Many people say to themselves "I want to change; I want to be different". At the start of a new year we often talk this way, saying that we’re going to have a "New Year’s Resolution": in some way we promise that we’ll be different in the coming 12 months. But also at other times in life we say similar same things, such as "I’m going to turn over a new leaf." The desire for change is a regular, ongoing, feeling within many of us. And I want to talk about it in this afternoon’s sermon.
What I’m going to do is this. Firstly, I want us to think for a short time about the ways in which we want to change. Then I’d like to tell you about an occasion when Jesus met with a man and talked about personal change. Then we’ll complete the sermon by looking at what Jesus’ words mean for us.
Our wish to change
Let’s consider, then, our desire for change. What do we mean when we say "I want to change?" What exactly is it that we wish was altered?
Well the type of change I’m talking about is personal change. I’m not talking about doing up the house or finding a new job, but rather a person becoming different in one way or another. And that type of change varies from person to person
With some people their frustration is with a trait in them which they wish wasn’t there. Maybe they feel they’re too shy and wish they could be more outgoing. Or maybe they feel their too loud and wish they could hold their tongues at times. Another person feels they’re too prone to silliness – making a joke out of everything – and they would love to be able to treat things more seriously. Whereas somebody else has the opposite problem: they’re always missing the joke and taking everything in a very sensible way. Somebody else feels that they’re prone to bossing others about, unlike another person who feels that they’re too weak and always being pushed around. On and on it goes: I’m sure you can think of many more examples, but it is the case that many of us are frustrated by our traits, our characteristics.
Emotions and thoughts
But then for other people the bigger problem is with their moods: the way in which a particular set of feelings washes over them without them being able to control it. One person finds that they’re always snapping at people; giving sharp responses over the most trivial of matters; and it’s because they live with a regular feeling of frustration. Another person finds that sadness wells up quickly within them: it doesn’t take much to bring tears to their eyes;; they’re living with an inner feeling of upset and disturbance. Then another may struggle with anger. They’re on a short leash: a little provocation, something they don’t like, and they’re wanting to lash out, get revenge, bring justice; they’re living with feelings that seem out of control. For each of these people, there can be a deep desire to change: to have greater management of their feelings and emotions rather than being driven by them.
Then for others, the problem is more about the way their brain works. There is something about the functioning of their brain which irritates them. Maybe it’s their memory: it just doesn’t work the way they want it too: they forget things which matter and remember pointless nonsense. Or maybe it’s the ability to empathise with others: they just never quite understand how other people tick and what other people mean. Or maybe it’s cynicism or pessimism: having a brain which is always seeing everything in a negative and dark way.
Well, I could go on for a lot longer in describing ways in which many of us want to change and you could, no doubt, tell me many more: we’ve not even attempted to dive into the ways in which people are unhappy with their looks and body shapes. And I also know that the categories I’ve used to break down our desires for changes – traits; feelings; brain functions – all overlap and it’s not easy to find a neat way to lay these things out. Many scientists have spent years trying to analyse and explain such things.
But really all I’m trying to do is illustrate my first point: many – maybe all – of us have ways in which we want to change; ways in which we personally want to be different. To use a catch-phrase: we’re not comfortable in our skins.
But why is that?
You see, when you stop and think about it, it really doesn’t make much sense that we should dislike ourselves. After all, this is the one life we get and it’s really short. For the most part we cannot control what we are: it’s either genetics, upbringing, circumstances or all three; and generally you cannot do much about them. And anyway, if you believe some scientists, we’re simply the product of very very long chemical processes that have gone on over millions of years to shape and form us appropriately for our environment. So why bother fretting about what you’re like? Why have this deep desire for change? It doesn’t make sense.
Yet we find the desire is triggered so easily. We only have to meet somebody else who’s different, and we start to feel this way. Either we resent what they’re like because they seem to have everything together, life under control, and we wish a bit of trouble would come their way. Or we are jealous and wind ourselves up wishing that we had what they’ve got. You know the proverb: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The desire for change so readily gets stirred up inside. But why? Why are we like this? Why can’t we simply be happy with what we are for the ridiculously short time that we have to live here?
Well, I’d like to give you the Bible’s answer, and do that by talking about a meeting which Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus. I want to tell you about this incident because in the words he spoke, Jesus gave an answer to question of "why do we want to change?" and he also opened up a way to find real change in life.
So let me tell you about Jesus and Nicodemus.
Jesus and Nicodemus
Nicodemus was an important man in the first century Jewish society in which both he and Jesus lived. And one evening he came to Jesus wanting to meet and discuss some things with him. However, we don’t actually know what drove Nicodemus to go to Jesus because before he could ask a question or make a request, Jesus turned the whole conversation around, challenging Nicodemus with a statement of his own.
The whole fascinating encounter is recorded in the Bible in John chapter 3. However, this afternoon we do not have time to look at all of it. What I want to do is concentrate upon Jesus’ opening line to Nicodemus. He said this: "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
An important man
To begin with, it’s important to know a little about Nicodemus. He was a man who had either made something of himself or had been born into a good situation. Whichever one was true, by the time he met Jesus he was an older man who had risen up in his society until he became a member of the ruling council: one of the men in his culture who controlled how their society worked. Actually, they didn’t have ultimate power because their country – Israel – was under the domination of a foreign empire: Rome. Nonetheless this council was still influential and powerful within limits and Nicodemus was a member of it.
Yet Nicodemus was also a humble man, willing to learn from others; or at least he was by the time we hear about him. I say that because when Nicodemus came to Jesus he called him a "Rabbi" – a teacher. And he also said that he was sure Jesus had come from God because all the things Jesus did. That shows humility.
You see, you might have expected somebody like Nicodemus to be worldy-wise, slightly cynical and very protective of his status, such that he wouldn’t pay attention to people like Jesus. After all, as Jesus points out, Nicodemus was a teacher himself – and by that is meant not just a teacher of children but a teacher of his nation. He was one of the highly-respected men who guided others – adult and child – in their understanding of God and of life. As Jesus points out elsewhere, men like Nicodemus were often recognised in public and given honour by those around them. They would sit in special seats at public meetings and find others listening to their views and opinions. Nicodemus was honoured, and probably also comfortably off due to his position.
A humble man
And so, you might easily think of him, therefore, as very proud and unwilling to listen to a common workman like Jesus who came from an unimportant part of the country and who had no official status, honour or role within their country.
But Nicodemus wasn’t like that: he was ready to listen; ready to learn; ready to admit that there was something of God about Jesus. Nicodemus was the sort of man who was open to new things, even whilst he upheld the great traditions of the past. Open to learning from others, even whilst he was himself a teacher. He had a nice balance between the different strands of life.
Indeed I can imagine that had you met him, you might have looked at Nicodemus as someone who had pretty much got his life together. Probably the sort of man whom you’d feel wouldn’t need to change and anyway was almost certainly at a time in his life when change would have been too radical a step. A settled, older man who had found his place in the world.
All of which makes Jesus’ opening line to him all the more shocking, because Jesus challenged him straight away to his need of radical change: "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
Searching for God’s kingdom
Now the very fact that Jesus spoke in this way, before Nicodemus had said anything of significance, indicates that there was already something troubling Nicodemus. Although it might have seemed that outwardly he was in a good place; inwardly he was bothered. There was something he didn’t have and he wanted to have it in his life. There was something he was looking for and thought Jesus might help him find it. Maybe he was embarrassed by approaching Jesus to talk about this and that’s why he came to him in the evening – we don’t know for sure and the reason we’re told it’s night here is probably for other reasons. But the key point stands, which is that something was bothering him and Jesus had the insight to recognise that in Nicodemus and so went straight to the topic of the kingdom of God.
What was it that Nicodemus looking for? He was looking to know that he would share in a future that God had long promised. Nicodemus believed that God had said that one day he would create a kingdom where his people could live in peace and joy, knowing the blessing of God. People living under the perfect, non-stop, care of God. The promise of this kingdom went back a long way: centuries in time. But the Jewish people – who had lived very troubled lives for hundreds of years – longed for the promise to come true. Men like Nicodemus, who were teachers of others, especially thought about it, talked about it and wanted to find it. Nicodemus, therefore, was wondering whether Jesus had an answer which he hadn’t yet discovered.
But what Jesus told him, unnerved him deeply. The words came like a bolt out of the blue: "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
The opening to Jesus’ words made them very solemn. When Jesus says "I tell you the truth" it’s actually just the words "amen, amen". They mean "here is something you must take with the deep seriousness; here is something you must know." Then Jesus drew, with his words, an immediate line in the sand: "No-one can see the kingdom of God unless…"
That was a shocking thing for Jesus to say to Nicodemus. He was telling him that everyone was excluded from God’s kingdom unless they had been through a radical change. Whereas Nicodemus had grown up believing, and had taught, the opposite. He believed that certain people were pretty certain of being in God’s kingdom: those to whom the promises had been made and who had tried to live faithfully for God. Good Israelites, like himself.
But Jesus cut away Nicodemus’ assumptions and set up a new standard. It was one Nicodemus should have known from all his reading of the Old Testament part of the Bible. Yet he didn’t. So when Jesus said "no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again", Nicodemus didn’t understand him. What did Jesus mean? How could somebody, like himself, already long in years re-enter their mother and be born afresh? How can somebody restart their life in that way?
The problem of sin
What did Jesus mean by his words? He was telling Nicodemus that no person, no matter how well they’ve lived, is worthy of God. No-one is capable of simply breezing into God’s kingdom. Jesus was telling Nicodemus that no-one will be cared for by God without a radical change in their life first. Nicodemus thought the way into God’s kingdom was fairly simple: it was just a matter of finding out when it would begin and then right-thinking people like himself would immediately become members of it – God liked people like him! Jesus was telling him, "you have no place in it unless something changes with you."
To put this another way, Jesus was telling Nicodemus – a moral, good, religious man – that he didn’t understand God; he didn’t understand himself; and he was making wild assumptions about his future which were not true.
But what had Nicodemus missed? He had failed to see his sin. Sin is the Bible’s word for our falling short of the way of life God made us to live. It’s about our waywardness: doing our own thing, living our way. It means we no longer match what we were originally designed for. In Israel Jesus preached to people that no matter what they thought about themselves, the fact was that they were failing God. And he said that that problem needed a dramatic sorting: they needed to see their lives turned around and changed. Only then could they find a place under God’s loving care and protection.
Removing what’s wrong
Nicodemus should have already known this. The idea could be found throughout the pages of the Bible which he regularly read, memorised and taught to others. And he knew it in his own heart. He knew that some barrier existed between him and God. After all, why was he having to ask Jesus at all about the way into God’s kingdom? Why didn’t he – as a teacher and important person – simply know the answer for himself? Because there was a barrier between himself and God. God was displeased with Nicodemus because he was not what God wanted him to be; he was trapped in sin.
So for all his good points, Nicodemus needed a brand new start to his life. And as Jesus goes on to explain, that has to be by God’s grace. Which means God breaking into a person’s life and changing them, simply because God chooses to be merciful to them. It means God removing from them the old, corrupt ways which offend Him and making their hearts different, so that they truly live for Him. God has to recreate a person – heart and soul – if they are to live with God forever in joy and peace. Nicodemus needed that. Everyone does. "No-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."
You can change
So we started this sermon by thinking about the fact that we all want to change and then we asked ourselves "why is that?" Now we’ve taken a look at Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus and in that we’ve been given an answer. We all want to change because there really is something deeply wrong at the heart of every person. We are not what we were designed to be. We are sinners: people out of touch, indeed rebelling against, the creator who gave us life. We really do need to restart life.
That’s why we have these desires for change in our lives. It’s why we’re dissatisfied with what we are. It’s because there is a perfect standard for life – God’s standard – which we are not meeting. And somewhere far inside us, we know that. Our conscience nags us. Through our consciences, God is telling us that we are not what we should be. And the problem needs fixing with a comprehensive and thorough solution. Only then will life come right.
Believe in Jesus
This is what Jesus offers to us; just as he said to Nicodemus. He offers change. He offers a new start. No matter how badly we’ve lived life thus far. No matter how old or young we are. Life can be restarted with Jesus and with him those longings for change can be met.
How does this happen? Well Jesus later on in his conversation with Nicodemus Jesus speaks the following words: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Those words tell us how change can happen. Jesus speaks of all people as "perishing". We are dying. Our lives are gradually falling apart and will end in the dust of the grave. An unchanged life ends in nothingness, in ruin, in death.
But it need not be like that. Through belief in the Son of God – by which Jesus means himself – a person can begin a new life, a life which doesn’t end, a life which goes on forever. In other words they can begin a life which is back in touch with God and knows God’s generous and loving care forever more: they will never die.
This is the amazing gift which Jesus Christ gives to those who believe in him. It can only come about by God working in our lives and changing us. We cannot change ourselves and make ourselves worthy of eternal life. If anybody could do that, then it was Nicodemus but even he fell short of God; and you and I certainly do. Only Jesus Christ can save us and change us. Only he can change our lives and make us acceptable to God.
So Jesus calls you to believe in him.
Live for Jesus
But what does that mean? Put your trust in him. Take seriously the things he says. Be certain that he is alive today and can help you. Pray to him, entrusting your life into his hands. Then live for him – learning his ways – to show that you really do believe in him. Some people talk about being "born again" Christians but their lives look no different to anyone else’s. You’d never guess that they thought Jesus is all important and his teaching to be the pattern for life. A true Christian who has begun a new life through God’s power, shows their trust in Jesus by wanting to live for him, learning from him the way life should be – the new life which God has granted to them.
But what will the change look and feel like? It’s all very well to say that believing Jesus brings a re-born life. But how does that work itself out? And why don’t many Christians seem so very different from anybody else? Is it true that they’ve got a brand new sort of life?
Well let me try to explain three of the alterations that will come about and make your life new if you follow Jesus Christ.
A clear conscience
Firstly, you will know that you’ve been forgiven for those things within you which are wrong. Some of our traits and characteristics are simply wrong: they should not be done. The man who physically lashes out at others every time he’s frustrated by something; the woman who cannot help but indulge in back-biting and gossip about others; the child who uses lies almost without thinking in order to get themselves out of tricky situations; and so on. We all have traits which seem built into us, and yet we are ashamed and feel guilty when we do them.
Well the first change you’ll find with Jesus is that you’ll know those things have been forgiven. By which is meant that God will not hold them against you; your conscience can be at peace.
Of course you may still need to sort things out with others. If you have sinned then Jesus calls you to put it right if you can. But whether or not it can be sorted out, you can live with a clear conscience through faith in Jesus. He promises to all his people that their wrongdoing will be wiped away: completely forgiven by God.
You see ultimately everything we do wrong is a crime against God. Yes we mistreat other people. But other people have been made by God, in his image, and they belong to Him. So in wronging them, we are ultimately wronging God. But God, through Jesus, has provided a way to be forgiven for every sin. Put your life into Jesus’ hands and you’ll receive forgiveness. That’s the first big change he’ll bring to you: your shame and guilt will be wiped away.
A changing life
But then Jesus will change your life in a second way, by giving you new ways of living. The old, rotten ways will be removed and new better ways will come. Jesus does this by changing his people from the inside using the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Now, this change comes gradually not immediately, which makes it quite a difficult process to live with. You’ll find that many Christians still feel that they fail God badly, fail to be what they should be. And indeed they do because God doesn’t overturn in a single moment, all the long-term issues within us that need changing. He works slowly through a process which involves us learning from the Bible, living it out in everyday life and seeking his powerful Holy Spirit’s help to do so. God hasn’t made this a click-of-the-fingers change.
Furthermore, Christians often find that the changes which God brings into their lives first are not the ones we wish he would bring. That’s why Christians often feel they’ve not changed as much as they should – it’s because they still feel acutely things which they think should have been sorted out years ago. But God often changes other traits first.
I suspect this is partly to keep the Christian trusting in Jesus Christ. Those areas of conscious failure are powerful reminders to us that we cannot change ourselves but need to rely fully on the power of Jesus to make us new. But gradual change also tells us that God’s priorities are not our own. We feel our weakness in many ways but can so easily overlook much bigger problems, which God wants to work on first.
However, although it is gradual a Christian will experience real change that will take his or her life in directions it would never have gone in otherwise.
Hope for the future
And Christians also gain, thirdly, the hope of future change. Hope is the belief that the future will be better than the present. Every Christian has that from Jesus. He has promised that he will return to us from heaven and make all things new. And that will be the fulfilling of our desires for change, because in making all things new, Jesus will deal with every area of our lives which needs to be different. Which means he will not only, once and for all, remove sinful and wicked ways, but will remake all the damaged parts of our lives too. Jesus has promised to everyone who trusts in him that they will receive a resurrection body which will be fit for everlasting life and full of God’s power. In that body all the problems which have come to us through genetics, through upbringing, through life circumstances will be sorted out. Total change, rejuvenating our lives.
Now that’s yet to come. However, the hope of that changes a Christian even now because it gives a whole new way to look at our brief lives. We don’t have to be depressed by what we are, for it will change.
So you can change. You can change through belief in Jesus Christ. He will clear your conscience; reshape your life; and give you hope for the future. That’s real change. Put your trust in him today.