The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up
[Imperatives for this sermon:
1. Understand that we have a sin problem.
2. Understand that, in order to solve the sin problem, we must be born again through:
a. receiving the revelation that comes through Jesus;
b. being purified through Jesus sacrificial death;
c. being empowered by receiving the holy Spirit from the exalted Jesus;
d. becoming an obedient disciple of Jesus Christ.]
The problem is sin.
According to much current advice, I have just begun this sermon in the worst possible way. Sin is unpopular these days—er-rr-uh—let me rephrase that: the topic of sin is unpopular; there is no indication that the practice of sin is dropping in popularity. In the therapeutic, post-modern culture in which we live, the only unpardonable behavior is implying that one person’s choices in faith and morality may be better or worse than another person’s choices.
Was it simpler once? That’s a hard question. Perhaps. In the 1920’s, when “Silent Cal” Coolidge was President, a joke made the rounds based on his well-known lack of verbosity. It seems that one Sunday morning the First Lady was sick, and the President had to go to church alone. When he returned, the following dialogue ensued:
First Lady: What was the topic of the sermon this morning?
First Lady: What did the minister say about sin?
President, elaborating: He was against it.
The humor depends on our seeing that the President supplied no information that the First Lady would not have known without asking. Ministers preach about sin, and they do not favor it…from the pulpit at least. Everybody knew that. Perhaps the point of the joke is not quite so clear today.
Several years ago a minister asked me, “So what’s wrong with a sexual ethic based on mutual consent and personal responsibility?” Translation: It’s okay to commit adultery if you are careful about it.” I believe that I mumbled something such as, “Our calling is to represent God’s character, and God’s character is to be a covenant-keeper.” I still like that answer. But it drew a blank stare from the minister who must have thought that our calling is to make people feel good about themselves, just as they are. I think I might now try a simpler answer: What is wrong with adultery? Naïveté. It is naïve to think that the best interests of people can be protected without a strong ethic of covenant-keeping. It is naïve to think that we can make our own choices according to constantly changing standards and not suffer negative consequences. It is naïve to think that we can defy the revealed will of our Creator and Redeemer and not be held accountable for it.
What Is Sin?
I must immediately say that sin is a far bigger topic than the topic of sexual behavior. Sin is finding highest worth in anything other than God. It does not matter whether the sin is sex or self-righteousness, chemical highs or money, violence or social influence. Anything that we put in the place that belongs only to God will take control of our lives and eventually diminish us. If we persist long enough in our sin, God will give us over to it, and the result will be a long downward slide. We don’t want to go there.
Nicodemus was a relatively good man. He was an expert in scripture, a prominent Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of about seventy men who governed Judaism. His top sin was probably his reputation. The sin of finding highest worth in reputation harms in three ways: (1) Those with high reputations are puffed with blinding pride by this sin, creating a barrier between them and God. (2) Those with low reputations are discouraged by this sin, maintaining a barrier between them and God. (3) The glory that belongs to God is diverted, and those who need to see God miss out.
You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, Preacher. Can’t do vices and can’t be proud of not doing them. What’s a person to do?” The answer is, “Get a life. Get a life with meaning and purpose. Get a life that endures to eternity. Get a life with God. Be born again to a new way of seeing everything.”
When Nicodemus looked at Jesus, he was impressed. He saw that Jesus performed mighty signs and wonders. He concluded that God must be with Jesus. He wanted to know more. But he was also concerned with his reputation. So before he committed himself in public to showing interest in Jesus, he decided to go to Jesus privately to assess him personally. When Nicodemus told Jesus why he had come, Jesus replied in my loose translation, “It’s time for you to get a life, Nicodemus. If you want to see and to enter an ongoing relationship with the living, loving, reigning God, you are going to have to be born anew, born from above, born of water and the Spirit.”
This answer puzzled Nicodemus. He wanted to know how this being born again could happen.
Four Things That Are Needed for Rebirth
Jesus and the Gospel writer John pointed to four realities that demand the attention of somebody in Nicodemus’ sandals. Let us read and comment on today’s text:
“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
Several of my commentaries suggest that our understanding of this verse can be improved with an explanatory, loose translation: “No human being has physically ascended into heaven so as to be able to give us an authoritative version of heaven, but the Son of Man, the appointed and anointed agent of God’s reign, has come down from heaven to feed us on the true and sustaining Word of God.” Others were inspired with visions of heaven and with messages from God, but only Jesus was himself God’s revelation in the flesh. Accepting what God has revealed in words and in the Word is the starting place. It is not our job to evaluate the Son of Man. It is his job to evaluate us according to God’s truth.
“And 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one-of-a-kind (my translation) Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
There are in John’s Gospel at least two meanings to being lifted up.
The primary meaning is that Jesus must be lifted up on the cross as a sign toward which we can look and enter into eternal life. There is a great mystery about how the cross works to transform us. Great theologians have explained it in dozens of ways. But the point is that it does work.
The death of Jesus is the only event in human history that effectively addresses the most significant issue in our lives: the sin problem.
Somehow, the lavish display of the love of God on the cross of Jesus Christ bridges the barrier between us and God. The cross deflates the proud and inflates the discouraged. The cross puts before us a different way of seeing power and victory and fulfillment. The cross transforms us from alienated sinners into grateful servants. The blood that Jesus shed on the cross washes away our sins and makes us pure. The perfect sacrifice reconciles the holiness and love of God, and cancels the debt of our sin. That is what the Father and his one-of-a-kind Son intended, and that is what they accomplished.
The second meaning of being lifted up follows from the cross. Jesus is raised from the dead; he ascends into heaven, and from the exalted position of authority at the right hand of God, he sends his Spirit to all who will believe. We are not only born of the purifying waters that wash away our sins, but the Spirit comes to reside within us to vitalize and empower our life in service to Jesus. As Jesus was lifted up in his ascension, so we are lifted up to walk in newness of life under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit whom the ascended Jesus sends to us.
“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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
Ultimately, every human being must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. It will then be the Son’s job to judge. But that is not why he came into the world. He came to offer every human being redemption from sin, and redemption is what comes to those who respond with faith to what Jesus reveals. His mission was to reveal the redeeming good news. Jesus ultimately must judge, but he does not want any of us to enter that judgment unprepared. Our mission is to share, in words and deeds, that same redeeming message of Jesus. But we cannot share this redeeming message without awareness that there are immense consequences to how we and others respond. That must be a matter of earnest prayer for us. Redemption is not a light mission; it is a deep expression of the loving and holy heart of God.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
Being born again is not a one time event. Rather, it is moving within the light of Jesus to be enlightened as his disciples. A disciple is a person under the discipline of a master. A disciple of Jesus is under the discipline of Jesus. We are learning to surrender our false views of life. We are learning to take into our hearts and minds the truth that Jesus reveals.
Becoming a disciple involves a choice about whether we really want to see and enter the reign of God, whether we really want to see and do things God’s way, about whether we really want to submit to enlightenment. Those who decide to enter God’s reign cannot put themselves on the side of continuing sin. Those who are on the side of continuing sin cannot stand the authoritative light of Jesus Christ. Those who desire to honor God above all come into the light to be reoriented.
Here is what Nicodemus and we need to know
- Revelation of God’s absolute truth.
- Regeneration that purifies us from sin and empowers us for service.
- Redemption that expresses the loving and holy heart of God.
- Reorientation as disciples within the light of Jesus.
What Happened to Nicodemus?
So, what happened to Nicodemus? The text does not tell us in so many words, but, if his basic sin was finding greatest worth in reputation, we have substantial reason to hope for Nicodemus. In John 7, Nicodemus challenges his fellow members of the Sanhedrin to give Jesus a fair hearing, and he draws their scorn, not something that a person most concerned for reputation would have done. Then in John 19, Nicodemus joins fellow Sanhedrin member Joseph of Arimathea in claiming Jesus’ body. The text tells us that Joseph had until this point kept secret his belief in Jesus. We may assume the same for Nicodemus. If so, this must have been a major turning point, a point of no return for these two Pharisees. They had burnt the bridges to their past sin. I like to think that they had come to the light as disciples of Jesus Christ.
What Will Happen to Us?
A more important question is what will happen to us as the result of being in the house of God today. I like to think that something important could happen.
A Stressful Story
The past forty hours have not been pleasant for me, and the time of stress is not over. Friday, with my sermon text completed and my PowerPoint begun, my computer hard drive crashed (I initially thought it was a severe virus). I often preach about not worrying, but that preaching did not help me sleep Friday night. I lost access to this week’s sermon and the beginning of my PowerPoint presentation. I had to make the hour's drive to the church last evening and start over without access to my collections of computer images. I may also have lost much of this past year’s work. That remains to be seen (Later note: as it turns out, after several months of uncertainty, most of my data was recovered).
But if I lost the files, it was my own fault. I had become lulled into easy assumptions that all was right with my computer world; I had become notoriously careless about backing up my work. But this is a real world, and virus protection programs do not eliminate every virus, and they certainly do not prevent hard drives from crashing. Why did this happen? I do not know. But the sermon you are hearing has taken some new directions because it had to be rewritten from scratch. I hope that it is an improvement.
Some Questions and Challenges for All of Us
I want to ask you to consider whether, just as I had become careless about backing up my data, the church of our day has become careless about the problem of sin that the Jesus addresses, and about the costly, saving love of Jesus Christ that is the most important truth of history.
Let us ask ourselves why we are here. Are we here to serve worldly purposes, or are we here because Jesus Christ has laid claim to our total devotion? Are we here to be comforted that everything is okay just as it is, or are we here to be transformed by the revealing light of Jesus?
Jesus addresses us with some sharp challenges. And according to his values, if my computer problems led to just one person waking up to his challenges, it would be worth losing all my data.
Jesus gave not just a year of data, but his whole perfect life over to the agony of the cross in order to lay absolute claim to our complete renewal as children of God.
But he will not take the choice away from us. We have to decide if we are going to wake up to the sin problem and to his astounding solution to it.
Now, remember when I speak of the sin problem, I am not speaking about just one kind of sin. I am talking about all our sins. Every one of us has reason to pay attention to his challenge.
There may be some here who have not begun the journey into Jesus’ solution. We invite you to faith, repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
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