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THE PROMISE OF NEW BIRTH
John 3:1-10

30th June 2002

Every American school student, every morning, hand on heart, begins the day by reciting the pledge of allegiance to flag and country - until this week! A federal court ruled reciting the pledge at school is unconstitutional, a violation of the basic tenet of separation of church and state.

The stumbling block is the phrase "one nation under God", seen by the court as an "endorsement of religion", which is banned by the First Amendment. President George Bush described the ruling as "ridiculous". The Senate voted 99-0 to affirm its support for the phrase, then stood on the Capitol steps to recite the pledge. The court case was brought by a Californian atheist, Michael Newdow, who believes it is a religious idea that "certain people don't agree with". The ruling raises questions about patriotic hymns such as God Bless America and America the Beautiful, the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, the US Motto "In God we Trust" - all of which refer to God. The pledge was written by a Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy in 1892. President Eisenhower inserted "under God" in 1954. But last Wednesday's ruling, said that the First Amendment required the pledge to be "neutral with respect to religion". If the ruling stands, the pledge would be barred from public schools. The President of the United States end their oath of office with the words "so help me God". An appeal to the Supreme Court, will be made where each session begins with: "God save the United States and this honourable court." In Australia, it is not against the American Court ruling to pledge allegiance to the flag and country. Would all American citizens here stand and repeat: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Belief in God is bound into American history and culture and no more so than in the South and among Southern Baptists. Part of that belief has been the re-emphasis on "being born again." That phrase is much more acceptable in our vocabulary these days. Once when we used words like "born again" we were regarded as being freakish. Today, the term "born again" is widely used. It is no longer odd to be known as a "born again Christian".

The media might have discovered the phrase recently, but the term "born again" is as old as Nicodemus, as old as that night in a Judean township when a leading Jew came to Jesus and asked, "How can I enter the Kingdom of God?" Nicodemus was a ruler, a man of great authority. The Scriptures say that he was the teacher of the Law at that time. He was treated with great respect as the teacher not just a teacher. This wealthy, wise, intellectual, respectable, upright, religious man came to Jesus one night. In John's description of the Lord's Supper John 13:30 we read "Judas went out and it was night." It was not only dark outside, it was dark inside the heart of Judas. When Nicodemus came to Jesus, John 3:2 it was "by night". That night reflected not only the hour but the spiritual blackness within Nicodemus. Nicodemus wanted to talk about the Kingdom of God. Jesus wanted to talk about his becoming a brand new person. Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." The response of Nicodemus was: "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb to be re-born!" When Jesus answered his question, He said two things that were quite unexpected. These two things would forever show people how to enter the Kingdom of God.

1. YOU CAN BE LOST
It is possible to be wealthy, intellectual, respectable, and religious and still be lost. The man who came to talk about the Kingdom was told about renewing his own heart - he was lost. Because Jesus cared for people, He often spoke of lost things, how a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son could be found and brought home with great rejoicing. You can be all the things Nicodemus was and still be lost. Nicodemus had great understanding, came from a good background, and had solid religious training. But he was still outside the Kingdom of God!

Wesley Mission, for 190 years has been concerned for the lost. We seek them. We search the gutters, we scour the cities, we work in the laneways, we visit the prisons and hospitals to find among the shut-ins, the sick, the drug addicts, the rejects of society and the poor and needy. We look for the lost to tell them how they may be found. But you can be just as lost as a down and out when you are up and out.

One evening, in one of these services, I interviewed Dick Baker, a successful, wealthy businessmen. He built a great construction company Mainline Corporation". Dick Baker had academic qualifications, a keen mind, and contacts around the world. He fell in love with the runner-up in the Miss America contest. They married. Baker was set for an increasingly promising future. But tensions developed. His marriage was breaking up. His relationships soured. His business collapsed. Baker was left with debts in excess of $100 million. The business was bankrupted. His friends, many of whom had lost money in his firm, would no longer talk to him. His home was sold, his wife divorced him and he was left with nothing.

Dick told me, "The Court sent me to America to sell some assets. I disposed of them and then looked for a new job. I found one in Dallas with a construction firm." Working, but lonely and miserable, he lived in Dallas. Joan, his ex-wife, established a new life in California. She met a Christian who introduced her to Pat Boone who said, "Joan, you must be born again." She gave her life to Jesus. She was born again! Then she said, "What have I done? I left my husband, but he needs me and he needs the Saviour." She journeyed to Dallas, found her husband, and said, "Dick, I love you, but I am a different woman now. I have been born again." Dick said, "I love you too, but I don't know that I can cope with you as a new person," She asked, "Can we make a new start? But I don't want to come back with you unless you are born again."

Dick struggled with himself and with his conscience. One night in his Bible, he read about Jesus and Nicodemus. Dick Baker, too came to Jesus by night and opened his heart to Jesus: "I was reborn!" Then Joan and Dick married each other again! Then one of their children made a commitment to Christ at university. A second child, in another college, came to Christ in faith. I was speaking with Dick and Joan one day as we were making a television programme when Joan's mobile 'phone rang. Their third child in an American university said, "Rejoice because through the influence of one of my friends here, I have been born again. I have also come back to the family." The family was made new and whole again. Dick came out here to Australia. Why? So he could go to those in his past he had hurt. He said to them, "I am a new person because God has renewed me. Forgive me for what I have done wrong. Please accept me as I am, a new person in Christ Jesus."

The lesson from Nicodemus is that you can be respectable, wealthy, clever, intelligent, and even religious, and still be lost. If you have never given your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, open your life to Him, and invite Him in, Jesus says that you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven by your own efforts. You must be born again!

2. YOU CAN BE SPIRITUALLY REBORN!
Jesus made clear the new birth experience is neither a logical development nor a behavioural change. It is a spiritual renewal. The new birth does not come about in a logical fashion by thinking it through step by step, until we reach knowledge and understanding. It does not come about by making changes to our behavioural pattern so that we grow into the Kingdom of God.

The change is not by logic or by behaviour. It is spiritual and it comes from the Spirit of God who makes the change in His way and in His own time. The behaviour of people can be changed by chemicals, by education, by relationships. But in the new birth we are not changed chemically, educationally or matrimonially. We are changed spiritually. The change does not come from the outside in, it comes from the inside out. Ezekiel relayed this promise from God: Ezekiel 36: 26-27 "I will give you a new heart. I will take away your stubborn heart of stone and give you an obedient heart. I will put my spirit in you." The first heart transplant spoken about in the world is in this prophecy of Ezekiel, when God said that He would renew people by starting on the inside. The wind of God would blow through life, removing the old and giving the new. The change would be as refreshing as receiving a heart transplant and as radical as being born again!

Jesus said in effect to Nicodemus, "Do you hear the breeze? Do you see the olive trees moving in the evening wind? The breath of God comes to us like the evening breeze. We accept the coolness the wind brings. We do not ask: How does the wind blow? We just accept the fact that the cool breeze comes. When we go on the lake and set sail, we don't say, How does the wind come? How does it fill the sail? How does it move the boat? We simply raise the sail and let the wind carry us on. In the same way, Nicodemus, the Spirit of God, like the wind, like the breath of God, blows within your heart. Don't ask how it comes. Simply allow Him to take you on a voyage; a spiritual journey, into the Kingdom of Heaven!"

We need to understand that the Kingdom of God is not entered by knowing more, otherwise only intellectuals would enter it, and most of us would be left outside. Nor is the Kingdom of God gained by changing our character. For if it did, most of us could not reach it. The Kingdom of God comes spiritually. The change starts within. "As many as did receive Him and believe in Him; so He gave them the right to become God's children."John 1:12 Children of the Kingdom understand. Then they change. Their behaviour becomes different. They follow a higher logic. There is a spiritual transformation when they receive the power to change their hearts and minds. Spiritual transformation commences with belief. Nicodemus, still thinking in the old way, asks, "How can this be?" He often asks, "How?" That is the trap of the intellectual who thinks his knowledge will get him into the Kingdom of God. Jesus responds, "You are Israel's teacher, and do you not understand these things? I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen."

The first step into the Kingdom is to accept the message of the Gospel, the second step is to believe Jesus. Nicodemus was having trouble on both of these issues. He was the intellectual who did not know! Many today are respectable, affluent, upright, intelligent people who have gained certificates, diplomas and degrees. But they do not know God. That is the greatest ignorance of all. There are two responses required of you. First, you must accept the testimony of others. Jesus said: "But still you people do not accept our testimony." If you want to enter the Kingdom of God you need not knowledge but an acceptance of the witness to the Gospel.

Secondly, you must believe that Jesus was sent by God as the Saviour. That is the heart of it! Acceptance of the Gospel message and belief in Jesus as Saviour. These things are brought together beautifully in John 3:16: "For God so loved the world" - it starts with God's initiative - "…that he gave His one and only Son," - there is the point of acceptance - ".. that whoever believes in Him" - there is the belief - "…shall not perish but have eternal life." - there is the entry into the Kingdom of God.

Jesus gives new birth. We may work hard to change our lives. But the Bible never calls you to be reformed. It calls you to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. The change that is called for is so radical that you cannot do it yourself. You have neither the power nor the ability to change yourself and enter into the Kingdom. All you can do is to accept the message of the Gospel and believe Him who came from the Father in Heaven, and who died to save you from your sins. That belief leads to new birth. The work of regeneration, starts with the word of Jesus, "You must be born again."

Wesley Mission, Sydney.