Invitation Service with Gospel Choir

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Well thank you for coming, especially if you don't usually come to church. I personally started life never going to church: Dad was an atheist; Mum's agnostic. And up to the age of thirteen I only went to church twice – once for a funeral and once for a wedding, at which to my embarrassment I was a page boy, and of which I'd love to destroy the photographic evidence. But things swung to the other extreme when I then moved to a school with a compulsory church six days out of seven. So in five years I went over 1,000 times, which brought my lifetime average up from once every 6 ½ years to over once a week.

But what I got at school was a watered down version of the Christian message, which basically just said, 'Be good.' So the message was: 'Jesus was a great moral teacher and example – do what he taught and did – be good.' So that's what I thought the Christian message was. That's what I thought Jesus was all about. Which put me off completely because I tried to be good and found I couldn't be; I couldn't change. But then one day I was invited to the school Christian Union, and heard for the first time what Jesus is really all about. And that was my most important step towards coming to faith in Jesus – the step of realising that what I'd thought about Jesus so far was miles off what the Christian message really says. And that may be the step you need to take. It may be that what you've heard about Jesus so far, or thought about Jesus so far, is miles off the truth – and has put you off, as it did me.

So I want us to look at the conversation Jesus had with this guy Nicodemus in that reading we had from John's Gospel (John's record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus). Because Nicodemus thought he knew what Jesus was all about – but actually he was miles off, too. And what Jesus said to put him right is what we all need to hear. And it's about two things, firstly,

What we all need (vv1-8)
So, John chapter 3 and verse 1:

"Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews."

So he's a top spiritual leader – a bishop if not an archbishop. And later on, Jesus calls him 'the teacher of Israel'. And, verse 2,

"This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do [i.e., the miraculous healings Jesus was doing] unless God is with him.""

So Nicodemus thinks he sees who Jesus is: he thinks Jesus is "a teacher come from God'. And Nicodemus welcomes good teachers of the Bible, because he thinks what people really need is to be told to be good so that they'll go and be good. Isn't that what religion's all about? Well what does Jesus say to that? Verse 3:

"Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.""

That is, Jesus is saying, 'Nicodemus, you think you see who I am and what I'm about. But actually you don't see – and unless you're born again, you can't see – because the truth is: I'm infinitely more than just another teacher from your side. I'm actually the King of the kingdom of God – I'm the person God has sent from his side, to restore his rule over human lives. But you don't see that at all.'

I love the story about how the Queen once went into one of the tourist shops near Balmoral. And she had her head scarf on, which is a bit of disguise. And she picked up one of the souvenir plates with her picture on, and said to the shop lady, 'Do you sell many of these?' 'Oh yes,' said shop lady, 'They're very popular.' And then shop lady said, 'Has anyone told you that you look amazingly like her – you could almost be her double!' To which the Queen in her inimitable way said, 'How very reassuring.' It was only as she got back into the royal Range Rover that the shop lady realised who it was.

And Jesus says to all of us in v3, 'Unless you're born again, you can't see who I am and what I'm about.' Which is something far worse than that shop lady not realising it was the Queen. Because Jesus is talking about wilful blindness, here – the kind of blindness you exercise when you go past a 40mph speed limit sign, but you're in a hurry, so you don't want to be doing just 40mph. So you 'don't see' the sign. And Jesus is saying that, by nature, that's what we do with him, because deep down in our hearts we don't want him to be King. We want to keep him out and run our own lives, because we think we'll do a better job than he would. And you may need to realise that that's what you're doing to Jesus – and to realise just how offensive it is that you're treating him like that. Look down to v3-4 again:

Jesus answered him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"

And Nicodemus has a PhD in theology – he's not being thick; he gets that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, not literally. But he doesn't get it; and he's basically asking, 'What are you on about?' And I think he's probably uneasy, isn't he? In fact, I think this makes us all uneasy, doesn't it? Because tell me I've got to go to church a bit more, or try to be a bit nicer, and at one level I'm happy with that – because that's something I can do; it leaves me feeling I'm still in control. But Jesus is saying, 'No, something has to happen to you, that you can't do for yourself.'

I mean, hands up anyone here who gave birth to themselves? You know, Mum put her feet up with a nice cup of tea, and you just wriggled out all on your own? My third daughter Naomi was two weeks overdue, but she made up for lateness with speed: she was born in an emergency on the kitchen floor, so I was midwife, my mother in law was assistant (that was a bonding experience), and the ambulance man arrived just in time to do the final delivery. But for all her eagerness to come, Naomi still needed to be pushed out hard. She had to be birthed by someone else.

And Jesus is saying, 'You'll never accept me as King unless you're born again: something has to happen to you, that you can't do for yourself.' So I think Nicodemus is uneasy in verse 4 – but probably wistful, as well. Because he's lived long enough to have plenty of regrets, and to wish that you could somehow start life over again. The poet John Clare wrote,

"If only life had a second edition, how I would correct the proofs."

And that strikes a chord with every one of us here, doesn't it? So what is Jesus on about? What is this something that has to happen to us, that we can't do for ourselves? Well look on to verse 5:

"Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he [or she] cannot enter the kingdom of God [cannot accept Jesus as King]."

And Jesus is quoting there from the other reading we had earlier, from Ezekiel (chapter 36, verses 24-27), which is a bit of the Bible where God spells out the two things he has to do for any of us to come back into relationship with him. One of those things is that God has to wash, or wipe, clean our entire track-record of ignoring him and doing our own thing morally – our 'sin', as the Bible calls it. And that's what Jesus means by being 'born of water' – again, he doesn't mean literal water; it's picture language for God wiping clean the record of everything he should hold against you. And if you're just looking into all this, you need to know that God is able and willing to forgive your entire track record of sin, and that there's nothing he can't forgive, however unforgivable it seems to you.

So for example, I remember a student at my last church whom we interviewed a bit like we interviewed Eddie tonight. And she talked about a sexual relationship she'd been in for most of her time at uni, and about how she'd felt wrong in it all that time, and how he'd finally dumped her and left her feeling used and dirty. But she said, 'Coming to Jesus and being forgiven has been like having a bath on the inside.'

And that's one thing you need God to do for you. And he's offering you that in Jesus. 

But the other thing we need is for God to come into our lives by his Spirit and overcome our resistance to him – so that we actually want him to be our King and want to live to please him. So, in verse 5, Jesus says we need to be:

"born of water and the Spirit"

Now there are lots of things about God that aren't easy to explain. Like the fact that God is not just a solitary, un-relational being, but Father, Son and Spirit. And like the fact that even though God the Father and God the Son are in heaven right now (which is why you can't see them) they can come into your life by their Spirit. And to be honest, that's easier to give an example of than to explain.

So, for example: I remember another interview we did here with someone. She's moved on now, but she was working in Newcastle and living with her boyfriend. And she started coming along and hearing about Jesus. And one Sunday she came to faith in Jesus and went back to the boyfriend to tell him they weren't going to be living together or sleeping together any more. And he said that was outrageous. So she said, 'Then we're not even going out anymore.' Well he was in church the next Sunday and I met him at the back and I asked him what had brought him along. And he said, 'I want to know what has got into my girlfriend.' ('Or ex-girl-friend,' as he added rather glumly.) And the answer was: God, by his Spirit, had got into her. And what his Spirit does is to change what you want – to change you from being someone who wants to keep him out of your life and live as you please, to someone who wants to live to please him – more than you want to please anyone else.

So that's the other thing you need God to do for you if you're ever going to be different to the person you now are. And he's offering you that in Jesus, as well.

So Jesus says we need to be 'born of water and the Spirit' – forgiven and changed. So now skip on to verse 9:

"Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?""

So the question in verse 4 was, 'What are you on about?' The question here is, 'How can this happen?' Maybe even, 'How could it happen to me?' And maybe that's your question tonight. How could it happen to me? Could it? Has it? So, having heard Jesus tell us what we need in the first part of this conversation, let's end by hearing him tell us, secondly,

How it can happen (vv9-16)

For time's sake, we'll skip verses 10-13, where Jesus basically answers Nicodemus' attitude – is he really open to accepting Jesus' answers and authority? But then in verse 14, he answers Nicodemus' question. The question is, 'How can this new birth happen?' and after dealing with Nicodemus' attitude, Jesus says in verses 14-15:

"And 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."

We'll skip the detail and major on the main thing there. 'The Son of Man' was one of Jesus' titles for himself. So when Jesus says 'the Son of Man must be lifted up', that means he (Jesus) must be lifted up. And that's one way in which he talked about his death on the cross, when he was literally lifted up – to die. So Jesus is saying, 'For this new birth to happen to anyone, I've got to die on the cross – before I rise from the dead and return to heaven.'

So here's the puzzle. In the first part of this conversation, Jesus says God's Spirit is the key to being born again. But here he says his death on the cross is the key. Which leaves you wondering, 'Which is it?' And the solution to the puzzle is that both together are the key. Because the way God's Spirit overcomes our resistance to him – so that we want him to be King – is by opening our spiritual eyes to see what really happened on the cross so that we believe it and accept it to the very depths of our hearts. So look at verse 16 for what the Bible says did really happen at the cross. Underneath the blood and nails and physical suffering, it says:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

So that verse is saying that Jesus was God's Son, and that God gave him to go to the cross. And that was in order to take all our sin (past and future) on himself, and to take the judgement our sin deserves, so that by trusting in Jesus we could be forgiven. And the two sides to being born again – being forgiven and being changed – both happen as God by his Spirit opens your eyes to see what really happened on the cross.

So, when you begin to see that Jesus dealt with all your sin there – past and future – you realise there is nothing past or future that he can't forgive. And when you begin to see the love behind the cross – that God did that for you despite what you're like and despite all you've done wrong – that's what changes you from someone who doesn't want God in your life to someone who does.

There was a bishop in Paris in the last century who used to take tourists round his cathedral. And he would tell the story of how one street kid came to faith. This kid had got in with various gangs. And one gang always set an initiation dare. And this kid was set the dare of going into the cathedral, standing in front of the huge altar painting of the crucifixion, and saying out loud, 'Jesus Christ, you died for me and I couldn't give a damn.' (Which may not seem much of a dare to us, but in that time and context it was pretty blasphemous.) So in he went, stood in front of the picture and said, 'Jesus Christ, you died for me...' And he couldn't bring himself to say the rest. And he turned tail and ran out. And one of the tourists asked the bishop, 'So how did you find out about him, if he just came and went like that?' And the bishop said, 'I was the kid. It was me.'

That was the moment when God, by his Spirit, opened his eyes to see what really happened on the cross: 'Jesus Christ, you died… for me.' And that changes what you want. So you don't want to carry on doing the things that meant Jesus had to die for you in the first place. And you do want to respond to his love by trying to live for him in a way you didn't before – albeit far, far from perfectly.

What about you?

Well, let me wrap up by asking the question you can't avoid from this part of the Bible (and I apologise in advance that it's such an unBritish question): Are you born again? That is, are you someone who can say, 'I know I've been forgiven and changed,' or is that not yet true of you?

Imagine I were to draw a line of where everyone here stands in relation to Jesus right now. At one end would be those who can say, 'Yes, I have been forgiven and changed and, albeit very imperfectly, I'm now trying to live for Jesus as King, as God.' At the other end would be those who can't yet say any of that. And if that's you, can I say again: thank you for coming. And can I say: please keep looking into the Christian message. And you're always welcome to do that here. Come back on Sundays. Come and try the Christianity Explored course. And if you'd like to, take away a free copy of one of the Gospels about Jesus (like what I've been speaking from tonight) and give it a read. It's amazing how many people have never done that. And they're on the Welcome Desk and at the doors.

But it may be you're right in the middle of my line. You know it's true, you know you need this new birth of being forgiven and changed, and maybe you've reached the point where that's what you want – and want to ask God for tonight. And if that's you, I'm going to end with a prayer which you could use. Let me run it past you before I lead us in prayer, and you can decide whether it would be appropriate for you:

Father God,
Thank you for your love in giving your Son to die for me. Please forgive me all my sins. And please come into my life by your Spirit, to help me live for you as King from now on.

You may be further back – and wouldn't want to pray that. Or you may be further on and don't need to begin all over again. But if you want to ask God to give you this new birth you could echo that prayer in your mind now:

Father God,
Thank you for your love in giving your Son to die for me. Please forgive me all my sins. And please come into my life by your Spirit, to help me live for you as King from now on.

I'm now into injury time, but can I say three quick things if you've just prayed that prayer and meant it.

  • No. 1 is to trust that God has heard and answered that prayer – and that that will become clear in your experience, as it did for me.
  • No. 2 is to take a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? and read it later – because it goes over the same ground of the step of coming to faith in Jesus.
  • And No. 3 is to tell another Christian that you've taken that step. That will help you start being public about it; and the person you tell can also make some suggestions about how to go on from here.
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