Sermon Transcript - Sunday, December 1, 2019
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Acts 4:1 & John 3:1-7 ~ Dec 1, 2019
David Benner, a psychologist and author of the book The Gift of Being Yourself, defines identity as “who we experience ourselves to be – the I each of us carries within.” Often, we feel the pressure to define ourselves through our jobs, financial status, successes, grades, appearance, what other people say about us and many other means.
There are an overwhelming amount of messages telling us to define ourselves by external measures, but what would it look like to base our identity on the way God sees us? Benner states that “an identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God.”
That’s what Jesus is trying to convince Nicodemus of in today’s Gospel reading. Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish ruling Council, is meeting with Jesus because he has questions. Nicodemus’ questions are all connected to he issue of identity. So Jesus is inviting Nicodemus to truly find himself by finding his place in the family of God, when he says to him: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3).
The conversation is compelling for at least a couple of reasons. Nicodemus’ curiosity and his questions aren’t unique to him. They really speak the longings of every human heart. We’re all searching. Searching at the deepest of levels. Searching for a clearer sense of how we can know who we truly are and what such a discovery might mean for us.
Nicodemus is taken aback by what Jesus says. He’s struggling to understand: “How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Nicodemus’ reasoning reveals the fundamental struggles we experience as human beings. That is our tendency to discover, determine and define who we are by what we do. Jesus is talking about being born again and Nicodemus gets busy trying to figure out what he needs to do to birth himself a second time. Which sounds like a ludicrous proposition. What Nicodemus hasn’t quite caught onto yet is that in Jesus’ ears it sounds equally ludicrous to think human beings are supposed to achieve their identity, that who we are is determined by what we accomplish.
Nicodemus has “been there and done that.” He’s achieved a spot on the highest ruling body in the land. A position of great power and great prominence. If it is true that we establish who we are by what we accomplish, then Nicodemus was fully qualified to be the expert teacher showing others the way. Yet despite his great accomplishments, he finds himself still searching.
Can you relate? Have you attempted to define who you are based on what you can accomplish, but what you’ve achieved hasn’t really filled the emptiness within?
Are you struggling with what to do with your life because under the surface you wonder if you really know who you are and it has you worried about really committing to something that could impact the rest of your life?
Do you find your sense of personal worth rising and falling based on how much you make? Or how much other people take notice of what you’ve accomplished and to what degree they pat you on the back with praise? Yet you find yourself feeling increasingly anxious, afraid of failure because of what it would do to you, but anxious about success too because it doesn’t seem to be doing for you what you believed it should?
Do you feel like your life no longer has value because your kids are grown and gone and you’re not sure who you are any longer with no one around depending on you to keep them alive and provide them with care?
Or do you find yourself envious of someone else, wishing you could trade spots with them and have your life all figured out, feeling calm, cool, and collected like that person of whom you’re jealous who seems to have everything together?
Or do you find yourself longing to get back what you once had, but feel hemmed in by responsibilities you really have no choice but to fulfill, yet even as you do what you’re supposed to do it’s not leaving you feeling very fulfilled?
Jesus knows us so well. He sees so clearly the root of our struggles just as he saw Nicodemus’. While we’re busying believing that we must be achieving our identity, Jesus graciously focuses us first and foremost what someone else has done and is doing for us and in us: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:5-6). This is the gospel, the Good news of who we are because of the One to whom we belong. Jesus is talking the language of a new kind of life. Being born isn’t something I do. It’s something that happens to me. Being born again means we belong to God. We’re members of his family.
Through faith in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection on our behalf, we are who we are — forgiven, loved, accepted, made new people — not because of our work, but because of God’s work in and through Jesus Christ. In other words, the heart of the Good News isn’t what we must change in order to be accepted by God. The gospel isn’t primarily a call to behavior modification. First and foremost, the gospel calls us to identity transformation. Our identity isn’t something we achieve, it’s something we receive through faith, given to us by God our Father, Jesus our Brother, God’s Spirit, our Helper.
Don’t get me wrong – I firmly believe that the Bible calls us out of sin and into a radically transformed lifestyle of living for God. But what Jesus shares is more than just what needs to happen. He preaches and his Word has the power to make it happen within us. That’s how spiritual transformation happens. It starts first with Jesus changing our identity and that change of identity shows up and shows out in our activity.
Today’s second lesson from Ephesians 4 is a powerful illustration of this reality. Paul says it this way: “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (4:1). The Greek adverb, aksiws, is translated "worthy of." What does this mean? Does it mean that we are to become "worth" God's favor? That is, does "worthy of" mean - deserving or meriting or earning God's blessing?
The short answer is: No. Here’s why: The overall flow of Ephesians is not to "live up to" the Gospel, but rather "live out of" the Gospel. It’s an incredibly important distinction. Instead of saying "Here’s the standard…now live UP TO IT" the Apostle Paul encourages the believer to "live OUT OF" the Gospel through the power of God’s Spirit who brought us to spiritual life and now lives in us.
So think this way. NOT: I must have faith and love so as to be worth God's favor; BUT RATHER: God's favor is free in Christ Jesus and He is infinitely worth trusting. Walking worthy of that favor means walking by faith in Jesus Christ. We don’t do what we do out of our need to become someone before God. We do what we do because in Christ we already are His children. Who we are is defined by God and what he has done for us in Christ. We are a new creation created in Jesus Christ for good works that he prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).
Our “being in Christ” leads to our “Christ-like doing.” We do what we do because we believe in Him and what he has done for us. We love because we are loved by him first. We serve because we were served by Jesus first.
We live on mission for God, not mainly so that God will be pleased with us, but because he has already sent the Son on mission to make us pleasing and acceptable to the Father. Jesus accomplished that decisively for us by his life, death, and resurrection.
The Father is ultimately pleased with us because of Jesus, who loved, served, and was sent to die in our place. So everything we do comes out of what we believe about God and his work for us. This reality doesn’t discourage good works or cause us to become scattered and unfocused in our living. It actually produces good works and motivates us and leads us to willingly and enthusiastically live our lives for God!
We don’t have to do anything to become someone, but we get to and want to do what we do because of what God has done to and for us, and because of who we now are in Christ.
Think of it this way: What God has done to us he now wants to do through us to the world.
Our new being in Christ leads to our new doing for Christ by his power. For in him we discover who we truly are as we embrace his calling upon our lives as dearly loved, children of our Heavenly Father, made pure in the blood of our spiritual brother. To live a life worthy of this calling is just this: we let our family resemblance show by living our lives in ways that truly, clearly, and gratefully reflect our new identity in Christ Jesus. For in Him, we know who we truly are! Amen.