to give it to you. There is nothing for you to do. Just receive and, in receiving, the gates of Paradise open wide.