On April 10, 1912, the Titanic departed from Southampton, England on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic to the United States. Among the many passengers and crew onboard the ship were six lookouts who kept watch in the crow’s nest toward the front of the ship for any dangers ahead. There were always two lookouts in the crow’s nest and they served for two hour shifts because of the extreme cold. At 10 pm on the night of April 14, as Frederick Fleet and Reginald Lee began their shift in the nest, they were given the order to watch for small ice. The sea was calm and there was no moon in the night sky. That made it harder to spot an iceberg because the lookouts would watch for the reflection of waves breaking on an iceberg, and there was none. During their time at sea, the lookouts had made several requests to be provided with binoculars, but binoculars were never supplied to them even though there were some on the ship.
At 11:39 pm, Fleet spotted the iceberg rang the ship’s bell three times to indicate danger ahead. He then phoned the bridge and said the fateful words, “Iceberg! Right ahead!” The order was given to reverse the engines and change course, but it was too late. The Titanic struck the iceberg on her starboard side, rupturing five of the ship’s watertight compartments. The Titanic was doomed. Two hours and forty minutes later, she sank. More than 1,500 people died making it one of the deadliest maritime disasters in history.
Could the sinking of the Titanic have been avoided if the lookouts had binoculars? That is a matter of debate with some experts saying that it wouldn’t have mattered. However, during the U.S. inquiry into the sinking of the Titanic, Frederick Fleet repeatedly testified that if the lookouts had had binoculars, the disaster would have been avoided.[i]
In a way, you and I and every other human being are sailing through life like the Titanic. Sometimes there are rough seas and icebergs. Sometimes there are sunshine and calm waters. As we each make our journey through life, what are the binoculars we need to avoid our life ending in disaster and enable us to arrive at a safe harbor in the end? To help us as we think about that question, we are going to reflect on John 3:1-21. If you have a Bible or a Bible app nearby, I invite you to turn there now.
The Necessity of Spiritual Rebirth
As we do that, we see that a man named Nicodemus has come to Jesus at night to visit with him. Perhaps he wanted to avoid the crowds that tended to gather around Jesus during the day and have a longer unhurried conversation with him. Or maybe, as a Pharisee and a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, he didn’t want people to know that he was coming to visit Jesus. The Bible doesn’t tell us. But the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night fits with the themes of darkness and light that run throughout John’s Gospel and the rest of the Bible also.
Nicodemus starts off telling Jesus that he recognizes that he is a great teacher sent from God. The miracles that Jesus did could not be done unless he was sent from God. 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (John 3:3) This phrase “born again” could also be translated as “born from above” as it is in the Message paraphrase, and the context suggests that this is the best understanding. What Jesus is talking about is spiritual rebirth and he is, in effect, saying, “You tell me that you recognize that I come from God, but I am telling you that no one can really see the kingdom of God unless they experience spiritual rebirth, or are “born from above.”
But why does Jesus respond to Nicodemus in this way? I think that it is because Nicodemus is part of a branch of the Jewish people called the Pharisees. And the Pharisees, as they taught people about God, totally ignored what goes on inside a person. Their emphasis was completely on external obedience. This is totally the opposite of what Jesus taught about what life with God is like. In Matthew 23, Jesus goes after the Pharisees and one of the things he says is this: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:27-28) Back in that time, they would often bury dead bodies in caves. But if you came back to Jerusalem for one of the pilgrimage festivals and decided to camp out for the night in one of the many caves around Jerusalem, if there was a dead body in that cave and you touched it, you would become ritually unclean and unable to attend worship at the Temple, which was the reason you came to Jerusalem in the first place. What they would do to prevent this from happening is paint whitewash on the outside of the cave so that people would know that it was a tomb and stay away from it. Jesus is saying to the Pharisees that they are just like those whitewashed tombs. They look good on the outside, but on the inside they are full of death and sin.
What Jesus taught is that the darkness and evil inside of us needs to be dealt with. And Jesus did that for us by taking our sins away from us, carrying them to the cross, and paying the full punishment that our sins deserve. We know that to be true because on the third day that followed his death, Jesus rose from the dead, he is alive and he is with us right now. By his resurrection, Jesus has proved that he has paid the full cost of forgiveness for all sins because death, which is the consequence of sin, no longer had any hold on Jesus.
Jesus has taken away all of our sin, guilt, and shame, and in exchange he has brought to life within us a new person. This new person is born from above, in Jesus we are heaven people living in an earthly world. This new person loves God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind, and loves their neighbor as much as they love themselves. This new person wants to obey God, not because they have to, but because they want to in response to all that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit has done, is continuing to do, and will do for them in the future. In this life, we still carry around our old sinful nature in bodies that are frail, broken and headed toward dust. But when we die, our old sinful nature will be purged from us. Our body will be laid in the ground, but Jesus will take the hand of that new person whom he brought to life the moment we first believed in him and he will lead us to the temporary home he has prepared for us as we wait with him for the fullness that is yet to come.
And at the end of time, Jesus will return to this world in a visible way, he will raise our dusty, dead bodies from the ground and make them new again. He will put us back together again, that new person living in our renewed body, and we will never grow old, get sick or die again. Jesus will defeat death once and for all, he drive all evil from his creation and he will make it new again. He will put heaven and earth back together like they were in the beginning and we will live with Jesus, along with countless others “…from every nation, tribe, people and language…” (Rev. 7:9) praising him forevermore in the new heaven and earth.
The Necessity of the Holy Spirit
Nicodemus misunderstood all this and wondered how a person could re-enter their mother’s womb and be born again. Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5) Here Jesus points Nicodemus to the cause of the spiritual rebirth we need. It doesn’t come from a mother’s womb, it comes from water and the Spirit, which sounds a lot like Holy Baptism. I say that because in Acts 2:38, God tells us through Peter, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38) A birth from the Holy Spirit is necessary because flesh can only give birth to flesh. It takes the Holy Spirit to give us a spiritual rebirth. And just as the wind blows wherever it wants and we can neither control or see it, so it is with everyone born of the Holy Spirit. Human beings cannot cause the new birth to happen or help it along, nor can we see it. New birth 100% the work of the Holy Spirit and it happens when, where, and how he knows is best.
The Necessity of Faith in Jesus
Nicodemus still finds this difficult to understand and that is because he has not accepted Jesus’ testimony which makes is clear that he is more than a teacher sent from God. Jesus is, as Peter confessed, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (cf. Mt. 16:13-20). Only by accepting the earthly reality of that confession, and believing it to be true, would Nicodemus experience the new birth and the new frame of mind that comes with it and be able to understand the heavenly realities that Jesus declares. The same is true with every other human being on earth. We cannot truly understand what the Bible is saying unless we first accept that Jesus is who he says he is, that we believe in him as our Lord and Savior, and through that faith receive a new birth and a new mind from Jesus. I know of a person who described their life before believing in Jesus as being filled with confusion, but not just about the words of the Bible. Everything about life was confusing to them, but when they experienced the new birth that is given through faith in Jesus Christ, life became clear for them. The Holy Spirit not only gives us new life, he also gives us a new mind so that we can better understand helps us understand both earthly and heavenly realities.
Jesus knows and understands both earthly and heavenly realities because he came from heaven. He is God the Son who became fully human in the womb of Mary so he could stand in our place and undo all the damage that has been done by sin, death and the devil. And just as everyone who looked in faith at the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness was saved from the death, so also everyone who looks in faith at Jesus lifted up on the cross will be saved from eternal death. As we read in this passage, 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:16-18)
Dear friend, without help from God, we would go sailing full speed ahead through life, just like the Titanic, not realizing the danger we are in. Because of our sinful nature, we are already under condemnation and destined to spend eternity apart from him and his love. It is not God who condemns us, it is our sin that condemns us. But Jesus has taken our sins away from us and given us new life in a new ship, and with him as our captain, he will safely pilot us to the safe harbor of the wonderful future he has in store for us.
The Impact of One Person with New Life
John Harper was born from his mother’s womb in 1872, was born from above 13 years later, and began preaching when he was 17. In 1912, he was called to be the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago, and he, along with his 6-year-old daughter Nana, traveled on the Titanic to his new calling in America. When the ship hit the iceberg, Harper made sure that Nana got into a lifeboat, but he made no effort to save himself. He went throughout the ship yelling, “Women, children, and unsaved into the lifeboats!” He then began witnessing to anyone who would listen. He continued to witness to people even after he had jumped into the water and clung to a piece of floating wreckage. He had given his life jacket to someone else.
Four years later, in Hamilton, Ontario, a survivor of the Titanic gave his testimony:
I am a survivor of the Titanic. When I was drifting alone on a spar that awful night, the tide brought Mr. Harper of Glasgow, also on a piece of wreck, near me. “Man,” he said, “are you saved?” “No,” I said, “I am not.” He replied, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”
The waves bore him away, but, strange to say, brought him back a little later, and he said, “Are you saved now?” “No,” I said, “I cannot honestly say that I am.” He said again, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” and shortly after he went down; and there, alone in the night, and with two miles of water under me, I believed. I am John Harper’s last convert.
He was also one of only six people picked out the water by the lifeboats; the other 1,522, including Harper, were left to die.[ii]
Dear friend, John Harper is just one example of the countless followers of Jesus who have made a positive impact on this earthly realm because they lived according to the heavenly realities taught to them by Jesus. So what are the binoculars we need to avoid our life ending in disaster and enable us to arrive in a safe harbor in the end? Faith that trusts in Jesus. Faith that trusts in the Holy Spirit. Faith that embraces the new life Jesus gives us. So the challenge that I am setting before you today is to live with that kind of faith. Amen.
(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on May 14, 2023. For the podcast of this message, click here. For more information about WGLC, go to wglc.org.)
[i] “Frederick Fleet,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Internet; available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Fleet; accessed May 3, 2023), and “Titanic,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Internet; available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Titanic; accessed May 3, 2023).
[ii] Sylvester Ferguson“Titanic’s Last Hero,” Sermon Central (Internet; available at: https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermon-illustrations/64823/titanic-s-last-hero-by-sylvester-fergusson; accessed May 12, 2023) from Elesha Coffman, “Sacrifice at Sea,” Christianhistory.net( August 11, 2000), adapted from The Titanic’s Last Hero (Moody Press, 1977).