There Is Only One Way to Fix This
Rev. Kurt Lantz The Holy Trinity John 3:1-17
June 04, 2023 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people who have come to Jesus,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Have you ever had that experience where after many many attempts to get it right, you come to the painful conclusion that the only way to fix it is to start over? Perhaps it happened to you in school and the teacher seemed rather unmerciful handing your assignment back to you and saying you had better start again. Sometimes I come to that conclusion after struggling with a sermon for most of the week. I think it has also happened to me in art class. It is probably toted as part of the creative process in writing and fine arts. Part of my vegetable garden is at that stage right now because of the scorching heat in our back yard and the utter lack of rain for so long.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders of the people. They were not all bad, although we have come to view them that way. Nicodemus told Jesus that he and the other Pharisees believed He had come from God because of the miraculous signs that He was able to do. Nicodemus came to Jesus to find out more about Him. Nicodemus comes on the scene also later in the Gospel of John, when the other Pharisees begin to reject Jesus. Nicodemus speaks up for Him and says, “Our law judges no man before it hears him” (John 7:50). And, more familiar to us, is when Nicodemus works with Joseph of Aramathea, bringing about a hundred pounds of spices in order to bury Jesus after the crucifixion (John 19:39).
Knowing the whole story, when we hear the name of Nicodemus, we rout for him. He’s one of the good guys. He is doing the right thing. He comes to Jesus. But Jesus is like that unmerciful teacher who crumples up your assignment and tells you to start over. He sees everything that Nicodemus brings to hand in as trash, and throws it into the circular file, not even the blue bin.
Nicodemus has come as one of the Pharisees who wish to live righteously, who want to please God. They acknowledge that Jesus has the answers they are looking for. They want to know what is the right thing to do. Is it okay to get a divorce and marry someone else? How far do I have go in helping the homeless? Is it good enough to give ten percent to the temple? Hey, those are our questions, too.
Nicodemus finds out that it doesn’t matter what he would have written on his assignment. Jesus would have thrown it out anyway. It is like he doesn’t even read it or wait for the oral presentation. He cuts off Nicodemus before he can make a single assertion and tells him, no matter what you have to say, it is garbage. You need to start over.
A lot of religious groups seem to take Jesus’ stance. They want you to start over, too. They want you to renew your commitment, to confirm your decision, even to be re-baptized. When I worked in a group home for young offenders, twelve-year old Jason told me that his parents had him baptized seven times. They were hoping that by starting over, he would live a more righteous life and not get into any more trouble. Isn’t that what Jesus said to Nicodemus? You have to start over, way back to the beginning. You must be born again. Don’t just strip it all down to the studs, clear the lot. Scrap even the outline and the theme.
The difference is that Jesus does not want Nicodemus to start over again. He actually says that will not fix it. He won’t get any farther by doing it that way. The problem is even deeper than the foundation. The problem is with the one building. Not only is the idea bad, but the one who thought it up is bad. No good will come from Nicodemus or us beginning again.
Nicodemus is a smart cookie. He saw that it wouldn’t work just for him to start over. He knew it would be futile, like a student often feels when they are told to start over. Will it make a difference if a sinful man is born sinful again? If a sinful man is baptized again? If a sinful man makes a firmer, more well-informed, more intentional, more dedicated decision? And even if it would make a difference how does one do that? It is as futile as trying to climb into your mother’s womb to be born again. Don’t fall for that re-baptism, re-dedication, re-commitment thing. Rather, confess that what is born of flesh is flesh. What comes from the fallen sinful nature of humanity is fallen, sinful human nature.
You do need a new beginning. You do need to be born again, but you cannot do it. You didn’t bring about your first birth. You cannot bring about your rebirth. Even if you could, it would result in the same failure. Your righteousness would not be good enough for the Teacher come from God.
But God has grace for you, as He did for Nicodemus. It was a painful lesson, to be led to the point where he saw nothing in himself to be righteous before God, not even as a God-fearing, law-abiding Pharisee. He needed to start over, right from the very beginning, to be born again, something that was impossible for him to do. But the grace of God revealed that God would do it for him.
You must be born of water and the Spirit; not your spirit in the strength of some re-commitment to another faltering attempt at your own righteousness, but a spirit that exists outside of the fallen spirit of sinful humanity—the Holy Spirit, the eternal Spirit of God, that never was nor ever can be corrupted; not your weak spirit bolstered by some enthusiastic deception of inner strength, but the almighty Spirit of God who is ever living and active. You must be born of water and the Holy Spirit; not the water of your mother’s womb, not the water of some special river half way across the globe, not water that is deeper or cleaner or more agitated, but the water to which Jesus connects this promise.
You must be born of the water that carries the promise of the kingdom of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. You must be born from above through Holy Baptism. This is not you starting over. This is not you trying again. This is God giving you the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. He re-births you. He renews you.
I know that all of you here are baptized. You have this rebirth already, and that is the point. You don’t want to make the error of Nicodemus and look for your entrance into the kingdom of God through a righteousness that stems from something you produce. You have been given entrance into the kingdom of God through your baptism. You don’t want someone telling you that you have to try harder to get in, that if only you really mean it this time will it be acceptable to God. No. You will never be acceptable to God by your own commitment and dedication. I doubt that any of us here were as committed and dedicated to righteous living as Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees. Jesus told them they needed to start over.
They needed to start over with the start that He has given to you. With the new birth of Holy Baptism that comes from above. That rebirth in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is not your effort. It is not your doing. It does not come from you at all. It comes from the three Persons of the divine Godhead extending their grace and power to save you from your corrupt and sin-soaked nature. You are baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
God the Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world that the world might be saved through Him. Jesus was lifted up on the cross to die for all of your sins and rose again from death so that a new life could be yours. The Holy Spirit regenerates you with the new birth of Holy Baptism so that you believe that Jesus has covered you with His righteousness in order that you will not perish but have everlasting life. You have entered the kingdom of God.
The three Persons of the Holy Trinity are those who have started you over. They are the ones in whom you have been born again. God so loved you that He is fully committed. His name is on this project. He has done the work. It is accomplished in His strength, His faithfulness, His love for you.
Perhaps, like Nicodemus, you need that spelled out for you time and again, even God-fearing, law-abiding people like you. Whenever you come to Jesus asking what more you need to do, He will throw that in the trash and point you to your new birth in Holy Baptism. That is why we say those words so often when we gather together as Christians: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). That is why we are encouraged to say those words first before we begin talking to Jesus in prayer.
There is nothing that you can present to Him that will open the kingdom of heaven for you except that name of the Triune God that He has put upon you. And that is not an unmerciful or harsh rejection of you, it is the only way in which His door swings wide open to you.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.