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New year; new you? The Jesus way

January 7, 2015

  John 3:1-21

So here we are in 2015. Barely into the New Year. What do you think of it so far? Did you make New Year’s resolutions? Have you broken them already? Well, it’s been 11 days! New Year brings with it so much optimism. All the things we’re going to do. Maybe look for a new job, new house, new car. Take up a new hobby or kick some old habits. Everyone wishes us well. For a better healthier prosperous 12 months ahead. We all just hope for a better world.

But what is the reality? The first thing I heard when I woke up on New Year’s Day was the tragic loss of life of New Year revellers in China. And Plymouth even made national news with two deaths; one a death in a flat fire, the other an axe and knife killing in a local pub. It’s a brand new year but bad stuff still happens – the clean slate didn’t last.

And so this morning, we ask, where does God fit in all this? What is his view of the New Year? Does he celebrate it? What time is midnight in heaven? Actually we are not going to answer most of those questions.

To help us we have read a passage which is so familiar to many of us here. It is right near the beginning of John’s biography of Jesus’ remarkable life on earth. We have hardly met Jesus. In chapter 2 he works an extraordinary miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding. Spectacular but it seems unknown to all but a select few who were in on the secret.

More publicly he then clears the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem. That is all. We tend to imagine Jesus surrounded by large crowds wherever he went, and John will later give plenty of examples of this, but he hasn’t yet. Yes we are told that miracles have happened, but we are given no detail. And as we move into chapter 3, the camera is zoomed in even more fully to one late night meeting.

  1. A late night meeting

To begin with John takes us to a face to face meeting, we don’t know where but we know it was late. Jesus’ visitor was Nicodemus, a Pharisee. A religious leader. Also a member of the ruling council. A man of standing in the religious and legal communities. Pharisees generally, as the Jesus story unfolds, were clearly seen to be opposed to Jesus and all that he stood for. Ultimately these two groups were behind the execution that Jesus would suffer at the hands of the Romans by crucifixion. So even now, for one of their number to be coming to see Jesus, this was significant.

  1. Why at night?

So why did Nicodemus come at night. There are a couple of possible reasons. Firstly it may have been that Nicodemus didn’t want to be seen. Already Jesus was being marked out as a troublemaker. And it wouldn’t be good for A Pharisee and Ruler to be seen mixing with Jesus of Nazareth. He just had to keep it secret from his colleagues. There is another possible reason which makes a lot of sense. What becomes clear as we read about Jesus is that he attracted crowds. It was often when Jesus was trying to get away on his own that he found himself confronted by the biggest crowds. It was difficult to get near to him. Nicodemus didn’t just want to listen he wanted to talk. This way he could get Jesus on his own and have his full undivided attention.

  1. Praise for the Rabbi

Nicodemus was polite as Jesus answered the door. He addressed him as Rabbi, teacher, recognising that Jesus too was a man of some standing in the community. There were two things that Nicodemus picked out. First “you are a teacher.” Two “you are a miracle worker.” WE know that you have been sent from God. The things you do fully back up the things that you say. As I’ve said we know none of the specific words or events that Nicodemus has in mind, but they have made a mark. Was he genuine in his words or was he trying to flatter Jesus to prepare the way for his questions? We can’t be sure.

  1. Jesus’ response

Interesting then to note Jesus response. After such a big build up he does not take a moment to thank his visitor for his kind words. In fact he appears to change the subject. He comes back with a straight response, as Jesus so often did. He doesn’t want to talk about himself tonight. The spotlight is on Nicodemus. “I tell you the truth” says Jesus. In other words “you need to listen to this. This is what counts.” If you want to see the kingdom of God then there is something you need to do. Nicodemus had not even asked about the kingdom of God! If you want to be in the place where God is king, where what he says goes, then you need to be born again.

Born again. These days it seems to be such a cliché. It is often associated with wealthy American television evangelists. Sometimes a candidate for office will proudly announce himself as a “born-again believer”. Other Christians will try to distance themselves from what they then see as an unhelpful label. Jesus only used the phrase this once. But use it he did. If people ask you if you are a born again Christian, in one sense your question should be what other kind of Christian is there? It is not just a convenient label. It is just one description of what it means to follow Jesus.

Jesus is not talking about a New Year here. But he is talking about a new start. Time to take stock of life. Time to consider what is important. Matters not if it is 1 January or 17 June if you are serious about getting right with God.

Nicodemus treats this statement initially as a joke. You cannot be serious! He tries a joke of his own with a horrible picture of an old man trying to get back into his mother’s womb. A horrible thought I am sure for both parties involved! But Jesus has stated that this new birth is the entry ticket into his kingdom.

  1. The two births

And Jesus is persistent about this need for two births. Two birth certificates must be shown to be a citizen of his country. Firstly to be born of water. Bluntly, to know what it is to be born a second time you have to have been born once. The challenge that Jesus brings to his listeners is open to all people here this morning who are alive. That’s the first requirement. Looks like you all made it.

The second birth, this being born again, is a spiritual birth. It is something that God does by his Holy Spirit. God’s Holy Spirit is active. He cannot always be clearly understood and he cannot be controlled but it is he who is the midwife bringing to life those who are ready to be followers of Jesus, citizens of the kingdom of God. Alive naturally and spiritually. Complete.

  1. Jesus the master teacher

Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, even though as Jesus points out, this Pharisee and ruler is supposed to be able to understand the things of God. He is the one qualified to be the teacher of others. Somewhere with all that knowledge though he has not grasped the thing that counts.

Jesus actually goes on to show him that he is far more qualified to understand and to teach. Nicodemus whether he meant it or not was quite right to address him as a Rabbi.

Firstly Jesus says, “you can listen to me because I know what I am talking about.” Jesus does not, like some other teacher, pass on what he himself has been taught, but he teaches what he knows first-hand. He shares what he has seen. He knows the ways of heaven because he came from heaven. He is uniquely qualified. Jesus does not need to be born again to enter God’s kingdom, for he is from that kingdom by right.

If we struggle to make sense of life, we can do no better than listen to the one who knows. Jesus. Maybe it’s time for you to ask him some of your questions.

  1. A lesson from Moses

Now Jesus takes Nicodemus onto more familiar ground to drive his point home. He takes him back to the days of Moses. If there was one thing that the Pharisees and teachers of the law knew from start to finish and inside out it was the story of Moses. They knew, and tried to keep, his laws in fullest detail. So Jesus takes Nicodemus back to a familiar incident from the time that the people of Israel were in the desert.

The people had grumbled – nothing new there. It was an often repeated occurrence. The people were often unhappy with Moses’ leadership or the way in which God appeared to be acting or not acting. On this particular occasion it appears that the result of the moaning was an attack my venomous snakes. And the bites were fatal. In the midst of this God gave Moses an unusual antidote. Make a snake of brass. Attach it to a pole. Then all the people had to do was look at that snake and they will be healed. It may all sound rather odd, but it worked. They looked and they lived.

  1. Jesus greater than that snake

Just as the snake was the cure for the people of Israel, so Jesus, he is saying, provides the cure. He is the key to this being born again. But Jesus does not offer a healing, he offers something else altogether greater. In his being lifted up is the answer. Jesus is speaking early on in his ministry of his death. Not attached to a pole, but lifted up, nailed to a cross. Somehow in that he is saying is the key. It is because of that that you can be born again. You can know eternal life. Eternal life when Jesus talks about it is never just a life that goes on and on and on and on. It is about a quality of life too. Life as it was fully intended, now and for ever.

  1. That verse – the rescue plan

So what is Jesus’ rescue plan? This is spelt out in verse 16. Such a well-known verse. A verse that tells us so much about God, Jesus and ourselves.

It begins with God and it begins with God’s love. The Bible reminds us repeatedly that God IS love. He is not just loving. God = love. What a description. I wonder if that surprises you. If you want to know what love is, then God is the very definition. Is that your view of God? Is that your experience of him? Or is he angry? Is he distant? Is he uninterested in my worries? God IS love. But what does God love? Is it beautiful people, lions and tigers, chocolate, football? We use the word love  so often in any and every situation. Jesus plainly tells his night visitor that God loves the world.

And when he talks about the world, he is not talking about the planet, much as he cares for his creation, but first and foremost he is talking about its people. All of them.

  • Christian, Jew, Muslim, Atheist
  • Hitler, Gandhi, Hussein, Mother Teresa
  • Lonely people, crowds of people
  • Nations and continents
  • Towns and cities
  • Male and female
  • Black and white
  • Straight and gay
  • Big Issue sellers and directors of banks
  • Disabled and able bodied
  • Usain Bolt and people like me
  • Together and individually
  • From the very beginning, through the centuries and beyond

Now that is a massive love. Many of those people I have mentioned may raise a number of issues for us as Christians, BUT if you were to ask who in the world does God love we need to be reminded loud and clear. If we want to know who his favourites are then hear this now – there are no such favourites. From the start He loves the world. Every one of them. SO loved. With a quality and depth that leads to action.

  1. The danger

The people of Israel faced the danger of a snake bite. Maybe the thought that he was in danger was far from Nicodemus’s mind. And perhaps it’s not how you see yourselves this morning. But massive love shows itself in action. On a huge scale. And that can only be necessary if we have a problem. The Bible constantly reminds us that the life that so many of us choose, a life without God, is a destructive one. One that leads to a disastrous end. Far from being citizens of God’s kingdom, we find ourselves outside with no hope of changing that situation. The other side of the coin to the eternal life that Jesus offers he describes as perishing. We cannot get to God through our own devices. That will only lead to failure and separation from him. A life that is the very opposite of that quality life he intends for us.

None of us likes to think about these things but there is a real danger, and it with that firmly in mind that the God who loves us acts. Why? Because he doesn’t want anyone to perish as Jesus puts it. He wants to save the people he loves – remember who they are? That’s right all of them. His love is indiscriminate. There are no exceptions. He wants no one to perish. Jesus is very clear on that.

Permanent separation from God, or hell as we sometimes call it, is not what God wants for us. Eternal life. That is the plan.

It’s great that God loves us that much. But is it was just a nice thought. If he wanted to do something about it, but somehow couldn’t help us. Or if ultimately he wasn’t prepared to act. But this is not just a nice thought. We have said already this is a love that acts.

  1. The what why AND the how

God acts alright. He sends his son Jesus. Jesus sits with Nicodemus, and plainly tells him, you need to be born again. “And God has sent me to be the way that you can know him.” In his opening chapter John describes how Jesus is God. He was there in the beginning with God. He was fully involved in the creation of everything. And now he is God’s rescuer. And it is his sacrifice as he is lifted up before us on the cross, that brings us life.

Now that is supreme love. Why would we want to turn away from that love? If God loves so much, goes to such lengths in Jesus his son.

  1. Why Jesus didn’t come:

Interestingly, having talked so much about what he came into this world to do, Jesus now spends some time talking about what he didn’t come to do. He didn’t come to condemn the people of this world. That’s not what they needed – they needed his rescue.

That is a challenge to us as Jesus’ followers. People seem to latch on when we talk about God’s judgement, but lose sight of the fact that Jesus comes to rescue. I wonder what impression we give in our churches. Do people find love or do they find judgement criticism and condemnation. Sure there are things we need to speak out about. Certainly we should challenge people’s behaviour. But when it comes to it, everyone needs the love of God. Everyone needs the life that Jesus offers. Just as much as the people part of this church need him. As Christians we need to remember where we came from. We need to let love be our mark.

The important thing in entering the kingdom of God, is not the kind of people we are, but is who we believe in. No one is beyond his rescue. Look at many examples of people in the Bible and down through history, totally undeserving of his love, who reached out for his forgiveness. And whose lives were and are totally transformed.

Jesus doesn’t come to condemn. He tells Nicodemus that we are condemned already. People prefer to live their way. In the darkness as he calls it. Jesus is only telling things the way they are. But he comes to rescue.

There is a choice. To live in the light or to live in the dark. To live for good or for evil.

  1. The end of the conversation

And that is the end of the conversation as John reveals it. The outcome of the discussion is not revealed. For clues we have to read almost to the end of John’s gospel.

But actually this morning it is not so important to know how Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ challenge. What matters this morning is your response as you have heard of God’s love in action. Jesus the rescuer. What Jesus offers to you if you will believe in him.

Let’s not leave your story unfinished, but look to Jesus who was lifted up for you, so that you can live. Life as it is meant to be. Now and forever.

And those of us who are Christians. Do we need to remind ourselves again of how high and how deep and how wide is the love of God? Do we need to allow that love to inspire us and to be the love that we long to live out and share with others?

Wherever you are take stock.

New Year? Maybe. New beginning? Seize the opportunity.

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