The world is all mixed up about when life begins. In its support of abortion, the world denies the obvious scientific reality that life begins at conception. Their own language betrays them. No one says to a pregnant woman, “When is your fetus going to become a baby?” Instead they ask, “When is your baby going to be born?” Sadly, the only thing for the world that differentiate between a baby who is alive and a baby who is too be killed and is not considered to be a human life, is whether the child is wanted or not.
Yet once the baby is born the world – and even many Christians – are still confused. In the baby who has been born they see all the life that is needed. They see a completeness that only needs to be complemented by the effort of that individual as he grows and is able to make decisions.
And here they fail to understand that while that newborn baby is alive, it is actually dead. Spiritually it is dead – in fact it is worse than dead. A dead person doesn’t do anything. But instead from the moment the child is conceived he is actually someone who is rebellious towards God and turned in on himself. What is needed for that individual is rebirth – spiritual rebirth that transforms an enemy of God into a child of God.
These themes are abundantly present in our text tonight. Nicodemus, a Pharisee who is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” comes to Jesus at night. Nicodemus is a man who is very serious about God’s Word. And the good news is that he seeks out Jesus and expresses a belief about Jesus that is true. He says, “Rabbi, 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.”
However, Nicodemus also comes at night. This means that not only is his interest in Jesus something that he wants to keep hidden – it also means that he is still in the dark. What he says is correct, but insufficient. It is correct, but it falls short of the whole truth.
And so Jesus begins the process of leading him to the truth by spinning him around and showing him that he doesn’t have it yet. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Our Lord says that a person cannot experience salvation unless he is born again. And in the frequent characteristic of John’s Gospel his statement is expressed in Greek a way that means two things at once. Jesus says that a person must be born “again” and that he must be born “from above” – he must be born by God’s action.
Nicodemus was confused and didn’t hide it. He said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Nicodemus was thinking purely in physical terms. So 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.
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.”
In our text tonight Jesus expresses both why it is necessary to be born again and how it happens. It is necessary because that which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the sinful, fallen nature is sinful fallen nature. As Paul told the Corinthians, “But the natural man 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.”
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, everyone person conceived by two human parents has been born spiritually dead. Worse than dead, they have been selfishly directed toward sin. I don’t know of any parent who has ever sat his son or daughter down and said: “Today I am going to teach you to be jealous. Today I am going to teach you to be angry. Today I am going to teach you to be selfish.” Instead, it’s just there in the child. In fact the more their abilities grow, the more they demonstrate this.
Jesus says that in order to change this, the Spirit must give birth – rebirth. And the Spirit does this by working through water. A person is born again – born from above – through water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. This is the same thing that the apostle Paul expresses when says in Titus chapter three: “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Jesus grants that this talk of being born again through the work of the Spirit is mysterious. After all he says to Nicodemus, “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.”
The Spirit creates faith – he gives regeneration - through the word of the Gospel. Peter tells us that “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” The Spirit continues to give rebirth as he strengthens faith all through life. He does this through the Word and the other Means of Grace.
But in the Scriptures God leads us to look to Holy Baptism as the foundational manner in which he does this. No matter whether it happens as an infant or later in life, the Holy Spirit works rebirth through baptism and we are called to look upon our baptism as the source of assurance that we have been reborn – that we are the forgiven children of God.
It is the Spirit of Christ who is at work in baptism. Through the Spirit, Christ works to apply his death and resurrection to us. Through the Spirit he strengthens and deepens the rebirth that he has given through the Word. The infant being brought to the font no less than the adult candidate for baptism has received the Word of the Gospel. God’s word creates faith, and faith comes to baptism to receive the gifts of forgiveness and life that are present there.
What is more, Holy Baptism is not just water but it is water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word. It is therefore God’s water. It is a wet Word. This word creates, renews and sustains faith. And so when Small Catechism asks, “How can water do such great things?” it goes on to answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St.Paul says in Titus chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit.’”
You have received regeneration through the work of the Spirit in Baptism. You have been born again. In Christ you are a new creation. But in yourself you also continue to bear the contamination of the Old Adam. And so it is that you still find it possible to turn away from God and toward sin. So it is that you continue to be plagued by sinful thoughts and actions that you don’t desire or even understand.
And so in faith you return to your baptism because it continues to be the source of rebirth and regeneration. God’s word of promise about our baptism has not changed. You believe God’s word about your baptism and thereby you receive not only forgiveness and but also that other gift of the Spirit – being born again. He renews and strengthens the life of faith so that as the forgiven child of God you can go forth to live by faith.
Your baptism may have been a long time ago - mine was forty seven years ago this past Wednesday. But you can trust and know that you are forgiven and are a child of God today because of that baptism. As Jesus says in our text, you will see the kingdom of God because you have been born again – you have been born from above – through water and the Spirit. It was true then. It is true now because you believe God’s promise about baptism. The water and the Word used by the Spirit then continue to renew and strengthen that new life today.
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