Topical Scripture: John 3:1-8
My title may have caused some of you to wonder if I’m going to endorse a presidential candidate today. I could do that if I wanted our church to lose its non-profit status, and if I wanted to violate the church-state separation essential to Baptist theology and American religious life. So I don’t think I will. Besides, I have another election in mind. One with even larger significance than the debates and campaign of these days. One which will effect every one of us long after the 2004 election is history.
We’ll hear today from two candidates, each presenting his own spiritual platform and hoping for your personal vote. Two of the wisest men of all time, engaged in a debate as current as this week’s news.
Meet the candidate for “good”
Our first candidate is described by his contemporaries as a short, squat, ugly little man with strangely-staring eyes. He is also considered by his peers to be the wisest man who ever lived. Historians usually trace our entire Western culture back to him. You know him as Socrates. He will speak to you now.
Good morning, and thank you for your invitation to speak today. I have but one point to make: your happiness depends on you. You can discover life’s highest value, its greatest good. You can learn all you need to know to accomplish your goals, to fulfill your dreams, to become what you were put on this earth to be. You can do it.
Here’s how: know thyself. The unexamined life is not worth living. But by examining yourself, by correct thinking and learning, you can become anything you want to be. There is an objective Good, and you can know it.
My student Plato put it this way: by right thinking you can escape this world of shadows and know the world of perfection. His student Aristotle claimed that by the right use of logic and reason, you can know that perfect world.
Those who followed them disagreed as to the best way to know the Good, but they all believed that you can do it.
In my ancient world, one group said that ceasing our desires is the way to happiness, while another movement disagreed, claiming that pursuing right pleasure makes us happy. Still another movement claimed that objective knowledge doesn’t exist, so if we’ll cease to seek such knowledge we’ll be happy. Yet another told us to align our lives with Reason and Fate to find happiness.
Many since my time have added their opinions. Immanuel Kant said duty for duty’s sake is the purpose of life. Friedrich Nietzsche told you that the will to power is basic to human fulfillment. Most of your American scholars believe that the greatest good for the greatest number of people produces happiness.
But we all agree: you can choose to be happy. You can accomplish your goals and fulfill your dreams. You can do it.
Abigail Adams, wife of your second president, said it well: “To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.” Your Thomas Jefferson may have said it best: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” You have a right to be happy. And you can seize that right, fulfill that dream.
Most of your countrymen agree. Ninety three percent of you say that you are your own determiner of moral truth. Most of you know that humanity is basically good, that we may sin but that doesn’t make us sinners. We’re good, and we can know and do the good. To be good and to do good is the sum of human purpose.
If your religion helps you to be good and do good, all the better. If coming to church, reading the Bible, praying, doing church work helps you be a better and happier person, by all means be religious. Of course, you know that your faith is just your faith. You have no right to force your beliefs on anyone else. So be tolerant, be good, and do good. This is the sum of life.
Meet the candidate for God
Now let’s meet our other candidate, a Jewish businessman, political leader and scholar named Nicodemus. He is one of the most dynamic and successful people we’ll find anywhere in the biblical world. An astounding resume, Exhibit A for “success” as our culture defines it. Let’s hear from him.
I am pleased to address you today. Our moderator was kind, but accurate. I did actually have everything my society and yours deem important for success. I was everything my opponent wants you to be. Here’s my story.
I was powerful—in fact, I achieved more power than it is possible to possess in your society today.
My name meant “conqueror of the people.” Clearly my parents envisioned great power for their baby boy. Imagine naming your infant son Napoleon or Alexander the Great. I was born with a gavel in my hand, bred for success, raised to conquer.
And I fulfilled my parents’ wildest dreams and fondest hopes. How many of you want your son or daughter to be President of the United States? A member of the Supreme Court? A Senator or Representative? I did all that and more.
As your Bible says, I was a “member of the Jewish ruling council” (v. 1). This group was known as the Sanhedrin—70 men who constituted the Supreme Court of our nation. We possessed ruling authority over every Jew anywhere in the world. We were the court of final appeal. Even the High Priest was subject to our rulings.
If your nation had one ruling body which combined the power of the Supreme Court and the House and Senate, and possessed authority over the president and the military, that body would be our Sanhedrin. And I would be one of its members. There was no more powerful position in all the land. If power can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.
I was also one of the wealthiest people in our nation. After Jesus’ tragic assassination, I donated 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to help bury his crucified body (John 19:38ff.). This was the kind and amount of burial material normally used only for a king, and a very expensive gift.
I was part of the Jewish aristocracy, a very wealthy man. If your Forbes magazine had run a profile on Israel’s wealthiest men, my picture would have been in the article. Probably on its cover. If wealth can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.
And I was spiritual. One of the most religious men in our nation, in fact.
I was a “man of the Pharisees.” There were never more than 6,000 of us in ancient Israel. Our name meant “Separated Ones,” and that’s what we were—separated from all ordinary life to keep every detail of the Jewish law. The dietary codes, Sabbath regulations, everything. We were the Marine Corp of ancient Israel, the holiest men on earth in the eyes of our culture.
And I wasn’t just any Pharisee. I was “the teacher of Israel” (v. 10), a special kind of religious scholar, the man who taught other Pharisees their theology. Dean of the School of Theology, you would call me.
You can find no more religious man in all your Bible. If religion can find God, I should have found God. And yet I didn’t.
To be perfectly frank, I was good—in fact, better than good. I was Billy Graham meets Warren Buffett meets Chief Justice Rehnquist. If my opponent is right, if we can be good and do good in our own efforts, our own power and wealth and religion, I would be living proof. But all my good wasn’t good enough. So I came looking one day for help from the Rabbi I now serve. You should ask his help as well.
Cast your ballot
Now, before you vote for the candidate of your choice, I’d like to offer some concluding remarks. As a teacher of God’s word, I need you to know what it says about the election you’ll decide this morning.
I know that our culture votes for Socrates: we’re good people who can be good and do good. We haven’t hurt anyone, we try to be tolerant and helpful and moral. Humanity is basically good. And we’re included in that optimistic assessment.
But God says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Raise your hand if you’ve never sinned, if you’re the exception.
OK, we all make mistakes. Surely we’re better than most of the people we hear about in the news. But listen to God’s word: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10).
So I’ve broken God’s law. What does that mean? “The payment for sin is death” (Romans 6:23), for “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:20). Our sins have separated us from God, so that we cannot get into his heaven.
Like Nicodemus, we need to repent of our sins. The word means to “change,” to admit them, to ask God’s forgiveness, to refuse to continue them. Unless you’re perfect, God requires repentance rather than self-righteousness. Unless you’re perfect, good isn’t good enough with him.
I know that our culture votes for Socrates: whatever you believe is fine so long as your faith is tolerant and helps you to be a good person.
“In God We Trust,” our money says. Eighty seven percent of us say we believe God exists. Ninety one percent of American women pray, as do 85 percent of American men. We believe in God.
But listen to his word: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons do that—and shudder” (James 2:19). Three times in the gospels, demons call Jesus the Son of God. Every demon believes in God.
And everyone in hell will, too. Here’s the future for all who believe in God but do not trust in him: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). On that day, every person on this planet will know that there is a God, for they will stand before his throne personally.
You can vote for Socrates, and try to become everything Nicodemus was before he met Jesus. Or you can vote for Nicodemus and become everything he is today—the born-again child of God, with purpose and joy on earth and eternal reward in paradise.
Our church wants to help you make the right decision. As I told our Sunday school teachers this morning, and our choir, deacons, trustees, and staff in recent weeks, the Lord has made clear to me that our highest emphasis this fall must be on knowing that we know Jesus. We will give every attender a personal opportunity to have the assurance of his or her salvation. This is “job one” in these months, our God-given responsibility and privilege together. You’ll be hearing much more on this subject in coming weeks.
For today, I invite you to go to the same Rabbi who helped Nicodemus. You can believe what he heard: “You must be born again” (John 3:7). You can ask this Rabbi to forgive your mistakes and failures and sins. You can repent of your self-righteousness, of seeking enough power and wealth and knowledge to be happy and successful. You can be born-again, today. You can know that you know God.
Now we’ll cast our votes. This morning’s election isn’t about who lives in the White House, but who lives in God’s house. No absentee ballots will be accepted. This decision is for eternity. Vote wisely.