Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The year was 1996. The most famous preacher in the world Billy Graham was coming to Minneapolis to speak at the Metrodome for five straight nights. A man, who had met with every President since Harry Truman, a man who had popular television specials, Billy Graham coming to Minneapolis was the equivalent for the Protestants of the Pope visiting.
My Dad and I went down to the first night of the Crusade. Speakers gave personal testimonies of how their faith had changed their lives. George Beverly Shea sang “How Great Thou Art”. Graham then began to preach. Hearing Graham speak as a sixteen year old, boy, I could see why he was considered America’s greatest preacher. Billy Graham had a great speaking voice; you could listen to Billy Graham read the phone book and enjoy it. Billy Graham would tell antidotes and famous musicians regarding how even they felt empty in their lives that something was missing. Graham’s message was simple and scriptural. I can’t help not to look up to Billy Graham even today for how he puts a sermon together.
The Metrodome was hanging on every word that Billy Graham said with an intensity rarely captured in that building by either the Twins or the Vikings. Billy Graham started to speak about the Ten Commandments; he asked if we had broken any of them, because if we have, then we are standing before God like a prisoner awaiting our execution on death row.
Graham then began to hit people with the good stuff of God’s love for humanity. How each and every one of the 70,000 people there in Minneapolis wants to get to heaven. Yet there is only one way to get to heaven. Graham stressed how being baptized and confirmed wasn’t enough. Billy Graham tried to emphasize the believers uncertainty that they don’t know if they will live another day, so tonight was the night to get their faith right.
Graham emphasized there was only one way to be sure that we were going to be saved. We need to receive Jesus by faith and dedicate our whole lives to him. Graham was then going to present the sold-out Metrodome with a wonderful opportunity; they could come forward that night to do all these things. Half the audience moves forward to the front at this point as “Just as I Am” plays in the background. People were swept up by the moment.
My Dad and I go forward as Graham had exposed insecurity with our faith that it wasn’t what it should be. We talk to one of the Billy Graham Counselors who was a nice lady from the Saint Cloud Area, who wants to know what type of decision we’re going to make on that night. Whether we were brand new believers (which didn’t make sense considering we were both in church every Sunday) or whether we wanted to rededicate our lives to Jesus? Rededication or recommitment seemed to be the ticket for us. Stoke the spiritual inner-fire inside us with what seems to be missing.
Graham’s whole ministry was based on the premises that to be saved that we needed to be born again. This statement is certainly Biblical. Graham’s whole ministry put being born again in terms of our moral and religious level of commitment and dedication.
Yet, as time went on, I began to question some of the things that Graham said to me, on that night. Shortly after I figured that I needed to rededicate my life to Jesus. I was talking to a girl I went to school with that we will call Emily. Emily was talking about her religious walk when she made the statement that she has had to rededicate her life, several times after getting saved.
Emily’s statements didn’t make much sense to me as Emily was in church (every Wednesday and Sunday), Emily didn’t use foul language, and Emily didn’t smoke, drink, or sleep around. Emily probably didn’t watch R-Rated movies or listen to popular music. Emily didn’t do anything that good Christian girls weren’t supposed to do. Yet Emily would continually keep encountering brick walls where she felt that her faith wasn’t good enough. As I heard Emily speak about how she was continually not sure whether she was born-again, and if Emily couldn’t’ meet such lofty standards, maybe we don’t think about the meaning of what it meant to be “born-again” quite right.
Today’s Gospel lesson comes to us from John 3. It’s a story of Jesus and a man named Nicodemus who has a discussion regarding the meaning of being “born again”, a discussion regarding the reality of our personal spiritual transformation.
The key to understanding this passage is to understand the background of Nicodemus before he encountered Jesus. Nicodemus was no Atheist. Nicodemus was no moral delinquent. Nicodemus was one of the most religious men of the day that he lived. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin (the very religious body that would eventually convict Jesus of blaspheme sentencing him to death). The Pharisees were no religious softies, they constantly railed against the evil influences of how Greek Culture had crept into Israel. The Pharisees considered themselves to be the hardliners, the purists, the ultra-traditionalists, and the spiritual heirs of Moses. The Pharisees today would be denouncing the influences of Hollywood, and popular culture as being the cause of all society’s problems.
Jesus during his conversation with Nicodemus admits that Nicodemus was a renowned teacher of religion in his own right. Nicodemus knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. Nicodemus was a paragon of virtue and knowledge, yet he came to Jesus as spiritually blind. Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is intrigued after hearing about one of Jesus’ miracles. Nicodemus knew something from his own life was missing.
Yet as Nicodemus begins his conversation with Jesus about being born-again, Nicodemus just doesn’t get it. Nicodemus couldn’t understand “How can anyone be born after growing old?” Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and re-born? What Nicodemus failed to understand was the nature of our gospel.
Nicodemus had heard that Jesus could turn water into wine; he heard that he could open the eyes of the blind; he heard that he could make the lame to walk, yet Nicodemus didn’t believe a type of spiritual transformation was possible that he hadn’t already undergone. Nicodemus couldn’t believe as one of the most religious men of his day, how far into the muck of life that God could reach to bring forth salvation.
This week a famous religious figure named Fred Phelps died. Fred Phelps was a Pastor of The Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, KS. Westboro Baptist Church was famous for picketing events such as Military Funerals, Gay Pride Parades, and various political gatherings. Phelps would loudly proclaim that any bad event that happened in America was a result of God’s disapproval of homosexuality. Phelps was one of the least popular individuals in the entire country for a variety of reasons. People celebrated at his death, they proclaimed that they would soon dance on his grave.
Yet when such language enters into our popular discourse this showcases how few of us really understand the meaning of being “born again”. Fred Phelps did not represent the best in organized religion. Fred Phelps openly celebrated God’s judgment, rather than hoping for God’s grace. Fred Phelps took occasions where people needed to be pointed towards the cross, and Fred Phelps proclaimed Death and Hell as the final word.
Yet we should never celebrate any man’s death, no matter how much we dislike them for any man’s death should serve as a reminder of what we ultimately deserve. When we stand on our self-righteous soap boxes and wish another man’s eternal man suffering, then we have truly failed to understand what it means to be born-again.
What being “born again” means is that Christ came to the place of our very death the lowest moment of our existence, and sought to take us to the place of re-birth. Whenever we wish for another man to rot in hell, we realize that we are ultimately no better than how low he sunk. We fail to recognize the vulnerable Children of God that our God might dare to save. Any fool can proclaim judgment upon other people, yet it takes someone being born again to really understand grace.
The struggle over what it meant to be born-again is one that Martin Luther struggled with for many years of his life. Luther looked in the mirror, and saw no differently than my sixteen year old self or Emily, all the ways that they failed to measure up to God in their daily existence. Yet Luther ultimately realized something very important about his faith that he expressed in the Catechism when he said.
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith”.
Luther realized that his re-birth wasn’t about his actions in any way, any shape, or any form. The best translation of our passage from John 3 isn’t to say that Nicodemus was told that he must be born again; rather that Nicodemus was told that he must be born from above. This interprets the Nicodemus story in a whole new way. Luther realized that his salvation was not dependent a level of spiritual achievement that his weak and sinful nature ultimately did not possess.
My point this morning is not to bash Billy Graham. Billy Graham has clearly presented the Gospel to hundreds and thousands of people. What I will say is why I don’t like to describe myself as being born again because of all that goes with it. Born Again Christianity today is defined by what you do, rather than what God does within you.
The thing about Nicodemus is his problem was not lack of religious motivation. Nicodemus rather couldn’t believe that God could actually turn him young all over again. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we have a God who took one of the greatest persecutors of the church in Saul of Tarsus and blinded him on the Road to Damascus making him the church’s greatest evangelist. Saul was totally unaware of the spiritual transformation that was capable of hitting him until the moment that it happened. Nicodemus couldn’t grasp that we are as capable of choosing the time for our spiritual rebirth as we are choosing the time that we are physically born.
The hardest thing for a believer is to believe that he believes. Because of our weak and sinful nature, we will always struggle with our own sense of self-doubt. Satan exploits us in these moments, to convince us that our faith is insufficient, that we’re truly not born from above. The problem with getting swept up in the grand religious fervor of the moment like a Billy Graham crusade is that today’s religious experiences often encounter tomorrow’s reality (the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh).
The key emphasis in Lutheranism is not our personal commitment to Christ; it’s rather the depth of Christ’s love and commitment for us.
Nicodemus’ story has a nice ending. In the 19th chapter of John after Jesus died, Nicodemus assists Joseph of Arimetha in preparing Jesus’ corpse for burial. The fact that Nicodemus would be so much importance in Jesus’ burial that one needed to go through death to be brought back to life shows that Nicodemus finally did get the meaning of being born from above.
Being born from above is a symbol of a powerful miracle that takes place when faith is created inside us in spite of our every urge to resist it. The scriptures describe this just like Billy Graham says as standing before God dead in our sins, yet as the Apostle Paul says in the waters of Baptism we are given the Holy Spirit and given new life.
This can happen as an infant, or it can happen later in life upon hearing a powerful preacher like Billy Graham. Yet rest assured it is not our decision, it is not dependent upon our ability to transform ourselves, it is not dependent on our standing over and against our neighbor, and it is only dependent on being “born from above” as a result of God’s wonderful healing grace. Amen
 John 3:10
 John 3:4
 Luther’s explanation to the Apostles Creed found in the Small Catechism.
 Ephesians 2:1
 Titus 3:5-7