Preached 15 June 2003 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
The night is very dark. There is no moon to speak of, but the sky is full of stars. Under the olive trees the disciples are fast asleep, curled up in their cloaks. Only Jesus is awake — sitting there, his hands clasped round his knees, gazing into the fire. Suddenly, there is the sharp crack of a twig trodden underfoot, and Jesus glances in the direction of the sound. Out of the darkness and into the circle of firelight moves, rather nervously, a figure dressed entirely in black. And as he comes closer, Jesus recognises him. It is Nicodemus — one of the most important and influential men in Jerusalem. He is a renowned teacher, and a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council.
Jesus gets to his feet and moves round the fire to greet him. After the formal exchange of ‘shaloms’, Jesus resumes his seat on the ground by the fire and Nicodemus sits beside him. And then they begin to talk. At the sound of their hushed voices, John who is closest to Jesus awakens, but he doesn’t give any sign that he has done so — he senses that the meeting is meant to be secret, private … so far as Nicodemus is concerned. So he just watches and listens, and remembers, so that later he can record the conversation for those who will come after him, for the whole world, for us.
‘Rabbi,’ says Nicodemus hesitantly. ‘We know you are a teacher who has come from God.’ He raises his hands and purses his lips in a gesture of acceptance and resignation. ‘No one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ And then he stops. He wants to go on, but he doesn’t quite know how to say what’s on his mind. There’s a ‘but’ hanging in the air. ‘But there’s so much we do not know — so much we do not understand. Why you? Who are you? Why this way? Why with these fisherman? What’s it all about? What is this kingdom you talk about? And where does it leave me? After all, I’m supposed to be the teacher come from God … yet I don’t understand half the things you’re going round saying.’ And Jesus, who reads people’s hearts like others read open books, answers those unspoken questions. ‘Nicodemus. I tell you the truth,’ he says. ‘The solemn truth. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. You must be born again.’
And so there came into the languages of the world an expression that has intrigued and bewildered men and women everywhere — from Nicodemus onward. It is a much debased expression today. Open your newspapers and you will read about X who is ‘a born-again feminist’ or Y who is a ‘born again Euro-sceptic’. The expression is now journalistic shorthand for any sudden and dramatic espousal of a cause — and not necessarily a religious one — by someone who has previously been opposed to, or indifferent to, that very cause. But it is an expression too which is increasingly being used in the outside world with something of its original force — but in a quite disturbing way.
I remember Yvonne and I having a meal down at Ital Restaurant some time ago when Christian, one of the two young men who now own it, came over to chat to us as he often does. We’ve talked to him many times about Christianity, but on this occasion he brought the subject up. ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Did you see Songs of Praise the other Sunday Night. From Manchester United. It was amazing. They interviewed so-and-so (and here he identified some footballer whose name I can’t remember) — and do you know what? He’s one of those “born-again” Christians!’
Now what did our friend from Ital mean when he said that? He was saying that there are two kinds of Christians in this world. There’s the ordinary kind that differ from other people only in the fact that they go to church. And there’s the special kind who differ from other people in all sorts of dramatic ways. They really believe the Bible — often they carry one around with them. They’re always talking about Jesus — and they’re not embarrassed about doing so. They say they know him, that he answers prayer, that he died for them on the cross, that he forgives their sins, and that the most important thing in their lives is to follow him. But is he right? Are their two kinds of Christian? Born-again Christians … and the other kind?
Listen again to what Jesus said: ‘No one, no one, can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. You must be born again.’
No he is not right. According to Jesus there is only one kind of Christian — the born-again Christian. In Jesus’ book, anyone else is not a Christian at all. And that’s the point, of course, at which a lot of people sitting on a lot of pews begin to get very uncomfortable. Because, to their minds, what is being said is that unless you can look back to some Damascus Road experience in your life — some specific and unforgettable time and date when you turned your back on your old life and embraced a new life in Christ, you are not a Christian at all. But is that what being ‘born again’ really means?
Let’s go back to the firelight and the meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus. ‘Born again?’ says Nicodemus. ‘How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born?’
‘I’m not talking about physical birth,’ says Jesus. ‘I’m talking about spiritual birth. I tell you the absolute truth. No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and of the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.’
In other words — the one thing which is necessary, which is absolutely essential, in order to enter God’s kingdom either now or in the hereafter is a new, interior, life force imparted to us by God’s Holy Spirit. And that new life will, if we possess it, have begun to be imparted to us at some time during our physical life. Paul says: ‘If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.’ But — and this is a very important ‘but’ — neither Jesus nor Paul anywhere says that we will necessarily know or remember the moment when we received the Spirit of Christ — the moment when our life in the Spirit actually began. Some will. To some, the moment is full of drama and emotion. Remember Paul on the Damascus road. A light above the brightness of the sun. A voice from heaven. Temporary blindness. And then the laying on of hands by Ananias for the recovery of his sight.
My new birth was nothing like that, but it too was dramatic and emotional and I can still point to the date and time and place in 1953 when I heard the gospel, gave my life to Jesus and asked him to come and live within me by his Spirit. But, to some, the moment is entirely undramatic — nondescript even.
C S Lewis, telling of when he became a Christian, said: ‘I know very well when, but hardly how, the final step was taken. I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.’
And that is the important thing — knowing that we are now awake. Knowing that we now have the life of Christ within us. Knowing where or when it happened doesn’t matter. How many of us remember the moment of our physical birth? None of us, I imagine. The only person who really remembers the moment of our physical birth is our mother! And — if we have been born again — we can rest assured that the Holy Spirit of God, the divine mother who gives birth to every Christian, knows when and where it happened. It is certainly not essential, and it is not even important, that we do. What does matter is that we are conscious of the new life within us now, the presence of Christ in our hearts and minds. Paul says: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’(2 Corinthians 5:17). He says: ‘Those who are being led by the Spirit of God are sons of God’ (Romans 8:14).
What Jesus was stressing to Nicodemus — and to all of us — is that entry into the kingdom of God is by birth and birth alone — spiritual birth. Someone once said that God has no grandchildren. He was right, and what he meant was that we are not given a complimentary ticket for the kingdom of God because our parents were Christians. Nor are we Christians merely because we have passed through rights of baptism and confirmation.
We must be born of water — the baptism of repentance — and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. Without that true turning to God in repentance and faith that results in the Spirit putting new life into our hearts, baptism achieves nothing. The words spoken at baptism are spoken in what David Watson once called ‘daring faith’ — the faith that one day those being baptised will fulfil the conditions of their title deeds to salvation by turning to God for themselves and accepting the life-giving Spirit of God into their hearts. But the sad fact is that many do not, and despite their baptism can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God. For they have not been born again. And they do not have the life of the Spirit within them.
Yes … you say. But what about me? Do I have the life of the Spirit in me. Am I born again? And how can I tell?
Well, in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus set out the pathway to salvation pretty clearly, and if we have taken the steps he prescribed then we can be sure as a matter of objective truth that we are born again and that we do have the life of the Spirit within us … irrespective of what we are feeling or not feeling at this precise moment.
First Jesus stressed that the whole business of salvation begins with the love of God the Father. Out of his love for the human race … and that includes you and me … God the Father embarks on Operation Save the World. And what lies at the heart of this rescue package … this plan of salvation? Nothing less than the sending to earth of God the Son … Jesus himself … the very person Nicodemus is now talking to! God’s plan involves the “becoming flesh” of God himself.
John 3.16. You know it so well. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “For God so …” Come on, say it with me. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son …” Why? “ … that whosoever …” Sorry, who was that again? “ … whosoever …” What does that mean? Does it include me? Yes. Does it include you? Yes. “… that whosever …” Whosever does what? “… whosever believeth in him …should not perish but have everlasting life.”
And what does believing in him mean? Jesus gives a very helpful, clear picture to Nicodemus. You may remember my reading it. “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.” Well, you might say, it isn’t very helpful or clear to me! No, but it will be if I remind you of the story which Nicodemus would already know so very well. It’s recorded in the Book of Numbers … chapter 21 v 9. The people of Israel, in the wilderness on their journey out of Egypt and into the promised land, are beset by a plague of venomous snakes, whose bite produces an agonising death. The people come to Moses and ask him to plead with God for their salvation from this deadly enemy. God tells Moses to fashion a metal image of one of the snakes and to set it high on a pole. If anyone is bitten by one of the snakes, all he or she has to do is to come to the pole and look at the image of the snake on it, and the person will live. Life lay in simply accepting God’s remedy for the poison in the system. Going to the pole. Looking up at the thing on top of it. Simply accepting it as the only answer.
“And one day soon,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “I’ll be hoisted high too. Sin is the serpent that spells death to the human race, but I’ll be made sin and hang on a cross. And the way to life … the entry point of new birth … is to recognise that you have been bitten by the serpent of sin, that there’s a poison in your system that, untreated, will kill you. And that the remedy lies in coming to the cross and looking on me as I hang there. Salvation lies in accepting that what I do there is God’s remedy, the only remedy, for the deadly poison in the human system. And that is what “believing in me” means.
Well, do you “believe in Jesus” in that sort of way? Do you put all your trust for your salvation in the work that Jesus did in dying for you on the cross. The work that Jesus did … not any work that you have doing, or are doing, or might do in the future. You don’t need to understand how he did what he did. You don’t need to understand why the cross is the means of salvation. I’m sure there were many Israelites who, just before they died, said: “What … I’m supposed to drag myself over to some pole, am I? And look at some tin snake stuck on the top of it. And that’ll cure me? Oh, yeah. Pull the other one.” The ones who just did it lived. And if your trust is in the work of Jesus on the cross, then the promise of God’s word is that you will live too. That the life-giving Spirit of God is already within you and that you have truly been born again. In fact, you are a born-again Christian … whether you like the term or not!
But you know, in God’s scheme of things for you, you will have another source assurance that you have been born again too. You will have the inner conviction that the Spirit himself is wanting to give to you. Remember what Paul said in our first lesson: That ‘the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’. And so he does … if we will allow him to. The truth is that the inner witness of the Holy Spirit is one of God’s gifts to all born-again Christians, but I know that not all born again Christians experience it. Why is that? Well, in my experience it is either a lack of expectation or a lack of openness or both. Many people are naturally “reserved” and fear anything that might smack of the emotional or, even worse, of the supernatural. What a pity. It’s a lovely thing to have the Spirit of God himself assuring you within your heart of God’s love for you and of the fact that you have been born again into his family and are truly his child. And so I close by urging you this morning, in the moments of quietness that lie within this service, to ask God to give to you that wonderful inner witness of the Spirit? Or indeed to ask myself or David or someone else to pray with you afterwards so that you might receive that inner assurance.
I said, “And so I’ll close …” and so I will … Expect to add that, if you were expecting a sermon on the Trinity, I do hope you realise that you’ve just had one. My talk has been about how God the Father loves you and chose to rescue you and bring you into his kingdom. How God the Father sent God the Son to die for you on the cross. And how, when God the Son returned to God the Father, he sent God the Holy Spirit to wake you up to the good news, to breathe eternal life into you, to make Jesus real to you, and to give you an inner witness that you are born again and that you will belong in the Father’s house for ever. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Each of them God but not three gods. Three who are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. One undivided glorious Trinity. Amen.