Sermon for Lent 2 – 3.5.23
+ Lent 2 – March 5th, 2023 +
Series A: Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:1-17; John 3:1-17
Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church
“A Smart Man”
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nicodemus was a smart man. Educated. Top marks in Hebrew grammar school. Most 1st century rabbis, like Nicodemus, would’ve learned the Hebrew alphabet by 3 years old. Learned to read from the scroll of Leviticus. Memorized the Torah (first 5 books of the Bible) by age 12. Memorized the entire Old Testament in order to become a rabbi. Nicodemus was a smart man. A pharisee. A religious, legal expert in the Torah, the books of Moses. Responsible for teaching the Scriptures to the people.
The kind of man David’s son, Solomon writes in Proverbs 18:15, An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Here in John 3, today’s Gospel reading, Jesus, the Son of David and Son of God, fulfills Solomon’s words in his conversation with Nicodemus. The Scriptures come to life here in John 3 as Jesus’ own words are enacted before us. Behold, someone greater than Solomon is here. There he is! Standing right in front of Nicodemus, the very wisdom, knowledge, and word of God in the flesh. All that Nicodemus seeks is found in Jesus. The true wisdom and life that we seek and need is found in Jesus crucified and risen for you.
Nicodemus was a smart man. He paid close attention to Jesus. Saw Jesus performs miraculous signs – the water into wine, the lame walking, demons cast out, lepers cleansed. Impressive resume. “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus listened as Jesus taught the people with authority. He recognized Jesus was no ordinary man from Nazareth. So, he did what smart men do. He sought out more information. Trust, but verify.
John invites us to see ourselves in Nicodemus. To see ourselves standing in the sandals of this smart man. This shouldn’t be too hard for us to do. God has given each and every one you his gift of intelligence, smarts. Whether you think so or not, we are all very smart people. Put all of us together and there are a lot of things we know collectively as well. John wants us to see ourselves in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
It begins with a small, but important detail. Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Was he afraid of being seen by other Pharisees? Perhaps. Was he following the rabbinic tradition of seeking out a new rabbi at the new moon? Perhaps. Those are all true, but even more, it’s a picture of the darkness of our sinful hearts…that apart from Christ revealing himself to us we are blind and dead in sin. As this night-time conversation unfolds, Jesus enlightens Nicodemus, and us, by His holy word. The rabbi Nicodemus becomes the student, and we along with him.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Remember, Nicodemus is no dummy. He’s a smart man. Born again? How? Huh? What does that mean? Even more confusing, the word “again” can also be translated “from above,” which makes more sense. Unless one is born “from above” he cannot see the kingdom of God. Jesus’ words sound strange. “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 doubles down, “Truly, truly (Amen, amen) I say to you, unless one is born of water and Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh; that which is born of Spirit is spirit.” Ah, now that makes more sense. Sort of. To be born of flesh is to be born “from below,” as we all are born “from below” as children of Adam. If you are “flesh” then you are born from below, of the flesh. To be born of the Spirit is to be born spiritually, “from above.” And not just Spirit but water and Spirit, for the Spirit is never alone. Even in Genesis, in the creation week, before God spoke, the Spirit, wind, breath of God hovered over the face of the watery Deep. Water and Spirit. It’s right there in Genesis 1:2. Any Torah teacher, including Nicodemus, would have known that. Should have known that.
Still, Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it. “How can these things be?”
“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” In other words, “I thought you were smart.” At this point, Nicodemus became silent. He stopped asking questions. And he listened. He listened to Jesus. It was his smartest he’d done yet.
Knowledge is one thing. A good thing even. There are many things we have accomplished and can do with our knowledge. Sadly, there are many ways our knowledge and smarts are twisted by our sinful, selfish use of the intelligence God gave us. How quickly we turn God’s gift of smarts into arrogance, pride, and self-centered sinfulness. Look at the tower of babel. Look at the internet or social media. Look at all the ways our own minds are just as blind and in the dark in sin as Nicodemus was.
Knowledge and faith, while related – and both gifts of God; they are different. Nicodemus knew many things. The question that isn’t answered in John 3 is this, Nicodemus knows a lot; he’s a smart man; he knows his Scriptures. But does he have faith in the one in whom the Scriptures he knows so well are fulfilled? Does he trust and believe in Jesus the very one who has come in the flesh to give life to Nicodemus, and to you?
What about us? When it comes to matters of God’s Word, God’s gift of faith, God’s promises to you in Jesus, your new birth from above by water and the Spirit in holy Baptism – and all of God’s works and words for you – do you find rest and solace and peace in your own mind? Do you lean on your own understanding? Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and, mind? The answer, of course, is the same for us as it was for Nicodemus. Our hope and comfort and life and salvation rests not on our wisdom and smarts, but in the Wisdom of God made flesh. In Jesus. In his word that declares.
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.[h]
“For God so loved the world,[i] 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.
What Nicodemus hoped to find in the Torah is found in Jesus, the Torah in the flesh standing before Him, talking with Him. What Nicodemus wanted more than anything else, to see the kingdom of God and to enter that kingdom to life eternal, is found only in Jesus, the incarnation of God’s love for the world. And it’s not a matter of choice, or decisions, or good behavior, or anything else you or I might do. It’s a matter of birth, of being and identity. You must be born from above, a second time, not of flesh but of water and Spirit. You must become something altogether different, a new creation. Simply renovating the old Adamic flesh won’t work. Topical treatments won’t deal with the deep disease of Sin. You must die and rise in Jesus, be born in Him, and that is the work of the Spirit through water and Word.
John 3 isn’t the last time we hear about Nicodemus. He shows up two more times in John’s Gospel. As a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council, he spoke up in Jesus’ defense, a risky move on his part. And even riskier, Nicodemus went with Joseph of Aramathea bringing burial spices to help with giving Jesus a proper burial. By all appearances, the Spirit had done His work on Nicodemus the rabbi, now a disciple.
Our Lord Jesus does the same for you. He speaks His word to you. He sends you His Holy Spirit. He gives you new birth from above by water and the Spirit. And he gives you his promise that whoever believes in him will have eternal life. Believing. Teaching. Confessing Jesus’ words. To know and trust and believe in Jesus and his promises. This is what makes you truly smart. Wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.