Date: March 5, 2023
Festival: 2nd Sunday in Lent
Text: John 3:1-17
Preaching Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI, and CTKLC
Appointed Scriptures: Genesis 12:1-9; Romans 4:1-8, 13-17; John 3:1-17
Sermon Hymn: LSB #708 Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today—indeed, in all our Scripture readings assigned for today—the Word of God speaks to us the utter failure of human reasoning and therefore the necessity for faith alone. Nicodemus stands before Christ as the epitome of reason. We see that he had a desire for the Lord Christ while the other leaders of the Pharisees persecuted Jesus. There was already a decree against Him, and if any of their leaders were found to be consulting with Jesus, he would be banned from the council of the Pharisees. Yet here is Nicodemus, a great leader of the Pharisees with a great curiosity for Christ that he meets with Him secretly in the night, perhaps indicative that he is also living in the dark. He has the great moral authority of a Pharisee, known for his supreme wisdom as a rabbi. So, he approaches Jesus, perhaps to impart some wisdom and advice to Him to stop putting Himself at so much risk at the wrath of the Pharisees.
Yet he never thought for a moment that he, great and wise as he is, would have his reason be attacked by Jesus. For He says, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This bold statement confounds Nicodemus’ reason. This makes no sense. Therefore, he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Yet Jesus doubles down on what He said and attacks his reason again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
When reason attempts to judge and advise Christ, Christ rejects reason. He has nothing good to say about it. These are harsh words Jesus gives, that one must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom of God. These words are beyond the reason of Nicodemus; indeed, they are beyond any person’s ability. Yet Christ says you must do it again. Although Nicodemus is a great intellectual, filled with knowledge and wisdom of the Old Testament and Greek philosophy, his inability to see Christ in all the promises of God fulfilled in Jesus shows the failure of his reason, such as God’s promise to Abram in today’s Old Testament reading, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” [Gen. 12:2-3], which Paul, a former Pharisee, helps us to understand that this is justification by faith, as we heard in the epistle reading.
Although Nicodemus knew these promises of God and could no doubt recite them from memory, his reason failed to grasp these promises coming to fruition in God incarnate standing right in front of him. Should Jesus, then, allow Nicodemus to remain in the dark? He does not. In love, He kills his reason so that he might be born again by faith.
To be born again is to start over. To be born again is to disavow reason and your old sinful nature and have it all become nothing so that you stand before Christ not as an equal like Nicodemus tried and failed, and not as a judge as many try and fail today, but as a child who knows nothing and must learn and believe everything this God-man has to say. A person who is born again does not compare the teaching of Jesus to anything else but only evaluates that everything compared to Him is darkness because He alone is light.
So then, we must all ask ourselves two vital questions. The first is, “Do I fear, love, and trust in God above all things, or do I place all that in my reason?” And the second is, “Do I fear and love God so that I do not despise preaching and Christ’s Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it? Do I gladly hear from Christ as a child would? As Mary did while Martha busied herself with futility?” Christ sets before Nicodemus and you and me today: reason or faith? Reason would compare what Christ said to the world’s reason. Reason takes any Word of God and despises it by comparing it to what the world says. When God’s Word says, “You shall not murder,” reasons says unborn babies are not human, so it’s not murder. Faith, rather, prays the psalm, “I praise You, O God, for this baby is fearfully and wonderfully made. You knitted her together in her mother’s womb. Her frame was not hidden from You, when You were making her in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw her unformed substance” [Psalm 139:13-16].
Similarly, when God’s Word says homosexuality is a sin, reasons says, “Love is love.” Instead, faith says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and you receive forgiveness. When His Word says, “God created them male and female,” reason says, “No, the Bible is outdated and written in a different culture. Gender is a social construct.” Faith instead says, “Yes, Lord. Your thoughts are higher than my thoughts and Your ways are higher than my ways” [Is. 55:8-9]. When Christ’s Word says divorce is a sin, reason says, “He doesn’t know what He’s talking about. Things are a lot different nowadays.” Rather, faith says, “Yes, Lord. Have mercy on me, a sinner,” and He cleanses you from all unrighteousness [1 John 1:8-9]. When Christ’s Word says He is risen from the dead, reason says He must not have died but was simply wounded and passed out, ignoring the fact that Romans were expert killers. Faith says, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” (Too early for Lent, I know, but the Lord is big on forgiveness.) And reason finds what Jesus said about being born again to be absurd, like Nicodemus did. Faith, however, clings to this Word of Christ. It says, “Yes, Lord, let it be so!”
Reason cannot think beyond itself. It thinks one must become a natural infant again. But Jesus says you must not be born of flesh again, since by the flesh you were born into sin, but of water and Spirit. But this confounds Nicodemus even more. How can a person be born of water and Spirit? Must he be ground to the dust from whence he came and distilled in the water until he is born again? And what of the Spirit? We cannot see Him! But as Jesus doubled down on what He said, now He triples down, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'”
Nicodemus doesn’t know how to respond. He is made into a fool. He dares not call Jesus a fool because he had previously praised Him as a teacher come from God! So stands our reason. It does not know if it should regard Jesus as its teacher or as a fool. This is the way it’s supposed to be: God has given us His doctrines that our reason might become foolish, but we don’t want to be called fools. But we must if we wish to be born again and enter God’s kingdom. The second birth is to forsake our reason—indeed, the wisdom of the world—and grow instead in the wisdom of Christ that seems foolish but puts our reason to shame, just as Paul would later write, that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe… For the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men” [1 Cor. 1:21, 25].
Jesus therefore destroys any hope we have in reason and free will, for reason cannot grasp the words of Christ and neither can our so-called “free will” accept it, further revealing that we do not have free will but rather that our will is bound to sin and rejection of Christ. Reason must either react violently against this because it is being threatened with death, which is ultimately what the Pharisees and other Jews and the Romans did to Jesus on the cross, or it must acquiesce to Christ’s demand of silence. And reason’s death and silence are precisely what occurs in Baptism, especially in that of an infant. Reason cannot fathom or accept an infant’s Baptism because the Word of God therein demands it be silent and have Him do His mysterious, unfathomable work.
As we confess in the Creed, we believe that “God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me… my reason and all my senses.” Because God has given us our reason, it is good, but only insofar as we use it for simple life matters like managing our finances, raising our children, studying, work, making art and music, what we eat, and so forth. But our reason can tell us nothing of Christ; this belongs to faith alone through Scripture alone—faith in what God says. This is why we begin each article of the Creed with “I believe,” not “I think.”
For as we confess in the 3rd Article, we say, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith.” Not reason or free will, but faith and the will of God. How, then, is one born again? Fortunately, you and I do not have to reason our way into salvation. Rather, God simply speaks His Word, and His Holy Spirit enlightens you with faith and continues to keep you in the true faith. The Greek word for “believe” in the Creed is the same word Jesus uses when He says, “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved” [Mark 16:16a].
Being born again, therefore, happens by faith and Baptism, for both work in tandem. That’s what that little word “and” means; it doesn’t separate things but conjoins them. You cannot have one without the other. Faith always leads to Baptism, and Baptism always creates faith. Reason says, “A man can’t be born again! He can’t enter into his mother’s womb a second time to be born! A baby certainly cannot understand this! How absurd! That’s impossible!” Those who deny Baptism, especially that of infants, put their trust in the thing that caused us to fall from God’s grace in the Garden: man’s love for reason and knowledge. But faith says, “Nothing is impossible with God. Yes, I must be born again! I was born in sin through the waters of my mother’s womb—in sin did she conceive me [Ps. 51:5]; I must be born in the Spirit through Baptism, the womb of my Mother, the Church! I know not how, but Christ makes me born again through His Word and Spirit in and with the water! Thanks be to God that it depends not upon my feeble wisdom but on Christ alone!”
Faith does not try to understand how Baptism works—how “the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word” does what He says it does, even in an infant. Rather, when it comes to how God reigns on earth in His kingdom, faith sets the futility of reason aside and, as Luther beautifully says, “does not let itself be annoyed and does not question how something might appear to the eyes. It only clings to the Word” [Baseley, 40].
Brothers and sisters, because you have been born again by Baptism and believe this, you have received the benefits of Baptism: the forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. The idol of identity politics has been erected in the hearts of many because we live in a culture that doesn’t know how to answer the question, “Who am I,” and has given the answer, “Whatever you think,” that is, reason. But because of your Baptism you never need to wonder who you are. By faith, all you need to believe and therefore know is that you are a child of God. You are a baptised parent, a baptised grandparent, a baptised man or woman just as you were born, a baptised student, a baptised farmer, a baptised musician, a baptised engineer, whatever else God has made you.
Who you are as a newborn child of God shapes and forms everything else about you—that whatever you do, and whatever vocations you find yourself filling, you are always God’s dearly loved child who has received forgiveness, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. Not because of whatever you reason about yourself, but simply because God has made you new through the Baptism of His only-begotten Son. Having been made His sons, therefore, this means you have what Christ has, which is righteousness, holiness, and eternal life. Reason has not and cannot give you God’s gifts. It all depends on faith, which also comes from Him because we have not the ability to muster it within ourselves. God is content to give you the Holy Spirit in Baptism that He may continue to sanctify and keep you in the true faith until eternal life comes to you.
For it all depends on Christ, not on you. The Israelites, when they were bitten by venomous serpents, looked upon the bronze serpent Moses had erected and were saved from death not because they reasoned themselves out of it but simply because they believed the Word of God about it. Likewise, the venom of sin from that serpent, the devil, is slowly killing each of us, yet because you look upon the cross and believe in what Jesus Christ has did for you there, you are saved from eternal death not because you can reason yourself out of it but simply because you believe in the Son of God who has given you eternal life by grace through faith. To Christ belongs all the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Rev. Joel Baseley. Christ Beyond Reason: Luther’s Treatment of Faith and Reason in the Festival Portions of the Church Postils. Dearborn, MI: Mark V Publications, 2005.