How frustrated do you get when you try to have a conversation about something important to you, but the other person is determined to change the topic? As though what you want to say does not matter to them. When you read the Gospels, sometimes it seems Jesus does not care what people say to Him. Quite a few times a person asks Christ something, and His response goes in a completely unexpected and different direction. Like today, where Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says, “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” (John 3:2). And, seemingly from out of nowhere, Jesus brings up the need to be born again to enter the kingdom of God. Nicodemus responds by practically asking, “Are you trying to confuse me? Because I do not understand anything that you’ve said.”
Dear brothers and sisters, at some time or another, just about every Christian gets tired of being confused. It is no fun to be in the dark about what God is up to. So we want a sign or evidence that God is truly in our lives.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Pr. Randy Wilken, the leader of the Acts 1:8 Mission Society. A few of you have heard him speak and know how this work got started. He explains that during his seminary days he volunteered to put a new roof on a church all by himself. After a while he got tired of it, and prayed that God would send a contractor who could take over the job for him. Time goes by and no contractor shows up. But one day a young girl appears next to him out of nowhere and asks, “What are you doing? Can I help?” And he thinks to himself, “Very funny, God. I asked for a contractor, and you send me her?” But, despite those first thoughts, he found ways for her to help. And the next thing he knew, other neighborhood kids were helping. Long story short, that eventually led to his current work, which involves teenagers and young adults in servant events. Among other things, he’s got kids learning to put up drywall in an old Lutheran Church just south of Barnes Jewish Hospital. I hope to let you know more about how he works with congregations later this year. In the meantime if you want to find out about him, he said he will be on KFUO 850 this Tuesday morning.
Many Christians do not have such a dramatic story about being in the dark – and then finding out what God is up to. But we have all gone through times of great hardship, loneliness or doubt. A signal from God that everything will be okay would be great. Or times where you have a major decision, like if you should change jobs or move to another town. If only the Lord would let you know which choice to make… Still others look at their continual failures to get rid of their sin. They doubt that God could ever remain on the side of such sinful people as themselves. Some sort of sign would be a great comfort during the dark night of the soul.
If you ever find yourself searching for a sign from God for any or all of these reasons, then John 3 is for you. Nicodemus wanted exactly the same thing. He though he found it in the miracles he saw Jesus perform. “Rabbi,… no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus was extremely popular and loved at this point. The hatred and humiliation of the Cross is approaching, but that hour has not yet come. Christ’s signs of turning water to wine, of exorcising demons and healing diseases amazed the people. These miracles make Nicodemus feel like he may be close to having the answer to all his prayers. He comes to Jesus to make certain, to ask questions about what Jesus is doing.
However, rather than going along with what Nicodemus wants to talk about, Jesus immediately changes the subject to Baptism. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Why does Jesus not want to talk about His miracles?
Because there is something greater, something more comforting, something that will stay with you forever. Jesus does not want to talk about turning water into wine or healings or casting out demons because God’s Son wants Nicodemus – and you – to know about Baptism. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (3:5).
It is about like Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You want to talk about My miracle work? Okay, let’s cut to the chase and talk about the greatest one of all, the one where you find lasting comforts and assurances from God. Do not worry about how water was turned to wine. Stop fixating on the healings and exorcisms. All those miracles are good gifts from God, but not a single one of them will last too long. Water turned to wine passes through the body quickly. That paralytic who can walk will have lifeless legs again in his grave. And the blind eyes that now see will be dark again at death.” Before it is all over, Christ will even raise Lazarus from his grave, but that only will postpone the inevitable. “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There is only one sign that is truly significant for your eternal life; one sign that will give you continuous assurances that God is with you and will never leave you – you must be born again!
Because we are people filled with sin, lonely people wanting many signs from God that He loves us, this Gospel text is all the more important. It clearly and simply teaches us that God’s love for the world is seen as His Son is lifelessly lifted up on the Cross so that we would not perish in Hell, but have the life of Heaven forever. And we learn from this text that God’s miracle of Baptism is where we will find the sign of this love.
Consider God’s connecting you to Jesus at Baptism to be like how my Grandpa helped me graft new branches onto a well-established apple tree. In that tree, nutrients and life flowed up the trunk through the graft into the new branches. Likewise, Christ’s ongoing forgiveness for your guilt and shame flow from Him through Baptism into you – for He is the vine and we are the branches.
God our Father Baptismally gave you a second birth, a birth from above. People can take your money, your house, your family, your comfort, and even your earthly life. But nobody can take your birth away from you. That apple tree became old, diseased and died a few years ago. But gloriously risen from the dead, Jesus will not get old and diseased. He died, but death now has no power over Him – nor over you, since you are connect to Him. No matter what you will experience in this painful world, no matter what hatred and humiliation you might suffer in the future, your birth from above remains forever.
Even if God appeared right here and miraculously healed all of the brokenness in your body, that gift would not last too long, just as the new sight given to the blind man was taken away again at death. And so also some spiritual gifts can be taken away. The preaching of God’s Word and the celebration of His Supper are also signs from God. But these miracles are different from Baptism. If you doubt it, just ask our Lutheran brothers and sisters in Russia, Siberia and the Ukraine. Christianity survived Soviet tyranny there only by God’s grace. Just ask our fellow Christians in Iraq and other countries as they flee their homeland or else face death for worshipping our Savior Christ. Preaching and Communion can be taken away from you. But you cannot be robbed of God’s on-going Baptism miracle. It is His continual sign that you will never wear out His patience, and that He will never be too far from you. Your Baptism is God’s river of life welling up inside you, delivering forgiveness, life, and salvation from Hell so that you will see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus said, “Rabbi,… no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Should we be confused that Jesus answers the way He does? “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” With these words, Jesus stops Nicodemus in his tracks, spins him around, and sends him in a different direction – the eternal life-giving direction. “Do you want to talk about My truly great miracle? Here it is: You must be born again, born from above, born of water and the Spirit.” Amen.