The Life Giver - John 3:1-21

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 23rd September 2007.

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A while ago, I came across some interesting laws from different countries, which although irrelevant to modern life, yet are still officially law in the particular country. England, it has to be said, came out top of the list with the most useless laws still in force. For instance, it may surprise you to know that all English boys under the age of 14 are required to carry out at least 2 hours of archery practice a week supervised by a local clergyman. I now know how I should be spending my Saturdays. Also for those women among us who like to nibble on a Mars Bar on the bus, please be aware that it is illegal for women to eat chocolates on public transport. And it is also illegal, for some strange reason, for a bed to be hung out of a window. It is still important to make sure you put a stamp the right way up on an envelope because placing a postage stamp bearing the king or queen’s head upside down on an envelope is considered as treason. For those of you considering a career in politics, please remember that it is illegal for a member of parliament to appear in the house of commons in London wearing a suit of armour. It was also rather comforting to discover that in York just a few miles down the road from Hull, it is still legal to shoot a Scotsman with a bow and arrow, except on Sundays. However, it is not just England that such bizarre laws exist. In Israel, it is illegal to bring a bear to the beach with you, whilst in Switzerland it is illegal to wash your car on a Sunday. And finally, one for Americans among us which is that it is still possible for American citizens to take possession of any uninhabited foreign island, so long as it contains bird droppings. Well these laws may be funny to us, but of course when they were first written, they were deadly serious. The only problem is, that as the years have gone by, they have become obsolete and useless. And what these laws need is an entirely new perspective on life, a 21st century perspective which takes into account modern life.

            Well it’s very good to welcome a number of international students here this evening. It’s always a great privilege to welcome friends from overseas and you are warmly welcome here at St. Johns. But I wonder how you are feeling about life here in Britain. It may be that after a few days or weeks in England you are feeling totally baffled by our strange customs and ways. Perhaps you find our language confusing, our accents very odd, our habits of driving on the wrong side of the road and eating fish and chips strange and weird. Certainly for those of us living in the UK who have been abroad, often going to a different culture is a bewildering experience. We perhaps feel that many of the laws and cultural customs are baffling and out of date. They need updating. And when it comes to thinking about the Christian faith, then many it seems regard Christianity as an irrelevant and outdated tradition that either needs to be scrapped or seriously revised. It’s one of those cultural phenomena that needs to be updated now we have entered the 21st century.

            But actually the very centre of Christianity is not a set of laws or even a book. It is a person, Jesus Christ. And he is timeless and eternal. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords and as such he stands over every culture, every land and every person. And it’s Jesus that we are considering this evening. And to help us we going to look at a book in the Bible called John. John, the writer of this book, was a close friend of Jesus and was an eye witness of Jesus’ teaching and life. And his aim in the book is to help us to see who Jesus is and to challenge us to respond to his message. And the wonderful thing is whether we have been a Christian for many years, or whether we have only just heard the name of Jesus, then there is something here for everyone, whether we are from Cottingham or Colombia, Bridlington or Beijing. And we will find that actually this is the most important message we will ever hear. So let’s turn to the story we had read earlier on and see what Jesus has to say to us. And he will tell us three things:

1) The problem we all have

2) The rescue we all need

3) The challenge we all face

1) The problem we all have  

So first then we see the problem we all have. Now this story is about a man called Nicodemus who went to see Jesus one night for a chat. Let’s see how John describes the story in verse 1: “Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council.” Now this chap Nicodemus was one of the top officials in Jerusalem. For a start he was a Pharisee. We tend to have a very negative view of Pharisees, but actually they had a lot going for them. They were totally devoted to God. They would give away their money, they would read their Scriptures, they would follow all the laws with utter consistency. They were very religious. And coupled to this, he was a member of the Jewish ruling council, what was known as the Sanhedrin, a group of seventy men who ruled Jerusalem in terms of it’s judicial, religious and social structures. These seventy men were the government of the day, the MPs of Israel, except they weren’t voted in! And every Jew in the whole world was answerable to these seventy men. And even more impressive, Jesus calls Nicodemus “Israel’s teacher” in verse 10. So this man is one of the most important men living in Israel at the time. He was if you like the Professor of Religion at Jerusalem university and also one of the most powerful political figures in the land. And it’s this person who comes to Jesus to have a late night chat.

            Now the conversation starts politely enough. Nicodemus begins with a compliment in verse 2: “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Nicodemus thinks that Jesus is at the least a good teacher who is doing miracles. At the least, Nicodemus believes Jesus to have some power and authority from God. But that’s as far as it goes. But then Jesus says something in verse 3 that is quite shocking and seemingly unconnected to what Nicodemus has just said. In reply Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Now by the phrase “kingdom of God” Jesus means God’s heaven, or being part of God’s people. It means to submit to Jesus as the King and only ruler of your life. And that kingdom is something that the people of God will enjoy fully and perfectly forever one day. It’s what we might talk of as heaven. But Jesus is saying that in order for us to enter heaven and enjoy heaven, we need to be born again. We need a total transformation of our lives. We need a complete fresh start. And no-one can get to heaven without that complete change in their lives.

            Now that would have been deeply shocking to Nicodemus. And it may be a shock to you too. Because Nicodemus thought that he was guaranteed a place in heaven. Surely if anyone deserved a place in the kingdom of God, it was Nicodemus. He’d be there at the end of history, he thought. He’d got all the right credentials. Theology degree, great spiritual track record, and one of the top jobs in the land. I’ll be there thought Nicodemus. I’ve been good. I’ve done loads of good deeds. I’ve lived my life trying to help others and I’ve not done anything seriously wrong. And it may be that is exactly what you think too. “I’ve worked hard. I’ve looked after my family. I’ve even been to church all my life. I’ve tried to live a good life. I give to charity. I’m a decent person. I’m going to heaven. Surely God will let me in.” But Jesus pulls the rug right from under our feet. “Oh no,” says Jesus. “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” No-one can get to heaven unless there is a total, complete transformation in their lives. You’ve got to be born again. You’ve got to have a brand new life if you want to go to heaven. Your present life is just not good enough!

            But why not, we ask? And that is exactly the question Nicodemus was asking! What’s wrong with my life? Look at all my deeds, he was saying! You can imagine the outrage going through Nicodemus’ head can’t you? And actually there is a little hint in verse 2 as to Nicodemus’ real problem. You might not have spotted it at first. It’s the words “at night.” Nicodemus came to see Jesus “at night”. Now on one level it may simply be that Nicodemus went to see Jesus in the evening, perhaps away from the crowds, perhaps when both men had more time. But in John’s gospel, light and darkness are very loaded terms. Whenever John uses darkness it has the overtones of moral darkness, moral failure and human opposition to God. Just look over to 3 v 19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds are evil.” John is hinting that Nicodemus has a much more serious problem. His problem is that he is not actually good enough for heaven, however painful that might be for him to hear it. He is a man who for all his religious credentials has a heart which needs cleaning up and wrong doing which needs dealing with. He’s in the spiritual wilderness, the darkness, and he needs to come into the light. He must be born again if he is to enter heaven. He must undergo such a radical transformation in his life, that he becomes a new man, not just turning over a new leaf, but a total fresh start with God. Because without this new birth, he cannot enter heaven.

            And that is why every one of us in this building needs this new birth. Because without it, not one of us can get to heaven. It’s doesn’t matter whether we’ve been coming to church for 50 years or 50 minutes, we all need the new birth. And it’s doesn’t matter whether we are a respected member of the community or a person that everyone else has written off. We all need the new birth. Because Jesus’ verdict is that not one of us is good enough for heaven. We have all mucked up our lives. We are all guilty of rebellion against God, whether we admit it or not. It’s what the Bible calls sin. And sin is essentially the desire to put ourselves at the heart of the universe, to run our lives in the way we want, without reference to God. And God as our creator and King will quite rightly hold us accountable for that. And as Jesus explains in verse 18, that means we stand condemned. It means we are facing eternity without god and not in heaven, separated apart from God which is hell. That is how offensive our lives are to God. We won’t deserve heaven. We deserve hell.

Now I realise that this is not a truth that is very easy to swallow. Back in the eighteenth century the Duchess of Buckingham also found it offensive to be told she was a sinner! She said: “It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting and at variance with high rank and good breeding.” But it’s a truth that we need to understand because unless we acknowledge we are not good enough, then we cannot see what danger we are in and how we need to be rescued from that danger.

I don’t know if we have any friends here from Australia, or if you have ever been to Australia, but if you are Australian or you have been, then you might know it’s possible to ski in the Snowy Mountains southwest of Sydney during the winter. However, like all ski resorts the Snowy Mountains can be a place where avalanches happen. Well on Wednesday 30th July 1997 at 11.40pm, there was a rock disturbance that led to a huge landslide in the Snowy Mountains. Tonnes of rock, rubble and mud slid 650 feet and crashed into the Thredbee Ski Resort, completely destroying the Karaya Ski Lodge. It killed 19 skiers and also trapped 27 year old ski instructor Stuart Diver. He was trapped under 35 feet of rubble for 66 hours in sub zero temperatures unable to move, unable to escape, completely helpless. Now the one thing Stuart Diver would have known was that he needed rescuing. And the first thing we need to admit is that we are in trouble. Jesus makes it clear that we are not good enough for heaven, not one of us. We, like Nicodemus, have not lived as we should. We are all condemned. That’s the problem we all face.

2) The rescue we all need

But wonderfully Jesus does not leave us in this position. Because he goes on to explain the rescue we all need. And this is the second thing we discover from this story. The rescue we all need. Because it’s one thing to realise that we need to be born again because of the problem we all face, but quite another to understand what that means and how it is possible. And that was Nicodemus’ question. Verse 4: “‘How can a man be born when he is old?’ Nicodemus asked. ‘Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be born!’” “OK, Jesus, you talk about a new birth, but how on earth is that possible? I mean you don’t expect me to climb back in my mother’s womb do you?” Now Nicodemus wasn’t stupid. After all he was Professor of Theology! But he struggled to grasp how it could be that Jesus was expecting Nicodemus to be born again. And it may be that you are sceptical too! What is Jesus talking about? Some weird religious experience? Maybe it’s just turning over a new leaf? But you see it’s no good just turning over a new leaf, because that won’t help at all. It’s not a case of doing a little bit better. We’ll simply go back to our old ways. Why is that that most of our new year’s resolutions are finished by the first week of January? It’s very hard to make resolutions and stick to them isn’t it? I must go jogging every day. I must stop wasting time on Facebook. I must eat less sausage sandwiches. Great resolutions. But by January the third, we’re in front of the computer updating our Facebook status for the eighth time that day, with our feet up eating a huge sausage sandwich. You see sometimes we might be able to change our lives in a few small areas, but the whole thing? A total moral turnaround and a clean bill of moral health? It’s just not possible to change that dramatically. At heart we’re still the same people. We are still rebels against God facing his judgement.

            So how can we be born again? How can we change? Well Jesus explains it to Nicodemus in verse 5: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.’” So what does Jesus mean here? Well Jesus is almost certainly referring to a passage in the Bible from the prophet Ezekiel who lived about 500 years or so before Jesus. Because God had said these words through the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 36 vv 25-26): “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” Here God is promising a time when we can be forgiven and washed clean totally from all the wrong things we have done. And Jesus is saying that that time is here. It is possible now for our lives to be washed clean of all the things we have ever done wrong and will ever do wrong so that we can enter heaven. We are promised new hearts, hearts which please God instead of displeasing him. And amazingly it is not something that we do, but something that God does in us. He is the one who actually cleans us up, gives us a fresh start and empowers us to live a new life in his power. That is what it means to be born again. It is to be brought to life spiritually speaking by God himself. The new birth is something God does in us. Verse 6: “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’” The trouble is flesh gives birth to flesh. All humans can do is propagate a sinful human race. We cannot save ourselves. But in order to be part of God’s family, you must be born again, that is given a new life by God himself. And it’s his Spirit who brings us to new birth. And that is why God has no grandchildren. Each of us personally must accept this new birth for ourselves. Just because our parents come to church or used to come to church does not make us Christians. No God only has children, men and women, boys and girls who have humbly accepted this new birth for themselves. It is God’s work to bring about this transformation in our lives and he does it by his Spirit. And so the only way you and I will get to heaven is if we have been born again.

            But is this new birth then something God does in us for free? Can God just wipe the slate clean and forgive us just like that? Well no he cannot. Because justice demands that crimes be punished. And we are criminals, rebels against God who have broken his law. But amazingly God has provided a way for us not to pay the price for our wrongdoing. Wonderfully we do not have to be held accountable for our actions. Sounds too good to be true? Well it’s not. See how Jesus explains it in verse 14: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” Again Jesus uses a story from the Bible to explain what he is saying, this time from the book of Numbers chapter 21. The people of Israel rebelled against God and in judgement he sent poisonous snakes into the camp which would cause many Israelites to die. But God acted in mercy as well, and he told Moses to make a statue of a bronze snake and put it on a pole. So whenever the Israelites were bitten, they would look up at the pole and be healed. And Jesus is saying that his death on the cross will do a similar but much more profound thing. For human beings are suffering from a poisonous disease called sin. We too are under God’s judgement. But on the cross, Jesus died our death in our place so that the curse of sin may be paid by him. What does John say in verse 16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God loved us so much, even though we are his enemies, that he allows his own Son to die on the cross in our place to offer us forgiveness. That is how we can be born again. We simply trust what Jesus has done for us on the cross. And God by his Spirit enters our lives to clean up and gives us a new life. We are born again. It’s a quite remarkable rescue, and it’s one that is open to everyone here. One which we all need.

            Back in the Snowy Mountains in Australia, Stuart Diver was trapped beneath tonnes of rubble. He’d been there for 3 days, in freezing temperatures, trapped and helpless. On the fourth day, Saturday 2nd August, rescue workers located the place where Diver was. In temperatures of -9 degrees Celsius, using a diamond tipped chain saw, they cut through 2 collapsed concrete slabs which were pinning Diver down. 7 hours later hot air and fluids were pumped down to him and at 5.21pm rescue workers pulled him from 35 feet of rubble. The press called it a ‘miraculous rescue operation’, but they criticised the rescue services for not getting to Diver more quickly. Chief Fire Officer Ian Krimmer of the NSW fire department based in Sydney responded to the allegations by saying this: “My primary concern was the rescue team. The last thing we want is for one of our rescuers to become the victim.” Well remarkably, Jesus the rescuer became the victim for us, suffering in our place to offer us new birth. He is far more than the good teacher Nicodemus thought he was. He is the divine Saviour come to rescue us from our greatest need. And the question for us is how will we respond?

3) The challenge we all face

And that brings us to the final thing we learn from Jesus in this passage. The challenge we all face. Because this is not news just to shrug our shoulders at. This is news of extreme importance because it affects not just our lives here in this world, but our lives for all eternity. See how Jesus puts it in verse 17: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.” The fact is Jesus came on a rescue mission. And if we believe in him, if we admit our need and come to him in humility asking him to be Lord of our lives, then we will not be condemned. In fact, Jesus says in verse 16 that we receive eternal life. That is we enjoy life as it was meant to be lived with God forever. But to reject Jesus is to remain in the position we are already. Condemned and facing his rejection through our own rebellion. The challenge you see is to accept the message of Jesus and receive this new birth.

            Now it may be that this is the first time you have heard this message explained. In which case I would urge you to investigate it further. If you are a student then there are special opportunities for you to investigate the faith on campus. If you’re not a student, then we run a course called Christianity Explored which helps you to grasp the key truths of the Christian faith. Either way please don’t pass up the opportunity. Because this message about Jesus is just too important to ignore. But for those of us who are Christians, then we too need to be reminded that actually nothing is more important than this message. If you have received the new birth then nothing is more precious and wonderful than that. It is an amazing miracle of God that he has worked in your life. Praise God every day for what he has done in your life and never grow complacent. Following Jesus is no hobby. It’s about a new birth, an amazing act of creation by God in your heart. Are you still grateful? Are you living in the light of it? If not, then why not recommit yourself to him tonight.

And what became of Nicodemus? Well the signs are he did take Jesus seriously. By the end of the gospel he is the one who has the courage to take Jesus’ body and bury it. Perhaps after all he had the courage to receive the new birth that Jesus promises. Because the fact is we all need it. God is the one who provides it. And it’s available through Jesus’ death on the cross. The question is: Have you received it? “For I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

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