Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (A)

March 16, 2014
Text: John 3:1-17

            Many people, even Christians, think of God primarily as Judge.  As he was growing up, Martin Luther and the majority of Christians in the Middle Ages looked upon Christ as a stern Judge who beheld poor sinners with nothing but wrath and condemnation.  Well, Luther came around on that, thanks be to God.  He came to understand that Gospel as Jesus proclaims it to us this morning: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17; ESV).  The Lord Jesus looks upon us poor sinners in mercy, in grace, with the forgiveness of sins.  But it is tempting even for Christians today, even for you Lutherans who know the precious Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ, to think of your various sufferings and afflictions as God’s punishment, as His judgment against your sin.  “I must have done something to anger God,” you think.  “I must be paying for my sins.”  Which, of course, is utter nonsense.  Because as you know Jesus paid for all your sins on the cross.  He paid with His suffering, with His blood, with His death.  He paid your debt in full.  There is nothing more to be paid.  God’s wrath has been spent on Him.  The Son of God did not come into our flesh on a mission of wrath, but on a mission of mercy.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). 
            That is not to say our sin is undeserving of God’s wrath.  Far from it.  It took the blood and death of the Son of God to pay for your sin.  A righteous and holy God cannot abide sin.  He cannot simply ignore it.  If He did, He would be neither righteous nor holy.  God had to do something about our sin if He wanted to save us.  So He did.  He sent Jesus.  The cross of Christ is the intersection where God’s love and justice meet.  For there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God punishes our sin in justice.  And there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God pours out His love for us poor sinners, to save us.  So now we need not die.  So now we are not condemned.  For Jesus has been condemned and died in our place.  Now there is eternal life and salvation, heaven for all who believe in Christ.  Believe it and it is yours.  It really is that simple.  Christ Jesus who died for you is now risen from the dead, and He gives you that life of His, that life that has conquered death and hell, freely, distributed in His Word and the Sacraments, received by faith in Christ.
            It doesn’t make sense, though, does it?  Free grace is a scandal.  Surely I must do something.  Surely in some way I must be worth it to God.  And if that means I have to pay with a little penance, a little suffering, or do a few extra good works, then so be it.  Not so, dear Christian!  For to see grace as anything but free is to reject Christ and His sacrifice for you.  That was Nicodemus’ problem when he came to Jesus by night for fear of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  These were, of course, the guys who were really good at doing good works, preserving an outwardly pristine life, and thinking that in this way they were justifying themselves before God.  The Pharisees also believed that if someone is suffering, it must be because they or their parents committed some grave sin for which God is punishing them.  The disciples thought that about the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).  When we think this way about ourselves or others, we show ourselves to be as misguided as the Pharisees and the disciples.  Jesus puts such thinking to rest: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3). 
            It is the nature of the Pharisee, like Nicodemus, to think that somehow he must earn his standing before God.  It’s the nature of the Pharisee, like you, to think that you must pay some price for your sin.  You can’t.  There is nothing you can do to appease God’s wrath.  There is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor.  And thank God, you don’t have to.  For God so loved you that He sent His only-begotten Son to take your sin to the cross and die for it.  God so loved you that He did not leave His Son in death, but raised Him from the dead, that He might give you eternal life.  Do you want what Jesus has to give you?  Just believe it.  It is already yours.  Amazing!  Incredible!  And totally opposed to your fallen reason.  That is why Luther has you confess in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”  To believe this, as our Lord says in our Holy Gospel, you must be born again, or as it is better translated, born from above.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again,” born from above, “he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). 
            Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about.  What a ridiculous statement.  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4).  We don’t understand it either.  Unlike Nicodemus, perhaps, we know that Jesus is not talking here about a physical rebirth.  But we think that somehow we have to make ourselves be born again by making a decision for Jesus, surrendering our lives to Him, dedicating ourselves to living a Christian life.  But when you make faith your effort, when you think you are born again, not from above, from God, but from your own striving, you are a Pharisee.  Don’t you see?  Faith is a gift!  It is God’s gift to you!  You cannot make yourself be born again spiritually any more than you made yourself be born physically.  Utter nonsense.  God brought you forth from your mother’s womb.  And God your heavenly Father gives birth to you spiritually, bringing forth living faith in Jesus Christ.  He does it by His Spirit, in His means of grace. 
            Jesus singles out Baptism in our text.  That is why you have the baptismal shell on the front of your bulletin, with the three drops of water for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Name with which God has named you, into whom you’ve been baptized.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).  To be born again, from above, of the Spirit, is to be baptized.  There at the font, where water is joined to God’s Word, by His command, the Spirit is given to you.  And the Spirit gives you faith in Jesus Christ as a gift.  That is why babies are baptized.  Because we cannot reason with them.  We cannot reason them into the faith.  They have no idea what we’re talking about.  So we simply baptize them, as God has commanded us to do for all nations (Matt. 28:19) of which babies are a part, and we trust that God will do in Baptism what He has promised, namely, give birth to them from above by His Spirit, giving them faith in Jesus Christ.  And in truth, that is why we baptize adults as well.  For we cannot reason adults into faith, either.  Reason is fallen and corrupt, opposed to faith in Christ.  And so, as our Lord says elsewhere, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).  That is to say, faith is simply trust, like a newborn who trusts Mom for food and protection and care and love, who cries out to Mom in every need, who rejoices and is comforted when Mom speaks.  That is you before your Father in heaven, a newborn from above, baptized into Christ, born of the Spirit.

            There are, to be sure, sufferings and afflictions to be borne in this life.  You do not understand them any better than a newborn understands the new world into which she has entered, what it is that is happening to her, why it is happening to her, and why some things are so unpleasant, why some things hurt.  God could explain it all to you, but you would be as uncomprehending as a newborn.  Go ahead and cry out to God like a newborn when you hurt.  But also trust that everything God does He does for your good.  He is not punishing you.  Your punishment happened at the cross, where the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up like the serpent on the pole.  He was lifted up in your place.  He was lifted up as the standard of your sin and death, that when you look upon Him there in faith, you be healed of your mortal illness, sin.  When you look upon Him there in faith, when you believe in Him, you have eternal life.  This is how God loves the world.  This is how God loves you.  He gave His Son, that you might be His own child.  And you are.  In Baptism, God has written His Name on you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

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