Unexpected Jesus #8 - Is Goodness Enough?
Josiah Leuenberger, Member of the Life Stage Ministry & Director of Young Adult Ministry, looks at the first half of John chapter 3 and thinks about the question "What does God want from us?"
Well, good morning. Welcome to Orchard Hill. It is great to be together. My name is Josiah and I serve here on our adult ministries team, and if you were here at the beginning, you heard Mike Hatch say on our community news that if you are new we are so glad to have you with us, and we would just hate it if you left here and you didn't get to meet anybody. So stop by our gathering place after the service. We'd love to meet you there. And there's one thing I also want to make you aware of: this season leading up to Easter, Lent, we have a special Wednesday night series going on, and that is in our chapel on this far side of the building, and it is on Wednesday nights at 7:00. I want to tell you, I've thought this series has just been so helpful to me personally in preparing my heart for Easter, so if you haven't been yet, we'd love to have you join us. That's this Wednesday night at 7:00, 7:00 in the chapel.
So why don't we have a word of prayer together and then we'll get into the message? Would you pray with me? Father, thanks for this opportunity to be in your house and to sing praise to you for who you are and what you've done, and what we do here together is so different from anything else during the week, but we come here to have an experience of your presence. And so, in this time we ask that you would give our hearts and our minds the attention to your word that you deserve. We invite your Holy Spirit to be among us. Would you speak to us in a way that is transformative? And we ask this together in Jesus' name. Amen.
Well, you saw that video of Attaleigh on the street asking people the question, what do you think it is that God wants from people today? Just a light question, I'm sure people ask you that on the street all the time, right? What does God want from people today? And of course, we heard these answers all across the board. We heard civility, self-responsibility. We heard to follow His son. All the way from religious answers to, "It's ambiguous." And I'll bet you didn't hear anything that surprised you, but I do wonder, how would you answer that question if you were the one with the microphone in front of you? What does God want from people today? What does God want from you? Think about that. Take a moment. What does God want from you?
You know, for a good portion of my life, I would have answered that question by saying something like, "God wants me to make my faith the most important thing in my life. God wants me to make the most of the gifts and opportunities He's given me." So as you might guess, Christian faith has been a part of my life for a long time. I am so incredibly grateful. My parents raised me in the church and helped me to come to know Jesus at a really young age, and I am so grateful for them, the spiritual impact they've made on my life to this day. And as I grew older, faith in Christ really was a central part of my life. I remember throughout junior high and high school thinking about what it meant for me to be a Christian in the different places I live my life, in sports, in school, with my friendships and my involvement with the church, and that continued into college. Some of those questions that are on your mind in college, you know, what am I going to do when I graduate? What would my career look like? What kind of person or leader would God have me be in my career? You see, I was eager to make a difference and do what God had made me to do.
I met my wife in college as well, and we became engaged our senior year. I remember thinking about the kind of marriage we wanted. We wanted to be more together than we ever could be for God apart. We were excited about all that was ahead of us. And so we graduated, and those first two years after school, they really held a variety of experiences for us. I began my career in Youth Ministry, and that was a really special opportunity. I had a great time mentoring kids. It was an opportunity to build them up in their own faith, but I wasn't entirely sure that it was the fit. You know that feeling? I didn't feel like I was quite as effective as I hoped I would be, honestly.
And so I made a career change. I was big into track in high school, and so my wife and I moved to the state of Tennessee where I had the opportunity to start coaching as a graduate assistant, and there were things that I absolutely loved about that. Helping athletes develop was a blast. I also really appreciate the opportunity I had as a Christian to connect with some people who would never walk through the doors of a church, have an impact on them in their own journey of faith. It was a really special opportunity, but like I felt with Youth Ministry, I wasn't entirely content coaching either. I often wrestled with wondering, am I doing what God would have me do? Am I making the difference that God would have me make as a follower of Christ?
And so I looked at some of my friends, I looked at the success they were having, and I thought to myself, "If I'm really doing what God would have me do, shouldn't more people know my name? Shouldn't I be more successful at it?" I also said that period of time lined up with being a newlywed, and I don't know, maybe I'm the only one here who's had this experience, but that was very humbling for me as well. You see, I thought I was a pretty good guy until I got married. Marriage has a way of humbling you pretty quick. It opened my eyes to my own self-centeredness in a whole new way. It was hard for me to take. I was trying really hard at everything, and my faith was the most important thing in my life. But where I was at at that point, when I thought about God, I felt like He was disappointed in me, and I was disappointed in myself too.
I doubt I'm the only one of us who's experienced those feelings. And you know, looking back now, it's easy for me to see that somewhere along the line I lost sight of the story, because if you've been in the church before, you know we say the Christian life, it's about God's grace. But at that point in my own life, when I thought about God, I thought about how I was failing to measure up from what He wanted from me. I was constantly evaluating myself, and I felt little peace.
This weekend, we're looking at this story of Jesus and his conversation with Nicodemus, and this is in John chapter 3. This passage, it draws out some of the most essential truths of the Christian life, and what you need to know to understand Nicodemus is that if any one of us ever felt a pressure to perform, whether to God, to ourselves, to the people in our lives, to get it right in our faith, Nicodemus felt that at an exponential level.
In his culture, you see, he was the ultimate religious good guy. He was a member of the Pharisees, the inner circle of the religious elite. He was respected for his maturity. He was admired for his teaching. When people had a spiritual question, Nicodemus was the guy they went to. But today, you see, he's in a very different seat. He comes to Jesus at night, and scholars, they believe that he likely came to Jesus at night for a variety of reasons. First, he certainly would have come because Jesus had gathered a following by this point in his life, and so he wanted Jesus' undivided attention in their conversation. But I don't think that explanation gives us a complete picture. I think that Nicodemus also came to Jesus at night because this is a conversation he would have wanted to keep private.
You see, Jesus was this upstart religious teacher who hadn't gone through the formal religious training centers of their faith, and it was a responsibility for Nicodemus to maintain the purity of Judaism. He was a senior member of the religious establishment, and so what would people think if they saw him coming to Jesus with his spiritual questions? And so Nicodemus comes to speak with Jesus at night, and he's heard about his miracles. He's seen some of these things for himself. He's heard about his teaching, and he recognized that there's something different about Jesus and his whole approach to God, and he wants to know what that is, so different from the practice he's always held, so he engages him in conversation.
Let me pause for just a second. We've got to recognize this is a really big moment for Nicodemus. That video clip that we just saw, it shows Jesus and Nicodemus seated at this table having a water cooler conversation. It's pretty nonchalant. I don't think that's really how this went down. I think, in this moment, Nicodemus has come to Jesus because he is discontent with the approach to God he's always known, and he wants to know if there's more.
You see, up to this point, his life had been all about observation of the law and the prophets. It was about keeping the sabbath and the feast days. It was about practicing the religious rituals of cleansing and sacrifice. For him as a leader, it was about establishing and playing by rules of the community, because you know, sometimes God's law is just not specific enough. We better be safe than sorry. And so Nicodemus, he did the best he could for God. He hoped that it would be enough, and he led others to do the same.
So when he comes to Jesus here, I think he's more than just curious. He's discontent. He wants to know if there's more to God than he's always known. Look at their conversation, John chapter 3 verse 2, Nicodemus says to Jesus, "Rabbi," respectfully acknowledging his authority as a teacher, and that's a real sign of Nicodemus' humility, calling Jesus Rabbi. "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him." And that's just, that's a very clear statement at face value. We see what you're doing. God must be with you. We hear you're teaching. You're clearly sent from Him. But Jesus can see that in making that statement, Nicodemus is also inferring a question. You see, Nicodemus says, "We can see there's something different about you. We see that God's behind you," but what Jesus sees is that Nicodemus is inferring, "So tell me who you are, and tell me what it is about God that you know that I don't, because there's something missing," and Jesus recognizes that, so he answers him in verse 3.
"Very truly, I tell you," which is the ancient Near Eastern way of saying, "Let me be real with you," or, "I'm going to give it to you straight," depending on your generation. He says, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless they are born again," and stick with me here. This is a lot. But when Jesus says to him, "No one can see the Kingdom of God," Nicodemus would have been tracking with him because that phrase, it was common in the Jewish faith as a way of conveying the idea of experiencing God's salvation, seeing the Kingdom of God, experiencing God's salvation. But when Jesus says, "No one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again," Nicodemus thinks, "You lost me."
This would have been new to him, and some of his confusion was merited because the Greek word [foreign language 00:12:17], which is commonly translated again in this passage, actually has more than one meaning in Greek. [foreign language 00:12:24] can mean again, a second time, or it can also mean from above. And so Nicodemus wants to know what Jesus means. Verse 4 he says, "Surely someone cannot enter into their mother's womb and be born a second time."And Jesus' response, "Actually, I do mean a second time, and I do mean from above."
Like I said, this conversation is a big moment for Nicodemus, and I think if you took some time yourself, you could probably look back on conversations in your own life where maybe there was an experience that you were walking through, maybe there were some struggles you were wrestling with when someone came to you with just the right words, and where your heart was at, you could receive those words in a way that made a particularly powerful impact on you moving forward. Maybe it was a conversation with a parent or a teacher, a youth leader or a coach, and I want us to notice this is potentially that kind of moment for Nicodemus if he's ready to receive these words from Jesus, because Jesus is flipping his whole paradigm of what it takes to be right with God on its head here.
He says to him in verses 5 and 6, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they're born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit," and what Jesus is sharing with Nicodemus in a roundabout way here is that the way to God isn't through right religious performance. It's to experience new spiritual life.
He tells him how that happens. You've got to be born of water. And with that statement, again, this would have been a familiar idea to Nicodemus because Jesus is talking about repentance, and water was used for spiritual purification in Jewish rituals in a variety of ways: to symbolize a person's coming to God and recognition of their need, their brokenness, and looking to God for cleansing. Nicodemus was very familiar with that, but when Jesus says here, "You've got to be born of the Spirit," this is new. What Jesus is essentially saying is, if you want to be right with God, the answer is not repent and then focus on what you can do to get right with Him. What Jesus is saying here is repent and be ready to receive what God is doing inside of you.
And so what Jesus' teaching here brings out is the truth that, in our sin state, we are all spiritually lifeless. There's nothing we can do to lift ourselves up, to make ourselves right with God on our own power, and the Prophet Ezekiel, he uses the image of this pile of dry bones just lying there in a heap. He says, "That's what we're like on our own."
And so Jesus says to Nicodemus, "If you want to be saved, you need the life of God to come into you from the outside. You need it to come and live inside of you and to give you new life, and that's not something man can manufacturer." Jesus puts it this way: "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but Spirit gives birth to Spirit." He's saying to become right with God and spiritually alive, we need God's initiating grace to come inside of us through the Holy Spirit, waking us up. And the Prophet Ezekiel, that same passage he says, "When that happens, when the Holy Spirit comes into our lives, it's like God speaking to that pile of bones, 'Come to life.'"
So salvation is a gift from God through and through, and later in chapter 3 here in John, we hear the details of how all people can receive this new life, this new spiritual life and salvation from God personally, and they are words that are so familiar to you if you have been to church. Even if you've lived in this country, it's a part of our culture. They're so deeply entrenched that they've almost become cliche. For God so loved the world that He sent His only son, that whoever believes in Him would not perish, but have everlasting life. That's the good news. And what Jesus tells us here is you may have heard that news with your ears a thousand times, but when the Holy Spirit speaks that to your heart for the first time, everything changes now and forever.
I love the way one theologian unpacks how big of a deal this news is. God, the greatest subject ever, so loved, the greatest affection ever, the world, the greatest object ever, that He gave His one and only son, the greatest gift ever, so that anyone who trusts in Him, the greatest opportunity ever, would not perish, the greatest rescue ever, but have new and everlasting life, and that's the greatest promise ever. Pardon me.
And so back to that opening question. What is it that God wants from people? We tell ourselves so many things. We tell ourselves, "God wants me to be a good person. He wants me to get it right. He wants me to be better," but what God's word tells us here, what Jesus tells us is that before anything else, and more than anything else, God wants us to know that He loves us. He loves us so much that He sent His own son to die for us. That's why Jesus came and laid down his life. God wants us to believe in Him.
The pastor and author Tim Keller describes that truth this way. "The Gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time, we are more loved and accepted in Jesus than we ever dared hope." That's what the Christian faith is all about, and like we saw just a moment ago, when the Holy Spirit speaks that truth to our heart for the first time, everything changes.
I remember a few years ago, my wife and I were living in our town home, and our neighbor right next door to us, he was a single guy, and he moved into the neighborhood new, and as we got to know one another, he shared with me that he'd been going through some really tough stuff in his life. He was recently divorced and not happy about it. He was really struggling in his career, and I could tell that he was really looking for hope. He knew that I was a pastor, and it was important for me to be able to point him to Christ, who is my hope. And so I did. I shared with him my faith, the hope that I have in Jesus that's gotten through me a lot, gotten through ... I've gotten through a lot in life with as a result of that, knowing the peace that comes through Jesus.
And when I shared that with him, he said, "You know, I actually grew up in the church. I've heard this before, and that's nice stuff, but it really hasn't made a difference for me." And so I had that conversation with him actually two or three times over a period of a year, and then nothing really happened for six months. One day I went out to check the mail, and he was there, and he was waiting for me. He said, "Hey, I've been going through a really tough time, and this morning I decided to pray. And after that, I had this feeling where I just wanted to come up to you right now and say, if there's something you want to say to me, just say it." And so I was like, "Well, might as well share the Gospel with him again," and so I did. He started crying, and he said, "This is exactly what my life has been missing," and he committed his life to follow Christ and everything changed.
So we'll celebrate that day with him in Heaven because the good news of God's grace and Jesus changes lives. That's the power of the Gospel. I want to share with you the way that Jesus actually shares that good news of the Gospel with Nicodemus is really cool. He does it using Nicodemus' owns storybook of the New Testament, and if you're following along in your Bible, it's in verses 10 through 15 there of chapter 3.
He says, "Do you remember the story of the Israelites in the desert traveling to the Promise Land and with Moses? And do you remember they were in a difficult place, their journey was long, it was arduous, and so they started to speak against God?" And Jesus says to him, "There was a price to pay for that, do you remember, as judgment to get them back on track? God sent these venomous snakes among them, but God also provided for them salvation in a way out. If they would look to what He provided, God told Moses, 'Make a snake and put it on a pole. Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.' So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived."
And then Jesus looks at Nicodemus and he says, "I think you know your Old Testament, and I think you know who I am." And he says to him, "I'm telling you, just as Moses lifted up that snake in the wilderness, so the son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life."
So you may have heard this message of salvation in Jesus before, that God so loved us that He sent His son to die for us to make us right with Him. Maybe you've heard those words a thousand times, but today, you feel the Holy Spirit stirring inside your heart to believe for the very first time that the good news is good news for you. Maybe that's happening in your life today. If that's you, there's nothing I would love more than to have a conversation with you after the service. I know the same is true for any member of our ministry team. You can head to the gathering space for that as well. It's a huge moment in your life, and we'll celebrate with you for all eternity.
Or maybe you're here this morning and you're in a place like I was in that story I shared earlier, where you have been a Christian for maybe a long time, but you've lost sight of the story. You've been living in a way where you're taking the Gospel for granted. You know what finally got me back on track with remembering how big of a deal God's grace is? It's Christian community. God put people in my life, some pastors, some Christian friends who cared about me enough to have some difficult, honest conversations with me about some things that I was forgetting. They help me to see that I drifted from remembering how completely I am in need of God's grace. That's where we all are, apart from Jesus. As a result of minimizing my sinfulness, I'd been living like I was pretty much a good guy who just needed to try harder to please God. I'd taken God's grace for granted and made my faith about me.
There's a visual I want to share with you now that I've found really helpful in understanding how we can keep God's grace central in our minds as believers. Check it out. It's called The Cross Chart. It's an illustration of the Christian life, and what you see is two diverging lines, one representing our human sinfulness, and the other, God's holiness. When we become aware of those two realities, God's holiness and our sinfulness, and then God works in our hearts so that we believe in Jesus as the one He sent to die on the cross to bridge that gap, we have new life in Him. That's the point of conversion.
At conversion, that moment we confess our need and we trust in Christ, our salvation is a done deal. God puts His Holy Spirit inside of us to sustain us, and His word promises He will never disown Himself. However, what that Cross Chart does show us is that if our view diminishes of how broken we are and how holy God is, our appreciation for the cross can shrink and we can find ourselves taking it for granted.
At different times in my life, I've taken my eyes off that plot line, and I'll bet many of you can relate. When we do, we tend to turn inward, and we make a big deal of ourselves. We tend to run on that hamster wheel of performance. We tend to make a big deal of things that don't really matter in our lives together. But what gets us back on track in those moments is remembering the truth and returning to the Gospel, because it really is a message that's powerful to transform us at every stage of our journey of faith.
I want to share with you three different pairs of contrasts again from that author Tim Keller, whose quote I read earlier, that show the difference the Gospel makes in our everyday lives. The Gospel is so applicable to us in so many different areas, and so first when it comes to our self-view, he writes, "In religion, my self-view swings between two poles. If and when I'm living up to my standards, I feel confident. If and when I'm not living up to standards, I feel insecure and inadequate. I'm not confident. I feel like a failure. But with the Gospel, my self-view is not based on my view of myself as a moral achiever. In Christ, I am simultaneously sinful and yet accepted. I am so bad Jesus had to die for me, and I'm so loved he was glad to die for me.
"And when it comes to my own identity and self-worth in religion, my identity and self-worth are based mainly on how hard I work or how moral I am. But with the Gospel, my identity and self-worth are centered on the one who died for me. I'm saved by sheer grace. Only by grace I am what I am."
And when it comes to performance, he says, "In religion, since I look to my own pedigree or performance for my spiritual acceptability, my heart manufacturers idols. It may be my talents, my moral record, my personal discipline or social status. I absolutely have to have them. So they serve as my main hope, meaning, happiness, security, and significance, whatever I may say I believe about God. But with the Gospel, I have many good things in my life, family, work, spiritual disciplines, but none of these things are ultimate to me. None of them are things I absolutely have to have, so there's a limit to how much anxiety, bitterness, or despondency they can inflict on me when they are threatened and lost."
You see, the good news of God's grace, it doesn't just give us hope for eternity. It gives us hope that begins in the here and now. This message of Jesus Christ gives us such freedom. It gives us new life if we'll keep Jesus at the center, and I am so grateful that in the moments that I've lost the story, God has put people in my life that could point me back to Him. We all need that kind of community, and I want to say to you, if you're looking for those kind of friendships, people who can point you to Jesus when you need a reminder of the truth and you can't do it for yourself, we would love to help you find that kind of community here at Orchard Hill.
You know, I've only been here for a year, so I certainly can't even begin to take credit for this, but something I absolutely love about this church is that we often say the story of Orchard Hill will be told in the changed lives of people. I love that, and you know why? Because we're not saying we're just that awesome. We're a church that's committed to pointing one another towards Jesus, and Jesus changes lives.
If you want to get connected in those kind of life transforming relationships, we would love to help you do that. You know, a life group is an awesome place to start. Life groups are groups of 8 to 12 people here at Orchard Hill, some of them a little larger, some a little smaller, and we have them for men, we have them for women, we have ones for couples, and they meet weekly for Bible study to build relationships, to pray, to discuss the message and to dig into scripture. We'd just love to help you get connected in one, and next Sunday after each service we'll have a life group connect event where we can set you up with a group where you can get plugged in with those kind of relationships. We'd love to help you get set up.
You know, today's passage is a really big one. When I was preparing for this, there were probably three or four different subtopics where I thought, "You know what? I need to address that," but there's really only one thing I hope you'll remember from today, so I'm going to say it one more time and then I'm going to sit down. What does God want from you? Before anything else and more than anything else, He wants you to know that He loves you. He loves you so much that He sent His son to die for you. That's why Jesus laid down his life on the cross, so that you would believe in Him and be with God forever. So let's put our trust in Jesus. Let's keep our eyes on the cross. Would you join me in prayer?
Father, we thank you for your word and the way that it points us to a lasting hope. Father, our hope is not in what we can do to get right with you through our merit, through our work, through our performance, through rituals. Father, the way to you is you coming to us in the midst of our lostness, reaching out to us and making us alive when we were just a pile of dry bones. We thank you that you love us so much that you send your Holy Spirit to wake us up, God, to make us aware of our need, and you point our eyes to Jesus. And so if there's someone in here, God, where that's happening for the first time, I pray that you would give them the gift of faith to trust into you. And for, Father, every one of us who's lost sight of this story, I pray that you would speak to our hearts, that we would continue to trust you for all of our days, that we would never put ourselves at the center of the story, but that we would know that the good news of Jesus is good news for us now and forever. It's your performance on our behalf that makes us who we are, and we rejoice in that. We thank you and we pray this together in Jesus' name. Amen.