There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, "Rabbi, 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." Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, 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 spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life." John 3:1-15
There is no more important question we will face in life than the question of how we get to heaven. When you’re in your teens, you don’t usually think that much of death. As you grow older, death becomes more familiar, as friends and family die and you watch it. Death becomes familiar. He doesn’t become a friend. Death is always the wages of sin. The Bible calls him an enemy. But one thing is for certain: nobody gets out of this world alive. We are all headed to the grave.
Jesus is the one who tells us how to get to heaven. Jesus is the only one who can tell us. That’s because heaven is his home. He lived in glory. From everlasting to everlasting, he is God. He remained at his Father’s side even after he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, became flesh, was born, and lived among us. He called himself the Son of Man. He said,
People make up their own gods and worship them. They come in all languages, cultures, and religions. Call it Hinduism, Islam, Animism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, even Christianity: people make up a religion, call it a name, and tell you how you can find god. Once you have found him, you do what he says, and that should get you into a better place when you die. Even those who poke fun of every organized religion, have their own disorganized religion, hoping against hope that somehow they will make it to heaven.
If you know you’re going to heaven when you die, you can be confident and secure in the life you are living right now. If you are afraid you’re going to face judgment, punishment, and perhaps even ongoing torment when you die, you can hardly find great joy in living! To know you’re going to heaven is a precious knowledge! But can you have it?
Nicodemus belonged to the religious sect known as the Pharisees. They took their religion very seriously. They lived according to a strict moral code. Not only did they observe all of the commandments of the Law of Moses, written down in the Bible, they also followed many rules extrapolated from those commandments that were designed to make sure that they didn’t break any of them.
Nicodemus wanted to be taught. He thought Jesus could teach him. But his fellow Pharisees did not like Jesus very much. Jesus didn’t teach how to get to heaven by obeying rules. Jesus offered eternal life as a gift. That didn’t win him friends among the Pharisees who wanted people to depend on their rules. So Nicodemus didn’t visit Jesus in the day time when everyone could see him. He visited him at night when nobody would know that he had done so.
He showed Jesus respect, you could even call it flattery. He acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher who came from God because the miracles he did demonstrated that. He obviously thought that he and Jesus could have a productive theological conversation. Jesus wasted no time engaging in small talk. He got directly to the point. He said that unless you are born from above you cannot see the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is God’s rule. It is here and now and it is then and there. Here and now it comes from Jesus who gives you his Spirit and the Spirit gives you the new birth, a birth from above, a spiritual birth that changes what you are and where you are going. The kingdom of God here on earth is called the kingdom of grace. The kingdom of God in heaven is called the kingdom of glory. Only those who enter into the kingdom of grace can enter into the kingdom of glory. You must be born from above, born by the power of the Holy Spirit. This brings you into the kingdom of grace. The kingdom of grace leads to the kingdom of glory. In fact, they are the same kingdom.
Now Nicodemus was a bright man. He was a reasonable man. How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t reenter his mother’s womb and be born. He asked Jesus how and Jesus answered him. He said:
Jesus’ words are clear. Unless you are born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He says, “Born of water and the Spirit.” Water and the Spirit go together. One is born of them. What is “water and the Spirit”? Where is water joined to the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit to water? In holy baptism! You must be born from above. It is by means of Holy Baptism that God gives us this new birth.
Now listen very carefully to what I am saying to you. Jesus says nothing here about inviting him into your heart to become your personal Lord and Savior. Jesus says not a word about praying a sinner’s prayer, making an altar call, dedicating your life to Jesus, or being confirmed in a church with proud parents, loving family, and a congregation encouraging you on. He says you must be born of water and the Spirit. You must be baptized, for baptism is where the water and the Holy Spirit are joined together. And you must be born spiritually.
He says we must be born of water and the Spirit. Baptism is God’s gift, his doing, his action, his power, and his promise. God is the One doing what is being done in Holy Baptism. It’s not the one being baptized. It’s not the minister who acts as God’s hands and voice. It is God. When the minister calls the baptized by name, applies water, and says, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” it is God who claims that person as his own.
Baptism isn’t magic. It is God’s promise. Magic works automatically. God’s promise calls for faith. That’s how a promise is received. God’s promise is also how God creates faith. So the faith that is required is the faith that is created by the same promise of God. The Spirit is the One who calls us to faith and keeps us in the faith. He works through Holy Baptism. He works through the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. He breathed the Spirit on his disciples just before giving them the authority to forgive sins. But why does the Holy Spirit convert one person and not another? One believes and receives the gospel message with joy. Another is bored, disinterested, and dismisses it with contempt. Who can figure out the Holy Spirit? We can’t and we shouldn’t try. We can’t even figure out the wind.
But we do know what the Holy Spirit does: he gives us the new life of faith. And we know how he does it: through the gospel and the sacraments. Just what is it to have faith? What is faith to believe? How does one remain in the Christian faith?
Consider the story to which Jesus alluded as he illustrated what faith is to Nicodemus. He said to him,
Do you remember the story about the serpent in the wilderness? The children of Israel spent forty years wandering around the Sinai desert before God brought them into the Promised Land. They whined and complained most of the time. One time, they became particularly resentful of God and they accused God and Moses his prophet of bringing them into the desert to die. They were denying that God loved them, cared for them, was kind and merciful to them, and was their Savior. In short, they had abandoned the faith.
God punished them. He sent poisonous snakes into the camp to bite them. As they were dying from the poison, they realized their terrible sin. They had accused God of doing them wrong! But it was they who had done wrong! They were sorry about their sin and they appealed to Moses to appeal to God for them. He did. God told Moses to make a serpent out of bronze, attach it to a pole, and lift it up for the people to see. Whoever was suffering from the poisonous venom from the snakes and looked up to the snake on a pole would be cured of the poison. He would live!
This illustrates the faith to which the Holy Spirit called us in our baptism the faith we confess today, and the faith that will bring us to heaven. We have all sinned against God and our sin kills us. It is a spiritual poison that robs us of life. But Jesus is lifted up on the cross. He takes all the poison of our sin into himself. He becomes sin. Like a serpent that, instead of striking with his fangs to poison you, takes from you the poison that is killing you. Jesus absorbed in his own body the poison of our sin and God’s judgment against it.
See Jesus lifted up on the cross, dying for you. There is the love of the Father. See Jesus lifted up on the cross, dying for you. There is the grace of the Son. See Jesus lifted up on the cross, dying for you. There is the communion of the Holy Spirit.
People want to be in charge. They want to be in charge of God so they deny the true God, the Holy Trinity, and create their own. They invent their own way to heaven. It’s always based on the good things they supposedly do. When we look to him who is lifted up on the cross and dying for us, and keep our eyes focused on him, we see where God took away our sin and opened for us the way to eternal life.
That’s what this church is for and why this is your home. Here is the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, the body and blood of Jesus. This is where you promise to be because here is where you belong. It is your home. God will never reject you when you come to him here in his house, confess your failures and sins, listen to his gospel, and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for you. He will always receive you, forgive you, fill you with his Spirit, and give you the assurance that you are on your way to heaven.
Rolf D. Preus