The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/16/14
Text: John 3:1-17
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I heard a story.(1) A young man came to the door of a monastery with a large duck in his arms. His uncle, who happened to be one of the monks, answered the knock. "Here, Uncle, this is a gift for you and the others. Eat it in good health." The uncle was very grateful, and that night, with the duck dressed and stuffed, he and the others enjoyed a generous repast.

A few days later, another knock came on the monastery door. "I am a friend of the nephew who brought you the duck. I have been a bit down on my luck lately, and I wonder if I might impose on you for a bite to eat and a place to sleep for the night?"

"Of course, my son, you are most welcome." And that night, he joined the monks for some warm duck soup.

A few days later, another knock on the door. "Hi, l am a friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck. Could I impose on you for a bit of hospitality?" He too was welcomed... more duck soup.

A few days more went by. Another knock. "Hello, I am a friend of the friend of the friend of the nephew who brought the duck." That night at dinner he was presented with a steaming hot bowl of water. He tasted it, looked up, and asked, "What's this?"

"Well, this is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck that my nephew brought."

As I heard the story I was struck by the similarity of that experience and the way so many come to Christianity. It is often second, third, or fourth hand, and ends up exceedingly watered down. Sad.

I wonder if that might not have been Nicodemus' problem. For a good Jew, he seems very mainline Protestant to me. He was financially secure (as are most mainline Protestants). He was a leader in his community (as are many of you). He understood matters of religion as doing, not just feeling, that what we believe determines how we behave (the same as we do). He was intellectually curious, not content to blindly accept things"Fop without investigation...a thinker (just like most mainliners). Nicodemus was an admirable fellow, but there was something lacking in his life, so one night he came to talk to Jesus. We read the account in the 3rd chapter of John's gospel, a portion of scripture that, within just a few verses, includes one of the most beloved promises of the Bible - in the language of the King James Version that nurtured so many of us, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life" (what Martin Luther called "the gospel in a nutshell") just a few verses after one of the most confusing statements of the Bible as Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." More about that in a minute.

In a way, Nicodemus' visit itself was remarkable. Of course, word had spread everywhere of the incredible impact of this Nazarene. But some of Nicodemus' good friends and fellow "Methodists/Presbyterians/Lutherans/Episcopalians/etc." had been terribly disturbed at some of the goings-on - the crowds that were attracted to Jesus, this preacher's obvious dislike of what was then the mainstream religious practice, and all this talk about miraculous signs and wonders. One part of Nicodemus told him to avoid this Jesus like a bad sheckel, but another part could not be content with that - the stories of crippled legs made strong, of withered arms made straight, of blind eyes restored to sight came too frequently to ignore. So Nicodemus came and, as the two sat quietly together, he shared his sense of unease with Jesus. "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him."

Reading between the lines of the Gospel account, there must have been further conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus, words or gestures from this Jewish "Methodist" that fairly shouted out his sense of the inadequacy of his own religious experience. Clever teacher that he was, Jesus made that confusing statement that would be certain to provoke further thought. He said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (or depending on the translation you use, "born anew," or "born from above" - all are legitimate).

"Now wait a minute, Teacher. You have done a lot of miracles, but this is one even YOU cannot manage. People cannot be born again when they are old!"

Jesus replied, "Oh yes, they can. Just as they once began life physically, they can begin spiritually...and if they do not, they will never really experience the presence of God in their lives."

The look on Nicodemus' face must have been quizzical. It was obvious that he was still trying to sort out what he had just heard. The example of birth was plain enough - every life has to start somewhere, even the spiritual life. But good analytical, "Methodist" Nicodemus wanted to know more. "How does it happen?"

Jesus explained. "There are some things that we know but we do not know ABOUT. The wind, for example. It blows whenever and wherever it wants. It came from somewhere, it goes somewhere. We see and feel what it does. It defies explanation. It is the same with the new birth. It simply happens."

Now, take a giant mental leap...ahead twenty centuries, out of that Judean courtyard and into a living room in coastal South Carolina warmed by a cozy fireplace (after all, it is still too chilly at this time of year for the courtyard). Imagine a conversation with a 2014 Nicodemus. Imagine you are he. You have come to church for years. You went through the confirmation class just like the other twelve-year-olds. You stood up before the congregation and answered "I do" when the pastor asked if you acknowledged yourself to be a sinner and if you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. You had to say "I do" or you would have looked like a fool and your parents would have grounded you for months. But the words were just that...words. That was many years ago. Now you have grown up and even though you have always thought of yourself as a Christian, a feeling inside says that you have been missing something. You have been living on the faith of the faith of the faith that someone once told you you ought to have. So one evening you come to a respected friend for some answers. "You are a Methodist just like me. But your religion is different from mine. You seem to have a sense of peace and joy that I have never experienced. I don't understand. Help me. How do I become a Christian like you?"

Your friend replies. "Nick, the place to begin is at the beginning, and the best way to explain is with an analogy. Once upon a time you were going on your merry way, muddling through without help from anyone. But then you met...a lady. She treated you well...kind, gentle, caring, and so on. You continued to spend time with her. You got to know her. Then one day you realized that, to you, life without her would not really be living. This woman was different from any you had ever known, and something was born in you that made you feel that from that moment you wanted to spend your life with her.

Can you explain all that? Can anyone explain love? Of course not. It just happens. And frankly, if you had waited for an explanation you would never have taken the next step. One day you took a leap of faith - you declared your love for her and asked her to become your wife. She accepted, and since then it has been happily ever after. Oh, ups and downs, of course, but the love you felt in your salad days has grown and matured into something that is very real but equally inexplicable.

"Now, Nick, move that thought up a notch. You have met Jesus and, like most everyone else, agree that this is a remarkable man, regarded by all with respect and admiration. After all, the Bible says he was God in the flesh. But something about him is vaguely disquieting. His perfect example, his way of gracefully meeting even the worst that life has to offer, sets a standard for humanity that you do not meet. But you would like to. Something is born in you that makes you realize that you want to know him more. That is what Jesus meant so long ago when he told another Nicodemus, 'You must be born again.'

"You spend more time with him, get to know him even better. Finally, you take another leap of faith. You make a commitment. You say, `Lord. I know I am not all I should be, but I believe you can help me. Starting now, I want you in my life.' It is that simple."

You still look quizzical. "I am still not sure I understand it all," you say.

"Don't worry," your friend says, "this is something better experienced than understood...just like falling in love and getting married."

"But this seems TOO simple. Really being a Christian means upholding certain standards, acting in an ethical way, being a decent citizen, trying to correct the abuses and injustices of society. Doesn't it?"

"Well, yes and no," your friend answers. "Think again about your relationship with your wife. You have been married a long time now. The love the two of you have for one another is as strong, if not stronger than ever, but it is different from those early days. As you have grown together you have both matured. You probably treat each other differently now than back then - you think more alike now so the questions you might have asked in the beginning are no longer necessary; you have more common interests and concerns now (your children, for example), so you are more inclined to want to do the same things; you know what makes each other angry or uncomfortable, so you automatically avoid those things. All that is NOW. But to get to NOW, you had to have a then - you had to BEGIN somewhere...(Bridal Chorus)... and then came the growing and learning together. Had you skipped the beginning, there would have been no growing and learning. Sure, certain behavior is appropriate for a Christian, just as it is for a husband, but it all has to begin somewhere."

Your friend continues. "Perhaps that is why Jesus used the words `born again.' There had to be a beginning of the relationship between you and your wife, just as there has to be a beginning to your relationship with the happens...just as when you first came into this world. That was not your doing, and neither is this. Your spiritual beginning is the wonderful gift of a gracious God."

"I don't know," you say. "I am still kind of stuck on all this `born again' talk. So-called `Born-again Christians' have always turned me off."

"No problem," responds your friend. "If all that is keeping you from making this leap of faith is words, CHANGE the words. Instead of calling yourself a `born-again' Christian, substitute something like a `BEGUN Christian.' It says the same thing. In fact, in this day and age it might even be more helpful. After all, birth is not an end, it is a beginning, the first halting movements on the road to maturity. If you and I simply call ourselves `BEGUN Christians' then we might take more seriously the fact that we have a long way to go.

"Nick, you HAVE begun. That is why you would have your questions in the first place. Now, if you are not content to be a perpetual spiritual infant and you want to grow, good. You can start with a simple prayer. `Lord Jesus, I know I am not what I ought to be, and I hardly imagine what I CAN be. But I want to get on with it.' That is how you begin to become the Christian you would like to be.

Now, take one more mental leap, out of that living room and back to the pew. You have already taken steps to spiritually grow simply by getting out of bed and getting yourself to church on a Sunday morning - you could just as easily have slept in. But, no. You are here. But like old Nicodemus, you want even more, not content to live on the faith of the faith of the faith that someone once had. You want something vibrant and alive.

Perhaps you DID make such a prayer once long ago, but in all the hurry and scurry of modern life, you let the once joyous relationship you had with your Lord slip to the side. Just like husbands and wives who grow apart through the years through lack of communication. Perhaps you need a new beginning.

Here we are in Lent, that special period of the church year during which we examine ourselves and our faith. If that process of examination is leading you to say with Nicodemus that you want more, fine. You have come to the right place. If you would like to become a BEGUN Christian or even a Begun-AGAIN Christian, I invite you to pray silently along with me.

"Lord Jesus, I know I am not what I ought to be, and I hardly imagine what I CAN be. But I want to get on with it."


1. This is a somewhat revised sermon by Dr. David Leininger included in Best Sermons, IV, (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 1991). Reprinted by permission.

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