During Jesus’ ministry there was a very intelligent and gifted man named Nicodemus. Jesus even addressed this man Nicodemus as the teacher of Israel. So he had some big-time credentials.
Nicodemus could clearly see that Jesus was different, that He was a man sent by God. But to see the kingdom of God, something more important than intelligence would be needed. Jesus told him that in order to see the kingdom of God, one must be born again.
What do you mean, be born again? Nicodemus takes it as literally as possible. And he spares no graphic details here. How can a man be born again? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
So Jesus tells him how this new birth is received: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
But Nicodemus is still confused. Even though he is the teacher of Israel, he just can’t comprehend the Spirit’s miraculous work of new birth through Baptism.
And we can’t totally blame him for that, because mere human reason, darkened by sin, simply cannot accept the things of God without the gift of the Holy Spirit. How can God give spiritual rebirth through ordinary water used with God’s word?
That is why the Small Catechism is such a beautiful confession – a confession that aids us in taking to heart this treasure that is ours in Baptism. How can water do such great things?
“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 by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.’ (Titus 3:5-8)”
Martin Luther writes this in his Large Catechism: “Baptism is quite a different thing from all other water … because something more noble is added here. God Himself stakes His honor, His power, and His might on it. Therefore, Baptism is not only natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water. This is all because of the Word, which is the heavenly, holy Word, which no one can praise enough.”
In Catechism class I always make a point of asking the children about their birth. You know, questions like, When were you born? What day were you born? Where were you born? In Milwaukee or somewhere else? Then I like to switch to questions like, Why were you born? and Why did you choose to be born? It’s inevitable that they look around to their friends and someone starts laughing. And then they all do, because it’s a ridiculous question. Who chooses to be born? You can’t just make yourself be born. It wasn’t exactly your decision. That’s impossible. Life comes to them quite independently of their own decision, through their parents, from a father and a mother who loved them, but ultimately their life came to them through God, who loved them even more. And so out of that love they came. God spoke. And through His Word they were born.
The Holy Scriptures speak of salvation and Baptism as a new birth. So think about that and consider how your standing, your relationship with God, your status before Him, is certainly not something you earned or even chose. Like your first birth, this second heavenly birth was quite out of your hands – but in God’s instead, quite literally, in Baptism. How does that help you understand that your relationship to God is not something you choose for yourself but a gift that He gives? In which you were born spontaneously, and received new life, out of love and by His Word.
God’s Spirit, His Word and His name make Baptism more than water. It is a “washing of new birth” in which our heavenly Father adopts us and gives the inheritance of eternal life through faith in His Son.
You see why Nicodemus was so confused? You see why the whole world stumbles and even rages against this gracious Gospel gift? Man, darkened by sin, has long had a problem of raging against the grace of God – and desiring to assign to himself something that only God can do – salvation!
But here with Baptism God’s got to have all the glory. And here’s why: In His Baptism, Jesus united Himself with us poor sinners. In Jesus’ Baptism, He aligned Himself with sinful man, you and me, and took all our sin right into His flesh. He took full responsibility for our sins, paid for them all according to the Law, by His death on the cross.
Nicodemus. He stumbled before in darkness on the gift of Baptism. He couldn’t understand how man could possibly be born again. But boy oh boy is he ever at the right place at the right time – when it really mattered. Because there is Nicodemus with Jesus at the holy cross. He takes him down, cradles His crucified body in his arms, wraps Him in a linen shroud, and gives Him a royal burial – fit for a king. And then lays Him in the manger of the earth.
But it was all to rise and bring the seal of salvation to all who would believe. Up from the grave, Jesus gave marching orders to His apostles, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”
You too were at the right place at the right time when God sent a minister to baptize you in the name of the Triune God. Water was joined to God’s Word – and splashed upon you – and you were born again. With sins forgiven, you became a member of Christ’s body, entered into His kingdom.
Do you see what you have? A beautiful and magnificent gift of God. You have the garment of immortality, the bath of rebirth, the seal of salvation, and the sign of God’s lordship – that you belong to Him. St. Paul put it so well: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” May we accept and take hold of this gift of Baptism, live in it, rejoice in all its benefits through faith, and let our reason be subject to the Word of Christ alone! In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Let us pray: O God our Father, You have saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal, which You have poured out on us in our Baptism into Your Son. We thank You for this life-giving water, rich in grace by Your trustworthy promise. Give us faith always to trust Your Word in the water that, justified by grace, we remain heirs of eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.
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