Sunday, May 26, 2024

Baptism – Birth from Above

 John 3:1-15

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; this man came to Him by night, and said to Him, "Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him."  Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."

Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?"  Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.'  The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Nicodemus answered and said to Him, "How can these things be?"  Jesus answered and said to him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness.  If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?  And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.  And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday                                              05/26/24

Baptism – Birth from Above

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

This morning is Trinity Sunday.  Normally, the sermon should focus on the doctrine of the Trinity.  I am not going to do that today.  I am going to preach on the gospel, which deals with being "born again" - which is better translated "born from above", I think, and which is described by Jesus as being "born of water and the Spirit."  As to the doctrine of the Trinity, I could not describe it better than the creed which we just spoke together - the Athanasian Creed.  What we can say, and what we cannot say about who the Trinity is or how it works is set forth in short order there.

Today we are going to talk about that washing – Baptism.  Although our Gospel lesson doesn't state this explicitly, it is taught elsewhere, that this baptism is "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."  So, we are baptized in the name of and into connection with the Holy Trinity.  This morning, however, I want to talk with you about Baptism, starting with the words of Jesus in our text.  Our theme is, "Baptism - Birth from Above".

Our Gospel begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night.  Nicodemus was identified as "a ruler of the Jews", which indicates that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Israel in those days.  He was also a rabbi, a teacher, for Jesus says to Him, "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?"  So Jesus was not speaking with a novice in theology, but a teacher, and clearly He was teaching Nicodemus things that Nicodemus had never even considered before.

Jesus spoke about being born again.  The word used there to mean, "again", means "from above".  We can see how Nicodemus took what Jesus said, at least at first, because He asks about how a man could crawl back up into His mother's womb to be born a second time.  That is part of what Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand - but surely not all of it.  The common word for the idea "again" in Greek is pavlin.  It is the most commonly used word in the New Testament, used 141 times.  The word Jesus used here is the Greek word, a[nwqen, which is used 13 times in Scripture and is translated "again" only three times - and two of them are in this Gospel lesson.  Jesus chose that specific word to couple the ideas of a re-birth, and a birth from above.

That is what Baptism is, a second birth, not from the womb, but rather from above.  It is a birth by water and by the power and working of the Spirit.  Nicodemus was a good Protestant.  He could not imagine what Jesus could have meant, and the only way he could think of "birth" was natural birth from the womb of a woman.  That seems to have suited Jesus' teaching intention, too.  Jesus used natural birth as "born of the flesh", and the birth from above - Baptism - as "born of the Spirit".  He teaches us that we are inadequate, as we come from the womb, "to enter (or see) the kingdom of God."

That is the witness of Scriptures in general, as we have often discussed.  1 Corinthians 2:14 says, "But a natural man [the way a person is when they come from the womb - untouched by God in any special way] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised."  Romans 8:7 says, "because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so".  Again, 1 Corinthians 12:3 tells us, "Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed'; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit."

The reason we need that birth from above is our spiritual condition as those born of the flesh, Ephesians 2:1, "And you were dead in your trespasses and sins."  Paul also calls us "Children of wrath, just like the rest" and "dead in your transgressions" before the Spirit "made us alive together with Christ", working life in you by the new birth in Baptism.  This is what Paul is getting at in Romans 6, when He writes, "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?  Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life."

These words of Romans 6 also remind of the reason this birth is called "born again."  We are buried with Christ by Baptism into His death - that is we literally die with Christ - spiritually - and are raised, then, to a new life through baptism, dead to sin and alive to God in Christ, as Romans 6:11 says.  This is a real death and a real re-birth to new and everlasting life with Christ.  That is why it is worse for a man to fall away once he has tasted the goodness of the Lord.  Peter says it is better to never have known than to know and turn away from Christ.

Jesus answers all of the modern objections to the doctrine of the sacramental power of Baptism when He speaks to Nicodemus.  Nicodemus cannot fathom how these things can be, and Jesus tells him to simply trust God and know that the Holy Spirit can do far more than he, Nicodemus, can imagine, "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  And Jesus tells Nicodemus this in the context of telling him that you must be born of water and the Spirit.

He even chides Nicodemus,  "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not understand these things?  Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and you do not receive our witness.  If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?"  If anyone should have been able to understand these things, it should have been Nicodemus.  Nevertheless, he did not.  What the words of Jesus mean, basically, is that we should not trust our wisdom and powers of reason in matters theological, but trust and depend on the Word of God.  What God's Word tells us is true, and it means just what it says, even when it doesn't quite make sense to us.

The word for "Spirit" and the word for "wind" in Greek is the same word.  When Jesus describes the wind and says you hear it and see its results, but you don't know where it came from or where it is going, He was describing a common human experience.  With modern weather maps and such, people might think they know more about the wind - and they surely do - but the message is really unchanged: just as the wind goes where it goes, without our permission and without our understanding - we simply experience it - so, too, with the Spirit of God.

But Jesus doesn't actually say that.  He says, "so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."  Like the wind, we cannot see the Holy Spirit, but only see some of what He is accomplishing.  We cannot always tell what He doing - nor control where He will go next.  The Church Growth Movement appears to believe that it can dictate where and when and how the Spirit will move - - - but they are wrong.  So, too, we cannot predict who will become a Christian, or who God will use, or how.  All we can do is experience what the Spirit is doing, and what He works in those around us.

Some times we think we have made a good confession, and yet, the hearers just cannot accept what we say.  At other times we think we have said everything wrong, and yet they hear the Word, and the Spirit works in them, and they are moved by the Spirit to work powerfully and effectively where the Lord has called them and placed them.  It is not under our control, how all that we do and say works, and it is not our work, actually.  It is God's.  And He promises to work through baptism.  All of this, "You don't understand how it works" talk is for Nicodemus, about Baptism.  Luther said it this way for us,

"How can Water do such great things?  It is not the water indeed that does them, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts such Word of God in the water; for without the Word of God, it is just plain water, and not Baptism, but with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and the washing of regeneration and renewing in the Holy Spirit as St. Paul tells us in Titus, chapter three, "He saved us, not by deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit."

Who you are and what you are is the work of God, through your Baptism – and life since then in the Word – and in the Lord's Supper.  You didn't make it happen, God did.  You are not really in charge of what you will be doing next.  You can decide about coffee and cookies after service, but God has your life in His plans — and in His hands.  Meanwhile, your life in Christ is the plan of the Father, the gift of the Son, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

This birth from above is not the result of a decision you make.  It is the gift of God.  It is not merely "as if" you were born again, but a truth which we do not perceive with our senses, but hear of only in the Word.  In your Baptism, you were clothed with Christ, your sins were washed away, you were made righteous, and given a good conscience towards God through the work of Jesus.  These are not merely what we think or how it feels, but truth revealed in God's Word.

This new birth makes you alive to God and dead to sin, and promises that sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.  It is not a ceremony without power, but the very power of God at work in you to bring you to Christ, and to guide you into holiness of life - both growing and imputed - and you got to see it happen for Kennedy Sue last Sunday.

And it is the sine-qua-non of the Christian life.  Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." Without this work of God in you, you cannot be a child of God.  Your doing it doesn't earn anything, it receives the promise of God.  But have no fear - this precious gift is already yours, in your Baptism.

You have been born ‘from above'.  Your life is no longer earth centered, but Christ centered.  Your family is no longer simply those connected to your flesh by genetics, but those who have been born in Christ by Baptism into this new family, the household of God, as St, Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:19.  You are truly children of God in Christ, both by adoption and by new birth from above.  Don't ask how it can be, or why you cannot feel it, just know that the Spirit works where He chooses, and He has chosen you, with the outcome that you will have everlasting life in Jesus Christ.

And if it seems hard to comprehend, just think about the Holy Trinity, who works this great thing in us.  He is, in His own being, beyond our ability to comprehend - even when He tells us about it.  So, why should we be able to understand all that He is able to do?    Just take Jesus' word for it, Baptism is a birth from above.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

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