He just doesn't get it. But that doesn't stop Nicodemus from baring his soul before Jesus. “How can this be?”
As I grow older, I often marvel at how wise I am now compared to how foolish I was then. But then, every year I seem to learn that I really wasn't all that wise last year. (I can't imagine when I have the years of wisdom of Pastor Poppe). But I think for all of us there are times when we have to come humbly before the Lord and admit we don't have it all figured out. We bare our souls like a child, humbly asking how and why and when, Lord?
Nicodemus was a pharisee. Much like a professor of theology in that day. Respected for his age and wisdom. A pillar of the community. Seen as a wise man – certainly no young upstart. But here he was coming at night to find out what made this Jesus tick. He had questions, but the answers, too, would confound him.
Jesus, this country preacher from Galillee, probably 20 or 30 years his junior... with no authority of culture and institution behind him, and no official connection with the temple. But Jesus was doing things that no one could explain. His miracles, signs and wonders... these were the calling cards that got Nicodemus' attention. “We know that you are from God, for no one can do such things without God” Well he knew that much, but there was much more he didn't know.
Today some might call Nicodemus a “seeker”. But he wasn't part of the kingdom, at least not yet. Jesus took the opportunity to instruct the wise teacher, and all of us, in some of the basic truths of the faith. And while we are part of that kingdom, we too have much to learn from this night-time discourse.
Perhaps the most basic truth here is the one that we know the best. The “Gospel-in-a-nutshell” passage, John 3:16. Yes, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is why Jesus has come – for the love of God – for a world that is perishing – for Nicodemus, and for us. This truth, so simple, yet so profound, has made even the wisest men wonder. But there is so much more to the kingdom.
Let's back up. Nicodemus approaches Jesus and begins with flattery, “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." Skillful politics here, buttering Jesus up? Or is this an honest admission that he really is impressed with Jesus' works?
Either way, Jesus shrugs off this flattery and gets to the point. He is not really interested in being praised. He is, always, the servant. Nicodemus needs to see the kingdom, and Jesus nudges him toward it. You need to be born again, Nicodemus.
Have you ever had that question? “Are you born again?” Usually asked by a Christian of a certain theological persuasion... what does it mean? Have you had a conversion experience? Have you given your life over to Jesus? Are you not one of those luke-warm nominal believers, but a real, true, on-fire, enthusiastic, honest-to-God Christian?
Our Lutheran sensibilities are often puzzled by such a question. We don't want to squelch our friend's excitement, but, most of us have been Christians, and Lutherans for our whole life. We haven't had that moment of scales falling from our eyes. We haven't had that mountaintop experience. We never decided to ask Jesus into our heart. We're not really born-again. Or are we?
What is Jesus talking about here, “born again”? That's what Nicodemus wants to know. That's what we need to know. For we certainly want to see the kingdom. We want to be a part of God's people.
He tells us more: “Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit”. And this can only mean one thing – Holy Baptism.
How many of our “Born Again” friends would be shocked to know that Jesus' words here are in the context of a discussion on Holy Baptism. Not conversion experiences or Pauline moments of blindness turned to sight. Just simple water and a few words (though very special words). Holy Baptism, this precious gift, forgives sins, works faith, and yes, brings you into the kingdom. Oh, and by it, we are born again. Not of the flesh, but of the Spirit.
And yet, I think many of us Lutherans think of and treat Baptism wrongly. Like most of God's gifts which we take for granted, Baptism is often far from our mind. Why is it, that we turn the gift into a requirement, a hoop to jump through, in order to have all our Christian ducks in a row. Why do we think of baptism as something long ago that happened to me, a nice historical event but nothing relevant to my life today? Why is it, that only on their death-beds, do many finally look toward the comfort of baptism?
Speaking of death-beds, Monday the 18th is Martin Luther's death-day. So in honor of the great reformer, maybe we should hear what he says about baptism:
So we need the daily gifts of baptism just as much as Nicodemus
Thus it appears what a great, excellent thing Baptism is, which delivers us from the jaws of the devil and makes us God's own, suppresses and takes away sin, and then daily strengthens the new man, and is and remains ever efficacious
until we pass from this estate of misery to eternal glory.
For this reason let every one esteem his Baptism as a daily dress in which he is to walk constantly, that he may ever be found in the faith and its fruits,that he suppress the old man and grow up in the new.
For if we would be Christians, we must practise the work whereby we are Christians. But if any one fall away from it, let him again come into it. For just as Christ, the Mercy-seat does not recede from us or forbid us to come to Him again, even though we sin, so all His treasure and gifts also remain. If,therefore we have once in Baptism obtained forgiveness of sin, it will remain every day, as long as we live, that is, as long as we carry the old man about our neck. (from Luther's Large Catechism)
did. We need the rebirth from sin just as much as that old pharisee with all his
questions and conflicts. We need not only the answers from the great teacher
Jesus, but we need also the gifts of his kingdom, that he came to bring.
Sin would have us outside of the kingdom, but God's grace in Christ brings us in. The devil, that wiley serpent, would confuse and confound us with his lies, but Jesus comes full of grace and truth. For Jesus was lifted up, like the serpent in the desert, that we might look to his cross, and to him, and believe.
Therefore daily, even this day, let us look to Christ, and receive thankfully his gifts. Let us by repentance and faith drown the Old Man – our sinful nature – there in the font of our baptism, and see the new man arise, to live before God in righteousness and purity, in Jesus Christ. Amen.