Sunday's Sermon


"Born of Water and Spirit"

 by Wayne L. Derber, Pastor

May 27, 2018 - Holy Trinity Sunday - B


Sermon text: “Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’” – John 3:5


“By night” Nicodemus came to Jesus.

“By night” Nicodemus paid a visit to this man of Galilee.

“By night” he came when all was dark.

“By night” he entered the house so that no one would see him.

“By night” he talked with Jesus hoping no one would find out.

“By night” Nicodemus came to Jesus.

“By night…”


Nicodemus did not want anyone to see what he was doing.

So he came to see Jesus “by night.”

Nicodemus, after all, was a very religious man…

            a Pharisees…

                  a teacher…

                        a leader of the Jews.

And Nicodemus did not want anyone to know

      that he, who was supposed to have all the answers,

            came to Jesus with some questions.

So it was under the cover of darkness

      that Nicodemus came to Jesus

            hoping that no one would see him.


We can imagine how it all happened.

Arriving at the house “by night,”

      Nicodemus knocked softly on the door.

When it opened to him, he quickly went inside.

The two of them sat quietly together.

Nicodemus shared his questions with him.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;

      for no one can do these signs that you do,

            apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus disregarded the compliment.

      “Very truly, I tell you,” he responded,

            “no one can see the kingdom of God

                  without being born from above.”

This last phrase may also be translated as

            “born anew” or “born again.”


No chitchat.

No idle talk.

Straight to the point.

“…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”


George Whitefield, the great evangelist of the 18th century,

            preached over 300 sermons on this text.

When asked why he did that so often

      his reply was simply,

            “Because, you must be born again!”


Nicodemus didn’t understand what Jesus was talking about.

None of us would have.

So Nicodemus asked Jesus:

      “How can anyone be born after having grown old?

      Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Then Jesus explained:

      “… no one can enter the kingdom of God

                  without being born of water and Spirit.”

“… born of water and Spirit.”


These words remind me of John the Baptist.

He baptized people with water.

People would come to John and repent of their sins.

John would then baptize them…

            he would wash them with water

                  to demonstrate that God was washing away

                        the guilt of their sins.


It was good to be baptized with water.

It was good to have the guilt of your sins washed away.

But it was only “water baptism”

By itself, John’s baptism was insufficient.

John himself realized that.

He told the people:

      “I baptize you with water for repentance,

            but one who is more powerful than I is coming…

      He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit…”  (Matthew 3:11).


The one more powerful than John, of course, was Jesus.

When Jesus was baptized,

            he was baptized with both water and the Holy Spirit.

Immediately after he was baptized in the Jordan River,

            the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus

                  in the form of a dove.


One can repent of one’s sins and be baptized with water.

Water baptism is a human act.

But only God can baptize with his Spirit.


Nicodemus was a very good man.

Not only was he a devout Pharisee, but he was a leader of the Jews.

I am sure that Nicodemus knew the Scriptures inside and out.

He often said his prayers…

            worshipped God on a regular basis…

                  and followed all the religious traditions and customs.


He was a very religious man.

And yet, he must have felt something was missing in his life –

      otherwise he would not have come to Jesus, searching for answers.

Nicodemus was a very religious man

            and yet he still felt empty inside.


Nicodemus reminds me of Martin Luther.

In his early life, Luther tried very hard to make himself

                  into a good and religious person.

For this purpose, he decided to become a monk.

In the monastery he excelled and exceeded

            everything that was asked of him.

If he was asked to pray for one hour a day,

            he would pray for three hours.

If he was asked to perform chores in the monastery,

            he would do the lowest and dirtiest work.

If he was asked to fast one day a week,

            he would fast for two or three days.

If he was asked to confess his sins,

            he would spend hour after hour

                  trying to confess every possible sin he could think of...

            and then return later for more confession.

Luther tried as hard as he could

            to make himself into the most religious person.

He wanted to be the best monk possible.

Luther later commented about his earlier life,

      “If ever a monk got into heaven by his monkery,

            I was that monk.”


Of course, it didn’t work for Luther.

As hard as he tried to be religious and devout,

            he still felt empty on the inside…

                  still felt devoid of God’s Spirit.


Luther later saw the error of his ways.

That why in his “Small Catechism,” he wrote:

      “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort

            believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him,

      But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel...”


“I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort

            believe in Jesus Christ my Lord...”

“I cannot by my own understanding or effort...”

“I cannot…”

“I cannot…”


“But… the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel.”

“I cannot by my own understanding or effort

            believe in Jesus...”

“I cannot... but the Holy Spirit has called me.”


Even with faith, we need the help of the Holy Spirit.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

      “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (12:3).


Jesus told Nicodemus:

      “ one can see the kingdom of God

            without being born from above...

            without being born of water and Spirit.”


It is quite appropriate that we have this episode of Nicodemus and Jesus

            on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

On that long ago day of Pentecost

      the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit

            and were only then able to go out and

                  proclaim the gospel in word and deed.


Human attempts to become religious,

            no matter how determined and well-intended,

                  always fail.

To be a disciple of Jesus, one must be filled with the Spirit.

“One must be born of water and Spirit.”


All of us here today had nothing to do with our first birth.

Our parents conceived us.

Our mothers carried us to full-term.

And when the time came, we were delivered into this world.

We did nothing.

We were born because of our parents.


And there is nothing that we can do to be reborn.

Once again, this is the work of a parent…

            our Father, our heavenly Father.


Jesus wants us to be born again...

      born of the water...

            born of the Holy Spirit...


We can make ourselves become seemingly religious.

We can read the Bible... say our prayers... go to church.

We can do good deeds to help others.

We can be a very religious person… at least outwardly.

But it will not work inwardly.

It did not work for Nicodemus.

It did not work for Luther.

And it will not work with us.


Rather than being filled with good intentions of being religious,

      we need to be filled with the Spirit of God.

We need to be born of water and Spirit.


In order to be born of the Spirit,

      first we have to make room for the Spirit

            in our lives.

We have to open up our hearts to the Spirit…

            ask God to fill us with the Spirit…

                  and be willing to be led by the Spirit.


We have to empty ourselves

            so that the Spirit can blow into our lives.

We have to surrender to God.


Of course, it is our human nature not to surrender to God.

We want to do things our way.

We want to be in control of our lives.

We do not want to turn over control to God’s Spirit.


But sooner or later, some tragedy or hardship comes into our life.

Sooner or later, we are overwhelmed with some difficulty.

Sooner or later, we realize we cannot make it through life on our own.

Sooner or later, we realize that we need God’s Spirit so very much.


When we surrender to God,

      the Spirit comes into our lives

            and we are born again… born children of God…

                  born of the Spirit…

                        led by the Spirit…

                        comforted by the Spirit…

                              encouraged by the Spirit…

                                    guided by the Spirit.


Do you ever wonder about what happened with the people in the Bible

                  who encountered Jesus.

Did their encounter with Jesus make any difference in their lives?

Did they follow him or not?


What ever happened with Nicodemus?

Did he take to heart the words of Jesus?

Did he ever allow the Spirit to blow into his life?

Did he ever become a disciple?

Did he ever become “born of water and Spirit?”


Well, I believe that he did.

The gospel writer John includes an interesting detail

            toward the end of his gospel.


It took place on Friday... the first Good Friday.

All seemed lost.

Jesus hung dead on the cross.

Almost all of his disciples had abandoned him.

Judas had betrayed him.

Peter had denied him.

Most of the other disciples had left him.

They were afraid.

Would the soldiers come for his followers next?

Would they seek to put them to death as well?

No wonder they were terrified and quickly cut their ties with Jesus.

It was the perfectly normal thing to do.


But there was at least one person who was not afraid.

There was at least one person not afraid to let others see

            that he cared for this Jesus.

There was at least one person who put his life on the line

            and let all the world see

                  that Jesus meant a great deal to him.


Listen as the gospel writer John tells what this person did

            on the afternoon of that first Good Friday:

      “Nicodemus, who earlier had come to Jesus at night,

            went with Joseph.

      He brought about seventy-five pounds of myrrh

                  and aloes.

      These two men took Jesus’ body

            and wrapped it with spices in pieces of linen cloth,

            which is how Jewish people bury the dead.

      In the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden.

      In the garden was a new tomb that had never been used before.

      The men laid Jesus in that tomb” (John 19:39-42).


Strange how a person can go full circle.

Strange how the one who came at night now appears in the day.

Strange how the one who once feared what others might think,

      now cares for the dead body of a man crucified.

Strange how the one who didn’t want to be seen with Jesus,

      in seen with him in this fearful hour.

Strange how this person who always played it safe

            risked his life at this dangerous time.


I can’t explain it.

There is no reason on earth why a person would do such a thing...

            would take such a risk... would make such a change...

But perhaps there is a heavenly reason.


Amazing things happen

      when one is born of water and the Spirit.


It happened with Nicodemus.

It can happen with each of us.

And it can happen with all who are...

            born of water and Spirit.