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A Saving Mystery

 A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va. March16, 2014.

John 3:1-17 

My name is Nicodemus.  This morning, I want to share with you my story and my strange but memorable encounter with Jesus late one night.  But first, let me tell you about my credentials: First, I’m a member of the Pharisees, which means that I’m a scholar of Jewish law and serious about obeying it.  Second, I’m a member of the Jewish ruling council, which means that I am seen as a leader in my religious community.  I have authority and power to make decisions and I’m very concerned about the future of my community’s faith. 

It was my concern for the faith that got me interested in Jesus.  You see, I first heard about Jesus when he drove out the money changers in the Temple at Jerusalem.  I was intrigued not so much by what he did, but by what he said to the money changers: “Get these out of here!  How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!”  What could he have meant to describe the Temple as his Father’s house?  Isn’t that blasphemous?  But then I saw all the miraculous signs he was doing and how many people believed in his name.  So I decided to visit him and get to the bottom of this mystery.

One night, I went to see Jesus.  I went under the cover of darkness because I did not want my colleagues to know.  While I was anxious not to be seen, I came confident and certain in my assessment of Jesus.  “Rabbi,” I said, “we see that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can perform the miraculous signs that you are doing if God were not with him.”  Now I wasn’t trying to ingratiate myself to Jesus or anything.  I sincerely believed what I said.  But it was a compliment, and I thought at least Jesus would acknowledge my assessment of his identity and perhaps even congratulate me for seeing him for who He truly was. 

Instead of congratulations, Jesus answered with a challenge.  He replied: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 

I was not expecting this.  I complimented Jesus by saying, “I know that you’re a great teacher” and Jesus negated it by saying, “You don’t know anything.”  I affirmed Jesus by remarking, “I see that you’re from God,” and Jesus refuted it with, “You can’t see the kingdom of God, because you’re in the dark as tonight is dark . . .”

Whew!  Couldn’t he give a guy some credit!  Doesn’t Jesus know that I’m a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council?  I know what the kingdom of God is about.  But Jesus would have none of my religious certainty.  Instead, he told me that I needed to be born again.

Born again?  What does that mean?  I see things literally, but what Jesus was saying was literally making no sense.  We all know that a person is born only once – as a baby from a mother’s womb.  When her water breaks, that is the signal that a baby is about to be born.  But how can a person be born when he is already old?  You can’t just get back into a mother’s womb!

Jesus replied: “Let me tell you the truth.  No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and of the Spirit.  Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  You shouldn’t be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”

Well, frankly, I was surprised, because all my life, I believed that since I was born of water from my Jewish mother’s womb, I was born a child of Abraham and therefore chosen by God.  In other words, I believed I was saved by virtue of being born into the faith.  Furthermore, I was also faithful in attending synagogue, I studied the Bible, I tithed, and I meticulously followed God’s laws.  Shouldn’t that be enough to enter the kingdom of God? 

Jesus must have noticed my bewilderment, but instead of providing answers, he continued to speak in a riddle-like manner: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?”  I asked, no longer able to contain my confusion and frustration. 

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things?”  Ouch.  Yes, I was Israel’s teacher, but in the presence of the Master Teacher, I was humbled.  During my conversation with Jesus, it seemed my prior knowledge and assumptions about the faith actually stood in the way of truly understanding what Jesus was saying about the nature of the kingdom of God.  My religious knowledge, once a source of pride, now became a liability. 

Now, before you shake your head and laugh at my apparent stupidity, let me remind you that we all have a tendency to place too much confidence in our own knowledge and assumptions about our faith and religion.  What we think we know about God can actually put God in a box of our own making and hinder us from believing and trusting in the true God who cannot be contained.  The mystery of God cannot be fully captured by our human understanding.  God is a free Spirit, a wind that blows wherever she pleases.  She can be subtle, like a gentle breeze that cools us or a spark of an indwelling presence who comforts us.  She can be powerful, like a tornado that wreaks havoc in its path or like tongues of flames who come down from heaven to give birth to the church and spread Christianity like a wildfire. 

Some of you are taken aback by my description of God by the feminine pronoun “she.”  But it was Jesus who described God as a mothering Spirit when he said that the Spirit gives birth to spirit.  Yes, Jesus also called God his Father, and he understood himself to be God’s one and only Son.  Jesus sure knows how to mess with my head!  Is God simultaneously “Father,” “Son” and motherly “Spirit”?  Yes.  Is God three?  Is God one?  Yes.  How can this be?  I was finally humbled to admit that I don’t know or understand these heavenly things.  God is a divine mystery. 

But God is also a saving mystery.  When Jesus told me that I needed to be born again, I came to realize that in order to be saved by this divine mystery, I needed a conversion, not from unfaith to faith, but conversion from one kind of faith to another.[1]  I needed to be saved from my misplaced faith in my past successes, my own abilities, and even my religious upbringing and my religious good works.  Going to synagogue, knowing and obeying the details of the law, even being a religious leader in my community—those things were not going to save me.  No, I needed a re-conversion.  It was not enough to be born from the flesh, from earthly mothers.  It is not even enough to be born in the waters of baptism.  I must be born again of the spirit or wind of God.  I needed to be saved from my need to play it safe.  God was calling me to hoist up the sails of my life and allow the wind of God’s Spirit to take me where God wants me to go, and not where I want to go.  That’s what it means to believe—not just knowing the right things about God, but believing in God and trusting our lives and our futures to God while not knowing exactly where God may take us.  That is the essence of the saving mystery of God. 

To believe in this way, to be saved in this way, will result in a transformation of our lives.  Jesus said: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  So many people assume that these verses describe how we can get our tickets punched for heaven even as we continue to live our earthly lives untransformed.  But as always, Jesus challenges our assumptions.  Believing in Jesus is not just saying a prayer to confess that we intellectually believe certain things about Jesus.  No, believing in Jesus is being born again to live a totally new life.  For if I am to believe in God’s love for the world, then this belief will result in a transformation in how I relate to the world.  I will love the world and the people in the world the same way God loves the world.  I would not love the world more than God loves the world, but I certainly would not love it less. 

God’s love for the world has implications for how I use the world’s resources, for what I consume and how much, for how I spend my money, for how I treat my family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and even my enemies.  In other words, God’s love for the world is an argument for seeking justice for all, including the last, the least, the downtrodden, the marginalized in our society.  Also, if I am to trust in this Jesus who gives me eternal life, then this belief will result in a transformation in how I live into my future.  If I am secure in the eternal life God has for me, I will be less likely to play it safe in this life, less likely to be anxious about my earthly security, and less afraid of death.  I will be more willing to risk it all for God, and more willing to give my life away to serve others. 

Finally, if I am to have faith in this Jesus who comes not to condemn the world but to save the world through him, then this belief will result in a transformation in how I see others.  I will be less likely to judge or condemn others or even feel a need to “save” others.  I have no power to save.  Instead, I will witness to God’s saving power, and let God do God’s mysterious work of saving and judging the eternal destinies of other people.  And as I looked at my life, I saw that my life did not reflect what it truly means to believe in Jesus.  He was right: I needed to be born again.

My encounter with Jesus that night transformed my life.  No, I did not get the answers I was seeking.  But the saving mystery of Jesus got a hold of me.  I went back to my Pharisee colleagues a transformed man, willing to risk my reputation and my life to serve Jesus.  My colleagues were ready to arrest Jesus without cause.  When I began to defend Jesus, my colleagues accused me, “Are you from Galilee, too?  Look into it, and you’ll find no prophet comes out of Galilee” (John 7:52) 

When Jesus was crucified, Joseph of Arimathea and I went to claim the body of Jesus.  In my final encounter with Jesus, I did not come under the cover of darkness.  No, I came in the light of day.  I knew that my action could cost me my place in the Jewish ruling council, but I was not about to play it safe.  As I looked up at Jesus’ broken body lifted up on a cross, I remembered Jesus’ words the night of our first encounter: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” 
Jesus risked his life so that I may be born again and have eternal life.  Am I willing to risk my life and allow the mysterious wind of the Spirit of God carry wherever she takes me?

What about your life?  Is Jesus saying to you this morning, “You must be born again”?  Jesus may be calling you to conversion from unfaith to faith in Christ, if that is something you haven’t done.  But more likely, Jesus may be calling you to conversion from one kind of faith to another, a conversion to a faith that is less dependent on the things of this earth and more dependent on trusting in Christ with your whole life.  Instead of just knowing that God is love, will you be transformed by God’s love by becoming more loving?  Instead of just believing in eternal life, will your whole lifestyle be empowered by God’s Spirit to reflect your eternal destiny? 

And what about your church?  What would it look like for the church to be born again?  How can the church be saved from a need to play it safe?  What would it look like for the church to love the world as God loves the world.  How can the church give her life away as just Jesus gave his life by redeeming our sin and seeking justice for the poor, the imprisoned, the homeless, and the sick?  How can the church be carried by the Spirit’s wind that can birth her into a new future? 

I once thought of myself as a smart man, but my encounter with Jesus has shown me that I’m not smart enough to answer those questions for you.  Those answers will come as you trust Jesus with your life.  But that is a journey that you will have to take yourself, just as I’ve had to take my own journey.  As you encounter anew the saving mystery of Jesus, I pray that you will believe in him, be open to the wind of God’s Spirit, and hang on for a great adventure!    Amen.

[1] William Loader, http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkTrinity.htm.