Baptism: Born Again, Born from Above
Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At one time or another, every Christian feels the need to have some sort of sign or evidence that God is truly in his or her life. For some Christians, this happens during times of great loneliness or hardship. In the midst of his struggle, a suffering Christian will deeply desire some sort of assurance, some indication from God, that everything is going to turn out okay. “Lord, just give me a sign!”
Other Christians desire a sign from God when they are agonizing over a major decision in life, such as whether to change jobs; whether to marry this girl or that one. “If God would give me some small indication that He is guiding me in all of this, my difficult dilemma would not seem quite so daunting.”
Still other Christians will look at their ongoing struggle with sin and despairingly think that God could not possibly remain with such a sinful person. “I’ve really blown it this time. If only God would give me some sort of sign or assurance to let me know that I am still one of His children… that I haven’t fallen out of His grace… then I might find some comfort.”
If you find yourself every once in a while searching for or wishing you could have a special sign from God, today’s Gospel is for you. Nicodemus sought exactly the same thing—and he thought he had found it in the miracles he saw Jesus perform. But let’s let Nicodemus tell us the story himself.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a biblical scholar, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. I suppose I am the equivalent of what you might call a seminary professor, a doctor of theology. I want to tell you about a night that changed my life.
It was during the early days of Jesus’ ministry; His popularity was at its peak. I was intrigued by His miraculous signs: water turned into wine, people healed, and demons cast out. It was new and exciting. You could really tell that something special was happening. These signs made me feel good. It seemed like I had finally tapped into something deeply spiritual. I felt as though all my prayers had been answered, and all my worries could be put to rest.
Jesus was in Jerusalem with His disciples for the Passover. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go meet Him in person. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I came to Jesus secretly in the middle of the night. I suppose I feared the reaction of my colleagues, the other Pharisees, who saw Jesus as a threat. I saw no need to offend them… at least until I checked this man out for myself.
“Rabbi,” I said, “we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.”
Jesus’ reply caught me off guard: “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It seemed like He didn’t really want to talk about His miracles. I remember thinking: “What do you do signs for if you’re not going to talk about them? Isn’t that the point of doing signs—to draw attention to yourself? To convince others of your authenticity?”
It was only later that I figured out that Jesus wanted to speak about something greater than miraculous signs… something more assuring… something more comforting… something more sure… something that remains with you forever. Jesus wanted to talk about being born again, born from above.
Born again? What’s that mean? Jesus certainly didn’t mean that a person must undergo a second physical birth, did He? Granted: That would be a pretty significant miracle. But I couldn’t picture any mother in her right mind wanting to go through that. So I asked Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Birth from our human parents does not bring us into the kingdom of God. It only brings us into the sinful, condemned, dying human race that is outside of the kingdom of God. Contrary to what some teach, all infants begin their lives under sin’s influence and condemnation. David makes this clear in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Babies may look as pure as spring water, but the source is polluted by original sin. A thousand physical rebirths could not change that reality. But there is a water that purifies, a water that brings with it God’s Spirit. Centuries earlier, Ezekiel had prophesied of the time when the Lord would give this gift to His people: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees” (36:25-27). In Baptism, God gives us the gift of His Spirit and a clean heart. Through the water and Word, the Holy Spirit works a new birth that makes us children of God and heirs of His kingdom.
Jesus saw that I was still confused. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus was right. We human beings just can’t understand the working of God’s Spirit any more than we can predict the wind blowing on us. We know when it blows, and it affects us when it does. But we don’t see it. We can’t be certain when or where or from what angle it will come. We can only see the results, the fruits of the Spirit. So everyone born of the Spirit cannot fully understand how God in His wisdom sends the Spirit. We just know He does!
I couldn’t believe what I heard. More to the point, I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. I probably should have let it go, but I had to satisfy my human reason. So I asked Jesus one more time, “How can these things be?”
Needless to say, Jesus’ rebuke didn’t exactly build my self-esteem. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things? If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
If was as if He was saying, “Nicodemus, you ought to be able to grasp this. A lot of what you have already learned in Scripture points to this. It’s all there for you already; you just need to look at it from a different perspective. You’re supposed to be one of the most respected teachers in Israel, but you don’t even get the most fundamental doctrines yet. You should be ready for quantum physics, but you’re still struggling with 2+2. You should be defending your doctoral thesis, but you don’t know your ABC’s yet. You’re looking for signs and missing salvation.”
Fortunately, Jesus is a patient teacher. He directed me back to the Scriptures that I had studied and taught for so many years. He drew an analogy between the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the desert and His own saving work for the world. Just as the serpent was lifted up on a pole, Jesus was to be lifted up on a cross.
Jesus summed up this plan with these simple words, you maybe learned them as “the Gospel in a nutshell”: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Perhaps this Good News is so familiar that it seems like old news. Maybe you have forgotten what a miracle God did in your life when He made you His child in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Perhaps you fail to remember what a privilege it is that Jesus comes to you for your forgiveness with His body and blood in His holy Supper. Maybe you don’t realize what a blessing it is to confess your sins and to hear Jesus’ absolution from God’s called and ordained servant.
You may have already been a Christian long enough that you have even taken God’s love and forgiveness for granted. But this was totally new for me. To be honest I didn’t fully understand what Jesus was saying until I saw Him hanging on the cross and then risen from the dead three days later. It was confusing and sounded too good to be true. No human being could have devised such a plan. No one would have imagined it. It could never work without God.
But here was God, revealed in His triune majesty. God the Father loved the undeserving world so much that He sent His Son to save it. God the Son, present in the person of Jesus, came to fulfill the Father’s will and win eternal life for all people. God the Holy Spirit comes to bring new birth through the water and Word. That’s what He began to do that night I came to see Jesus.
I was expecting a great deal from my visit with Jesus, but what I found far exceeded my expectations. I came looking for miraculous signs and, instead, Jesus offered me the kingdom of God and new life. I came looking for a teacher sent from God; Jesus identified Himself as the Son of God who is also the Son of Man. I was looking for someone who could enlighten me; Jesus explained that He would die for me and for the whole world. I wanted to know what I could do to be closer to God; Jesus offered a relationship with God that would make me a new person.
My fellow Christians, this is a very important Gospel for all of us because we are all sin-riddled people… because we are all lonely people and grieving people. This is a very important Gospel because we are all people who never outgrow our need for a sign from God—a sign that He loves us… a sign that He truly has not grown weary of us… a sign that He will always be with us.
This is an important Gospel because it teaches us with clarity and simplicity where to look for our sign—God’s miracle of Baptism! There is nothing greater—there is no other sign or miracle that God might perform—that will give you more than what you have been given in God’s miracle of your Baptism.
In the miracle of your Baptism, God your heavenly Father gives you a second birth—a birth from above—and nobody can take that away from you. People may take away your clothing, house, and family. They may take away your limbs and senses and even your life. But no one can take your birth away from you!
Just as surely as no one can take your birth away from you, so certainly and without doubt can no one take your new birth away from you! No matter what you shall experience in this life, no matter what suffering may be imposed on you, or what shame you may call down on yourself, your second birth remains forever!
In the miracle of your Baptism you have been born again, born from above. In the miracle of your Baptism you have received the Holy Spirit and faith. In the miracle of your Baptism, you have salvation and eternal life. In the miracle of your Baptism, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.