“Born of Water and the Spirit” (John 3:1-17)

The Holy Trinity
Sunday, June 3, 2012

“Born of Water and the Spirit” (John 3:1-17)

Do you know what day your birthday is? I do. My birthday is September 10. “What?” you say. “Pastor, I thought your birthday was in March.” Oh, you mean that birthday! Yeah, that birthday was March 7. But my other birthday, my re-birthday, was on September 10 of the same year. That was the day I was baptized. The first birthday was my birth according to the flesh. The second birthday, the day of my baptism, was my rebirth according to the Spirit. And, like me, what you really need is that baptismal rebirth, to be “Born of Water and the Spirit.”

On this Trinity Sunday, our Gospel reading from John 3 tells us of the work of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in bringing us to that new birth and the new life that flows from it. To be “born of water and the Spirit” is where Jesus goes in his conversation with Nicodemus, because that is what Nicodemus really needed.

This fellow Nicodemus was highly educated, a religious man, a leader of the Jews. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. Jesus even calls him “the teacher of Israel,” meaning that Nicodemus was highly respected and prominent in that role. Yet Nicodemus doesn’t “get it.” Not yet. He needs to be born again. He needs a spiritual rebirth to open his eyes and to give him a right understanding and a whole new life.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, presumably so as not to be seen. It might not look so good for a member of the Sanhedrin to visit this controversial figure, Jesus of Nazareth. And he tells Jesus, “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.” Well, that’s good as far as it goes, Nicodemus, but it does not go far enough. Jesus is far more than a rabbi, even an especially exceptional one who can do some miracles. Nicodemus is “low-balling” who Jesus is. He will need to see more than that, if he is to come into the kingdom of God.

So Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Friends, there are lots of people who will say some nice things about Jesus–what a good teacher he was, what a fine example he is. But if that’s as far as they can go, then they have about reached the limit of what human flesh and reason can discern. And it’s not enough. You must be born again if you are to recognize who Jesus really is and trust in him and thus see God’s kingdom as you need to see it. You must be born from above–that’s another way this phrase “born again” could be translated–you must be “born from above,” that is, have a heavenly rebirth, in order to recognize the kingdom of heaven in your midst, which is what Jesus brings with his presence.

Jesus’ response about being born again puzzles Nicodemus. He doesn’t know where Jesus is going with this word puzzle, this riddle. Is Jesus playing with him? So he replies: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” This stuff sounds like sheer poppycock to Nicodemus. Crazy talk.

But no, Jesus really meant what he said. He reiterates and explains what he said a moment ago. “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.’” To be born again, born from above, is to be born of water and the Spirit. It’s a heavenly rebirth, and it involves the use of water, in connection with the Spirit. That is Baptism.

Water and the Spirit, together. That’s what happened in the beginning, at Creation. “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light,’” etc. Water, the Spirit, the Word–Creation. Likewise now in the new creation, the spiritual rebirth in Baptism: Water, the Spirit, and the Word. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.”

Holy Baptism, instituted by Christ, is the spiritual rebirth of water and the Spirit. St. Paul speaks of it in Titus 3: “[God] 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.” Did you catch that? “The washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” “Washing,” water. “Regeneration,” rebirth. “Renewal,” new life. “The Holy Spirit” . . . well, the Holy Spirit. In other words, born again, of water and the Spirit. Just like in John. And this is exactly what happens in Holy Baptism.

“Born of water and the Spirit.” We need this new birth to see clearly, to see the kingdom of God come in Christ. Otherwise, our spiritual blindness would keep us in the dark. We need this new birth to enter the kingdom of God. Otherwise, without faith in our Savior Christ, our sins and our spiritual deadness would keep us out of God’s kingdom. We need the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to see the light, to have the scales fall from our eyes. We need to receive the righteousness of Christ, the life he won for us, to raise us from death to life. This is why Jesus says in our text, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

“Flesh” in this sense means our fallen sinful nature, that which is inherited and passed down to us from our first father, Adam. Adam, by his desire to be independent of God, fell into sin. He was placed under the curse of death, driven from the Garden, and cut off from access to the tree of life. That’s you and that’s me, brother. We all share in this sinful Adamic nature, doomed to death. Flesh gives birth to flesh. And flesh can only take you so far. You cannot rise above the level of your father Adam.

Listen to how the Bible describes our natural state. Ephesians 2: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience–among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

According to the flesh, we were “by nature children of wrath.” God’s wrath. And that’s not good. Flesh gives birth to flesh. That’s as far as you can go, that’s as high as you can rise, by your birth according to the flesh. You need a different kind of birth.

And you don’t give birth to yourself. No, this is a matter of being born of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who gives you this new birth. You don’t do it. He does. In John 1, we read, “To all who did receive him,” that is, Christ, “who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” God gives you the new birth. It’s not your “decision” or your “will” that does it. It’s God giving you the new birth, making you his child, giving you the gift of faith.

Faith in Christ, as it says. Faith is to receive Christ, to believe in his name. For Jesus Christ is the only Savior from sin. Here’s where we need to talk about the Father and the Son on this Trinity Sunday. As we heard in John 3: “So must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Yes, God the Father sent his Son into the world out of his great love for us. God the Son, Christ Jesus, then was lifted up on the cross, so that you and I would not perish in our sins, but rather that through Christ, through his sacrifice in our place on the cross, our sins would be forgiven. Believing in Christ, trusting in him, we receive that forgiveness, and thus we have eternal life.

Now what the Holy Spirit does is to bring you those benefits which Christ won for you on the cross–forgiveness, life, eternal salvation–the Spirit enables you to receive and take hold of those benefits by faith. The Holy Spirit quickens you, brings you from death to life, through the gospel. The word of God in and with the water is the power in Holy Baptism. It makes Baptism the life-giving sacrament that it is. The Holy Spirit uses this sacrament, then, to bring you to faith and raise you to new life. This is how Baptism is the new birth, your real spiritual birthday.

“How can a man be born when he is old?” Well, Nicodemus, we’ve just seen an example of it here today. I’m not saying Don is that old, but this is the day he’s been born again! Today our brother Don has been born of the water and the Spirit. Happy birthday, Don! Welcome to the family of God. You are now God’s child, and Father welcomes all his children. Christ Jesus now is the Savior you know and trust in. All your sins have been washed away, and you are now joined to Jesus and his resurrection. The Holy Spirit has given you the gift of faith, through the word, and the Spirit will keep you in the faith and keep you growing as you continue in the word. What a joyous, blessed day this is for you and for our congregation!

“Born of Water and the Spirit.” Holy Baptism, in the name of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Holy Baptism, your spiritual rebirth into new life and the kingdom of God. Baptized believers in Christ, in Holy Baptism you have been born of water and the Spirit. And this is the birthday gift that keeps on giving.

Published in: on June 2, 2012 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  
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