Today we come to the end of our sermon series “The Bible’s Greatest Hits”, looking at the favorite bible verses as determined by searches at biblegateway.com. And for some of you, it’s not any big shock as to what the number one verse turned out to be. John Three, Sixteen: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That’s been one of people’s favorite Bible verses as long as I can remember. In fact, if you’re a sports fan and you’re my age, you may remember a guy named Rollen Stewart. He used show up at major sports events and get a seat where he knew he’d get on TV, like right behind home plate at a baseball game. He’d wear a rainbow-colored wig, and he’d hold a sign or wear a T-shirt that said “John 3:16”. I don’t know how effective that was, but I imagine at least a few people looked up John Three, Sixteen after they saw that shirt. It shows how people have considered this a very important verse for quite a while.
But as we’ve said before, it’s important to put Bible verses in context. And when we look at the context in which Jesus said those words--”For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”--there is an awful lot there. There’s so much there that I kept thinking of different directions this week’s message could go. So, instead of covering it all in one message and moving on, we’re going to make this both the end of one sermon series and the start of a new sermon series, “God So Loved the World”. We’re going to look at today’s passage, John Chapter Three, Verses One through Twenty, in some depth, because there is just so much there. And we’re going to start with Jesus telling Nicodemus “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”
That term, “born again”, is kind of a loaded one to use these days. Nicodemus did not understand it. In fact, he seems to be kind of making fun of Jesus for using that term. He took it literally, asking how a person can go back into their mother’s womb and be born a second time.
A lot of times we don’t really understand it, either. There are some people for whom being “born again” is the most important thing about being a Christian. They believe that being “born again” is something that has to happen in an instant. They believe there has to be a specific time and place that one is born again, just like there’s a specific time and place that one is born on earth in the first place. And if you don’t have that, they would say that you have not truly been born again.
I do believe there are people for whom it does happen that way. There are people who can tell you a specific time and place where the Holy Spirit came to them and they were born again. Maybe that’s happened to some of you, and if it has, that’s wonderful. That has to be an awesome thing to experience.
But as United Methodists, we don’t believe that it has to happen that way. We believe the Holy Spirit can come to us gradually, over a period of time. And it can happen in a variety of ways. But having said that, we need to not ignore being “born again” and not consider it important at all. Jesus did say it, and he meant something by it. There needs to be some way in which our faith in Jesus Christ makes us different. There needs to be some way in which we do feel the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. If our faith in Jesus never made any difference to us, if we never felt anything because of it, if we never acted any differently because of it, then our faith would be pretty meaningless.
Jesus told Nicodemus, and he tells us, that we should not be surprised when he says we must be born again. Jesus explains it this way: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
And Nicodemus basically responds, “Huh?”
That may be how you and I respond, too. Does it ever bother you that there seem to be so many times when Jesus does stuff like this? I mean, seriously, it seems like there are so many times when Jesus used figures of speech and parables and things like that to make his point. Don’t you wonder sometimes, why does Jesus not just come out and say what he means?
Well, when you read what people have to say on the subject, you get lots of different explanations. But think of it his way. What was one of the titles Jesus was given by the people around him? In fact, Nicodemus uses it in this passage. It’s teacher, right? Jesus was called “Teacher”.
What does a good teacher do? Good teachers don’t just give the students all the answers, do they? Good teachers want to teach their students to think. Good teachers want to teach their students how to come up with the answers themselves. They don’t just want their students to know what the answer is. They want their students to know why the answer is that. They want their students to be able to think for themselves, so when they come across other problems, they’ll be able to solve them for themselves.
I think that’s at least part of what Jesus was trying to do. It’s what we try to do in our confirmation class. The point is not just to memorize a bunch of facts. The point is to understand our faith. The point is to know, not just what we believe, but why we believe it. That way, when our faith is challenged, we’ll be less likely to fall away. We’ll be able to meet the challenges, because we don’t just have faith, we know why we have faith.
So let’s look at what Jesus says. Again, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear it’s sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Here, as in other places in the Bible, the Holy Spirit is compared to the wind. We cannot control the wind. It blows wherever and whenever it pleases. Sometimes, it’s from the north, sometimes it’s from the south. Sometimes it’s strong, sometimes it’s barely noticeable. But you and I have no say over any of that. We might wish we did sometimes, but we don’t. God is the only one who controls the wind.
And of course, that’s true of the Holy Spirit, too. We have no control over what the Holy Spirit does. God is the only one who controls the Holy Spirit, because of course the Holy Spirit is one of the persons of the trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit is God. And no human being can control God.
We cannot control the wind. We cannot even see the wind. But we can see what it does. We can see the effects of the wind on the things around us. We can see it blow the flag. We can see it blow the leaves and the trees. On a windy day, we can feel its effect on us as soon as we walk outside. The wind can be a gentle breeze, or it can be a strong, powerful force. When the wind blows, it changes things.
And that’s true of the Holy Spirit, too. We cannot control the Holy Spirit. We cannot see the Holy Spirit. But we can see what it does. We can see the effects of the Holy Spirit. We can see its effects on others, when the Holy spirits act in and through them. And we can feel its effects on us, as soon as the Holy Spirit acts in and through us. Sometimes the Holy Spirit works gently and sometimes the Holy Spirit works powerfully. But when the Holy Spirit works, it changes things. And when the Holy Spirit acts in and through us, it changes us.
I think that’s at least part of what Jesus was trying to get across when he said we need to be born again. We need to feel the Holy Spirit acting in and through us. We need to have the Holy Spirit change us. Sometimes that change happens suddenly and powerfully, like a strong wind. Sometimes that change happens gradually, like a gentle breeze, nudging us along. But if the Holy Spirit is acting in and through us, it will change us. It will make us different from the way we were before the Holy Spirit came.
God did love the world so much that he gave his one and only son. Whoever believes in him will have eternal life. But if we truly believe, that belief has to affect us in some way. If we truly believe, we will ask the Holy Spirit to come into our hearts. And the Holy Spirit will change us. The change may come quickly or it may come slowly, but it will come. And when it does, we will truly be born again.