John 3:1–17; Romans 8:12–17
Many of you are old enough to remember that for years, the opening of “The Wide World of Sports” television program illustrated “The thrill of victory and the…” what? That’s right. “…and the agony of defeat.” [That’s what happens when you stand for too long. You get – the agony of de-feet.] Well, if you remember Wide World of Sports illustrated the agony of defeat with the image of a skier who had what looked like a terrible ending to a ski jump. Do you remember that? The skier appeared in good form as he headed down the jump, but then, for no apparent reason, he tumbled head over heels off the side of the jump, bouncing off the supporting structure down to the snow below.
What viewers didn't know was that he chose to fall rather than finish the jump. He explained that the jump surface had become too fast, and midway down the ramp, he realized if he completed the jump, he just might land beyond the safe sloping landing area – a landing which just could have been fatal. Surprisingly, the skier suffered no more than a headache from the tumble.
That skier changed his course, and it made a big difference in his life. Though he took a tumble, I think we can all agree that it was better than a fatal fall at the end.
Our Gospel reading today brings us face to face with a man by the name of Nicodemus. And may I suggest to you that he is facing a fatal landing if does not change directions.
You see, Nicodemus is a religious man. He was a Pharisee. And if you remember one of the things that the Scriptures tell us about the Pharisees is that they do not like Jesus. In fact, they are among those who would like to make him go away – and in fact – are party to his eventual death by crucifixion.
But we get the sense that Nicodemus – even though he is a Pharisee – senses that perhaps there is something about Jesus that he needs to investigate. So he comes to Jesus – and I want you to notice that he comes to Jesus at night. Why at night? Because he is less likely to be seen by others – especially other Pharisees – talking to this man Jesus. So he comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness.
I think Nicodemus simply wants to learn more. He wants to learn more about Jesus – more about what Jesus has to say about God. He’s curious. And the first thing he does is that he calls Jesus rabbi.
Now, this is a sign of respect. He realizes that Jesus is a teacher – and that’s what a rabbi is. So he says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” So right off the bat, we see that Nicodemus recognizes that there is something different – something special –about this man Jesus – and he needs to check it out.
And Jesus starts talking to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God – and about the importance of being born again. So now – Nicodemus is confused. He doesn’t know what Jesus is talking about. It just doesn’t make sense to him. The only thing that comes to Nicodemus’ mind is another physical birth – another trip down the birth canal.
And of course we know that that is not at all what Jesus has in mind when he says that a person must be born again.
My guess is that Nicodemus knows that his religious system of do’s and don’ts is somehow missing something – and he wants to know what that something is. I think that for all of his religiousness there was something missing. Something empty inside that his religion just couldn’t fill. It could be that Nicodemus knows that he has been heading in the wrong direction. That maybe – just maybe – he needs a course correction – a change of heart – a change of direction.
And Jesus says – you must be born again. You must be born – not from a second entry into your mother’s womb – but a new birth from above – from God. You must be born again.
Folks – when religion alone doesn’t cut it. When being religious – you know – saying the right things and doing the right things and saying and doing them in the right way – when being religious just doesn’t cut it – and you feel empty – like something’s missing – may I suggest to you that Jesus has the answer. Jesus has the answer when he says you must be born again.
And listen – let me tell you. If you are a Christian – if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ – then you are born again. Through your baptism into Christ Jesus – you are born again. We are born from above as a gift from the Father above – in the name of Jesus – and in the power of the Holy Spirit. You are born again – and don’t let anybody ever tell you that you are not!
So did Nicodemus ever come to a saving faith in Christ? I believe that he did. Tradition tells us that he did. And furthermore, if you read all the way to the end of John’s Gospel – you will find that it is Nicodemus – who along with Joseph of Arimathea – take the body of Jesus and place the body of Jesus in the tomb.
One of the best photographs from the WWII era is a photo of King George the VI inspecting a bombed out section of London. He stops to talk with a little boy, who is sloppily dressed and has his cap on crooked. The King is bending on one knee and looking directly into the face of the child, and even though it is a profile shot of the king you can see that his is a look of compassion. Tell me that that child's life was not changed. Tell me that if he lived to be a hundred he forgot that day? I would suggest that once one truly looks into the eyes of Jesus, It is difficult to turn away.
I think something wonderful – something profound – happened to Nicodemus that day. When he looked into the eyes of Jesus – he began the process that led him in a change of direction. That he did indeed become born again.
To be born again is not only a gift given to us from god – but it is also to have a change of direction in one’s life. Which begs the question – do you believe that people can change? Do you believe that you can change? I believe it is not only possible but that it does happen. It has happened for many of us.
Later this month I will be attending my 40th anniversary high school reunion. Yikes! 40! How did I get here so quickly? Anyway, I sent in my check for the banquet just yesterday, and on the invitation was a website link for do’s and don’ts of high school reunions. One of the things that was pointed out is that people will walk up to you and say, “You haven’t changed a bit.” But they are making that judgment based on outward appearances. If you are really brave – you might just have an answer prepared to tell them that you are not the same person – and just exactly how you have changed. I don’t think I’ll do that – but you know that you are different. That you have changed.
How do you know – how can you yourself tell – that you are different. That you have changed? I don’t have an exhaustive list here, but let me suggest some of the following. You know that you are a new person – you know that you have changed:
· When selfishness turns to generosity.
· When doubt turns to faith.
· When hatred turns to love.
· When apathy turns to compassion.
· When men and women who have been broken by addictions to drugs or alcohol or whatever find healing, forgiveness and restoration.
Yes, people can change – and they do change. When you know that you are a new man or a new woman because you have had an encounter with Jesus Christ then it can be said of you that you are born again.
Peter J. Gomes, in his book The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart, puts it this way:
“What ‘born again’ means is literally to begin all over again, to be given a second birth, a second chance. The one who is born again doesn't all of a sudden get turned into a super-Christian. To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth. It is to wipe the slate clean. It is to cancel your old mortgage and start again. In other words, you don't have to be always what you have now become. Such an offer is too good to be true for many, confusing for most, but for those who seek to be other than what they are now, who want to be more than the mere accumulation and sum total of their experiences, the invitation, ‘You must be born again,’ is an offer you cannot afford to refuse.”
We don’t have to be defined by what we used to do. We don’t have to be defined by what we used to be.
Folks – we are all broken men and women and our need is to be healed, changed, repaired, forgiven. So the question for this morning is not “What Nicodemus was searching for?” but “What are you searching for?”
I am going to suggest that what we need – what we’re all searching for – comes to us when we take Jesus Christ and his Word to us seriously. I think what we really want is a contentment knowing that all is right between us and God and between us and each other. What we want is for us and our world to be put together right – For our world to be right, right?
Let me share with you another story. Listen! “One rainy Sunday afternoon, a little boy was bored and his father was sleepy. The father decided to create an activity to keep the kid busy. So, he found in the morning newspaper a large map of the world. He took scissors and cut it into a good many irregular shapes like a jigsaw puzzle. Then he said to his son, ‘See if you can put this puzzle together. And don't disturb me until you're finished.’
“He turned over on the couch, thinking this would occupy the boy for at least an hour. To his amazement, the boy was tapping his shoulder five minutes later telling him that the job was done. The father saw that every piece of the map had been fitted together perfectly.
“‘How did you do that so fast?’ he asked. ‘It was easy, Dad. There was a picture of a man on the other side. When I got the man put together right – the world was right.’”
A person's world can never be right until the person is right, and that requires the miracle of new birth. Don't you dare stop asking God for the experience of new birth until you can shout from the housetops, “Through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Spirit, God has fundamentally changed my life!”
In other words, “You know who I was. You see who I am. Jesus makes the difference.”