John 3:1–17 There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these miraculous signs you are doing unless God is with him.”
3Jesus replied, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
4Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
5Jesus answered, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God! 6Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh. Whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be surprised when I tell you that you must be born from above. 8The wind blows where it pleases. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9“How can these things be?” asked Nicodemus.
10“You are the teacher of Israel,” Jesus answered, “and you do not know these things? 11Amen, Amen, I tell you: We speak what we know, and we testify about what we have seen. But you people do not accept our testimony. 12If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven, except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven.
14“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
On Wednesday morning, Shoreland Lutheran High School senior, Cameron Nahf, and his sophomore brother, Caden, were driving to school for their exams. Half a mile from the school, the car careened off the road and struck a tree. Caden was flown by Flight for Life to the hospital with life-threatening injuries. He is expected to recover.
Cameron died at the scene.
The Shoreland student body was told the news during their chapel service that morning. Understandably, they were in shock. Shoreland Federation pastors were there after chapel to help counsel and console the students.
I’m sure there were plenty of questions that raged through the minds of the students all day Wednesday.
Where were God’s angels who were supposed to be protecting Caden and Cameron?
How could God allow something like this to happen to the Napf family?
God says everything works for our benefit. How could this possibly be for our benefit?
But the biggest questions would have been around the word “Why?”
Why would God let this happen?
Why take Cameron in such a tragic way?
Why only a few days before his graduation?
The students, especially the seniors, would have been asking these questions on Wednesday of their pastors, teachers, and friends at school. They would have been asking these questions in the afternoon with their parents. They would have been asking these questions at night of their friends on Snapchat. But, I think, the biggest, toughest, most challenging questions were left for private in their prayers at night to God.
Nicodemus also has lots of questions of God. So, he comes to Jesus, the Son of God, at night. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a teacher of the Jews. Nicodemus is a rabbi who comes to see the Rabbi, Jesus. He comes in the darkness to the One who is the Light, for he is seeking light.
Perhaps Nicodemus has heard Jesus’ sermons in the synagogues or on the hillsides. Perhaps he has witnessed some of Jesus’ healing miracles. Certainly, Nicodemus has heard accounts of Jesus’ powerful teachings and wondrous miracles. He doesn’t really know what to ask Jesus. His head is full of questions. He breaks the ice by saying a few flattering things to Jesus. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these miraculous signs you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
Nicodemus is a highly educated, dedicated, and sincere seeker of the truth. That’s why he goes to Jesus. He goes to Jesus at night because he is a respected Pharisee and does not want to risk losing that respect by being seen with Jesus. From early on in His ministry, Jesus was not popular with the Pharisees. But, Nicodemus respects Jesus. That’s why he compliments Jesus as being a teacher from God.
Jesus did not come to receive compliments. He came to save souls. That’s why He immediately changes the direction of the conversation by saying, “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Nicodemus asks a follow-up question that night, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?”
Jesus must have known that Nicodemus, like the rest of the Pharisees – like the rest of us – thought he was living a pretty good life on his own. That he could reach God and acquire the Kingdom of God by living an outwardly good life. But Jesus says, “No way. If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you need to be recreated, reborn from above.”
God the Father formed us in the womb. But, because we were born of our parents, we were born sinful, born corrupt, and born spiritually dead. King David puts it succinctly and accurately, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). But, our Triune God loves us too much to allow us to languish as dying souls during this lifetime, until we suffer an eternal death in hell.
Our Triune God created a way of salvation. Just as the new world was created through water and the Holy Spirit, so we are created new through water and the Spirit. “Amen, Amen, I tell you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)!
The first birth in the flesh will not save us. Our birth into sinful flesh actually condemns us! We need a second birth – a birth of water and the Spirit. This is Holy Baptism.
In Baptism, the Holy Spirit takes our dead flesh and breathes new life into it. He replaces our inborn unbelief with a living faith in the Son of God as our Savior. Baptism takes all the blessings of salvation that Christ won through His humble birth, perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection and applies them directly to us.
Jesus is teaching all of us that if we are to be born of God, God must do it. If we are to have eternal life, God must give it. If we are going to rise to God, God must first come down to us. When it comes to your spiritual life, you had nothing to do with it.
We are so sinful and so dead in that sin that we must be reborn. Spiritually speaking, your first birth was a stillbirth. You were born in the darkness, like Nicodemus. All the sins that bug you, or don’t bug you, those are the symptoms of your stillbirth. You may have topped the charts when you were born. You may have been bigger, longer, smarter, brighter, and cuter than all the babies in the nursery, but you were born into the death of your father Adam. And you inherited your father Adam’s sin. Flesh begets flesh, and sinful flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. You can’t fix your flesh. You must die and rise. You must be born anew.
You must be born from above. Not a second birth in the flesh (who would want to go through that a second time?). But a new, heavenly, spiritual birth, this time of the Holy Spirit. You must be born from above, where Christ came. Your first birth made you a child of father Adam. Your new birth in Jesus makes you a child of God.
There is nothing we can do to be born from above, in order to have spiritual life. It is all the work of another. It is all the work of God, by water and the Spirit. It is life given, not chosen. It is life received, not achieved.
The Triune God connects Baptism with this wonderful scriptural truth: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten 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” (John 3:16,17).
This is God’s purpose for you – that you would not perish and be lost eternally but be saved and receive eternal life.
“For God so loved the world.” How could God love a world so far from Him, so dead from Him, so unwilling and unable to believe in Him? I don’t know. God just does! Isn’t that the Gospel in a nutshell?! God loves the unlovable! God saves the damnable! God rescues those who hate Him and want nothing to do with Him. God recreates those who are dead and makes them alive through water and the Spirit. Here is the key – God loves us in Jesus.
That’s the answer to all of our questions. Whether we are asking those questions in the shock of a morning announcement, the haze of the afternoon or the silence of the evening. All of our questions – how could this happen; what good can come of this; where were God’s angels before this tragedy; when will the hurting stop; and why, just … why. They are all answered with these 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.” That right there, that is the answer to any question we can ever ask of God.
Even though my daughter, Miriam, is a senior at Shoreland, I don’t think I ever met Cameron. But still, whenever I thought of him, I became misty-eyed and mournful. But, the theme of the prayer service was “Fix your eyes on Jesus.” Personally, when I took my eyes off of Cameron and put them back on Jesus, my eyes immediately dried up and my heart was filled with joy.
I attended the prayer service that Shoreland held on Thursday morning in response to Cameron’s death. Because I was going to be counseling students after the service, every few minutes I looked up into the stands where the students – especially the seniors – were sitting. There were a lot of red eyes, sniffling noses, and tears. But, I noticed and felt something as the hour-long service progressed. The two pastors on the faculty, Pastor Bauer and Pastor Brug, did a wonderful job of presenting resurrection comfort through Scripture readings, devotions, prayers, and resurrection hymns.
Throughout the prayer service, I felt a calm and peace that was being breathed upon the faculty, adults, and students. It was a peace that the world cannot give (John 14:27). Rather, it was a peace that is beyond understanding (Philippians 4:7). A peace that comes only from the Father, through the Son, applied by the Holy Spirit. A peace that comes from Jesus loving us so much that He died and rose to open heaven to sinners like us.
That peace came upon us as Pastor Bauer and Brug reminded us that Cameron was now blessed with heaven. How could this happen? The whole reason why we have a Lutheran church home, a Lutheran grade school and Lutheran high school! So that Cameron could be born again through water and the Spirit in his Baptism; so that the Holy Spirit could keep him in the Christian faith through Word and Sacrament as he was confirmed at Bethany Lutheran Church in Kenosha; so that the Lord could take him to heaven because of the faith that the Holy Spirit had placed into his heart in a God who loved Cameron enough to die and rise for him.
Yesterday’s graduation service at Shoreland was very difficult. Yet, we mourn not for Cameron, but for his family and friends. They are going to miss him terribly. But, we are not mourning for Cameron. He’s not missing out on anything! What Cameron is enjoying now – that’s meant for all of us. Through water and the Spirit. Through a God who loves us so much that the Son of God was born, bled, died and rose for us. So that we might not perish, but receive eternal life.
John 3:16 – the answer to all our nighttime questions. Amen.