Sermon for Sunday March 12th, the Second Sunday in Lent
The Lessons: Psalm 121; Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Text: John 3:1-17
Topic: The necessity and nature of Christian rebirth
THE ELECTRIC KINGDOM
Dallas Willard tells of his experience of electricity as follows:
As a child I lived in an area of southern Missouri where electricity was available only in the form of lightning. We had more of that than we could use. But in my senior year of high school, the REA (Rural Electrification Administration) extended its lines into the area where we lived, and electrical power became available to households and farms.
When those lines came by our farm, a very different way of living presented itself. Our relationships to fundamental aspects of life — daylight and dark, hot and cold, clean and dirty, work and leisure, preparing food and preserving it — could then be vastly changed for the better. But we still had to believe in the electricity — and take the practical steps involved in relying on it.
You may think the comparison rather crude, and in some respects it is. But it will help us to understand Jesus’ basic message about the kingdom of heaven, if we pause to reflect on those farmers who, in effect, heard the message “Repent, for electricity is at hand.” Repent, or turn from their kerosene lamps and lanterns, their iceboxes and cellars, their scrub-boards and rug beaters, their woman-powered sewing machines and their radios with dry-cell batteries.
The power that could make their lives far better was right there near them where, by making relatively simple arrangements, they could utilize it. Strangely, a few did not accept it. They did not enter the kingdom of electricity. Some just didn’t want to change. Others could not afford it, or so they thought.
To be sure, the kingdom of God has been here as long as we humans have been here, and longer. But it has been available to us through simple confidence in Jesus, the Anointed, only from the time he became a public figure.
— Dallas Willard,
The Divine Conspiracy
We have all heard people talk about born-again Christians, as if such Christians are to be distinguished from all other Christians as the only authentic Christians. We must realize that spiritual rebirth is necessary to becoming a Christian. Anglicans understand the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as the vehicle, or means, of spiritual rebirth, since it includes renunciation of “the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world with all its covetous desires, and the sinful desires of the flesh;” it includes a profession of faith in the Holy Trinity, including a vow to believe in and receive Jesus Christ as Son of the living God and to follow Him. The experience of Holy Baptism if all the vows are taken seriously, is, or will lead to, an experience of spiritual rebirth.
One of the most serious problems that the Church faces today is that many of its members have been baptized, and either have never sought the Sacrament of Confirmation, in which people renew the Baptismal vows made on their behalf, or have been confirmed but live lives contradicting their Baptismal vows. What is the reason for this? One principal reason is that they were never taught the Christian faith and its requirements comprehensively. What this amounts to is that many were converted only in half measure, or simply taught to observe the rituals of Anglicanism, without embracing the radical fullness of Biblical conversion. What is the result of this? One result is that Church members do not share their faith with others as they should, since they don’t know their faith as they should. Another result is that they don’t come to Bible study meetings, because they think either that they know everything they need to know about the Bible, or that they did not ever learn enough of the Bible to make them want to learn more.
NICODEMUS’ QUEST FOR THE TRUTH LEADS HIM TO JESUS: JOHN 3:1-17
What is the answer to this problem? Nicodemus was “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1, KJV), which means he belonged to the supreme Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin. His wonder at Jesus’ miracles leads him to conclude that God must be with Jesus. Nicodemus wanted a genuine religion, not one that merely consisted of the observance of laws and rituals without the power of the Lord at work. Jesus speaks to Nicodemus’ need for a genuine experience of God when He says, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3, KJV).
The Greek word used for “again” can also be translated “from above”. This translation points to the divine origin of spiritual regeneration. In the Prologue of the Gospel according to St. John, this rebirth is explained in these terms:
But as many as received him [Jesus Christ], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
(John 1:12-13, KJV)
These verses reveal that to all who receive Jesus Christ, and who believe in Him, God gives power to become his sons, and these are born of God. When Nicodemus questions how a man may be born again, Jesus clarifies his meaning – to be born again, a man is born of water and of the Spirit. “Water” is a reference to Holy Baptism, in which the Church believes the Holy Spirit to be the agent of rebirth. Now rebirth in a Christian sense is the work of the Holy Spirit, who convicts a person of sin and brings him to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, so that he may receive forgiveness of sins and have eternal life. Being born again is the work of the Holy Spirit, who then assures each one so born again that he is a child of God (Roman 8:15-16).
From our experience of growing up in families, we know that each child has a relationship with his parents that grows and develops as the child matures and his understanding broadens and deepens. It follows that spiritual rebirth means a new relationship with God the Father through the Lord Jesus Christ by the operation and companionship of the Holy Spirit. It appears as if God has suddenly come to life for us, but really we have suddenly come alive in spirit to God. The implication of this, as St. Paul explains in Romans 6:11, is that we count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Love of God and obedience to Him must now be hallmarks of our lives. Forever after having come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we have a living relationship with God, leading us more and more into his wonderful presence. The spirit of the Christian has been given new birth, new life, by the Holy Spirit, as the Lord Jesus Christ declares in John 3:6: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Everyone who is born of the Spirit of God has an allegiance to a whole new king – Christ Himself, and belongs to a whole new kingdom, the kingdom of God.
In a sense, there is a parallel between Abram’s being commanded to leave his own country and go to one of which he did not even know (Gen. 12:1-4), and being born again. The kingdom of God is like a new country, with a moral code of neighborly and brotherly love, a high standard of behavior, in great contrast to the sinful, evil age in which we live. Just as Abram did not know where he was going, so those who are born of the Spirit will find that the Lord knows where they are going and what they are really doing in God’s kingdom, but others and even themselves, might not know, just as we do not know where the wind is coming from or where it is going (John 6:8).
Though we may not always know what God is doing with us, with others, or where he is taking us on our journeys through life, we must know from the remainder of this Gospel Lesson, the important truths that God loved the world so much that he gave His only Son that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life (John3:16), and that God did not send His Son into the world to condemn it, but to save it (John 3:17).
An important choice is set before everyone who reads or hears this Gospel: believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and have eternal life, or refuse to believe, and perish. Our sin against God, against others, and against ourselves, is so abhorrent to God that only His Son can save us from it when we turn from all our sin and believe in Him. In doing so we are born of the Holy Spirit, and become bearers of the Gospel of Christ by which even more people can be saved through our witness and testimony.
What will you do with this Gospel of life that you have received?