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“Every Journey Begins Somewhere”

A sermon by

The Rev. Dr. Douglas E. Nagel


TEXT: John 3:1-16


“Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to 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 answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?


 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.


 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”


            Every journey begins somewhere. I love those directories in the shopping mall that show a map of the mall.  Right there on the map, they show a star labelled, “You are here.” 


How do they know? Yet, the journey to the store you are seeking begins from that spot.  It is true for all journeys.  Perhaps the most famous story of a journey is The Odyssey.  Odysseus returns home from the Trojan Wars to resume his throne in Ithaca.  His odyssey takes ten years.  It begins with his first step toward home.


            The journey of discipleship is no different.  There are signposts, mile-markers along the way.  Discipleship is a long-term pursuit.  However, if the first step is not taken, the journey never commences.


            What is that first step?  I’m going to start with the conversation Nicodemus has with Jesus described in John 3. 


            Who was Nicodemus?

            Nicodemus was one of those people everyone around admired.  Nicodemus was religious and well-respected.  He was a Pharisee.  Nicodemus was one of 6,000 Jewish men who passionately pursued obedience to the Jewish Law and the rituals of the Jewish religion (cf. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews) Nicodemus was powerful.  He was a member of the Great Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, the ruling court of seventy Jewish men who acted as the Supreme Court for all Jews.  He was an expert in the Law.


Nicodemus was a brilliant and learned man. All Pharisees were required to memorize the Torah, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.


Likely, Nicodemus was a wealthy man. Tradition holds that Nicodemus was one of the three wealthiest men in all of Jerusalem.


Nicodemus had what the world craves. He had wealth, education, respect, power, knowledge, and influence.  He was one of the elite.  He moved in the right circles.  He knew the right people.  He could make things happen.


That makes his conversation with Jesus even more compelling. Does he wish not to be seen by his colleagues and friends?  Is he too busy during the day?  Is he checking out this young preacher and his message as an agent for the Sanhedrin?  Is he personally curious?


We don’t know. We do know that he starts with what he has either seen or heard.  He makes some assumptions. “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.”


This is what Nicodemus thought he knew about God and this Jesus who now sat before him. Either Nicodemus had seen the miracles of Jesus first-hand or else he had gotten his information from a reliable source.  Jesus was an enigma to Nicodemus.  Jesus was outside the norm.  He was not a Pharisee.  He was not a Sadducee.   He was not a scribe.  He was not a priest.  He had no formal training.  Jesus didn’t fit Nicodemus’s understanding of how the world operates.


Jesus was a carpenter from Nazareth.


Yet this Jesus knew the Law inside and out. His teaching captured the spirit of the Law and not the letter of the Law.  Even more incredible, the people were hungry for what he had to say.  They flocked to him in droves.  They hung on his every word.


Nicodemus had reached a conclusion. Surely, God must be at work in this man or else the miracles and healings could not happen.  Nicodemus must have thought to himself, “What am I missing here?  Who is this man?”


I believe Nicodemus was a spiritual seeker.


Many people believe in Jesus without following him. I was one of those.  From the age of two, I was in church every Sunday.  Sunday School was a given from grade one through grade twelve.  Youth group attendance was without question.  In totally relative terms, I was a pretty good kid.  I knew a lot about God.  I knew a lot about Jesus.

The problem was I didn’t know God.  I didn’t know Jesus.  I knew facts.  I knew that Jesus came and died for human sin.  I knew why he had been born.  I believed he had been raised from the grave.  I guess you could say that I was a creedal Christian. 


I ascribed to the right set of beliefs. In late high school, I began to sense that I was missing something.  I had a vague uneasiness that being a Christian was something more than I was getting and doing.


I had assumed I was a Christian because I wasn’t an atheist, a Buddhist, Jewish, or some other brand of religion. My parents were Christians.  Didn’t that make me a Christian, too?  I grew up in the church.  I had been confirmed.  I was a card-carrying member of Third United Presbyterian Church.  Didn’t that count for something?


            In high school, I remember a preacher saying, “Sitting in a church will no more make you a Christian than sitting in a garage will make you a car.”  That troubled me.  Like Nicodemus, was I missing something?  Was there something more?


            Whatever the reason that brought Nicodemus to Jesus by night, Jesus focused on the condition of Nicodemus’s soul. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”


            Some translations render this passage, “born again.” Some render it “born anew.”  The actual word in the Greek, anowthen, would render it “born from above.”  Nicodemus doesn’t seem to understand.  How can a person his age be born again?  How is it possible to enter the mother’s womb a second time?


            Every journey begins somewhere. 


The journey of discipleship begins with spiritual rebirth. It begins with being born anew, born again, born of God, born of the Spirit, or born from above.  R.C. Sproul, the founder of the Ligonier Ministries writes that born-again and Christian are synonymous terms to the extent that to call a person a “born-again Christian, is like calling a man an unmarried bachelor.”


            Jesus answers Nicodemus’s confusion by stating, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’”


            To enter God’s kingdom requires two births. We all came into the world in the same way.  From the time a mother’s water breaks, the process of physical birth takes place.  Unless something goes radically wrong, the baby is delivered from the mother’s body as a healthy human begin.  Flesh gives birth to flesh through the water.  We first must be physically born, born of water, a fleshly birth.  “What is born of the flesh is flesh,” Jesus says.


            Yet, physical birth, fleshly birth, does not result in spiritual birth.  Physical birth requires a physical father and mother.  Spiritual birth must be brought about by spiritual means by our Heavenly Father.  In other words, those who are spiritually born must be born of the Spirit of God.


            Jesus tells Nicodemus, “You must be born from above” because that is the requirement for every person who would follow Jesus.  John writes this in the Prologue to his Gospel, “But to all who received him (the Word God sent), who believed in his name, he gave to power to become the children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”


            Here is John, distinguishing between fleshly birth (not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man) and spiritual birth (but of God).  To enter the Kingdom, you must be born again, born from above, born of God.  Many Christians mistakenly believe that we are all God’s children.  Scripture is clear that every human being is made in the image of God.  However, to become God’s child, a person must be born again, born from above, born of God.


            Paul speaks of it as a new creation in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” Peter speaks of it as a new birth in 1 Peter 1:3, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . .”


            It is really an appropriate metaphor.


            We are like newborns in the Kingdom of God.  Jesus said we would have to enter the Kingdom like a little child.  We must learn to walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh  (Romans 8:4).  The newborn Christian must learn a new talk, as God begins to control our speech.  (Ephesians 4:21) We must learn to think in a godly, not a worldly fashion as we are transformed by “the renewing of our minds.”  (Romans 12:2)


            So how does this new birth happen? Jesus probably saw a look of confusion on Nicodemus’s face.  Maybe you are confused, as well.  Jesus shifts gears.  He goes from talking about new birth to speaking about the wind.  He says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”


            We do not see the wind.  However, we do see its effects.  We can see when a strong wind has passed.  Leaves and branches litter the ground.  Sometimes trees are downed.


            So it is with the Spirit.


            We rarely see the Spirit at work in a person’s life.  It is mysterious, subtle, and often occurs behind the scenes, out-of-sight . . . just like the wind.  We don’t see where it comes from.  We don’t know where it is going.  We don’t know when it will blow.  We experience the Spirit at profound moments.  God puts influential people in our path.  Certain life experiences shape us.  We meet numerous challenges. 


As a result, we do see the effects of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. I saw it in my own life.  I almost lost my leg to infection in eighth grade.  I considered what it might mean to die for the first time.  Hearing many different preachers as I played in a Baptist Church band with my cousins.  There was church camp, my Christian Scoutmaster, my youth leader, a grandmother who prayed for me, read her Bible, and encouraged me to read my own Bible that were ways God’s Spirit was blowing in my life.


In the quiet of my bedroom, one hot August night, I asked God, if He was real, to make Himself known to me. I awoke the next morning like a different person.  It was like someone flipped a light switch.  Spiritual things began to make sense for the first time.  Gone was the sense of frustration and spiritual longing. 


I was at peace.


Jesus reminded Nicodemus how God sent poisonous serpents on the Israelites as judgment for complaining against Moses, and ultimately against God. God offered salvation amid that judgment.  God instructed Moses to fashion a bronze serpent.  Moses was then told to place the bronze serpent on a pole and lift it up.  When the people afflicted by snake bite looked at the bronze serpent, they were saved.  They were healed.


Jesus says, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”


This is how we are born again. When we look to Jesus alone for our salvation, we are born again.  We are healed of our sin.  We are made whole.  So it was for me. 


I came to a place where I understood that Jesus didn’t just die for the sins of the world. He died for my sin.  It was my sin that put him on the cross.  I suddenly realized what Augustine meant when he wrote, If you were the only person on earth, Christ would have still suffered and died for you.”  Jesus died for me. Jesus rose for me.


For the first time in my life, it got personal!


I looked to Christ alone for my salvation. I trusted in Christ alone.  Not my heritage, not my church-going, not my good grades, good behavior, not my right-thinking.  Jesus became not just the Savior, but my Savior.


Only Christ. And I wanted to be more like him.


So began my journey, because every journey starts somewhere. This is where mine began and it has taken the rest of my life to continue it.  It is the same place where all discipleship begins.


If you wish to be a disciple of Jesus, you must begin at the beginning. It is as simple as asking God to make Himself real to you.  It is as easy as asking God to make you anew.  It is as uncomplicated as wanting more of Jesus in your life.


It is walking with Jesus, learning Jesus, trusting Jesus, growing in the knowledge of Jesus, spending time with Jesus, following Jesus, obeying Jesus, and wanting more of Jesus. Does this describe you?  If so, it indicates that you have taken the first step on the journey of discipleship.  If not, you must ask yourself, “Why not?”


New birth, being born from above, is starting over again in a new partnership with Jesus. It is starting over with Jesus living in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Sue Monk Kidd, is the author of numerous bestsellers. In one of her books, she recalls her youth and how she would prepare for Christmas. In early December, she would sit by the wooden nativity set clustered under their Christmas tree and think over the last year of her life. She would think deeply about Christmas and the coming of Jesus.


She remembers, one time, visiting a monastery as a child. It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. As she passed a monk walking outside, she greeted him with, "Merry Christmas." The monk's response caught her off guard a bit. "May Christ be born in you," he replied.[i]


The Apostle Paul calls this “. . . the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Galatians 1:26-27)


Christ in you. Christ in me.  My life hid in Christ.  Your life hid in Christ.

I love what Peter Gomes writes in his book, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.[ii]  “What ‘born again’ means is literally to begin all over again, to be given a second birth, a second chance.  The one who is born again doesn't all of a sudden get turned into a super-Christian.  To be born again is to enter afresh into the process of spiritual growth.  It is to wipe the slate clean.  It is to cancel your old mortgage and start again.  In other words, you don't have to be always what you have now become.  Such an offer is too good to be true for many, confusing for most, but for those who seek to be other than what they are now, who want to be more than the mere accumulation and sum total of their experiences, the invitation, ‘You must be born again,’ is an offer you cannot afford to refuse.”

Every journey begins somewhere. If your journey with Jesus as His disciple has not yet begun, I pray that it will begin today!

Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the glory!  AMEN!          

[i] WHEN THE HEART WAITS (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990), pp. 181-182.

[ii] New York: William Morrow and Company, 1996, p. 188.








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