Tuesday, October 21, 2008

To Be Born Again

Nicodemus with his blindness of sin cannot see clearly what Jesus is saying regarding the kingdom of God. Jesus says, "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?" Such is our own spiritual blindness to that which God grants through Holy Baptism and His cleansing waters. In our Post-modern world to be "born again" is a triumphant cry in our fallen world where each individual chooses his own personal entrance rite into a somehow "better" or more "spiritual life." By nature it is our own most natural intuitive impulse to seek justification, before God, neighbor, and ourselves. In our personal quest for holiness we look to a new diet, plans for a more attractive body perhaps, a better job, a more expensive car. Through these things we can for a time being, feel remade, having a better image, more successful, better standing in the community, so on and so forth. A worse tragedy which ensues among well meaning Christians is to be deceived into thinking that being "born again" is to make a decision to "follow Christ." In this way, many of our dear Christians see their birth into the community of the faithful as something they must feverishly work for and maintain lest they fail and be cast away for all eternity. Entering the kingdom of God becomes for many therefore dependent upon a vigorous tenacity of the will, a striving for sanctification, and an inward looking philosophy which continually seeks rebirth based upon ones own new or fresh "commitment" to God. These are natural endeavors for Christians and non-Christians alike. Our old man is continuously seeking ways to be "born again," "reconfigured," transformed, and repackaged into something new, better, more honorable or spiritual. In the recent political campaigns we are bombarded with slogans revolving around the word "change." "Change for tomorrow," "change we can believe in" a "new America." With these promises there seems to be an almost mystical restoration of peace and tranquility.

However, when the elections fade away, and our own personal hopes and endeavors subside, we find that the change did not happen. We are not the new creatures we hoped to be. We may not be fitter, healthier, with a better reputation. The utopian fantasies promised by campaign slogans did not come to descend on our households. We are left as melancholic as before suffering the same anxieties and worries as before. Even if we did have improvement in physical wealth and security we still find the deadliest plague ever haunting us – and this is the curse of sin. It plagues us when we wake each morning and go about our work without continual thanks and praise. Our dreams and hopes continually crash in on us as we find that our self-derived baptisms are only delusions and that we indeed cannot be born again. As with the question of Nicodemus we find that we indeed cannot enter again into the womb and be the author and maker of our new selves.

What the Lord promises in rebirth has to do with his plans and not ours. And what he has planned for us is infinitely greater than anything which we might be able to dream up for ourselves. Our Christian lives find their sum and substance in the rebirth that the Lord promises in baptism when he answers Nicodemus, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." The kingdom is indeed that of Christ, where we are wrapped in his glorious robe of righteousness for all eternity. Paul Gerhardt, who has given us countless treasures in our Lutheran Service Book writes, "In Baptism we now put on Christ – Our shame is fully covered. With all that he once sacrificed and freely suffered. For here the flood of his own blood now makes us holy, right, and good before our heavenly father." Gerhardt, himself, suffered innumerable hardships with the Plague, the Thirty Year War in Germany, the death of multiple children and his dear wife Anna Maria. After all this misery, Paul Gerhardt, our dear writer of early Lutheran hymns can boldly say in the 5th verse of his baptismal hymn, "O Christian, firmly hold this gift. And give God thanks forever! It gives the power to uplift in all that you endeavor. When nothing else revives your soul, your baptism stands and makes you whole. And then in death completes you."

Dear Christians, the baptism which has been given to you is not your work to fulfill but has already been fulfilled in Christ. This does not simply mean that we think about Jesus and wait for heaven but rather that in baptism a very real remaking of the cosmos has begun which has transpired in us. To be born of water and spirit is to be baptized into Jesus’s death and resurrection. This is not a promise from a distant heaven but one from our Lord Jesus, both God and man, who stands in the waters of your baptism, inviting you into his death. All your sins and mine were crucified in the body of Jesus who bore them to the grave and rose triumphantly on the third day. His victory is your own, his resurrection yours and all that is his, his righteousness and glory, yours also!

Though your heavenly Father loves you with eternal perfection he does not want to know you apart from Christ. He does not want your new lifestyle, your "new and better you," the happier, healthier, richer, and more attractive you. He does not need fanatical religious devotions marked by a "born again" commitment to God that lies apart from your real, true, and only baptism which Christ performed on you when he gave you his very name, that of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Entering the Kingdom of God is to be baptized into the bloody death of Christ and to emerge on the other side of the baptismal waters with our victorious bridegroom, free from any spot or blemish.

Like Nicodemus, we sit hear today also wondering and asking our Lord, "How can this be?" Yes! How can this be! How can it be that God sends His own Son to suffer and die for my infirmities, infidelity, and offenses? God might have as well just wiped the slate clean, destroyed his ungrateful creatures, and started something new. Yet God has never abandoned his people. When Nicodemus asks Jesus how these things can be, Jesus replies, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved." These things can be because the Lord desires it. He wills it. The Lord desires that you be free from sin. He desires to be with you, to love you, to walk once again with you in the garden, in the relationship that he has always intended for you. He is the eternal shepherd who seeks after the lost sheep.

We are most surely found, nurtured, perfected and saved in our Baptisms. A miraculous and continuous event takes place in baptism. It is not a mere rite of initiation into the promised covenant but it is the covenant itself. This is to say that the act of the Baptismal rite does all that it promises. It indeed brings us into communion with Christ, and drowning and destroying the power of Satan. This drowning by means of water and the performative Word of God both destroys and preserves, gives life to the new creature in Christ and violently destroys the sinful creature in which the devil had held his dominion. In reference to the story of Noah, Peter refers to the water of the Flood not primarily as a destructive force (though indeed it is), but as the saving agent that lifted the ark up and saved it from destruction. The Flood is the divine judgment against unbelief, and becomes the means for saving eight souls, that is, Noah and his family, from whom as the last remnant on earth God will construct a new humanity. As the living family of Noah, all whom are baptized, we have a great and glorious inheritance. Martin Luther rightfully draws the conclusion that the ark was and is the church which is lifted up by the waters of Baptism. Furthermore he sees the parting of the Red Sea as an essential reference to be included in the Baptismal liturgy. He writes:

Almighty eternal God, who according to thy righteous judgment didst condemn the unbelieving world through the flood and in thy great mercy didst preserve believing Noah and his family, and who didst drown hardhearted Pharaoh with all his host in the Red Sea and didst lead thy people Israel through the same on dry ground, thereby prefiguring this bath of thy Baptism…

The ark in the early Church held a significant and central focus as a true symbol of the Holy Catholic (universal) Church. Today, it is less stressed as a metaphor for the Church because we are enlightened, reformed, rational, and thinking individuals. In Reformed theology Baptism is an expression of faith: it is not only a covenant God makes with us, but a personal response of the faith of the one who is being baptized by which he makes a covenant with God. Hence in this view Baptism is a work of obedience, which faith does, and so in a real sense is human work. In this way, for Reformed institutions - Calvinists, Methodists, and Anabaptists view Baptism as a mere initiation into a civic body of the church, at best where the congregational members nurture and raise the baptized to be virtuous and moral associates. In this view Baptism is a mere reception into the outward, visible fellowship of the church rather than the actual bestowal of spiritual blessings: certainly not a rescue from Satan and entrance into the Kingdom. Yet when this gift is perverted and seen as an act of the congregation rather than solely Christ work, a horrible transgression has been made by the Pastor. He has denied the Lord’s work, His promises, and the Holy Scriptures. The consequence would be that congregants would soon see baptism as no longer important or valid. With its mystery and beauty wholly eviscerated baptism would erroneously be declared as no longer needed for the life of a Christian.
Lutheran theology and that of the evangelical true and Catholic Church holds that Baptism is rather completely God’s work. For the reformed, enlightened, and rational theologians we are to save ourselves, build our own ark, take charge over our lives, gain merit before God and our neighbor, "make a decision for Christ and follow him." The mighty ark steadily oscillating through the mighty and cosmic baptismal waters offends our reason, our personal sense of control, reminds us of the awesome power of the Lord, and renders us mere passive vessels called by faith into the saving grace of the covenant. The New Testament writers saw that in Baptism God was not doing something entirely new, but was only perfecting and completing what He had already done. God forgives the sins of His people, through these acts. This what God’s grace means! Grace is not found in abstract meditations about a "sovereign and almighty God in the sky" but rather as one who comes concretely in concrete elements and means saving his people and reconciling a fallen creation. He comes by water, wine, and bread – by promises which are always fulfilled and never broken!

For this reason we can always return to our Baptism, which endures forever, and to which we can always take refuge. This most treasured gift can never be snatched away from you – even in the midst of all the world’s temptations, threats, doubts, and personal failures. In these Holy Mysteries we find our life which is fulfilled and purified in the body of Christ, who makes all things new. And as mysteries they remain until the Lord calls us home to his most holy Kingdom where your tears will be forever wiped clear from your face by the Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. It is for this reason that we come to Church today, to remain steadfast in this saving ark and to receive all the gifts which the Lord presents us with here. This Holy Baptism works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all those who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. So how can these things be? This is what Nicodemus asks in the Scripture reading today – and it is also a question which permeates each and every day of our own earthly lives. It has been done because the Lord desires you dearly and encounters you in this Holy Baptism. All this he does out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. For all this is our duty to thanks and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true. Amen.

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