Watercolor painting by E. J. Kirsch

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Feb 18, 2018

“Born from Above” 2-18-18

John 3:1-15, Numbers 21:4-9
February 18, 2018

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, which does not have any particular emphasis in Presbyterian Churches, except that it is the beginning of Lent, and we are now in a period that many churches use to prepare for the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and his glorious resurrection on Easter,
In my ministry here I have often recommended that each of you join me in reading through one of the gospels during the season, and sometimes I have preached sermons from that gospel and sequenced them to passages that you will have read the week before or will read the week after.
Since we have 6 weeks before Easter, we will all be able to read through the gospel of John before Easter if we read about 3.5 chapters each week. 
So I am beginning this series of sermons on John with the beginning of the third chapter. 
It is one of the best known passages of this gospel and it contains some of the best known words of Jesus.  Some of you might remember way back to when Jimmie Carter was our President, and he because of his interviews really lifted up the term “born again” and the term “born again Christian” began to be used with a new emphasis.
Some of you who were not around then might find some of the questions that were asked at that time to be incomprehensible and perhaps even nonsensical.
I can remember being asked if I was a born again Christian, which seemed a bit strange because I was a pastor of a church with a seminary Degree and a robe and everything.  But in that time, being born again was sometimes used to denote a particular kind of Experience and there seemed to be a feeling that some Christians were born again Christians and others were not.  Around the same time, This idea of being born again became connected to the thing we now call evangelicalism and it began to be identified with a particular style or platform of politics, which ironically, Jimmie Carter did not support.
As I look back on all that, and realize that all that remains of much of those words and ideals are empty echoes, I am glad, because now we can once again look at the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus and hope to recapture the meanings and understandings of the two of them.
The men who had this conversation were very different.  Nicodemus was a teacher and leader of the Jews.  He was a part of the Ruling Council of the Jews and he was of the more conservative Religious party of the Pharisees.  He was of the establishment.  He taught the precepts of the Old Testament Scriptures and issued rulings based on them. His role on the Council, the Sanhedrin, was to keep the Priests less focused on politics and more focused on the Word of God.
As a Jew and a Pharisee, he believed that his being in the kingdom of God was a certainty.  He was, after all, a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, the nation of God’s choice and God’s promise.  And, if how one lived and what one believed had any influence in the Kingdom, he, as a Pharisee who lived obeying all the rituals of his faith and his party, and who spent his life reading, understanding and teaching the Old Testament, would have every expectation of being in God’s kingdom.  In fact, he would have considered himself to be a gatekeeper of that kingdom, one who could tell others how to enter.
The other party in this conversation was Jesus.  An upstart, popular Rabbi.  One who had no formal training and was not a part of any particular recognized movement, but did have a connection to another popular outsider, John the Baptist.
John had been preaching about preparing for the kingdom of God by repenting and multitudes of Jews had gone to him to be baptized as a sign of their repentance.
We know that Jesus was the divine son of God, but Nicodemus did not know that.  Nicodemus did know that Jesus was one of a few fellows of that time who had claimed to be the Messiah or was claimed by others to be the Messiah, the great leader whom God had promised to send to the Jews.
He had also heard about some of the teachings and miracles of Jesus, and although many of his fellow Pharisees were becoming opposed to the teachings of Jesus, the things he had heard about Jesus prompted him to seek an interview with Jesus.  He did not come as a judge or a critic, but as one seeking guidance and one seeking to know more about Jesus’ beliefs.
He came as a rabbi calling Jesus a rabbi; He came as a teacher, seeking knowledge from another teacher.
He seems to have come as a representative of others who felt like him, because he said, “Rabbi, WE know that you are a teacher who has come from God for no one can do the signs that you do apart from the presence of God”.
There seems to be a problem with the account of this interview.  After Nicodemus first speaks to Jesus, Jesus seems to say something that seems to be out of the context of the statement made by Nicodemus.  I think that one of two things happened here.
John may have abbreviated the interview, leaving out the question and giving Jesus’ answer, which is a key theological and soteriological point.
OR, Jesus may have understood the question that Nicodemus was going to ask and answered it.
As I said, this statement is of the utmost importance.  It tells us how to get into the eternal kingdom of God, or as we often refer to it, heaven.
Jesus said that in order for one to see or be a part of the kingdom of God, one must be born from above.  For years the English translations rendered it “born again” but the NRSV is correct here, the Greek says Born from Above”.
Nicodemus did not understand and wondered if it meant starting life all over from ones Mother (He may have been speaking less than literally).
Then Jesus said “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born of the water and the spirit.”
He will later explain the Spirit part, but what did he mean by born of the water?  Some have thought it refers in some yucky way to the human birth process where fluids are involved.  That is partly because Jesus later said that what is born of the flesh is flesh but what is born of the spirit is spirit.
But I think that in the context of the days of John the Baptist, Jesus is speaking of that for which John’s baptism was a symbol: Repentance.
Jesus is taking John’s doctrine and adding the next Step, Repentance is the first part of being born again by the Holy Spirit.
He later said that those born of the spirit were like objects in the wind.  You cannot see the wind.  But you can see how objects are moved by the wind, and you can hear it as it moves past your ears.
Two days ago I drove into Ohio for a Presbytery meeting and I had an interesting experience with the wind.  I noticed that my car, which usually only registers a top mileage figure of 30 miles per gallon was informing me that its computer was computing that the car was getting 34 miles per gallon.  When I stopped at a rest stop, I noticed that there was a strong wind pushing me eastward.
Those who are in the kingdom of God are not motivated by the forces or desires common to the people of this world.    They are propelled by the Holy Spirit.  One who has been born from above is one who has acknowledged his or her sins and has expressed sorrow for having done them.  And He or she is then indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  And/or, he or she can repent because the Holy Spirit is already at work in him or her.
In a later part of this conversation, Jesus specifies that these are earthly truths and heavenly truths, and implies that he is capable of revealing heavenly truths because he is from heaven.
Our passage today ends with Jesus telling Nicodemus where He was headed.  He was heading for a lifting up experience.  He was to be lifted up as the bronze snake in the wilderness was lifted up by Moses to give life to dying people.
By his being lifted up Jesus was referring to the cross on which he would die, the Tomb, from which he would be raised, and the Earth, from which he would ascend.
This morning, we are headed on a journey with Jesus.  We are going to be reading this gospel during Lent as we prepare to celebrate Jesus death and resurrection.
But all the way I want you to remember the points of this interview.  Those who belong to God’s kingdom are of many ages, sizes, races, and economic strata.  But they have these three things in common: They have repented of their sins, They have become indwelt and are motivated or propelled by the Holy Spirit, And they believe in Jesus as the son of God who came from Heaven, who died on the cross, and whose death and resurrection gives them a new life, a life that will continue after death and that they shall live in His Kingdom forever.

Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906