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Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent – March 5, 2023

John 3:1-17

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

Nicodemus was in the dark. He was literally in the dark as he came to Jesus by night, but he was in the dark spiritually as well. He had a sense that there was something special about Jesus. He had seen, or at least heard about the signs Jesus was doing, and he knew that such signs couldn’t be done apart from the presence of God. But beyond that, he was in the dark. Even with all his advanced learning, even with his theological degree from Pharisee school, even with his status as a teacher of Israel, he was in the dark about the kingdom of God.

As Nicodemus struck up a conversation with Jesus, Jesus zeroed in on this right away. Jesus didn’t beat around the bush. Jesus knew Nicodemus was in the dark, and so he got right to the heart of the matter. “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus said to him, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus didn’t get it. “How can anyone be born after having grown old?” he said. It is hard to know if Nicodemus was being sarcastic or if he’s just stubborn, but his reply suggests that what Jesus had said about being born from above was absurd to him. “You mean in order to see the kingdom of God I need to crawl back up my mother’s leg and put her through that again? Can one enter the womb a second time and be born?” Nicodemus was still in the dark.

But instead of backing down, Jesus doubled down. He said, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

“How can these things be?” Nicodemus replied. “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus said in return. Nicodemus was still in the dark.

In describing how one comes to see the kingdom of God, Jesus used the language of birth.

It has been among the greatest blessings of my life to have watched each of my three sons being born. I have never been in more awe of their mother, who pushed and pushed, bearing those contractions, sweating and squeezing my hand so hard that my fingertips turned blue.

It probably goes without saying that she did all the work. Not only did I do next to nothing, but the boys being born didn’t do anything at all! First, they spent nine months in utero, relaxing rent-free in that luxurious amniotic hot tub, with their food being delivered right into their tummies through their mother’s umbilical cord. She did all the work carrying them around everywhere while all they did was step on her bladder.

And then when it came time to be born, they didn’t do any of the work then either! They just laid there while their mother pushed and pushed and breathed and contorted her body in agony until out they came, their eyes suddenly opening to a bright new world.

All of us have experienced this in one way or another, because each of us have been born! And when we were born, our mothers did all the work! We might not remember it, but that’s how it went down. They did all the breathing, all the pushing, all the excruciating, painful work, until there we were, blinking our newly opened eyes.

This is how we come to see the kingdom of God. It is God’s work. God does all the carrying, all the pushing. The Spirit does all the breathing, all the blowing. The Son of Man does all the contorting, all the suffering, until we are delivered, until we are born into faith, until our eyes are opened to the bright new world God is ushering in through his Son, Jesus Christ.

When this birth language didn’t land with Nicodemus, Jesus tried a different tack. Jesus pointed to a story Nicodemus would have known very well as a biblically literate Pharisee. “You know, Nicodemus, how the people of Israel were all dying in the wilderness from snake bites? Remember how God told Moses to put a serpent on a pole, and that anyone who looked upon the snake would live? That’s what I’ve come to do. I’ve come from above to bring life. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”

The imagery, the word picture, is different – but the idea is the same. God is doing all the work to bring life. All you need to do is open your eyes. All you need to do is look upon him whom God sent and believe in him, trust him, have faith in him, and you will have a new life that begins now and continues forever. He has already done all the work for you.

In the Large Catechism, Luther writes that the church is the mother who conceives and bears every Christian through God’s Word.

The church is indeed every Christian’s mother, and the baptismal font is the birth canal. Jesus commanded his church to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and it is through this sacrament that we are born from above. This is God’s work.

Even after we are born from above, we still sometimes find ourselves in the dark with Nicodemus. We understand there is something vaguely special about Jesus, but we lose sight of the kingdom of God. We come to difficult times, to trials in our lives that make us confused or anxious or uncertain. It is at those times that the church is the mother who reminds us of our birth, of the new life God has given us.

For years, my baptismal certificate was lost. Even more alarming, my home church in Edmonds had no record of my being baptized there. My mom and dad assured me that I was baptized. My grandmother wouldn’t have let it not happen, that’s for sure, so I was confident that I was. But there was no certificate, and no record.

Several years ago, when I was serving in another congregation, there was a season when I was in a spiritual funk. Things were a little dark. Because of certain struggles in the congregation I was serving, the kingdom of God was hard to see.

One day during this time I went out to the mailbox to pick up the mail and there was a big manilla envelope inside. The return address told me it was from my mother. I opened it up, and there was my baptismal certificate! There was also a little picture paperclipped to it of my mom and dad standing next to the baptismal font, with me cradled in my mother’s arms. It was July 18, 1971, exactly two months after I was born. My mom later explained that she found it in an old box that had been in storage for many years.

Now, it isn’t as though I needed proof that I was baptized, but I really, really needed to be reminded of it. It was a wonderful and timely and powerful moment of assurance of who and whose I am, of who I belong to. It was as though my eyes were opened once again to the kingdom of God, to the new life Christ has given me.

I’m sure you have dark times too. I’m sure you have times when the kingdom of God is hard to see. The church is here to be your mother. The church is here to bring you the word that gives you life. The church is where you are born from above through the waters of Holy Baptism. The church is here to remind you of this birth. The church is here to assure you of what God has done for you through water and the Spirit. It is in the waters of Holy Baptism that God has given you a new birth into a new life that begins now and continues forever.

God has done all the work necessary to bring you into his kingdom. God carries you and feeds you. God’s Spirit does the breath work, all the blowing. God’s Son did all the contorting, all the suffering, as he was lifted up on the cross.

In Holy Baptism, we are born from above through water and the Spirit. All there is left to do is to open our eyes. All there is left to do is to open our eyes once again to the brightness of the new day Christ has brought. All there is left to do is look upon him and live.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church