Nicodemus was the first person who ever heard the words: "You must be born again." The words shocked him into full attention. They were so different from anything he had ever heard before. They were so puzzling. Today, we hear them quite differently. Phrases like "born again" and words like "salvation" seem archaic, not new. They fall mostly on deaf ears. They sound out of place. They have a "churchy" ring to them. Many tune a preacher out at the first mention of these words. So before you tune me out, hear me out.
We live in an age of self-reliance. The truth is most of us don't really believe we need saving; and that if we did need saving, we could do it ourselves. In fact, many of us believe we have already saved ourselves. We believe that our military might has made us nationally secure. We believe that our economic might has made us financially secure, or at least we did until recently. We believe that the might of medical science, healthy diets, and good exercise have made us physically secure; and we believe that the might of our psychological health has made us emotionally secure. We believe that "salvation" is an archaic word, and we believe that "born again" is a phrase straight from the rube evangelists of times past. As a result, the call "Repent and be saved!" no longer brings so sinners to their knees or converts streaming down the aisles of our churches as it did in former days.
Yet, we are the very ones who need to be saved. Take an honest look at us.
In the first place, we are broken and sick. We have been turned on the earth's great wheel and ground by its pressures, its stresses, its rejections, its hateful striving, its fierce dissension, its misshapen values, and its seductive, hollow dreams.
Or try another image: We are sick unto death. We carry within us a Stage IV malignant tumor; and we don't even know it is inside us, eating away at our souls, our lives, our joy, our hope.
Our sickness is evident in many ways. It is evident in our weakness. Just a few days ago, I sat in a federal courtroom and listened as a friend was sentenced to four years in prison. He gave me permission to tell you his story, a story much like many others. Times were hard, and the economy had put him in financial jeopardy. He was an investment broker, so it was convenient to "borrow" a little from the till, intending to pay it back when the economy got better. But the economy didn't get better, and he had to "borrow" a little more. Finally, desperately afraid that he would be caught, he falsified his records to cover up his misdeeds. Then one day, some clients arrived to withdraw their money. He didn't have it to give them.
He did not fit the image that most of us pull up when we think the word "criminal." He was a deacon in his church. He attended faithfully. He chaired key committees. He was active in his Bible study class. A few years earlier, he would never have believed himself capable of doing such a thing. He would never have believed that there was already a tumor inside, eating away his life.
My friend, of course, is not alone. Within every one of us, more potential for evil lurks than we can possibly allow ourselves to believe. Beneath the surface, deep in our hearts, in the darkened corners of our souls, the evil one lurks and his power over us is palpable.
Our sickness is also evident in our emptiness. A number of years ago, I read from some long-forgotten source about an art exhibit in San Francisco. A live model sat at her vanity applying her makeup. When she was finished putting it on, she took it off. When it was off, she put it back on. And the cycle never ended. The people who watched long enough to realize what was happening wept as they watched.
We are not sick to the bone. We are sick in our souls. We are not whole, not one on the inside, and therefore we are not good. We allow multiple masters to command us, and we allow our multiple identities to respond. One day our worst self answers the call of our worst master, and our mistake breaks us. We are quite right in calling this sickness "emptiness," for when a thing is broken, everything inside it just runs out on the ground. That is how so many of us are living our lives.
The word salvation actually means healing or wholeness. It means that the broken pieces are put back together, and that the sick are healed.
Yes, we are people who need saving.
Second, we are slaves to our sin. Perhaps you don't like the word sin, but consider for a moment: One definition of sin is missing the mark. If we think of life as an arrow shot from birth to the grave, then let me ask: Is it possible to hit a bulls eye that is so many years in the future, around so many twists and turns? Of course, it is not. The aim is too unsteady, the vision too dim, the trajectory too long, the course too complex, the winds too strong. We can never hit the mark. We can never score a bulls eye. We don't have it in us.
Sin is destructive. It destroys relationships that make life matter. Live your life irresponsibly, and see what it does to your marriage. Live your life as a lie, and see what it does to your business. Live your life only for yourself, and see what it does to the weak. Live your life in corruption, and see what it does to your children.
But worse than all of this, sin eats away at your relationship with God. We believe in our day-to-day lives, in our heart of hearts, that justice will never come, but one day, as the prophet Amos said, it will roll down like waters, and those who have turned their backs on him will hear him say, "Depart from me, you cursed...."(Mt. 25:41)
Yes, we are the very ones who need to be saved.
In the third place, we are on a collision course with death. Preachers used to try to scare people with gory stories that illustrated the nearness of death and warned that you might die in an accident on the way home. Now most preachers don't do that so much, but the reality and unpredictability of death has not changed. As one wag said, "The death rate has never changed. One out of one people die."
Death looms on our horizons, and without faith it renders everything meaningless: our careers, our families, our joys, our sorrows. You'd might as well eat, drink, and be merry if tomorrow you may die. You'd might as well lie, cheat, and steal your way to the top. You'd might as well spend your life getting and spending or putting on and taking off makeup. You'd might as well ignore your children or your parents or your spouse. You'd might as well snub the church and turn a deaf ear to the gospel of grace.
Yes, we who live our whole lives with death awaiting--we are the very ones who need to be saved.
So what is the most relevant word the gospel has to give? Just this: We can be saved, saved from sin, saved from death, saved from meaninglessness and emptiness, saved from injustice, saved from ourselves. But how is such a thing possible? Nicodemus came to Jesus with just this question, and Jesus told him that he must be born "from above." From above? This grand re-making of a soul cannot be made possible by human devices. It can only be made possible by God who is above all our brokenness, all our sickness, all our sin, all our hopelessness. Re-birth is possible because it comes from above, not from human hands, but from God's hands.
In the 1800s, some people attempted to build a bridge across Niagara Falls. Engineers were consulted. Money was raised. No stone was left unturned, but they could not get a cable across the Falls. They could not float it across the rapids. They could not shoot it far enough with a bow and arrow. They could not climb the steep cliffs and get it across that way.
Finally, a ten-year old boy made a ridiculous suggestion: Fly the cable across the gorge on a kite. How absurd! How foolish! Yet the red-faced engineers finally flew the cable across with a kite.
Occasionally in our lives, we come to the point that we know we need to be born all over again, and we long to be saved from all that is wrong within us. At such times, it is tempting to turn away, believing there is no way across the chasm that separates us from God.
If you ever come to such a moment, here is good news: You can be born from above! From above, you see, God sent his Son. He bridged the chasm. He spanned the tide. He opened the way.
We are not hopeless! God has done what we could not. He has poured out his grace on us. He has covered us with his love. He has saved us by his grace. He has allowed us to be born all over again.
If only we have ears to hear it. If only we have eyes to see it. If only we have grace to receive it.
Pray with me. Dear God, we know that you have sent us life from above. We ask for ears to hear, eyes to see, grace to receive. In the name of Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.