John 3:1-17 (Second Sunday in Lent—Series A)
“A Matter of the Heart”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
March 8, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson recorded in John 3:
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 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?” 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.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 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. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 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.”
John 3:16 is perhaps the best-known passage of the Bible. It’s been called “The Gospel in a nutshell.” You see it printed in huge letters on signs in sports stadiums and in arenas. Even many non-Christians are familiar with the reference, if not the words of the text. “For God so loved the world” is such a well-known and beloved text of God’s Word that it sort of seem useless to preach on it. As Christians, we already know that God loved the world and sent His Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. We know that whoever believes in Him will should not perish but have eternal life. Why come to church and hear something we already know?
A parishioner once had a conversation with the pastor. “Pastor,” he said, “your sermons always end up telling me something I already know. I know Jesus died on the cross. I know I have forgiveness of sins. I know I have eternal life. Why do you keep telling me the same thing over and over again?” The pastor sat there, a little puzzled. He didn’t know exactly what to say. Pastors tell people about Jesus and about His forgiveness and eternal life because that’s the Gospel. The Gospel is God’s power unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). The Good News about Jesus changes hearts to faith in Him and strengthen hearts in faith. How could a member of the church get tired of hearing about Jesus? After a long and awkward pause, the pastor finally spoke, “Well, it seems to me that you already know in your head everything there is to know about Jesus. But I have to ask you, when will your heart be ready to learn?”
Nicodemus’ heart was ready to learn when he came to Jesus by night. He knew about Jesus: “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.” Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus doesn’t really have anything to do with Nicodemus’ statement, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again from above, he cannot see the reign of God.” Jesus knew what was in the heart of Nicodemus. Jesus told Nicodemus what was really needed. He was looking forward to the Messianic kingdom as a member entitled to a place in it. Nicodemus lineage as a Jew gave him no part in the kingdom. His being a Pharisee, esteemed holier than other people, awarded him nothing. His membership in the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and his fame as one of its scribes counted for zero. All on which he had built his hopes throughout a long and difficult life sank into ruin and became a little worthless heap of ashes. Unless Nicodemus attained this mysterious new birth, even he would not experience the reign of God.
Nicodemus thought he had it all straight in his head about being a part of God’s reign and rule. Jesus taught Nicodemus that his knowledge was not complete. He was lacking something. In the same way, a Christian with a head knowledge of Jesus disconnected from a living faith in the heart is lacking something. Nicodemus didn’t know it all, although He had heard the same Bible stories about the coming Savior over and over again. If we think we know all there is to know about the Christian faith and life simply because we’ve heard the Bible stories over and over again, we had better think again and let Jesus teach our hearts.
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about spiritual birth, “Unless one is born again from above, he cannot see the reign of God.” Jesus’ words are very specific, telling us that spiritual birth is something a person undergoes and not something she or he produces. Just like our efforts had nothing to do with our natural conception and birth, in the same way, our spiritual birth has nothing to do with our efforts. People are born again from above. This means that God is the actor. He acts to recreate our hearts, to give us faith in the Son whom He sent to be Savior of the world. This spiritual birth happens through water and the Spirit—Holy Baptism.
We were flesh born of flesh—sinners born of sinful parents who were born of sinful parents who were born of sinful parents. We inherited a complete lack of knowledge of God and all things pertaining to eternal life and salvation. But God gave us new birth through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism so that we receive from Him faith in Jesus. This faith believes in Him and, as a result, we should not perish but have eternal life because God didn’t send Jesus to condemn us in our sins, but to save us from our sins and our complete lack of spiritual life and knowledge.
Jesus was lifted up on the cross so that He would die for our sins. Jesus’ death won our forgiveness and eternal life. This life and forgiveness are given to us by God the Holy Spirit through the new birth given to us in Baptism. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit created faith in our hearts to believe in Jesus so that our gifted faith might receive the forgiveness and eternal life won by Jesus for us.
Jesus teaches us about our forgiveness and salvation as well as about our new life since we have been born again from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. While it is certainly true that through the teaching of parents and pastors, Sunday School teachers and others, we have learned about Jesus and our heads are full of this wonderful knowledge, it is equally true that our hearts continually need to be renewed and refreshed with the Gospel promises that God loves us and has proven it to us by sending Jesus to be our Savior.
Think about what happened to you this week? Did you encounter some trouble or crisis? Were you feeling down and lonely? Maybe you just had a really bad week in school? Perhaps your week at work or at home left a whole lot to be desired?
So where can you go for spiritual refreshment? Where can you go for renewal and strength in the midst of difficulties? You can call to mind your Baptism. Luther wrote in The Large Catechism, “So when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say, ‘Nevertheless, I am baptized. And if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’” Your heart of faith takes great comfort in the fact that you are a baptized child of God who has received complete forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Jesus. You rejoice in your heart of faith that God sent Jesus to be your Savior and Friend. You are consoled because Christ’s promises to you in Baptism are true. He is with you always, just as He promised. With a living and confident faith in the heart empowered and encouraged by the Holy Spirit through the Good News of Jesus, we are sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39).
This is not just head knowledge. It’s heart knowledge. It’s faith-knowledge. It’s the assurance that God loved you so much that He gave you His Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. It’s the guarantee that God did not send His to into the world to condemn you, but in order that you might be saved through Him. Salvation has come to you in your Baptism into Christ. You are born again from above by water and the Spirit. It’s not just head knowledge. It’s a living, active faith that continues to crave the comfort of the Gospel and desires the peace and joy that only Christ can give in times of trouble.
John 3:16 is a very familiar text. It’s like many of the things we hear over and over again in God’s house. Our heads are filled with the stories. But more importantly, our hearts have been taught and filled with saving faith in Christ through these stories power of the Holy Spirit. It’s your Baptismal faith that you continue to nourish and support and strengthen here in God’s house as you encounter God’s Word. It’s your God-given faith that is renewed and strengthened through the very same wonderful, Christ-filled, grace-filled, forgiveness-and-life-filled stories and texts from God’s Word that you and I hear over and over again. So come regularly with your hearts of faith ready to learn, to grow, and to live in the wonderful Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen
 Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 427.