Intern Sarah Gunderson from Zion Lutheran and I swapped pulpits this week. She led service for us and I led service for them. You can check out our service on our Facebook page. Otherwise, here is the message I gave at Zion. Enjoy! Pastor Sean

John 3:1-17

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.

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’


This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about three brothers who somehow managed to die together, on Easter Sunday of all days. So all three of them arrived at the pearly gates and met Saint Peter. “Well, none of you have been that good. But none of you have been that bad either,” Saint Peter said, looking over the story and deeds of their lives. “I’ll tell you what. Seeing as today is Easter, if just one of you can tell me the true meaning of the holiday, I’ll let all three of you into heaven. And if not, then it’s to the other place you’ll go.” Saint Peter called up the first brother. “Yeah, Easter, so that’s the holiday where the fat guy in red gives everyone presents.” Saint Peter shook his head. “No, I’m afraid that’s not right.” He called up the second brother. “Easter, that’s where everyone gets together and lights fireworks and barbecues.” Saint Peter shook his head again. “No, that’s not right at all.” Finally he called up the third brother, reminding him that their salvation was now entirely reliant on him. “Okay, Easter. So, a long time ago there was this guy named Jesus. And he died for our sins. And anyway, after he died, he was buried in this cave.” “Yeeeees…” Saint Peter said, hopeful. “Then what happened?” “So anyway, three days later Jesus rises from the dead. And if he sees his shadow, that’s how we know if we have six more weeks of winter.”

Doh! So close and yet so far! I realize I’m jumping the gun a little by having us reflect on Easter so early on in the season of Lent. Yes, we’re working our way towards the resurrection but we’ve got a long way to go. Heck, Jesus has to ride into Jerusalem and die before he can be resurrected! A long way to go before he sees his shadow or not…

No, we’re just starting out on our Lenten journey and this encounter with Nicodemus happened very early in Jesus’ ministry. Very few people knew who Jesus was as a great teacher and healer, let alone the Son of God. Even Nicodemus didn’t really know who Jesus was, what with his coming to Jesus “in the night.” Some people believe that Nicodemus, being a Pharisee and thus opposed to Jesus, had to come to Jesus under the cover of night’s darkness so as not to be seen by anyone. But some people believe John was using double-meaning with his use of the word “night.” Perhaps John was saying that Nicodemus was coming to Jesus in a state of mental unawareness or “darkness,” not necessarily during a specific time of day. We certainly know that John likes to use double-meanings in his writing and either meaning can work. We get to decide how we want to hear his words.

Nevertheless, this encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus occurred early in Jesus’ ministry and a long way from Jesus’ final ride into Jerusalem. So why reflect on it so early in our journey through Lent? Perhaps to serve as a foreshadow of the gift at the end of the journey. We’re actually moving towards something! And what exactly is that gift? Our salvation, of course. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what this time of deep reflection, of fasting and prayer, of repentance and forgiveness is all about. More importantly, that’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection is all about…our salvation! The so-called “work” of Lent–the fasting and prayer, repentance and forgiveness–isn’t necessarily “work” but rather tools to help us remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. He won our salvation! All we have to do to claim that salvation is simply believe in him and what he did for us! Certainly a small enough price, belief and faith, but oh, what a gift to receive…salvation!!

If only our brothers understood the gift they had received before they made it the pearly gates. No, I don’t believe Saint Peter will be testing us at the pearly gates in order to receive salvation. Jesus made it very clear as we heard in John’s gospel: “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.” Friends, the key to salvation isn’t understanding the meaning of Easter. It’s simply believing in Jesus! It’s simply placing your trust in Jesus! We don’t have to understand what he did on the cross, how he did it, why he did it. We just have to trust he did it for our salvation. He did it for our life, both here in this world and in the next world, our mortal life and our eternal life. And did Jesus die to punish us? Did Jesus die to reveal our wickedness that in turn justifies our punishment? No, Jesus died to save us, plain and simple. Jesus died in order to conquer death, to show us there is life after death. Jesus died so that we don’t have to be afraid of death. Death is simply a transition into new life. Trust in Jesus, trust that he will lead us in eternal life!

There is no right or wrong answer for salvation. There is only trust…trust in him. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6) If only those brothers trusted then maybe they wouldn’t have been tested. And trusting has nothing to do with “doing.” As good Lutherans, we know there’s no way we can work towards salvation. Works righteousness died 500 years ago! We cling to the truth of Paul’s words from his letter to the Ephesians, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (2:8) Grace, friends…salvation is a gift from God. We can’t earn it, we don’t deserve it, and yet it is freely given to us by our gracious and loving God. Simply receive it, put your faith in it, trust in him. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (10:9) 

This is what we’re moving towards this season of Lent: salvation. The key word there is “moving.” Not working…moving! The work has been done. We’re simply moving. Perhaps moving out of darkness and into light just as our friend Nicodemus was…night into day. So in a way, this is a season of celebration just as Christmas and Easter are seasons of celebration. What a gift to receive, salvation! Let us rejoice in our salvation and give thanks for it. Thanks be to God!

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.