There’s a wonderful contrast between how a baptized baby enters the kingdom of God and how Nicodemus tried to enter it. When babies are baptized they’re born again, born from heaven. They don’t come to Christ by their own reason or strength, obviously, because they’re weak and don’t have the use of their reason, but the Holy Spirit calls them by the Gospel, puts the name of God on them, makes them children of the Father through faith in His Son, all while they lay there, helpless sinners without contributing a thing. And again and again Jesus’ words are fulfilled, “Unless you are converted and become like little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” Nicodemus on the other hand came to Jesus because his reason convinced him to come. He came not like a child, but like a man. He clearly hadn’t heard Jesus’ Word. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit who called him. It was his own reason. He’d figured it out. He admits it: “We know you are a teacher come from God, because no one can do the signs you do unless God sent him.” You see his reason working here: Jesus does amazing signs – heals the sick, gives sight to the blind; no one can do these things unless God sent him; therefore God sent Jesus. But reason got it wrong. It couldn’t go any further than Nicodemus went. And so when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again, that he must be born from heaven by water and the Spirit, Nicodemus can’t understand, his reason fails him. This isn’t what he expected.
It’s not what anyone expected actually. No one denied Jesus was a miracle worker. This is one of the great ironies of the Bible. Even Jesus’ enemies admitted it. There was simply no denying it. Everyone saw the miracles. It’s not a statement of faith, but a statement of fact when we say Jesus was a miracle worker. When Jesus called himself the good shepherd, the crowd took up stones to throw at him, and Jesus responded, “Many good works I have shown you from My Father. For which of those works do you stone Me?” And the Jews answered Him and said, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” So they don’t even try to deny the miracles. Instead they’re angry that He claims to be God. The same thing happens at his trial. No one denies the miracles. Herod tries to get him to perform another one. And even when Jesus casts out demons, they don’t say, “He’s faking it.” They admit he does it, but they accuse him of doing it by satanic power. So with Nicodemus, he knows, as does everyone, that Jesus does miracles, and his reason has led him to conclude that Jesus is a very great man, a prophet, sent by God. What has his reason not led him to? To conclude that he, Nicodemus, is so alienated from God, that in order to enter into God’s presence, in order to know Him and love Him, he must become a new creature, be born again by water and the Spirit, and for this purpose God has come into the world to earn him this new birth.
For this, Nicodemus needs Jesus’ words. And this is what we all have to realize in our day. I’m glad Nicodemus saw Jesus’ miracles. I’m glad the other Pharisees saw them too, that thousands upon thousands experienced them, and I’m especially glad that so many witnessed His resurrection from the dead. But none of these miracles would mean anything unless Jesus’ words convince us of what they mean. And so, far more precious to us, far greater a treasure, than to see miracles with our own eyes is to have these words of Jesus still, which tell us who our God is and give us new birth by His Spirit. This is why Jesus says, “Blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” Why he says, “Blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it.”
But the word offends. The miracles didn’t. Who’s offended at Jesus feeding thousands with five loaves of bread or Jesus giving sight to the blind? No one’s offended at that. If that’s all Jesus did, they’d love him, they’d have made him king, as they tried to do early on. It’s when Jesus opens his mouth that people object.
That’s what we see with Nicodemus. Nicodemus is a ruler among the Pharisees, a very important person. And he comes at night to Jesus because he’s afraid what others will think of him. He doesn’t want to associate with him in public, because it might hurt his reputation. If he knew God rightly, he’d bow before Jesus in public, as we will all do on the Last Day. But Nicodemus has no thought of Jesus being God. He thinks he knows God. He thinks he’s already in His Kingdom. He’s forgotten that he’s not above the prophet Isaiah, who when He saw God lifted high on His throne, cried out in despair, “Woe is me, for I have a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, and I have seen the Holy One of Israel!” He has forgotten that he is not above Isaiah who required God’s forgiveness to calm his terror and make him worthy to stand before God and live.
So Jesus reminds him. Let me tell you what your reason could never have figured out, what your sinful reason will hate to hear. You must be born again, born from God, to enter into His Kingdom. You must be born of water and the Spirit. The Son of God must be lifted up on a cross and die to win your access to God. Your flesh is corrupt beyond telling. It cannot come into the presence of God. And there is nothing you can do to change that. You can’t rid yourself of your sin. Your reason won’t help you. You need me. You need my Father. You need our Spirit. Unless we work for you and on you, you will die in your sins.
This is where God has to change the way we think. Nicodemus came to Jesus because he saw marvels, wonders, amazing things that showed off the power of God. And now Jesus tells him to have water poured on his head and that access to the Kingdom of God is gained by a man dying on a cross. It’s the opposite of power, the opposite of glory. It’s weakness and humility. Here reason, all our thinking about what is good, what we deserve from God, what kind of god God should be, what He should do for me if He were a good god, all of it must submit to the humble words of Jesus and learn that no one gets to tell this God what to do or how things are. He is the eternal God, the source of everything good, who is truth and beauty and goodness itself. Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and his ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.
This is, in fact, what God made us to do. Listen to His word. Delight in it. Believe it. Our reason and our emotions were never meant to operate independently. They were never meant to figure stuff out all by themselves. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden, heard him teach them, and the reason God gave them learned from everything He said, loved it, trusted it. The violent rupture of sin is that our mind and our feelings have separated from the very source of their knowledge and their joy, from God. And the only way to heal that rupture is for God to come to us in His grace and mercy.
This is what God does in Baptism. He gives us rebirth. That’s not just a fancy theological phrase. It means God has actually accomplished something in Baptism. God has directed our minds, which were born totally ignorant of God, as ignorant as Nicodemus, He’s directed our minds to Him, to expect good things from Him, to learn who He is, to love and trust in Him, to repent of the sin that still exists in us, to hate it and to run to our Lord Jesus for forgiveness. In other words, we were born again precisely in order to keep hearing God’s Word. To be baptized means to have what Nicodemus with all his stature and all his smarts could never gain. The Kingdom of God. And realize that the kingdom of God again is no abstraction, no religious throwaway phrase. It means God is actually ruling over us, forgiving us, guarding us, protecting us from the devil, joining us to Jesus in beautiful union, and God will continue to do so by His Word, only by His Word, which through our Baptism has become our heritage, our birthright. So listen to Jesus always. Your soul will be restless without His Word.
Because this Word reveals God to us. The Holy Trinity. Love itself. Our source and our goal. A God no reason could think up. A God who created us, our reason, our senses, all to know and love and trust in Him. The God who when we sinned and fell short of His glory, when the devil ripped our minds and feelings away from God and our neighbor and toward ourselves and our own selfish advantage, did not abandon us as we deserved, but was moved by His eternal love to love those who abandoned Him. He is the Father, who with His Son and the Holy Spirit is one God, who has always loved, the Father the Son, the Son the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeding from that love. From eternity, from before time began, this Father planned our salvation. There was not a time when He did not know you, did not desire to save you, was not willing to give up His greatest treasure to do so. He has always, from eternity, spoken of you and insisted that you belong with Him and not to sin and death and the devil. So the Father willed His Son to join our human race. He commanded Him to be born of a virgin and grow up in innocence to be lifted up on a cross and suffer for us and die for us, to reconcile us to Himself and win us peace with God. And the Son happily consented to bear your pain and punishment, so that he could win you for Himself and His Father and give you His Spirit. And this Holy Spirit has been eager from eternity to create faith in us, to dwell in us, to direct our hearts and minds to the Son who has bled for us, to hear His Word and know that we have entered into the Kingdom of God. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. God grant this to us all in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.