Second Sunday in Lent
March 8, 2020
“Simple And Certain”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church
When did you first learn John 3:16? Was it in Sunday School? Maybe when you were only 5 or 6 years old? It can be a Bible verse that is known by people who may only know one verse in the entire Bible. Maybe it is so well known because it is so simple and certain. I think if you are going to know any Bible verse this would be a good one to know, “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.” (John 3:16) Simple. Certain.
Not everything in this world is so understandable and simple. This Coronavirus seems to be quite the complex issue – touching the lives of so many people in so many ways. This week I ran into computer problems. It just about shut me down. I couldn’t get to my documents. Without the work, and patience, of a number of people, I wouldn’t have been able to do the work that I needed to do. Computers are a wonderful tool – when they work right. But when they don’t – they confound us and frustrate us. We want simple and certain.
Today in John 3 you get a word from God that is simple and certain. But such a word didn’t start out that way. In fact, it started out confusing and conflicting and troubling. Nicodemus, a wealthy and quite powerful man, both a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, comes to Jesus with gracious words, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:2)
To such a compliment Jesus makes a demand of Nicodemus. He doesn’t give a polite thank you. He doesn’t discuss what Nicodemus had seen or who else thinks He is doing such great things by God’s power. No. He says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3) Born again may be better translated, “Born from above.”
The simple and certain truth that Jesus would speak is first of all exclusive. No one sees God’s kingdom unless they have a new birth and that birth, that second birth has to come from God. He would tell him that he had to be born anew by water and the Spirit. “Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:6) This renewing work wasn’t going to come from inside of Nicodemus but only from God. This exclusive way is like when Jesus spoke, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
The words of Jesus were not well received by Nicodemus. He didn’t say, “You know, Jesus, I never thought of it that way.” Or, “I think you’ve got something here.” No, he looks at Jesus and says that what he just heard from Him was ridiculous, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he can’t enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born.” (John 3:4)
Simple and certain? No. Confusing and challenging. The exclusive statements and demands of Jesus can be hard to accept when we want to solve our spiritual needs by ourselves. It is pretty exclusive when Jesus says in John 14, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (Verse 6) Peter would speak about the exclusive need for being born again and being born from above when he preached, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12). No other name. Exclusive.
Last weekend I preached for a funeral at the congregation where I first served when coming out of seminary. As I walked into St. Paul’s in Amherst I saw Pam Vieselmeyer, the organist. About 35 years ago I visited her grandmother, Maude Douglas. When Maude died she was buried from First Baptist Church in Holyoke. Doug Myers, her pastor, preached a sermon titled “The ABC’s of Salvation.” He used John 3:16 as his text. A – All Repent. B – All Believe. C – All Confess. ABC. Simple. Certain.
Nicodemus was not only told about the exclusive work that God had to do by making him born again from above, but Jesus also invited him to simply believe, trust in what God would do for him. I’m talking about faith. Right in the middle of John 3:16 is that basic word of faith, of believing. “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.”
Believe. Simply trust in God’s way. Jesus gave an example to Nicodemus of an Old Testament account of Moses and the snake on a pole. In Numbers 21:4-9 we have the account of God’s people being bitten by snakes and dying. They asked God to save them from the venomous bites. So this is what God said, “Make a snake and put it on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” (Numbers 21:8) Jesus used that very picture about how He was going to save all people, “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.” (John 3:14-15)
It is quite simple. You just take God at His word. It is not too complicated, like my computer. They simply looked at the snake on the pole and they lived. We look at the Christ on the cross and we live. Faith. Trust. Believing. Simple and certain. Paul in Romans 1 would say, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)
This simple and certain salvation from God that comes solely by having faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus is also inclusive. I had mentioned that salvation was exclusive – you must be born again, you must be born from above. But the gift of God is meant for everyone. This gift is universalistic. “God so loved the world.” No one is left out of God’s redemption. Jesus didn’t die just for some. He didn’t die just for us. He died for all. Peter speaks, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (I Peter 3:18a)
What He brings us is everlasting life. …Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. So, is that quantity or quality? The answer? Yes!! Quantity – eternal, forever, no end. But more than life that just goes on and on and on (like a sermon!!), eternal life accents the life part. In Revelation 21 it says of what God brings to those who have Jesus, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. We will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new.’” (Revelation 21:3-5a) Eternal with quantity – length, and with the greatest quality of life we could ever imagine.
Do you think Nicodemus ever got it? We know he was confused by some of what Jesus said. There are so many times in the Bible that Jesus says something or does something and we don’t find out the result of what happened. Did the people repent and believe? Did their life get better? Did they come to faith in Jesus? But with Nicodemus we know the end result. Nicodemus became a believer!! He believed in Jesus who had exclusive claims – that he had to be born again. He believed in this Jesus who asked him to trust Him. He believed in this Jesus who included him in His eternal plans. He believed in Jesus who he knew would give him everlasting life. Why do I know this? John 19:38-40, “With Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.”
With a certain faith and a simple confidence and great courage he confessed his love for Jesus who had been crucified. His faith and confidence and courage would only grow after the resurrection of Jesus.
In this world that can be challenging, difficult, and confusing, I pray that we are grounded and settled by the great love of our God. May we stand strong in the clear and certain words of Jesus. Amen!!