A Life-Changing Story
4th Sunday in Lent
A Life-Changing Story
Text: John 3:14-21
I just wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I didn’t really want to be caught up in all the buzz surrounding him like everyone else was, so I usually avoided talking about him or going to see him. But I couldn’t hold off any longer. It was just too intriguing to me. Everyone I knew was talking about him and how great he was, so I figured I just had to go and see him too.
He was generally regarded as one of the greatest preachers of the time—I suppose he could be compared to Billy Graham or the late Dr. D. James Kennedy of TV fame. Or maybe Joel Osteen when it comes to popularity. But the word on the street was that he was even better—that he knew more about the Bible than anyone and could preach circles around even the best. They said his sermons were both fiery and yet heart-warming at the same time. Some claimed he could clear out a church, literally, with his pointed preaching of the law. Others asserted that the wonderful stories he told left you grappling for more and pondering his message for days.
Well, I am a student of the Bible too, you know. I have spent many years of my life studying the original language of the Bible and inspecting carefully almost every verse of Scripture. So I felt compelled to speak to this man and find out if he was the real deal.
It wasn’t very easy because he was certainly treated like a celebrity. Imagine if someone supremely famous came to Palm Coast like President Obama, or Tiger Woods, or Oprah Winfrey, or Tom Cruise. That person would probably be mobbed by huge crowds of people. Well the same was true of this person. He wasn’t easy to see up close because he was so popular, and it was especially difficult to talk to him because he also had his posse of friends closely protecting him. I think those twelve friends were like his secret service protection or something.
But I figured out a way to talk with him. I waited until it was very late at night, when everyone else was in bed and too tired to swarm him with their needs. His crew of friends also wasn’t with him at the time. They were all probably asleep as usual. So I approached him, and he was actually nice enough to allow me to sit down next to him and talk for a while.
We introduced ourselves, but of course he needed no introduction because practically everybody in the world knew who he was. We covered the normal formalities of meeting for the first time—“Hey, how are you? What have you been up to? Weather sure has been nice lately, huh?” But I couldn’t wait any longer. I eventually mustered up all my courage and decided to find out exactly where he stood. I had heard so many rumors I wanted to find out what his theology really was. So I asked him the one question that is sure to bring out anyone’s true beliefs. Being the Bible scholar that I am, I already knew the answer, but I asked him anyway, “So, you are obviously a great teacher. Tell me, how exactly can I be saved?”
In a kind and gentle voice and very matter-of-factly he replied, “Well, sir, you must be born again.” And there it was. I knew it. He was one of those guys. He was one of those “born again” preachers that had everything all messed up. So I thought I would be clever (but I was probably just trying to be sarcastic), and I said, “Yeah right. How is a person supposed to be born again if he is already born? What, am I supposed to crawl back into the womb and go through birth again? I think you are little confused there buddy.” Well, at least I was confused.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t upset at all with my very rude remark. In fact, he smiled smugly and replied, “No sir. A person must be born again of water and the Word to enter the kingdom of God.” He was talking about something you all know about and have witnessed many times—baptism. That explanation made a little more sense to me. But he could tell I was still confused about what exactly he taught people.
Then he made one of those obscure references that he was famous for. Right out of the blue he brought up an incident with Moses that you heard earlier this morning. The reference was to how God used his great power and Moses to bring the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt by leading them through the middle of the Red Sea on dry ground, providing fresh water from a rock, and dropping food for them from heaven. Then, despite all that God had done for them, they still complained and proclaimed that they would rather have been slaves in Egypt than die in the desert. So God punished them. He sent dozens of poisonous snakes that slithered their way through the Israelite camp and began to bite many people. Israelites were dropping dead left and right. So those thankless Israelites learned their lesson and turned back to God and cried out for his help. Then Moses raised up a bronze snake on a pole in the desert, and whoever looked at the snake was saved from the powerful death of the real-life snakes.
As I mentioned, I’ve studied the Bible a lot in my life, so I knew that story. And I began to realize what my new acquaintance was trying to do. He was using the reference to the Israelites to remind me of my sinfulness. He was trying to compare their sinfulness to my sinfulness. Well, at first I was a little upset about this tactic. Wouldn’t you be?
Can you imagine if I interrupted the story I’m telling you right now, and tried to compare you to the Israelites? What if I brought up all the times that you complained to the Lord, all the times that you weren’t happy with the way he was operating in your life? What if I confronted you with your sins of pride or arrogance or selfishness? What if I told you that you were just like those Israelites—always holding on to other things as more important than God like kids’ activities, or work, or vacation time? I think that you may feel like I felt on that day—a little bit shocked, and a lot of bit upset! But perhaps you would be upset not so much that I mentioned all of those sins, but upset with yourself that you committed those sins in the first place.
That’s exactly how I felt. The more this great preacher spoke, the more I began to apply his words to my own life, and the more I realized the magnitude of my sinfulness and that I really and truly deserved nothing but eternity in hell.
I didn’t really know what to say. I felt so empty. I felt so helpless. So I didn’t really say anything. I just waited to see what he would say next. But his next comment was surprising. He spoke comforting words, not words of condemnation. He spoke words I know you have heard before. You’ve seen them held up on signs at football games and other sporting events. Maybe you’ve seen them tattooed on someone’s arm. I know you’ve heard them here at church. In fact, they were part of the gospel today.
With a loving grin and a sparkle in his eye he quietly spoke these words which you just heard earlier: “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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
“It’s that easy,” I asked, “I don’t have to do anything to get into heaven? I only have to believe in this Son of God?” “You are correct,” he replied. It’s hard for me to explain what I felt at that moment. I was both happy and perplexed; overjoyed and yet confused. So I asked him the only question I had left, “Well, who is this Son of God whom I should believe in?”
With the melting smile that reached from ear to ear he said to me, “I am he.”
“You, Jesus, are the Son of God?” He said to me, “Nicodemus, I am the Son of God. I am the one that God sent from heaven. I am the one who will take away all of those sins the Israelites committed. I am the one who will take away all of your sins. I am the one who will be lifted up on a cross just like the bronze snake was lifted up by Moses. And all who look to me and believe in me, just like those Israelites did, shall not perish but have eternal life.”
At that moment it all began to make sense. I started to understand. I finally began to realize why so many people crowded around him and why that group of 12 friends, whom he called disciples, wanted to protect him. Now I knew why he was such a great preacher; why he knew more about Scripture than I, a Pharisee knew; why he had authority to clear out the temple like he did just a few days before we met. I was speaking at that moment with the Son of God, the promised Messiah, the Savior! I can’t tell you what joy filled my heart.
Jesus concluded our conversation with some more picture language, another one of his stories. He compared good and evil, holiness and sinfulness, to light and dark. He said that whoever loves him will stay in the truth. Whoever follows after him will continue in the light of the truth of his Word. Like lighting a candle that brightens an entire room, so will the good works of one that loves Jesus shine brightly in this sin-darkened world.
I think you can really take to heart that picture Jesus painted for me—that picture of our faith shining brightly with the light of his truth. I know I took it to heart. After I left him that night, I was still a little confused about everything, but I was beginning to grasp that this was my Savior. All I know is that I wanted to do everything I could to live a life of thanks to him.
It wasn’t always easy to do that, though. I remember my 2nd encounter with Jesus. Some of my Pharisee and Sadducee colleagues were really giving Jesus a hard time. Jesus had publicly proclaimed that he was the Christ sent from God. Boy did that get them upset. They wanted to kill him right there. But I defended Jesus. For the first time I spoke up on his behalf and tried to defend my faith and beliefs. For the first time I had admitted I was no longer just a Jew, but I was now a Jewish Christian. They didn’t appreciate that very much, but I wanted to let my light shine as Jesus instructed me.
There was a 3rd time that I came into contact with Jesus. It was a rather sad time for me. I think you have probably heard this story before, but I’ll tell it again. Jesus was finally captured by those wicked Jewish people. They handed him over to the ruthless Romans. Jesus was tortured and mocked and spit upon. I was there, but I couldn’t do anything about it. Then I personally watched as they drove nails through his hands and feet. I watched as Jesus suffered in bitter agony every flame of hell which my sins deserved and which your sins deserved. I saw the pain in his eyes as his heavenly Father abandoned him on the cross. I heard him proclaim that all of his work was finished, and then I watched as my teacher, my dear friend, and my Savior gave up his life and died for me.
I was motivated by love and thanks to do whatever I could for my Savior. All of his disciples had fled in fear, so I went to Pontius Pilate and got his permission to take the body. Then another devout believer, Joseph of Aramathea, and I took down Jesus’ body and buried it in Joseph’s tomb. That would have been the saddest day of my life. But three days later he appeared to his followers and he assured us that he had won the victory and that salvation was ours. And he told us that he now wanted us to do his work—to share his message with all people.
I’ll never forget that one quiet and peaceful night in Jerusalem when I went to Jesus in private and asked him about his teaching. All I wanted was to see what everyone was talking about. Now I know what they were talking about—our Savior. You may be a little jealous that I got to see him in person, that my life was changed in such a way. But don’t be. You see him every day. You see Jesus and hear him speak when you sit down and read your Bibles. You witness him suffer and die for you, just as I did in person. You, too, are a witnesses of his work through your eyes of faith. Jesus changed my life. Jesus has changed your life. He has brought us from the status of sinners to saints. Now share that message with others. God changed me. God changed you. God will change them, too.