Summary: 1. Confession 2. Repentence 3. Conversion 4. Faith
I just spent a horrible week in the Ozarks. Two friends and I planned a canoe trip and had been preparing for months. If you followed the weather two weeks ago, you know there was a line of storms that kept sweeping through the South, one right after the other. Our campground had to be evacuated because of flooding, and the Current River which we had hoped to canoe and camp on was closed by the Park Service. We drove to Kentucky trying to find a place to put our canoes in the water, and finally found a swamp where we paddled for less than an hour before another storm came and rained us out.
There are poisonous snakes in the area, and I told the other men with me that we needed to be cautious, because with all the rain, there was not a snake in the area that was still in its hole. The other guys were studying a map of the area and I walked over to a clump of bushes with only sport sandals on my feet. When I turned around there was a snake, just inches from the back of my heel. I jumped about four feet straight into the air.
No one had to tell me to get away from that snake as fast as I could. I did not stop and look it up in a snake identification book before I decided what to do. I did not pause to plot my course. I just jumped and ran. I knew what I needed to do to be saved. No one had to encourage me. There was a clear and present danger, and I was doing everything I could to move away from it.
There is a way in which we are all in a similar, yet perhaps more subtle danger. We are in danger of existing, but never living. We are in danger of being religious, but never really knowing God. We are in danger of knowing about God, but never experiencing him. We are in danger of living only for this life, and not being prepared for what is to come. This does not seem as dangerous to us, but it is the plan of our spiritual enemy to lead us away from God and keep us from experiencing him. The Bible says, “The great dragon was hurled down — that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Revelation 12:9). The danger from this serpent is that we will be led astray from our real purpose in this world — to know God and live for him, and be separated from him in the world to come.
So this morning I want to give a very simple message about how a person experiences God. Sometimes even sincere people who have grown up in the church do not understand what it means to experience God, or how to make it a reality in their life. This was the case with Nicodemus, the man in our scripture this morning who was a Pharisee. He was a religious leader in Isreael, and yet he did not understand what it meant to know God. He was a good and religious person. He was knowledgeable of the Scriptures. But he thought that a relationship with God was all about performance. He thought that the better he was at keeping the rules, the closer to God he was.
Jesus confused Nicodemus when he said, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Jesus was talking about a relationship with God, and Nicodemus was thinking in terms of following rules. Jesus was talking about an experience with God, and Nicodemus was used to thinking in terms of obedience to God. Jesus was talking about entering into a new kind of experience — a birth into the spiritual world, and Nicodemus did not understand the spiritual world and what it meant to be born into it. Many faithful church people today are mystified by it as well. So let’s line this out as simply as we can.
Where do you begin? Let’s say that a person either knows they have been living away from God and wants to come home, or they are just unsure of whether they have been, as Jesus said, born anew spiritually. Where do you start? How does a person come to know God and experience him? There are a few simple steps. The first step is: Confession. This is simple, but it is also difficult. It is simple because it is simply a matter of admitting that we have failed; it is difficult because it is a matter of admitting we have failed. Our tendency is to want to justify ourselves and explain our behavior. We want to compare ourselves with others, but God calls us to be honest and admit our sin, confessing it to him, and possibly to others as well. The last thing we want to do is to take an honest look at our sin and face the wrong things we have done. We don’t like to admit we are wrong. But this is exactly what we must do. King David gives us the model prayer when he said: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge” (Psalm 51:1-4).