“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, preaching about works to a bunch of Lutherans seems redundant. Those of you who are lifelong Lutherans have heard it all before: works don’t save me, faith in Jesus does, Amen. As Lutherans, we’re known for taking a stand against works. But do we really get it? You can say “I’m saved by Christ alone through faith alone” just like your pastor taught you in confirmation, but do you truly understand what this means? I was told the story of a pastor who went to the bedside of a life-long Lutheran, a faithful member of his congregation. She was dying, and the pastor firmly and confidently told her that she would be in heaven soon. She replied, “I hope so, pastor, I think I’ve lived a good enough life.” We can shake our heads in disbelief, but I think that she is simply expressing the default setting of human nature, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we too fall into a reliance on our works each and every day, trying to climb the ladder to God, attempting to earn our way into His presence. I’m convinced that we do this because, even as Lutherans who have heard this teaching our entire lives, we still don’t understand the depth of our corruption due to sin.
It was precisely that issue that confused Nicodemus. “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to Him, ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?’” It wasn’t so much the idea of a new birth- I’m pretty sure He knew that Jesus wasn’t talking about another trip through the birth canal- but instead it was the necessity of a new birth that really hit him. John calls Nicodemus a Pharisee and a “ruler of the Jews.” This guy knew his theology, and he knew, or thought he knew, that the only way to get into the Kingdom of God was through obedience. Man has to climb the ladder to God, ascending rung by rung through his own good works. These good works could include service to your neighbor, but mostly it meant following all of the ceremonial laws to the letter, washing, praying, and keeping the Sabbath. And if you did serve your neighbor, you only did so only to benefit yourself. You didn’t serve the neighbor in need out of concern for his welfare, but out of concern for your salvation. The neighbor was simply a tool to help you climb that ladder.
But what Jesus proposes is much more dramatic. “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is very insistent on this point: you must be born again, you must be born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. I think we often read through this text without realizing how dramatic of a statement this is. You must be born again. Nothing short of an entirely new birth of water and the Spirit can bring you into God’s Kingdom. This means that our corruption runs so deep that only starting over again with a new birth can deliver us. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Nothing that our physical birth gave us can bring us into the Kingdom, not our works, not our good life, not anything. All that our physical birth gave us is sin, all that a birth of the flesh has earned us is death.
We Lutherans have a pretty robust doctrine of sin. We can call ourselves ‘poor, miserable sinners’ at the beginning of the service, but do we ever ponder the depth of our sin? We can say the words, but do we truly believe what they say? This is the season of Lent, the season of self-examination and reflection. Examine your life- was there even one hour in which you did not sin? If you answer ‘yes,’ then you are deluding yourself, for you were conceived and born in sin, completely and utterly in rebellion against your God. Your fleshly birth gave you the ‘gift’ of original sin, this corruption that permeates every aspect of your life, making every thought, word, and deed stained with the scourge of sin. We are sinful to our very cores. If our corruption runs that deep, then we truly cannot save ourselves, we cannot climb the ladder to God. There is no ladder, and even if there was, we in our sin would fall off as soon as we started climbing. That is what shocked Nicodemus, what shocks our human nature. We think that there should be some way of earning favor before God, but Jesus shuts all of that down with His statement, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” No amount of works can erase the stain of sin, our corruption runs too deep for any of our own efforts to save us. The only way we can enter the Kingdom of God is if we start over again with a new birth.
We cannot provide this birth ourselves, but instead it must be given to us as a gift. As physical birth was not our work, neither is spiritual birth. “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Man cannot control the Holy Spirit, we cannot tell Him what to do or how to do it. Instead, the Spirit comes to us when and where He pleases and gives us new birth through the water and the Spirit, the washing of the water with the Word, Holy Baptism. That is truly the new birth Jesus spoke of, a new birth which provides access into the Kingdom of God. There at the font, the spiritual birth from Christ reverses the corruption of physical birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Fleshly birth brings sin; spiritual birth brings forgiveness. Fleshly birth brings death; spiritual birth brings life. St. John wrote in the first chapter of his Gospel: “But to all who did receive him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Only with the birth of water and the Spirit do we have life and salvation. Only by this new birth are we made children of God. We cannot explain how the Spirit works any more than we can see the wind, but we can see His effects. For where the Spirit works in the washing of Holy Baptism, there faith is created, there corruption is reversed, there new birth is given.
Baptism only has these benefits because it is founded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus next takes Nicodemus to the foot of the cross. “No one has ascended into heaven except Him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Nicodemus thought that he could climb the ladder to God, as we are tempted also to believe, but here Jesus crushes all attempts to bring ourselves to God. No one has ascended to heaven except the One who has descended, the very One who is speaking. We do not have a God that we have to climb toward; no, instead we have a God who came down to us. He came to us in our distress, in our corruption, in our inability to come to Him. He came among us to win salvation for us, to give us the new birth that we so desperately needed. He came to us as one of us, to live the perfect life we in our deep corruption could not, and to die the death that we deserved. To do this, the One who came down would be lifted up.
In the wilderness, God sent poisonous snakes to punish the people for their grumbling. Then in His grace He provided salvation. A bronze serpent, the image and embodiment of their sin, was placed high upon a pole. All who looked to it were healed. Jesus Christ became the embodiment, the very image of our sin; even more than the bronze serpent, Jesus became sin itself, for He bore all of our sin upon His own shoulders. Those who looked to the bronze serpent of Moses were given physical healing, but yet they still all eventually died. They were given deliverance, but they remained in their sin. All who look to Jesus, the embodiment of sin hanging upon the cross, will never die eternally, they will live even though they die. “The Son of Man must be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Christ gives what Moses could not: a new birth, which brings eternal salvation, forgiveness of all sin, the reversal of our deep corruption. Look to Jesus, for in Him death is defeated! Look to Jesus, for there is your salvation! Look to Jesus, for when you were unable to come up to God, God came down to you for your salvation! Look to Jesus, for your new birth is into His death and resurrection! He was lifted up on the cross to draw all people to Himself, so that He may be exalted to the right hand of the Father’s throne, where we will dwell with Him for eternity.
Why would God come down amongst us in salvation? What would motivate Him to save people who were utterly and completely corrupted by sin, who were His enemies? The answer is three words: God is love. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” God became man because He loves you. He came to this earth precisely because you couldn’t come to Him, He descended because you couldn’t ascend. He loves you and wants to see you with Him for eternity; that is why He gave you a new birth in your baptism, that is why He made you His child in those blessed waters. Jesus came for no other purpose. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” Those who reject Christ have refused His salvation; they have condemned themselves, choosing to stand before God with the filthy rags of their sin, choosing to dwell in their birth of flesh. Christ has come to cover you with the robe of His righteousness, to give you the new birth that you need. He has delivered you, He has forgiven you, all because of His deep love for you. In the name of the One who descended to be exalted on the cross, the One who gives new birth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.