Sermon for March 12, 2017

Sermon for Second Sunday in Lent

March 12, 2017, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  John 3:1-17

Sermon Theme: “The Born-Again Metamorphosis”

(Anderson’s Cycle C Preaching Workbook; Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; Online Christian Jokes; original ideas; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; What Luther Says; Luther’s Small Catechism)

Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

When God changes a human being by replacing the “Old Adam” in him or her with the “new Adam,” we Lutherans like to compare that to the metamorphosing of a an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.  We tend to shy away from the stronger imagery that Jesus uses in our sermon text of being born again.  No, it’s not just Baptists who use that term, “born again,” Jesus used it long before they did.

In our sermon text, when Nicodemus asks, ‘Can a man enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?,’ Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

If you’re wondering, does “water and the Spirit” refer to the receiving of the Holy Spirit during the Sacrament of Baptism, the Apostle Paul clears that up for us in Romans 6:4, where he says, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Paul calls Baptism a “washing of regeneration” in Titus 3:5.  “Regeneration” is also the term Christians use for “conversion” or “being born again,” – we Lutherans tend to prefer the terms “regeneration” and “conversion” to “being born again.”  Whatever you call it, conversion involves a metamorphosis, or change, — it’s never too late, while walking this earth, to become a beautiful butterfly.

Walking through the forest, an atheist heard a rustling in the bushes.  Turning, he saw a massive grizzly bear changing toward him!  He ran as fast as he could but tripped over a stump and fell.  As the bear raised a hug paw to strike, the atheist shouted, “God!  Help me!”

Time froze.   The bear became immobile, the forest was silent, and the river stopped running.  Then the atheist heard a powerful voice:  “You have denied my existence for years, taught others I don’t exist and credited my creation to a cosmic accident.  Why should I help you?”

“It would be hypocritical to ask you to show mercy on me,” the atheist agreed.  “But perhaps you could make the bear a Christian/”

At that, the noise of the forest resumed, the river ran, and the bear dropped to its knees, brought its paws together, and said, “Come, Lord Jesus, be my guest, and let this food to me be blessed.”

Although the Sadducees were pretty close to being atheists, the Pharisees believed in God, but had some false ideas about worship and salvation, and it was not uncommon for Pharisees to become “born again” Christians.  Nicodemus, who approaches Jesus in our sermon text, was a Pharisee who was asking Jesus about being born again.  He interprets Jesus’ remarks literally, and just doesn’t get it.  We don’t know whether he became a Christian or not, but later on, he does help Jesus, and tradition says he was eventually baptized by Peter and John.

To help Nicodemus understand, Jesus compares Himself to the bronze serpent that Moses set up on a pole at the camp of the Israelites.  All who were bitten by poisonous snakes, which was their punishment for disobedience, and looked upon the bronze serpent were saved.  So, too, those who are stung by the bite of sin, and look to Jesus on the cross in faith, will also be saved.

Of course, this analogy would be lost on Nicodemus and the disciples, because the crucifixion had not yet happened and they had not of course yet seen Jesus hanging on a pole.  But we understand the comparison as would all future readers of John’s Gospel

While the disciples would have understood Jesus when He said “one is born with water and the spirit,” (Andrew and Peter had been disciples of John the Baptist who was baptizing folks), Nicodemus would not have.  We understand, because we have the words spoken by Peter in Acts 2:38-39, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We also have the words of Paul’s letter to Titus, Chapter 3, verses 5 – 8, written after Jesus’ death, which makes this “born again” concept even clearer to us:  “He saved us through the washing of REBIRTH and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become HEIRS having the hope of eternal life.”  While born the natural sons and daughters of Joe and Sue, we are born again as the adopted sons and daughters of God, and brother of Jesus.

There are some Christian denominations today who do not baptize their people, believing that it’s not important in the process of being born again.  Martin Luther, in contrast, who delivered many, many sermons on the importance of baptism, said this in a sermon in 1534:  “For God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are indeed in and with the water [in Christian baptism], as they were there on the banks of the Jordan when Christ stood in the water, the Holy Spirit hovered over it, and God the Father spoke.  This is why Baptism is a water that takes away sin, death, and every evil, and helps us to enter heaven and eternal life.”

Whether we talk about it as an experience of regeneration or conversion or being born again, all of us Christians at some point in our lives were “born again” as Jesus described it in the text.  Whether it was a spectacular, blinding light experience as an adult after years of being anti-Christian, like St. Paul’s was, or being born into a Christian home and gently turning into a butterfly at our baptism as an infant, it is God’s grace that did it.  No bragging rights should be allowed in either case.

William James in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, discusses those two very different ways.  One is not better than the other, and in both cases, we can fall away from our faith, a reason for regularly remembering our baptismal vows and taking Holy Communion for the strengthening of our faith.  As last week’s sermon text taught us, Satan is standing in the shadows, rubbing his hands together and drooling for us.

Trinity Lutheran Church in Dime Box in the 1930’s and 1940’s was like a lot of other small, rural Lutheran churches in German communities.  All of us members were baptized and confirmed in that church, or in nearby sister churches in Fedor and Serbin.  If you had asked my mother or any other member of that church about being “born again,” she would have given you a mean look and said, “I’ve always been a Christian!”  In their own minds, they weren’t lying, they just didn’t know they were born again at their baptism.  It’s so funny, they believed that only Baptists were born again, but they themselves had always been Christians.

This reminds me of what Garrison Keillor once said, “If you think sitting in a church all your life makes you a Christian, then you also probably think sitting in a garage makes you a car.”

I think we’ve gone a long way since then.  The truth is that while personal salvation is absolutely necessary for each individual, personal salvation is NOT the goal of Christianity.  God desires to save the whole world.  God planned to bless all the peoples of the world through His Son Jesus Christ.  Thus we must always keep two great truths in balance – God loves me, but He also loves my neighbor.

Jesus speaks those famous words in our sermon text, “For God so loved the WORLD, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

The individual, personal realization of the momentous truth that “God loves me” is the prerequisite for being born again, but the new birth can become aborted (a still birth) if we don’t embrace the truth that God loves the whole world through butterflies like you.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.