Sunday, March 20, 2011
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent (March 20, 2011)
“Born Again” (John 3:1-17)
“I have no regrets.” Ever heard someone declare that? Here’s how I want to reply to them: “Liar.”
Oh, I have plenty of regrets. I have spoken careless words that I wish I could take back. I have hurt people’s feelings. I have taken risks that could have resulted in disaster. I have made poor decisions with my finances. I have made foolish purchases. I have made a horse’s behind out of myself on countless occasions. There are plenty of things I have done in my life that I regret. They haunt me to this day. You’re wishing I would get more specific, aren’t you? Keep wishing.
I’ll bet you are thinking back on your life right now, too, and recalling your regrets. What are some of the regrets that haunt you? Not spending enough time with your children? Never telling someone you love them? Leaving a personal conflict unresolved? Staying up late playing video games instead of studying for that test the next day? If you’re feeling the need to get specific, remember, there’s always private confession. Give me a call. Let’s talk.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to simply go back to the beginning of your life and start all over again? Knowing what you know now, wouldn’t it be nice to go back and get a “do over”? To fix some of those things you wrecked, to shut your mouth before those hurtful words escaped, to treat a particular person with a bit more dignity, to make the right choices instead of the previous ones you botched?
Unfortunately, there is no starting over. God does not give us that option. We are left to learn from our mistakes. But that certainly does not help the guilt and shame that remain for those mistakes that were actually damnable sins. And there is no such thing as reincarnation. We don’t get to come back as another person in another life and try to do a better job the next time around. In a newly published book, a supposedly Evangelical pastor is implying that we get a second chance after we die. From the reviews I’ve read, it sounds like his line of argumentation goes something like this: “Heaven and hell are present realities based on the choices you make in this life. And after you die, the same holds true. You may end up in a hellish existence, but you have the chance to work your way out of it based on your personal choices.” Sounds like sort of a revised version of purgatory. And it also makes the finished work of Christ at the cross superfluous because what state you end up in is, in essence, all up to you.
If you are a golfer, you probably know what a mulligan is. If not, let me explain. With driver in hand, you step up to the ball on the tee. You carefully get yourself situated so you can send the little, dimpled white ball flying down the center of the fairway, perfectly lined up for an approach to the green to earn you a birdie … one stroke under par for the hole. You swing, and your vision of a perfect drive becomes a nightmare as the ball slices mercilessly into the woods, never to be seen again. The rules of golf allow you to take a mulligan. That means you can tee off again, but with a one stroke penalty. A do-over of sorts.
Some people view Christianity like this. God lets you have a “do over.” A mulligan. In golf you are only allowed one mulligan. No third chances. No fourth chances. But in the game of life, God does not even give us one mulligan. If we blow our first shot, then we’re out of luck. Buried in the sand trap. Drowned at the bottom of the water hazard. Lost forever in the woods beyond the rough. No second chances.
Nicodemus may have thought that Jesus was telling him he could have a second shot at life when Jesus told him, “You must be born again.” But this was too much for the learned Pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council. His heart was not yet ready or able to grasp the “heavenly things” that Jesus was teaching him. He thought that Jesus was holding out the possibility of climbing back into the womb and starting all over again. Not a bad deal for the child. Not sure the mother would be all that crazy about the idea.
Being “born again,” however, is not about getting a second chance at life, but it is about giving you a completely brand new life. Being “born again” (or “born from above” as it can be translated) is a spiritual rebirth accomplished in you by God himself. And it’s not about what you do to get born again. The whole birth process is really out of your control. You had nothing at all to do with your being born from your mother. Likewise, you have nothing at all to do with your being “born again.” This is much more apparent when a baby is brought to the font, carried in the arms of mother or father. It’s not so apparent when an adult walks forward on his or her own power. But both are “born again” through water and the Spirit, through the water and God’s Word of promise attached to the water in Baptism. And neither infant nor adult has anything to do with what God does for them and in them.
Before any of us were “born again” we were all “born of the flesh.” That sounds patently obvious at first, right? But when Jesus says, “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” he is not giving us a biology lesson. He is teaching us here about what we inherit from our parents. Sinful flesh gives birth to sinful flesh. Your parents were sinners, and so are you. People like to look at babies and say how innocent they are. But babies are not innocent … spiritually speaking. Each of us was born with a corrupt nature that is rebellious and soon begins to actively find ways to get around God and his commandments (Ps. 51:5; Jer. 17:9; etc.).
The children of Israel rebelled against God time and time again during their forty years in the wilderness. At one point, the Lord sent among the people “fiery serpents” which bit them with deadly results. When the people cried out to the Lord, he instructed Moses to make a replica of a fiery serpent and put it on a pole. Whoever would look at it in faith would be healed and would not die (Numbers 21:9). You could say that, in a sense, they were “born again.” With death looming over them, they were given new life.
Death looms over us because of our sin … and not just physical death, but eternal death, eternal separation from God. But looming larger over death and hell is Christ on the cross. Jesus said, “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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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.”
And so, that’s why the new birth is necessary … a birth of water and the Spirit. It’s mysterious, that’s for sure. It’s like trying to explain where the wind comes from or where it blows to. But the Holy Spirit does indeed work through water and the Word of God and gives new life. Titus 3 speaks of “the washing of regeneration [giving new life] and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:5-7) Hearing the message of the cross, the Spirit creates in us a heart that trusts in Christ who paid the price for our sin with his “holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death” and who rose victorious over sin, death, and the devil on the Third Day.
Baptized, born again, born from above, we are brought into the kingdom of God. The blessing of Abraham is upon us. Over two thousand years before the birth of Christ, the Lord told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3) because the Savior of the world would be a descendant of Abraham. And although Abraham was born many years before his greatest descendant, he was saved in the same way that you and I are saved. Abraham was justified by faith in God’s promises apart from any works that he did (Rom. 4:3). And you and I also are declared righteous by trusting in Christ alone apart from any good works that we do. Paul quotes Psalm 32, where David says, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Rom. 4:7-8). Blessed are you because your sins are forgiven and covered by the blood of Christ. Blessed are you because by trusting in Christ, the Lord will not count your sin against you.
Born again, you are “born free.” Free from condemnation. Free from eternal death and given the gift of eternal life. Free from the guilt and shame over all the regrets that haunt you. Born again, you can be like a newborn baby. You can’t go back into your mother’s womb. But like a tiny infant, you can know that spiritually speaking, you are helpless. You can do nothing but simply gaze with trust in your Heavenly Father’s eyes and see the love that he has for you. Reflected in those eyes is the image of your Savior Jesus lifted up on the cross for you.