Trinity Sunday (Confirmation)| Rev. Rolf Preus| June 7, 2009| John 3:1-15
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “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.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, 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? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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 the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. 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 know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
You don’t remember it, but it happened. You were born. You don’t remember it, but it happened. You were born again.
Some will tell you that you haven’t yet been born again if you cannot remember it. But you can’t remember being born, and there you sit. Or they might claim that you haven’t yet been born again because you have not personally invited the Lord Jesus into your heart and made him your personal Savior and the Lord of your life. But you know that’s not how to be born again. Jesus says, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” How can one who is “flesh” – that is, helpless in sin and guilt – become “spirit” by an act of his own will? He cannot. But God can and does give us the new birth, the birth from above. He does so by a heavenly washing. St. Paul calls it “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) To be regenerated is to be born again. Only God can give us the new birth. St. John writes in the first chapter of his Gospel, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
Baptism does not look like much. Still, Jesus says that nobody can enter God’s kingdom unless he is baptized. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) The Holy Spirit chooses to join himself to the waters of baptism. Why? How can he do that? How can this be?
These are bad questions. God can do anything. He speaks. We listen. We don’t ask how this can be. Consider the people out in the desert of Sinai to whom Jesus alludes in our Gospel Lesson for today. After complaining against God and criticizing him, God sent poisonous snakes into the camp where they were staying. The snakes bit the people and they began to die. They then realized that they had sinned by accusing God of doing them wrong. They repented of their sin and they asked Moses to ask God to save them from the snakes. Moses did. God then commanded Moses to put a bronze snake up on a pole. Those who looked at it would not die from the snakes’ poison. Now we have no record of anyone questioning why God commanded what he did. They simply looked at the bronze snake and they lived. If they did not look, they died. It was a matter of life and death.
During our instruction in the Christian faith we learn that God does things his way, not our way. Sometimes he chooses to tell us why he does what he does. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes what he says is not so hard to understand. Sometimes it’s impossible. Now as to the matter of the snake on the pole, the reason God told Moses to lift up the snake on the pole is quite clear to us today. Jesus explained it in the final two verses of our text. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Just as those who looked at the snake on the pole did not die those who look to Jesus on the cross will not die. That is faith: looking to Jesus. Faith is not an invitation for Jesus to come into our heart. Faith is looking to Jesus suffering on the cross for us. It is God who invites us into his heart; we don’t do the inviting. It is God who by Holy Baptism gives us the birth from above; this is not something we could accomplish.
The Bible uses a number of figures of speech to teach us what faith is. In John chapter six it is eating and drinking Christ’s flesh and blood. It John chapter ten it is hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. Here in John chapter three it is simply looking at Jesus lifted up on the cross. What is happening up there on that cross? Who is he hanging there? What is he doing?
He is Jesus, the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He is Jesus, who is filled with the Holy Spirit and who gives us the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus, who is completely innocent and thoroughly kind. He is the One who loves everybody and who never spoke an unkind word or thought a sinful thought or did any deed to hurt or destroy. Look at him who dies for you, who bears your sin, who thus silences the accusing voice of the law and turns aside God anger against you. Look at him and what do you see? You see what God did for you when you were baptized. For you were baptized into Christ’s death. You were joined to that death. You were indeed born from above when you were baptized. But first you had to die.
The death of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead is history. It happened. That’s a fact. Your baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is also history. It happened. That’s a fact. Now today, you confess publicly before the whole world that those two facts belong together now and throughout your life. That is, that you who were joined by your baptism to Christ’s death and resurrection, will, by God’s grace, remain joined to that event all your life. It is to Christ’s death that you will return every single day. You will look to Jesus bearing your sin and you will lay claim to the forgiveness that he has won for you. And should you doubt that that forgiveness is for you, you will remember that you are baptized into union with Christ’s death. It was God who baptized you. The minister only spoke the words and poured the water. God gave you the new birth from heaven when he joined you to the death of Jesus.
Jesus didn’t stay dead. He rose on the third day. So you, too, rose from death when you were baptized. Your baptism not only joins you to Christ’s death where your sins were washed away, it also joins you to Christ’s resurrection. When you return to your baptism you lay claim to the new life that God has given you to live. It is a life filled with the Holy Spirit.
Let’s consider this matter of being born from above or being born again. Nicodemus didn’t understand it. He thought Jesus was talking about a physical birth, when in fact Jesus was talking about a spiritual birth. Still, Nicodemus wanted to be able to figure it out. Jesus explained that he could hear the wind without understanding how the wind comes and where it goes. So it is with those born of the Holy Spirit.
Here the English translation misses a pun that is found in the original. The word for Spirit and wind are the same word in the Greek. Jesus is saying that you don’t understand how the earthly spirit, or wind, works, but you know perfectly well that it is here because you can hear it. Likewise, we cannot understand how the heavenly spirit, or the Holy Spirit, works, but we hear his voice in his word and sacraments and we know that voice is from heaven. Just as surely as the wind is blowing even though we don’t know how it works, just so surely the Holy Spirit will continue to give you life as you receive the gospel and the sacraments of Christ.
This is why you will promise this morning “to be diligent in the use of the means of grace.” In other words, you promise to go to church to hear the gospel and to receive the Lord’s Supper. This is how the Holy Spirit who first created faith in you when you were a little baby will continue to keep you in the faith all of your life. The gospel and the sacraments of Jesus are nothing else than his crucifixion and his resurrection brought to you here and now. You were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God the Father sent his beloved Son for you. God the Son was lifted up on the cross for you. God the Holy Spirit gave you the new birth from above. This God – the Triune God – is the only God who exists. He is your God and you are his child.
Outside God’s kingdom we have no life. We are flesh. The Bible says, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:50) We need the righteousness of Jesus. We need to be clothed in his spotless white robe that covers our sin and presents us before God as saints. We need this more than anything this world can offer or give. We don’t have to ascend up to heaven to get it. As Jesus said, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” (John 3:13) The kingdom of God and the righteousness of Christ are given to us in our baptism.
So you remain a child. As you grow and learn and mature, you remain a child. You look to your baptism, hear the words of the Holy Spirit and know that you are born from above. You look to Jesus on Calvary, hear the words of the gospel and know that your sins are forgiven, even as Jesus puts into your mouth the very body that bore your sins and the very blood by which you are justified and saved forever. Don’t forget who loves you. Don’t forget how much. You confess his name today.
You should thank God that he has placed you into a congregation that still holds to the pure word of God and will not yield, will not give one inch into error or trendy falsehoods. You confess the truth, not just to be right, but to hold to that saving gospel that makes you righteous by God’s grace. It was the Spirit of Truth who gave you the new birth in your baptism. When you come to God’s church, that is, the church in which his pure gospel is proclaimed and his sacraments are rightly administered, you are always returning to that heavenly washing in which the Holy Spirit took up residence in your body and soul. He lives in you. He will keep you faithful to the vows you make this morning. Amen.