You Must Be Born Again
|Trinity Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| June 16, 2019| St. John 3:1-15|
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
You must be born again. If you are not born again you cannot see God’s kingdom. Flesh gives birth to flesh. We are born sinful and estranged from God. We are not born in fellowship with God. We are by nature what St. Paul calls “children of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3) We are not born children of God. We are born under God’s wrath. This doctrine offends human pride. It’s a bitter a pill to swallow and most refuse to take it. They reject out of hand Christ’s insistence that you must be born again, born from above, born by God’s gracious power, if you are ever to enter into God’s kingdom.
You must be born again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. You must be born from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. You must, but you cannot. That’s the way it is. You must, but you are powerless to do what you must do.
In matters of religion most religious people want to be in charge. They want doable rules to obey so that by obeying them they will achieve the status they desire. They want a god that they can manage for their own advantage. Sophisticated Americans look down on the animistic religions of Africa and the Caribbean that feature good spirits and evil spirits who can be manipulated by people who know how to do it. Well, we Americans are not so different. Turn on your television and see. You can make big bucks by showing people how to get God to do their bidding. People want a god they can control, a god that fits into their pattern of thought, values, standards, and schedule. God won’t go along. You must be born from above and until you are you don’t know God.
Nicodemus was a smart man, an educated man, a sincere seeker for the truth, and an honest man as men go, but when he attempted to begin a theological conversation with Jesus, Jesus wouldn’t engage him. Instead, he told him he had to be born again. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.
You must be born again or born from above because you are flesh. You don’t know who God is. You don’t know how to relate to him. If you aren’t born from above by God’s power, by the Holy Spirit, by God’s grace, your piety will be idolatry. You will make an idol for yourself. You will be the one who decides how God thinks and what he is like.
Perhaps you think that idolaters are ignorant savages. What would you say about Thomas Jefferson? As a political philosopher, an advocate of sound government, he was brilliant. He is admired to this day for his contributions to our country. If only we had statesmen like him today! This is what Jefferson said about the Holy Trinity, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, the God in whose name we are baptized, the God of the Holy Scriptures, the only true God there is. He said:
When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the very simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples. (Thomas Jefferson)
Jefferson’s Jesus was not the eternal Son of the Father, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Jefferson saw Jesus as nothing more than a first century Jewish moralist. Despite his brilliance, that’s all Jefferson could understand. He was not born again. He was very smart. But he did not look up to the cross where Jesus suffered for his sins and trust in this Jesus as his Savior from sin. He was too smart for his own good. You must be born again.
The mystery of the Trinity is not at all confusing. People pretend it’s confusing because they want to be in charge of God and to remake God in their own image. The biblical teaching about God is perfectly clear. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is God. They are three distinct persons. Each person is God. Yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
The Father is God. He is the Creator of all that exists. He is eternal. He is almighty. He is full of love. Even before time began he loved. He loved his Son. As we sing,
Of the Father’s love begotten,
E’re the worlds began to be
He is Alpha and Omega,
He, the Source, the ending he
Of the things that are, that have been
And that future years shall see
Evermore and evermore.
The Son is God. He has always been God. There was never a time when he was not God. He is eternal. He is the Creator of all that exits. He is the eternal Son of the eternal Father.
The Holy Spirit is God. He proceeds from the Father and the Son. He is the eternal Creator God.
Each of these three distinct persons is God. Yet they are not three gods. There is only one God. The Athanasian Creed confesses the mystery of the Trinity. We confess:
We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity
Neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.
“So what? Let’s get practical! Who cares about the Trinity when we have real problems that require real solutions? I need a god who can help me and I think I know what I need him to do!” In this way, those who are born of the flesh and are flesh toss aside the true faith because they cannot figure out how God can be who he is.
Faith doesn’t figure God out. Faith believes what God says about himself. The Father sends the Son. Jesus is more than a teacher God sent. He is God in the flesh. He descends from heaven and ascends into heaven while never leaving heaven. How can this be? He is true God and true man. Faith can’t figure this out. Faith simply believes it. The Son sends the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings us to faith. He brings about the new spiritual birth. He directs your eyes to where the Son of God is lifted up on the cross to die for you. This is how he lifts you out of death into life.
The Holy Spirit joins you to the crucifixion of the Son of God. He does so by means of Holy Baptism. Jesus said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” He doesn’t say “born of water and of the Spirit” as if being born of water and being born of the Spirit are two different things. No, he joins the water to the Spirit saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
In the time of Moses, when the children of Israel were complaining against God and his prophet, God sent venomous snakes to bite the people and they began to die. They repented of their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them before God. God told Moses to make a snake out of bronze and lift it up on a pole. When those infected with the poison looked up to the snake, the poison left them and they lived. Just so, Jesus was lifted up on the cross to take away our sin. Those who look to Jesus in faith receive the forgiveness of their sins and they live forever.
We cannot return to Calvary. That was the first century and this is the twenty first century. We cannot get into a time machine, go back to Calvary, and look at Jesus lifted up on the cross. The Holy Spirit brings Calvary to us. At Christ’s baptism, John the Baptist identified him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. After Jesus died, water and blood flowed from his pierced side. Baptism has the power of Christ’s blood. This is why Jesus promises us, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Baptism isn’t our good work that we do for God. It is the washing of the Holy Spirit.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also Father’s Day. Fatherhood has fallen on hard times. The word “patriarchy” – which means the rule of the father – has become a nasty word used to describe sexist, misogynistic, abusive, coercive domination over women. For us who know God the Father in the suffering and death of his Son revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, patriarchy is a wonderful word! It means that our heavenly Father will move heaven and earth to provide us with what we need. It means that he loves us so much that he gave his dearest treasure – his only begotten Son – to us, to be lifted up on the cross to take away our sin.
By the power of the Holy Spirit we know the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We fathers know what true fatherhood means. It means giving. The Father gave his Son. It means forgiving. The Son was lifted up on the cross to take away our sins. It means teaching God’s Word. Jesus sends the Spirit to teach us the mysteries of the faith. The eternal love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is not so far removed from us. It has found us where we live. God has made us partakers of this love. Everything that belongs to the Father belongs to the Son. Everything that belongs to the Son is given to us by the Holy Spirit. We live the new eternal life the Spirit has given us to live, a life lived under the shelter of the cross and filled with God’s love. What a life!