Saint Paul famously said, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” Signs and wisdom, this is what fills the desires and aims of seekers of religious insight. We want signs that point us to something beyond ourselves, something greater than our limited understanding of time and space. Of course, we also desire wisdom to bring enlightenment to this sin darkened world. These things are not bad. These things are a recognition that there is much we do not know, much which has to be revealed to us. They start us correctly, in a place of humility. But it is Paul’s insistence on only one solution that throws the wrench into the whole scheme. If you want signs and you desire wisdom from on high, then there is only one place to look. There is only one solution to the quest for signs and wisdom. It is in the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified. He is the ultimate sign. He is the wisdom of God.
Today we hear from a man who was most certainly on a religious quest. He came to Jesus because of signs and was looking for some revelation of a wisdom from on high. This was a smart man, a leader among the people of God in our Lord’s day. His name was Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus because of the signs he has done. He says to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs You do unless God is with him.” He is intrigued by this man. He knows that somehow, someway, Jesus holds a key to greater understanding, greater wisdom, greater connection with the Almighty. So, he seeks Him out. No doubt he is looking for some direction, some guidance in his own religious journey. I do not think he is full of arrogance or pride, he seems to come with a genuine desire to know more and to discover the path to the things of God.
No doubt our Lord’s first words to him must have been quite unsettling. He does not offer Nicodemus a to do list, a program of some sort to get closer to God. He does not direct him toward a more fervent prayer life or even call for him to imitate the things He is doing. No, instead Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Well, that is a bit unsettling. I mean, what does it even mean? Nicodemus is trying to figure it out. How does one go about doing this? He asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Our Lord’s reply is as unsettling as the original assertion. “You must be born of water and the Spirit. For that which is born of the flesh is flesh but that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” But this is precisely the problem. For the Spirit is beyond our control. The Spirit does not answer to us. It is not a to do list. Rather, the work of the Spirit is done to us. We are the recipients of the Spirit. In other words, Nicodemus goes out to meet Jesus because of His signs to find the wisdom to achieve the things of God and our Lord’s response is you cannot do it. Rather, it must be done to you. You must be born again.
Nicodemus’ reply is that of us all. If salvation rests in a Spirit who is beyond our control, a Spirit who blows where He wishes, we are left a bit dumbfounded and ask, “How can these things be?” See, deep down we all want to be in control. We do not mind following the signs and seeking the wisdom, the joy of religious quest lies in our effort, our work along the way. We discover things. We put the pieces together. That is why we do it. Most of what passes for Christianity in our day is some program of discovery, some system where we can get ahold of Jesus, where you can be in control even of the Spirit of God. You just need to pray the right prayer, make the right commitment, perform the correct task, and then you will achieve the enlightenment, the spiritual awakening you desire. By going on the right quest, you too can unlock a more victorious life here and now!
Deep down you love whatever places the control in your own hands. Like Nicodemus, you go out to meet your Lord with the assumption you are going to partner with Him to discover some deep meaning of life. You and Jesus are going to team up to overcome the pitfalls of this religious journey. Together, you are going to come through the wilderness. You are going to make it to the mountaintop. You are going to experience the things of God. And what does Jesus say to you? What is “step one” of this journey to the things of God? First off, you must be born again. You must be born from above, born of water and the Spirit of God. And in your delusion, you create some fantasy of what that might mean. You think that though your first birth was not in your control, perhaps this second one is. But as you look at your hands, as you examine your heart, as you contemplate the thoughts which swirl around in your head, you will find an unending pool of sin, perversion, and shame. If this birth was a product of your doing, could you even trust it? Would it give you any hope, any assurance concerning the things of God?
Jesus calls an end to our speculation. He stops Nicodemus in his quest for signs and wisdom and offers him the only sign that matters, the only one which will provide what he longs for. He says, “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.” Do you remember that account? The people of God had rebelled. So, God sends snakes into their camp. They bite and torment the Israelites and they begin to die. In repentance, they confess and plead with Moses to intercede for them. God says, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” This is precisely what Moses does. And Jesus says that, in this way, the Son of Man will be lifted up. The Son of Man will be on display for the salvation of all. And what will it look like? It will look like one dying for your sins. It will look like a bloody cross. It looks like one who does the work because you could not do it. It looks like a sacrifice because of your unfaithfulness. It looks like the totality of your salvation.
Christ on a cross is the ultimate sign. This is the eternal wisdom of God. It is sure and confident because it is all a gift, all received by us, rather than being the product of our effort. “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified.” Christ crucified is our hope and confidence. Therefore, the gift of Holy Baptism is not some splendid work we offer to our Lord and not some personal testimony which demonstrates the strength of our conviction. No, it is all a gift. It is being born-again by water and the Spirit. It is the promise that you are connected to the Christ crucified, that His death is your death, and His life is your life. This gift is what can lead Paul to say, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” So, it is with you. You salvation is not made sure by your works, but because you have received all the blessings of Christ.
This is what the Gospel is all about. The Gospel is the end of our work, the end of our searching and clamoring to climb up the mountain to our God. The Gospel is the Good News that God has already come down. He has found you, embraced you, forgiven you, and continues to love you. At this point, Nicodemus has nothing else to say. But like us, he is rendered passive. He now only listens to the Good News being proclaimed. And we join him. We too listen to what Jesus says. He says to you, “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.”