My children all suffer from a terrible, just awful, allergy – it really is an unfortunate thing. You won’t believe this, but my kids are allergic to the word must. When I tell them they must do something, like they must put on their clothes, or take a bath, or come and eat, they scatter. They scowl. They whine. I’ve even tried to be a bit creative. I’ve used different, but similar, words like, “I need you to do this” or “You have to do this.” Same results! Again, just an awful thing.
Now, I did find one interesting way to treat this allergy. Instead of telling my kids they need to or must do something, I discovered that if I just pose it as a question like, “Can you do this for me, please?” I actually see better results. I know what you’re thinking though that’s not very forceful, they can still say “no,” you shouldn’t give them the choice…but sometimes, let’s be honest, if you think you have a choice – even the illusion of a choice – you’re more likely to do what someone asks you to do.
But, here is the thing, sometimes you don’t have a choice. There is only one way to do something, and it must be this way. If you look at verse seven of our lesson today, you see that this is true regarding our salvation. There is only one way to be saved, and it must be this way. Here is how Jesus puts it, he says, “You must be born again.” And, Jesus, he says this to a man named Nicodemus.
Nicodemus, he’s an interesting guy. John tells us he was a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish ruling council. – and it’s no secret that Jesus wasn’t at the top of the Pharisees “People We Love” list. But Nicodemus wasn’t ready to write Jesus off like the rest of the Pharisees. He was drawn to Jesus. He wanted to talk to Jesus, to learn from Jesus. But, perhaps understanding the persecution he might face if he displayed genuine curiosity in Jesus, he comes to him in the middle of the night, in secret. And this is the conversation you and I dive into in John chapter three.
Now, maybe just one quick thing about Nicodemus and the Pharisees. They were big proponents of using the word must. The Pharisees were all about telling others what they must do. That’s how they themselves operated with countless rules and regulations that they had to follow, and they believed others must do the same. So, you see what Jesus does here – or what he’s going to do? He talks in a way that Nicodemus understands, He tells Nicodemus what he must do to truly know and understand who Jesus is and what he came to do not just for Nicodemus, but for the world.
And yet, as we go forward, it turns out that Nicodemus doesn’t actually like that word must, especially when he’s not the one saying it. Not only that, but he also doesn’t understand it. Take a look with me. In verse 3, Jesus is clear, you can’t even see the kingdom of God unless you’re born again. And, it’s almost comical at first here. Nicodemus takes Jesus literally, look at verse 4. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus, for his part, tries to explain again, and this time adds that a person has to be born of “water and the Spirit” and then says, “You should not be surprised at me saying, ‘You must be born again.’”
And there is a lot here in Jesus’ words to think about but we don’t have time for all of it today, so let’s just focus on this thought of being born again. And you should note this. When Jesus said, “You must be born again.” In the Greek, that “you” is plural. Jesus is saying you and me, we need to be born again. He’s not just talking to Nicodemus. You must be born again too. Okay, so what does that mean?
Well, think about this, in this story Jesus is coming to a very good person, and incredibly moral person, and he’s not saying, “Nicodemus you’ve done really well, you’re almost there, just a few more things that I need to help you with, and you’ll be good.” No, instead what is Jesus saying? You got to start from scratch. Do you see this? When Jesus says, “You must be born again” what he was really saying to Nicodemus was nothing he had done up to this point mattered and would get him into the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was no further along than anyone else because of his morally good life.
This must have been an extremely difficult message for Nicodemus to hear. All the musts that he and his pharisee brothers had set up in life meant nothing. All that effort, all that striving, all that work…nothing Only this one must mattered, that he must be born again. Do you see why Nicodemus struggled with this? This was life changing. Now, what does this do for us?
Well, let me take you to the end of our lesson, verse 16 and 17. Everyone knows John 3:16, “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.” In this verse there’s two main things that we need to understand. First, God loves the world, everyone, so much so that he gave up his Son for this world, again, everyone – that’s the first thing. The second thing is that the only way you receive that love is by faith, trusting, believing in Jesus. So, if you’re a person like Nicodemus and in moments of confidence or doubt, the thing you’re focused on is your morality, your works, the things you’ve done. If that’s where you turn for comfort when you sin to either feel better about yourself or to excuse that sin because you got this room of stored up good works to make it go away, if that’s you, you don’t understand what it means that you must be born again.
At the same time, look at verse 17 of our lesson, Jesus said, “For God did not send his into the world to condemn the world but to save the world.” So, say you’re the opposite of Nicodemus and you are acutely aware of your sins and always feel condemned. The devil and your flesh just won’t give you a single moment of peace and you never feel like you live up to God’s standards. You’re missing something. Here too you’re not understanding what it means that you must be born again. Because finally, friends, what saves you? It’s not you.
You know why did Jesus use this picture of birth? Well, did you choose when you were born? Did you put in a lot of work to make sure that your birth happened? You don’t go and get born. Birth happens to you. We played no role in our births; it’s all the mother. A baby is brought into this world through the mother’s labor, the mother’s pain, and the mother bearing that burden all those months. Somebody else is burdened, somebody else is in agony, someone else is in labor, someone else is bleeding. It’s not you.
So, you see, when Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, he wasn’t telling Nicodemus to do something. He was telling him that God does everything. It’s the Spirit who, like the wind, works in his own way and at his own time through Word and Sacrament to create faith in the heart. And that faith, that new birth, rests solely in Jesus.
You know, the biggest problem Nicodemus had, and many today have is that we view Jesus as a teacher, a rabbi, and not as a Savior. And that’s why you get that history lesson from Jesus later in verse 14. Do you remember what Jesus was referring to in that verse? God had unleashed poisonous snakes on those rebellious Israelites and then, to spare them, he had Moses lift up that bronze snake and anyone who looked at it was saved. But no one in that story got to say, “I looked at the snake first or I looked at that snake better than you with more intense gazing” No, they simply looked at the snake and lived because the object of their faith – the snake, and more specifically the promise God connected with that snake – is what saved them.
So, here Jesus is playing the role of history teacher to show us what being born again really means it’s receiving that needed gift of faith, a faith that looks only to the Son of Man who had to be lifted up for us all, so we could have eternal life with him.
Jesus had to do that, that was his must on this earth. He must die, and he did. And do you know who helped bury our Savior after he gave up his spirit? If you jump ahead 16 chapters, to John chapter 19. There is Nicodemus. He’s with Joseph of Arimathea looking up at Jesus on that cross, deciding how best to take him down so he could be buried. And you think it clicked for Nicodemus at that moment? He’s up there, so I could be born again, so I can have life – eternal life. This was the pain, the anguish, the labor, the blood that bore my sins away.
Today then is for the Nicodemus’ of the world, for us, who somehow can sit so high and mighty in our morality but at other times can feel so unsure, inadequate, and imperfect. Today, Jesus undeniably says to you, “I’ve got this. Nothing you do will stop me from being the Savior, that I must be, the Savior you need me to be.”
And, it really is that simple. This is how you and I must be, and are, born again. We look at Jesus, raised up on a cross for me, and we have eternal life, because it is the object of our faith that saves us – not our morality, not the strength of our faith, nothing here, but everything there. Jesus is the object of our faith. He’s the Son that God so loved but gave up for you. He’s the Son who did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He’s the Son who meets with each of us in the darkest days and nights of our lives to assure us that what we must do, he went and did for us.
So, you see, sometimes things must happen in a certain way, and you don’t have a choice. That’s a humbling thing, but I hope you see what it means for you, that when God says “You must be born again.” That’s not a command it’s a promise, It’s the promise that Jesus would go and do the impossible, that he must be, will be, your Savior. And that takes all the pressure off you. God’s not looking at you to save yourself. He’s not looking at you to win his favor or to make up for your mistakes, so don’t you dare look there yourself. Instead, look to the cross, look at Jesus, living, suffering, bleeding, dying, but not staying dead, all to give you new birth. “For God so loved the world that he gave you his one and only Son, that you shall not perish but have eternal life.” Believe it. Amen.