The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone, and no matter what you say; no matter how much you spell it out and explain something, they still don’t understand? Now, some of you may be quick to point out that sometimes this just comes down to a matter of a simple lack of intellect and maturity. Let’s face it: Explaining something as complex as the US tax code to a seven year old is not going to go well. It doesn’t go well with adults, and that’s assuming that the one doing the explaining actually knows what they’re talking about, which I don’t think is the case with anyone when it comes to US tax code and regulations. But I digress.... We may be quick to justify the ignorance by claiming lack of intellect and/or maturity, but I don’t buy that as an excuse, and neither should you. If they don’t get it, explain it in a different, simpler way. You can explain chemistry to a seven year old by using Legos or cookies. You can explain the water molecule (H2O) by simply using an Oreo cookie, and guess what? The kids get it! You may not want to hear it, but more often than not, the fault for ignorance doesn’t lie with the receiver of the wisdom, but with the giver. It’s your fault, not theirs. You didn’t explain it right. You didn’t explain it in a way that spoke to the particular audience at hand so that they would be able to understand. No wonder they don’t understand! They didn’t stand a chance the way you trying to explain it!
Now this may create some tension for some of you as we turn our focus to the Gospel lesson for this morning. Poor old Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is telling him. Based on what you just heard your pastor say, this must mean that the fault lies with Jesus, right? Poor old Nicodemus is the innocent, ignorant victim, and Jesus just seems content to let him suffer, even rubbing his nose in the ignorance a bit. “We’ve explained it before, and you don’t get it. Figure it out. It’s not my fault you don’t understand. The wind blows when and where it does, and so does the Holy Spirit. If you don’t get it, it’s not my fault.” That’s harsh! But is it right?
Immediately many of you will respond, “Of course it’s right! Jesus said it, so it is absolutely right!” I’m sorry, but that’s a cop-out answer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m NOT calling into question the integrity of our Lord and Savior. He is absolutely right 100% of the time. It’s not His fault that Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about. It’s not that Jesus needs to explain anything in a different, simpler way. He’s done that many times already. Just think of how many different times Jesus taught about God, His grace, His justice, and His kingdom. Think of all those parables, many of which were spoken in the immediate presence of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Consider the fact that children understood what Jesus was saying. Tax collectors, prostitutes, and crass fishermen understood what Jesus was saying. They all got it, but one of the smartest guys in all of Israel didn’t?
It is this reality that leads us back to that cop-out answer. Rather than simply cop-out and say, “Of course Jesus is right because He’s Jesus,” let us dig deeper and ask “why?” Why is it right to say that it is not Jesus’ fault that Nicodemus doesn’t get it? Because it’s not that Nicodemus couldn’t understand, as in he didn’t have the mental and cognitive abilities/maturity to comprehend. Rather, Nicodemus wouldn’t understand. He was the problem. Nicodemus’ own pride and pre-conceived notions about how such things as works-righteousness and what the Messiah is supposed to look like, sound like, and accomplish militarily were all getting in the way and preventing him from grasping the basic, precious pearls of life that Jesus was freely holding out to anyone and everyone who would listen. “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” How many times did Jesus say that? It’s not that Nicodemus and the Pharisees were without ears or without hearing. They refused to hear. You know as well as I do that it’s pretty difficult to hear when you plug your ears and do all the talking.
And that brings us to the reason we’re here today. What does all this mean for us? I know that we can all think of certain people who fit the mold of Nicodemus; who don’t get it because they don’t want to get it; in their stubbornness they refuse to get it. What about the reflection in the mirror? What about you? Understand: I’m not talking about a failure to understand something that might be a little over your head theologically. There’s no shame in that. The more I learn, the more I discover how much I truly don’t know; the more I learn how sinfully ignorant I truly am in relation to the might and majesty and mystery of almighty God and His mercy. I’m not talking about not understanding how the Trinity works or how the real presence of Christ in, with, and under the elements of ordinary bread and wine works. I’m talking about much simpler things; things such as forgiving as you’ve been forgiven, loving as you’ve been loved. I’m talking about the simple things like “thou shall” and “thou shall not.”
How often we hear the simple truth—something so simple that even a toddler understands—and we balk and bristle and wall up and seal ourselves off. Case in point: Everyone loves to hear sin preached on. We just don’t like to hear that it is our sin that is being preached on. It’s one thing to hear that a certain behavior is sinful. If we’re honest, we would confess that in our inner hearts we find a certain amount of sick delight in hearing that our neighbor is a damned sinner. However, it’s quite another thing to hear that it’s us doing that sinful behavior. That’s when the self-justifications start in. “You don’t understand. This isn’t the case with me. It’s different.” Or my personal favorite, “That’s your opinion. That’s your personal version of what God says. Here’s what I think. Here’s my personal version.” Basically, insert fingers into ears and start talking!
And then there are the times that we don’t hear and don’t understand, not because of some nefarious, sinful behavior or intention, but because we’re simply too busy and too preoccupied with other things. We’re too busy worrying. We’re too busy planning and dreaming. We’re too busy controlling. What we’re not doing is Sabbath-ing. What we’re not doing is resting, relaxing, and receiving what God has prepared for us. I won’t test you when you leave today. There will be no inquisition after the service. But how many of you will not remember much of what was said and done here today, not because you’re getting up there in age, but because you were just too preoccupied with all kinds of minutia that, in the grand divine scheme of things, really doesn’t matter?
Repent. If there’s one thing you remember today, I pray that this is it. Repent. Turn away from your preoccupied worship of self and turn back in humility to the outstretched and loving arms of your Lord and Savior. Turn back, repent, and relax, if only for this hour. Believe it or not, your Lord has things covered. The walls of the church won’t cave in without you and your advice and good deeds. The world will still turn without your expert advice and input. Let God be God. Your calling and vocation right now is to simply rest and receive as your Lord serves you with His gifts of grace and salvation.
This is where Nicodemus was all hung up and rendered dumb. He could not let go. He could not release his selfish grip on his own ego and sinful desire to be in charge and in control. His pride, his intellect, his can-do attitude would simply not permit him to hear the simple Gospel truth that God sent His one and only Son to make full and complete payment for each and every sin of the world, even the people that Nicodemus didn’t like; even the people who weren’t nearly as “good and perfect” as Nicodemus was. Nicodemus wanted some of the glory. He wanted some of the credit. He wanted to have his say. Unfortunately, his say was drowning out God’s Gospel say.
And this is why our Lord uses this wonderful imagery of child birth to try and teach Nicodemus—again—about how God and saving faith works. I have never met a single person who was responsible for their own conception and birth. “I arranged it. I made it happen.” No…you were a blessed result, but you were not the cause. You had nothing to do with it. You didn’t choose your parents. You didn’t choose the time of your conception. You didn’t choose when and where you would be born. All of this happened to you.
So it is with God’s gift of saving faith. This is the exact same reality with God and the new birth He gives us from above. That’s what the original Greek word says and means in this text. It’s often translated as “born again,” but a more proper reading is “born from above - anōthen” God, through His Holy Spirit working in His means of grace, gives birth to us, turning us from corpses of sin into living children of promise. Notice: God is the acting agent. He is the one bringing us into His kingdom through the means He set aside to accomplish His will; namely, the water and Word of Baptism. He is the one who is still descending from Heaven to create and enliven the saving gift of faith in the person being baptized. He is the one who gave up everything in order take our place perfectly and fulfill each and every thing we cannot, thereby opening the way to Heaven for all people.
Notice: The kingdom of Heaven is open to all people. God wanted to give new birth from above to Nicodemus, but tragically he and the other Pharisees fought against God. You can’t choose your own birth from above, but you can certainly reject being born. You can reject and fight against God. Who’s fault is that? As Jesus Himself says a few sentences later in verse 16: “God so loved the world—the entire world—so much, that He gave His only begotten Son to die for it.” Now do all people enter into and see the kingdom of God? Tragically: no. Is this God’s fault? No! God has given the free gift of salvation in His Son for each and every person of this world—rich, poor, old, young, black, white, brown, whatever. God has also given everything we need to see and recognize God’s heavenly kingdom at work here in this world; namely, saving faith in His Word and His sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The one thing that excludes a person from the kingdom of God is unbelief on our part—plain and simple. My friends: God is here, holding out these gifts to all mankind, everywhere. If we turn our backs or plug our ears to these gifts, either in “giving or receiving,” because they don’t fit our preconceived notions as to what “successful” Christianity is supposed to look like or feel like, is it God’s fault when failure and despair and loneliness and strife rear their ugly heads and take control?
As we continue on our Lenten trek to Calvary over the next couple of weeks, let us keep our focus and our faith in Jesus Christ alone and the truly life-saving, life-giving salvation He accomplished for us on His cross. Let us ever remember and humbly give thanks for the fact that all requirements and prerequisites for receiving and entering into the kingdom of God have been fulfilled—perfectly—in the work and person of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Finally, let us ever remember and give thanks for the fact that God has given us, through the working of His Holy Spirit, the free and undeserved gift of faith that enables us to see, recognize, and fully trust in the fact that these wonderful gifts of new birth and new life in Him are ours solely because of the all-atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Faith alone in God’s grace alone because of Jesus Christ alone.
It doesn’t get any simpler or better than that.
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