A Beautiful Irony (Life and New Birth)

the-bible-nicodemusNarrative Sermon Based on: John 3: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+3&version=NASB

Day 1: I admit, when I first heard of Jesus, I was pretty shocked. What’s a carpenter’s kid, a boy who was supposedly conceived before His mother was even married, going to teach us upright Jews about life and living? They told me He comes from Nazareth. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Nazareth is this little town. There’s nothing really happening there. It’s more like a bedroom community than anything else. You’re telling me that the Lord, the Messiah of all, is supposed to come from Nazareth? I don’t think so! In fact, I highly doubt it. There are lots of other places He could come from that would make more sense.

Why not a big happening city like Jerusalem? Or somewhere exotic like some of our lush beaches and parks? Why would He choose a little rinky dink town like Nazareth? Most people a world over have probably never even heard of it” The only thing the town is known for are a handful of sheep and some goats. Even then, I tend to think that there are more impressive things for a town to be known for – like the Western Wall in Jerusalem or the Temple Mount. Maybe even the Garden of Gethsemane. And besides, what can a carpenter’s kid tell us that I don’t already know? It’s not like He’s the son of a great scholar or doctor or even Rabbi.

But yet, even despite His humble beginnings, there is something different about this man. The man they call Jesus. Some people say He is the Son of God. I highly doubt that, but I will admit, He is an amazing speaker. When He talks, you have no choice but to stop whatever you are doing and listen to Him. Some say that He has done great miracles. Others say that He even healed a man born blind. But wait… that’s something only the Messiah can do! I know this, because I myself, am a great teacher of the Law.

In Torah college, we learned that the Messiah will do two things that no one else on the face of this planet has ever been able to do before. First, He will heal a man born blind. Anyone can heal a man who became blind sometime in his teenage or adult years, but no one except the Messiah can heal a man BORN blind. Secondly, He would heal a leper. Lepers are unclean, so if I were Jesus, I wouldn’t even go near one. Regardless of whether or not I was on some type of high believing that I was the promised Christ.

Yet, there is something that draws me to this Man, and I can’t quite place my finger on it. Everything He says seems to just fit so perfectly together, and even though I know it can’t be right, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that He really, truly is the promised One of Israel. Tomorrow, I will go and find out for myself. He will give me the answer I need to hear and I will make up my mind from there. I’m sure of it!

Day 2: I worked up the courage to go see Jesus. “Rabbi,” I said, “I know that You are a prophet from God. In fact, You’re probably right up there along with Elijah, Noah, and Moses. I know this because no one can do the things I’ve seen You do unless God’s spirit was in Him.”

Jesus’ dark brown eyes, steadily pierced at me. Then, I saw a smile, ever so slightly, form around His lips. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret of mine” He said confidently. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

This baffled me. In Aramaic the phrase “born again” can also be translated “born anew” or “born from above”. I don’t know which one of those phrases He means, but I’m assuming He means the first one. A physical rebirth. My forehead creases at the thought of it. “How is that even possible?” I ask. “A person can’t be born a second time. They can’t enter their mother’s womb and be born again.”

Jesus looked disappointed. “Nicodemus,” He said. “You are one of the leading scholars in Israel. I heard you lecture at Ben Gurion University just the other day. People are paying tons of money just for you to come and speak for an hour and a half. And yet, even you, don’t seem to understand what I mean by this. If you don’t understand earthly things, how I can explain heavenly things to you? You’ve lived thirty years on this earth, you understand quite a bit about the way the world works. But no one has ever been to heaven except for Me, the Son of Man, because I came from heaven. Just like the Israelites lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”

Let’s just stop and pause right there. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a story that recounts a time in Israel’s history when God’s people went astray. Instead of being thankful for what they had, they complained and spoke out against God, and so God sent poisonous and dangerous snakes to bite them. The only way a person could be saved, was to look directly at a replica of it. When they did, even if it was only for a brief, wavering moment, strength would return to their bodies, and they would feel the sickness leaving them. I found it ironic that death came from the snake, but then life came from a replica of that same snake.

Jesus then went on to tell me that He was the promised Saviour. He said that God loved the world so much that He gave His only son so that we wouldn’t have to perish, but we could live forever in heaven with Him. There it was. God loved the entire world! I had been brought up thinking that we Jews were the chosen people and that Salvation would come to us. But what of the others? Here Jesus was saying that Salvation was for all people regardless of their ethnic background. To me, this was incredible and it filled me with a living hope.

A Few Years Later: It has been five years now, since the time I first met Jesus and He informed me that He was the Saviour of the world. To be honest, when He first said this, I shook my head, but something inside me began to change. I was not the same Nicodemus, and so when the Pharisees wanted to arrest Him unlawfully, I stood up for Him and told them that that wasn’t ethical. Yet, now that He has ascended into heaven, I look back and realize that in many ways the illustration of the Serpent was used to foreshadow His own death. Having witnessed His death and resurrection, I find the puzzle pieces coming together and everything making much more sense.

Please allow me to share with you a bit of the theological significance that this whole discourse had on me: first, I went to Jesus at night when no one else was around. I mostly did this because I was a member of the Pharisees and was too afraid of how their opinion on me would change. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but today, I realize that the night was actually a symbol of the spiritual darkness I was in.

I was a great religious teacher, but until I came to the point where I actually believed in Jesus, I did not know what true Salvation was. I don’t care what they tell you. You can be the most pious person out there. You can go to the synagogue every Sabbath, help the poor, serve on committees, and have people look up to you as a spiritual leader, but without a knowledge of the freedom granted to us by Christ, you are really no more than a hollow shell of religiosity. There is no life in you.

As to that snake He was referring to, I have come to realize how pregnant with meaning that one symbol is. When He said that just like the snake was lifted up, He would also have to be lifted up, He was referring to His crucifixion on the cross. In Greek, the word for “crucify” also means “to exalt”. I found it ironic that Christ was exalted in the most demeaning and violent of ways. And yet, He didn’t play the victim. The cross was a means to represent His identity, and so He approached it as a king would approach His coronation. There was no shame in it for Him. He had full assurance that this was what He had to do in order to glorify His Father.

To be honest, the Christian faith is deeply ironic to me. The story of the serpent was placed in the book of Numbers in order to show people the effects of sin and the consequences of their attitudes and actions. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the story showed them that the consequences for their sin was death. And yet, God did not want it to have to come to this. So, He instructed Moses to make a replica so that through the snake they could also live.

Just like, through one man death entered the world through sin, but through God’s Son, eternal life also came through one man. In both cases, God providentially provided for the people. The bronze serpent was simply a temporary solution. A way of saving them once from death, even though they were going to die again. But Jesus Christ’s atoning death on the cross, was an eternal and enduring solution. When one looks to the cross and truly believes in their heart that God raised Christ from the dead, they are saved forever. They may still die in this world, but after that their eternal destiny is secure. They do not have to have any fear of dying a second time.

I also find that God is merciful in terms of our belief in Him. He isn’t expecting us to be giants in the faith and to never have questions or doubts. I have yet to see God strike anyone with lightning for asking Him why something happened. In fact, God was patient with people like Gideon who repeatedly put out fleeces, and with Moses when he stumbled and made up excuses as to why he wasn’t qualified for his position. And so, God didn’t ask the Israelites to gaze steadily at the serpent without any feelings of anxiety. Instead, He accepted a simple glance, regardless of how distant or how weak, and in that simple act of looking, He miraculously restored the health of the people. In the same way, real faith in Jesus, regardless of how small, tremulous, or distant – as long as it is genuine, brings certain and instant healing to our ailing souls.

I don’t doubt that this whole notion of looking at the bronze serpent didn’t make sense to some people. After all, how could the simple act of looking at the thing which was causing destruction at the same time, renew them with life? I don’t doubt that some who were filled up on logical, human reasoning chose to reason rather than to obey. If that is the case, than in the end, it is what caused their downfall, and in the act of reasoning and trusting their own judgment rather than God’s, they sealed their fate and perished.

Jesus said that He did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through Him. Jesus’ whole philosophy was to break away from the Law. In ancient Hebrew law it was said that our hearts were placed on a scale based on the work which we did. It did not matter if we did bad or good, as long as the good that we did always outweighed the bad. There was only one sin which tipped the scale so completely to the one side that once one had broken it, there was essentially no going back. That sin was to break the Sabbath.

Well, Jesus had a few things to say about that. He healed on the Sabbath, not in an attempt to desecrate it, but rather because to Him being a follower of God did not include legalism. He challenged the notion that one could earn their salvation through a simple list of dos or don’ts, and instead told us that Salvation only comes through Him. He threw out that dusty law book with all of the terror attached to it that one had not done enough, and instead simplified it down to two commandments: love God and love one another.

This was a radical idea. In instating these two commandments, Jesus got rid of the concept of having to earn God’s merit, and instead replaced it with the need to live relationally.   To Him, relationships were the most important thing: having a relationship with His Father, having a relationship with Him, and having a relationship with each other.

Jesus said, “do not think that I will accuse you before My Father; the one who accuses you is Moses, in whom you have set your hope.” Jesus told us that He doesn’t play by the whole legalism card. He doesn’t care about the fine points, He doesn’t even want great sacrifice. He made it very clear that we were not saved through our own works of merit. What He wants is for us to show mercy and compassion to one another. Christ says that the one who after being informed that Christ is the only way blatantly rejects the deliverance which God gave Jesus authority to remove, willfully allows themselves to remain condemned, rather than to pass from death to life.

Jesus Himself doesn’t condemn this person, but rather that condemnation already exists because of the law. We can choose whether to be released from that law of condemnation, or to be sealed up under it. Jesus wants us to understand that we work hard because we want to help His Kingdom work, but that we don’t need to worry about not doing enough. We only stay in the darkness if we out rightly reject Jesus Christ and His offer of salvation.  We only stay in the dark when we think that our works are somehow better than God’s works. That somehow, by our own actions our salvation is assured, but through Him they aren’t. But let me tell you something, if a person does decide to give their lives entirely over to Christ and decides that only He can save them and they can’t save themselves through works, then their only desire will be to do what will testify to His light and their every day actions will be divinely appointed through Jesus Christ.

So, where do I sign? Will you choose today to follow Christ and accept His free gift of Salvation, or will you choose to remain under the Law which tells us we have to work for our salvation? These are the only two choices we are given. We cannot mix and match. We are either all in for the kingdom of God, or we stand watching from the gates. Today, as we leave this place, our call to action is to decide where we stand in terms of our relationship to Christ and the Law. Our call to action today is to realize that we don’t need to stress out about whether or not we have done enough things right, but to trust that God can even take the wrong that we have done and make it right. We must understand that God is very proud of us. He knows we are trying our best and He’s willing to reward us for it. But His reward is a different thing altogether from Salvation.

Just like the serpent was lifted up on the pole, so God has offered us, in Christ, the chance to seek redemption from all of our sins. Where do I sign? The straight line that leads towards heaven, or the dotted line that enables me to continue to live the way that I am right now? The straight line that will offer me eternal comfort and hope, or the dotted line that enables me to keep working in vain? The choice, as they say, is yours.

But let me tell you something, I chose to sign the straight line and to put my pride behind me in doing so. And that has been the best choice I ever made. Amen.

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