Second Sunday in Advent [a] March 8, 2020
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 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.”
In the Name of Jesus.
There are some words that we hear so often, maybe we forget their impact, their force, their edge.
A word like “awesome.” Only so many things can actually be awesome—if everything is awesome, then nothing is.
Or a word like “literally.” It can be used for things which are not literal; it can be used for literally anything.
For the Christian, maybe the word “gift,” or “give.”
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.
Or, John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.
So we want to not lose the radical meaning of this word. We want to hold tight to what this word gift means for us, and what the word gift does not mean, what it rules out.
Nicodemus did not know how to receive gifts.
Nicodemus knew much. He was a Pharisee, and that’s serious business. He was a ruler of the Jews. He was a teacher of Israel.
He knew much. He knew the Bible by heart.
He was, to put it in today’s language, “a Bible preacher,” and we can know that if you would have heard one of Nicodemus’s sermons, he would’ve been quoting the Bible left and right. He taught the Law. He kept the Torah. The Ten Commandments came off his lips as easily as if talking about the weather. And he knew many other commandments, too, commandments designed by the Pharisees to keep good order, to show people how to live, to make sure everyone was doing everything in the right way.
Nicodemus knew much, he could teach you much, but he did not know how to receive gifts.
But now Nicodemus stands before Jesus.
Not before the Bible presented as a book of rules and regulations. Not before his fellow Pharisees as one who can judge others by the Law. Not before his neighbors as one who could tell them how to do things right.
But before Jesus. And Jesus is the giver of gifts.
It was by night that Nicodemus came to Jesus. Privately. Almost as if he knew that he would be hearing things from Jesus that a good Pharisee should not be hearing, but he wanted to hear it anyway.
The first thing Nicodemus hears from Jesus turns his world upside down. John 3:3:
Jesus answered [Nicodemus], “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
This is different. Not the part about the kingdom of God. Nicodemus knew how to talk like that. He had taught it himself to many people. To see the kingdom of God, you obey the Law, you keep the Torah. To see the kingdom of God, you live a clean life.
But what is this “born again” Jesus is talking about?
Birth, that’s not something you do. No baby is born from his mother because he was being obedient.
To make the kingdom of God a matter of being born, this is to take it completely out of the realm of obedience, out of something the person can do. What baby was ever born because he made a decision to be conceived? Who among us were brought into the open air of that hospital room because we called God into our heart?
Being born is passive. To be born is to receive a gift—the very gift of who you are before God. This can’t be, not in Nicodemus’s world. John 3:4:
Nicodemus said to [Jesus], “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
At least Nicodemus is now seeing the problem. Being born is receptive, it is passive, it is not something you do for yourself.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus will have Nicodemus live only by gift. Not by works, not by decision, not by obedience. By gift.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever has faith in him should not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus will have you and me live only by gift. Not by works. Not by decision. Not by obedience. By gift.
By gift, Jesus gives you the new birth of water and the Spirit. If it were by your work, your effort, then it would be by your flesh. But, that which is born of the flesh is flesh, says Jesus, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
You are born of the Holy Spirit.
By flesh, you know your sin. Your shame. Your fear of death.
At the same time, by faith, by your life created by the Holy Spirit, you know the righteousness that belongs to you by the Word of Jesus. You know the honor that belongs to you as you stand before the Father bearing the Name given you in Baptism—the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. By faith you know that being given birth by the Spirit, you belong to life, eternal life, with no fear of death, for God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son that by faith in him you will not die but have eternal life.
This word give, this word gift—we want to not lose its radical meaning. We want to hold tight to what this word gift means for us, and what it rules out.
It means that from God all things come to us by grace, by way of gift. Just as we had nothing to do with making a decision to be born of our natural mothers, we have nothing to do with being born of the Holy Spirit.
This word gift means that even as our Lord gave us his Name in Holy Baptism, in giving us his Name, he gives us everything that comes with his Name.
He gives us the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit gives gifts, giving us the gift of the Gospel, the gift of the forgiveness of sins, the gift of justification before the Father, the gift of life everlasting. It is all of one piece. The Lord does not give out his Name piecemeal.
When he gives you his Name, he gives you everything he has done for the sinner and everything he is as your Lord.
And what the word give, the word gift, cannot mean, is, you earn it. If you earn it, it’s no gift. Any child can tell us that.
In the Catechism, when it speaks of the Holy Spirit, in the section for the Third Article of the Creed, it says,
[The Holy Spirit] calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on Earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.
In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.
On the Last Day he [the Holy Spirit,] will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.
Ours is the life of gifts. John 3:17:
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.
In the Name of Jesus.