by The Rev. Mark Buetow
St. John 3:1-17
If people believe in God at all, I think there are generally two ways they think of God. On the one hand, they suppose God is a condemning God. They usually think this because they consider themselves better than others. These are the folks who love to see the glorious God of Isaiah who is ready to smite sinners and burn them to ashes. This God is a punisher, just waiting to destroy anyone who doesn't get in line, get on board and behave. Those who have such a God live under the delusion that they had better not do anything to make God angry at them!
The other view of God that people have is almost the exact opposite: God is forgiving. He is merciful. In fact, God is so loving and so caring and so nice, that He would never actually condemn anyone for anything. People who believe in that God would never dare say anything is right or wrong. You can't do anything wrong when God is just going to forgive you. And even if there is right and wrong, it's OK to do wrong, because God is just going to forgive you anyway. Just because He's nice that way. Either God is a vicious and mean God who kills sinners, or He is a free love hippy kind of God who lets anything and everything go on.
And it's funny, too, because if we're talking about our lives, we usually mean the nice God who approves of how we live. And if it's other people doing things we don't like, they get the mean judging God. But I am telling you today, brothers and sisters in Christ, yes, warning you, that if either of those is your God, you will perish eternally. Both of those "Gods" are false gods and believing either way about God will lead you to eternal death.
Jesus says, "The Father did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him." With these words, Jesus teaches us repentance and faith, destroys our sins, and saves us for all eternity. Jesus did not come to condemn us. He came to save us. How? He tells Nicodemus, by being lifted up, that is, on the cross. Jesus saves us by taking our sins away. He saves us by suffering and dying for our sins. He saves us by being lifted up as the serpent in the desert.
When the Israelites were bitten by the punishing snakes, they looked at the bronze serpent and lived. When we sin, when we deny and despise God and scorn and hate our neighbor, we look to Christ crucified and we are saved. It is Jesus who takes away our sins, not by simply making them vanish, as if we don't have sins, but by taking our sins upon Himself and suffering death to rid us of them. Jesus did not come into this world to make a record of our sins, to list our sins, to punish us for our sins, but to show us our sins and then take them upon Himself and carry them to the cross and shed His blood there to wash them away. God the Father doesn't send the Son to pound the nails deeper into our coffins but to release us from sin and death and set us free. In Christ there is no condemnation from God.
So now we don't need to worry about our sins, right? Now we don't have to figure out what our sins are. We don't have to repent because it's all taken care of? We can live however we want and do whatever we want? After all, we're forgiven. No, that's the second wrong view of God we talked about a minute ago.
There IS condemnation for sinners. It's just not Jesus who brings it. The Law that God gives, the Commandments, condemn us. They show us clearly and plainly how we should love God and our neighbor. And the Commandments show us clearly that we do neither. And the Commandments judge plainly that we shall die for our sins. Apart from Jesus, God will damn you. Apart from Jesus there is nothing but the Law. And the Law does nothing but condemn you. You can't try harder to keep the commandments to make up for the ones you've broken. And if you live as if your sins aren't sins, then you despise Christ who died for them and show you would rather be under the Law.
Let me put it to you as simply as I know how: God will deal with your sins in one of two ways. The way of the Law which condemns and punishes. Or the way of Christ who is lifted up for our sins. If you have sins you want to be rid of, then unload them on Jesus. That's His job: to take them away. If you want to hang on to your sins, say they're not sins, then go ahead; but you'll have the Law to answer to. Jesus is teaching us what the world absolutely does not want to hear. In Him, there is no condemnation. Apart from and outside of Jesus, there is nothing but condemnation. No one outside of Christ will survive the judgment against them on account of their sins. No one who is in Christ will suffer the punishment of their sins because it has been taken and laid upon Jesus for your sake.
So the question is, do we want to try to deal with God directly or in and through Jesus? Obviously, if we will be saved, there is no dealing with the Father apart from the Son. So then, how do we get to God? How do we deal with the Son? Does it take special knowledge? Special skills? Special religious piety? Nicodemus thought so. That's why he comes at night to figure out from Jesus what the secret knowledge is that he has to know to get "in" with God. Nick figures that Jesus knows the right stuff to teach him to do to get on God's good side. Nick's got the condemning God going on and needs to figure out how to get past the front door!
But Jesus doesn't play that game. He simply tells Nick that the only way into the Lord's kingdom is to be born again, from above. Nick has no idea what Jesus is talking about because Nick is all about Nick.
Jesus, in telling Nicodemus he has to be born again, is teaching Nicodemus and us, that to be saved from our sins means being born from above, by water and the Spirit. That's right, Holy Baptism. New birth. The womb of the font as we heard last week. A washing of water and the Word by which the Spirit gives us new life, spirit born of the Holy Spirit. It's not something Nick or we can do for ourselves, it's something that must be done to us and given to us by the Spirit.
Which way do you want the Lord to deal with yours sins? If you want the way of the Law, then give it your best shot of thinking that your sins aren't so bad and you aren't doomed by them. The Law, of course, will condemn you. That's the way they live who don't want to repent, who don't want to live in their baptism, who have no reason to be absolved and who don't want Jesus' body and blood. They can keep their sins. On the Last Day the Law of God will be their condemnation. Born of flesh, their flesh will die.
But in Christ, where He is, is no condemnation, but salvation. Form the font, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has rescued you. Absolution declares that you do not stand condemned for yours sins. The gift of the Supper says that Jesus' body and blood are given for forgiveness. With these gifts, you have the Spirit giving you Jesus and He brings you to the Father. Apart from Christ, there is no love of God, no grace, no mercy. Only sin and death. In Christ, where Christ is, in His church, by His gifts, there is no sin and death, only forgiveness, life and salvation.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, either the mysterious and almighty Holy Trinity is for you or He is against you. Outside of Jesus, He can be nothing but your enemy, the one Whose holy Law condemns to eternal death. But the Father sent the Son and the Son did not come to condemn but to give life. In Jesus, that Holy Trinity is all for you. The Father who sends the Son; the Son who becomes man to be lifted up and take away your sin; the Spirit who pours out His gifts upon you in the church.
If your sins are no big deal, then the God of the Law is waiting to show you otherwise. But if your sins terrify you and would condemn you, then the God who is in the flesh in Jesus Christ has already taken care of them. He has been lifted up on the cross and that means the condemnation has passed from you to Him. He has taken all your sins.
And now, filled with the Spirit, you are a son of God – the very God who is once again your Father. If there's ever a doubt, ever a question, just look to the font and your doubts will be answered: Hear again the divine name put upon you: "In the Name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit." All in and by and through and because of Jesus Christ. Apart from Jesus, death. In Jesus, life and salvation. Amen.
The Rev. Mark Buetow is pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church in DuQuoin, IL, and the Internet Services Executive for Higher Things. He edits the Daily Reflections. He is married and father of three.
Created: May 19th, 2008