Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Everyone seems so happy at the birth of a baby. They are just so cute and cuddly. The reality is, however, that everyone is born into this world as a sinner. But the even greater reality is that our first birth pales in significance in comparison to being born again. We are physically born naturally, but we are spiritually reborn supernaturally. That term, to be “born again” has been often misused. Many like to point to a particular time or event when they think they made a decision to believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Thus, they are quite proud of their supposed good choice and action, and so they celebrate a very specific day and time of being born again.
But being born again does not depend on our efforts. Being born again is totally dependent on God’s free grace. St. Peter writes, “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.” (1 Peter 1:23) And so, if we rightly understand our inability to lift ourselves out of the sewer of our sin, we gather around this living and enduring word of God to discover and learn that every believer is born again, but not naturally.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Nicodemus, a Jewish leader and teacher, comes to Jesus, whom he acknowledges to have done miracles. He wants to learn more of Jesus. It was assumed in that day as part of Jewish teachings that only a person who did not sin could perform miracles. Jesus had performed several miracles, which made him—in the eyes of the Jewish ruling council—a man without sin. A man like themselves, who were the best keepers of the Law.
But there was far more to Jesus than this mistaken notion of Nicodemus and his colleagues. Jesus points out that Nicodemus needs to be born again. But Nicodemus expresses doubts about how this could come to be. He’s right in one sense—the natural sense. One cannot re-enter the womb once born, Jesus agrees. Yet to be born again in the way Jesus meant it was not by natural means. Jesus scolds Nicodemus for not understanding.
To be born again is a divine mystery of salvation. Jesus compares our inability to fully comprehend it to our understanding of the wind. In spite of our advanced meteorology, even now we still don’t know exactly the mechanism of the winds. Just as it always has, the wind does what it wants and goes where it wants, as God allows. So it is with God’s Holy Spirit, too—the breath, the ruach, the pneuma.
Still, Nicodemus is not quite certain. Soon his eyes of faith will see, and he will become a believer. So strong will be his faith, in fact, that he will risk the ire of the rest of the council in order to participate in Jesus’ burial, working alongside Joseph of Arimathea to prepare Jesus body for the tomb.
Nicodemus’ desire for clarity and simplicity, rather than trusting God even in situations of ambiguity, is not unique to that age. In our day, when many want easy answers in black and white, the spiritual rather than rational nature of faith can often remain a complete mystery to many. Many refuse God’s gifts for no other reason than that they insist that faith and God’s plans be fully understood on their own terms.
This is not only unfortunate, it’s sinful. It places us in judgment of God, usurping His authority and substituting our own. What’s more, all too often, people try to make God to be something He isn’t. Some want God to bless them and no one else. Some want God to help them get even with their enemies. On the other hand, people are often happy when they feel God has come through for them, thinking that they’ve somehow influenced His behavior. But, as soon as they think God has failed them, that He’s not doing exactly what they want and when, many blame Him and turn away. St. Paul described this phenomenon in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.” (Ephesians 4:18)
Another reason that so many set aside faith is that our society thinks it is very self-sufficient, or at least it likes to celebrate that supposed trait or accomplishment. It’s a common belief that with hard work and determination, along with opportunity and a few fortunate random breaks, anyone can make himself or herself into something great. If this happens, then that person begins to think they don’t have to depend on anyone else for anything. And, deep down, no one wants to feel obligated to anyone else.
This attitude can carry over into matters of eternal salvation. After all, “Who really needs God to be saved?” they think. Haven’t we all heard the false statement: “If I just try hard enough and live a good enough life that should be good enough to get into heaven.”? Or we might occasionally be guilty of the sin of trying to convince ourselves that we haven’t been so bad in life that God would keep us out of heaven. At least we aren’t as bad as others, we reason.
These are very dangerous thoughts and sentiments. Psalm 49 tells us, “No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” (Psalm 49:7, 8) No one can save oneself, either. Not by works, not by good intentions, not by money.
Instead, our loving Lord has made salvation simple. It does not depend on man’s efforts. Your eternal salvation is far too important for God to entrust it to you or to anyone else among mankind. After all, Adam and Eve ruined a perfect world. We dare not think that we could do any better. Scripture clearly declares that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, and there is no alternative solution. This is the simple message of salvation that is just too simple for those who consider themselves wise in the ways of the world.
It’s the observation Paul made when writing to the Corinthian church: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” he wrote (1 Corinthians 1:19). The cross, that instrument of horrible torture and painful death, has become (for us who believe) the power of God. It is through that cross of Jesus that we are truly born again—not naturally, not by human wisdom or standards, but spiritually.
Jesus had a daunting task in trying to convince Nicodemus to see Him and understand Him with eyes and a heart of faith. Even though he was a leader in the religious life of the children of Israel, God’s chosen people, Nicodemus did not understand. It would be hard for Nicodemus to understand spiritual things when he did not believe earthly. That’s because Nicodemus and the rest of the people did not truly recognize Jesus. They saw Him as only a miracle worker.
To help Nicodemus understand, Jesus reminded him of Moses. Moses had lifted up the bronze snake for Israel. Many in Israel were temporarily saved from suffering and death by trusting in this sign from God. The Son of Man would be lifted up in a similar way, Jesus said—but this time, the lifting up of God’s sign would redeem the entire world, and to save the world from eternal suffering and death.
The eternal question in all of this is: Why did God provide any salvation at all, at any time, whether to Noah, or Isaac, or Joseph, or Moses, or David, or Samson, or you or me? No one deserves it or can earn it. But Jesus came anyway, and in His incarnation, life, death, and resurrection He came to save and not to judge. Jesus will indeed judge, but He did not do so during His first visitation. Later, on the Last Day, Jesus will come to judge all people.
Jesus described to Nicodemus the miracle of being born again by the water and the word. You have experienced that miracle. Believers are washed by the water and imprinted with the name and the powerful word of God. It is a gift given out of the love of God, and only because of this love are believers saved. No one can save himself. God has squarely placed the burden of your eternal salvation upon His own shoulders. It is far too important for Him to entrust it to us, for we could only mess it up.
And so, we rejoice and are very thankful that our eternal destiny does not depend on our decision. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast,” Paul tells us. (Ephesians 2:8, 9) If eternity was our decision, it would take away from faith being God’s gift, and would reduce the glory and power of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. If eternity was our decision, that would also lead to our becoming proud and boasting of our accomplishment.
But over and over again, the Bible reminds us how God has taken this responsibility of saving mankind upon Himself, and how He takes it very seriously. The Bible also reminds us that the plan of salvation is the one that the Lord determined would be best to save mankind from the fiery punishment of eternal death, not our plan, our decision, or our reward.
As Paul wrote to Titus, “When God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5). Believers are born again and saved by the mercy and grace of God alone.
So it is that infants, young children, teens, and even adults are brought to the Lord’s font to be baptized. Faithful parents or other family members bring them, or the Word and Spirit lead them to faith and they come by God’s work and guidance. This is the first beautiful way in which believers are saved by grace. Those once held tightly in the vicious grasp of Satan are now placed into the loving hands of the Lord God almighty. Sins are washed away by God’s powerful Word working through the water.
From that point forward, the lives of sinners who have been saved are drastically different. We no longer wear the red cape of Satan. Instead we are covered with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ,” Paul told the Galatians (Galatians 3:26, 27). This is another miracle. God the Father—who at Jesus’ baptism and Jesus’ transfiguration calls Jesus His Son—now calls all believers—that’s all of us!—His children. Imagine that!
How blessed every believer is to have been born again by the washing of water with the living and enduring word of God. All of this happens as the miracle of faith, a miracle which takes place solely by the power of God and the working of the Holy Spirit in the sinful hearts of mankind. This rebirth happens without our decision.
Yes, mankind can make a decision concerning eternity—but only a poor decision, that is, to reject the offered salvation. God wants all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. God’s would that none would perish. But man’s decision is often to turn away and chose eternal destruction, rather than life.
Thank God that by His power He can and does make saints out of sinners; believers out of unbelievers. As the same St. John who wrote our Gospel lesson had also written in his first epistle, “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9, 10).
Thanks be to God that this love has come to you. Thanks be that His Son came to the world. Thanks be that His Spirit has reached you, calling, enlightening, and enlivening your dead spiritual being, giving you faith, and sanctifying and equipping you for the praise of the Lord and the serving of those in the world around you. Rejoice that He continues to serve you with His Word—His absolution, His preaching, His teaching, His assurance—and His Sacrament—His body and blood for your forgiveness, your salvation, your strength, and your hope.
God so loved the world—in that particular way and in that unfathomable depth—that He sent His only-begotten Son. In the (X) name of that Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.