Sunday, October 14, 2012

Newborn from God

Texts:    Romans 6:1-17; John 3:1-14

    IN A LITTLE WHILE WE WILL BAPTISE H-- A-- B--, infant son of H-- and D-- B--.  I was told that H-- was born on the 15th of this past August, so he's not quite two months old.  Once this child was not even thought of, but now he's a little person living here among us.  Even in these past two months he's growing, developing, and gaining strength.  What will he look like when he's big?  What will he be able to do? 

    We marvel at the glory of human life, especially when we find it packaged in a little child.  But human life is not enough.

    And what a miracle H-- is!  If anything on this earth could be called miraculous, it's the birth of a newborn child.  We know from science how minuscule we all start out in our mothers' wombs, but somehow the genetic coding works together and a new human being is born!  And now, see how intricate, how delicate, how marvellously-formed a tiny baby is!

     A child like this is indeed is an earthly miracle.  But earthly miracles are not enough.

    And think of the spirit in this child, already manifesting itself.  Here is a new soul with all its dreams and possibilities ahead of it.  How can we look upon a infant like this and not be inspired to contemplate the mysteries of life and the universe and beyond?

    Certainly, the human spirit is an amazing thing.  But the human spirit is not enough.

    All this is not enough, for we know from Scripture-- and from the testimony of our own hearts-- that we are not what we should be or what we were created to be.  We are sinners who  fall short of the glory of God.  We treat God, our neighbor, and ourselves in ways we ought not, and we fail to give God and our neighbor the honor and consideration they deserve.  St. Paul in our passage from Romans 6 speaks of people who would insult the grace of God by using it as an excuse to sin all the more.  He needs to command even Christians not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies.  So wonderfully formed our bodies are, with tremendous capabilities and strengths, but we have to be warned not to use them as instruments of wickedness.  Paul urges us not to let sin be our master, to stop being slaves to sin-- and by this we understand that having sin as our master is the ordinary condition of human life.  It's the problem we were born with and still struggle with, no matter how old or how young we are.  Because we are sinners, our lives lead to death, our miracles are fleeting, and our spirits end in frustration.  All our human glories are not enough.

    But maybe (some might say), but maybe all this about sin is just Paul the Apostle talking.  After all (people say), Paul didn't want anybody to have any fun.  He just obscured the real Jesus-- the kind, loving, gentle, inclusive, all-accepting Jesus who'd never lower anybody's self-esteem or judge them or make them feel there was anything about them that God couldn't like.

    Oh, really?  That's an imaginary Jesus people make up in their own heads, and not the Christ of the Bible.  We can read what Jesus Himself said about the natural condition of humanity.  In John 3:18-20, He says,

    [W]hoever does not believe [in Jesus the Son of Man] stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son.  This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.  Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

"Men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil," says Jesus, the Son of God.  Not some men, but all men, and that includes us women, too.  It just comes naturally for us to do what is bad and wrong and to try to hide our guilt in the darkness, away from the righteous judgement of the holy God.  We are born with sin as our master and condemnation is what we naturally deserve-- Jesus has said so.  The tiniest child, the most aged, venerable senior, all of us come into this world as children of darkness and not as children of light.

    So what must we do?  Try harder?  Aspire to please God by acts of charity and service?  No, for even our best and kindest acts are polluted and degraded by selfish motives.  No matter how much we try, we fail to meet the standard of goodness set by God's own righteousness.  It's beyond human capability for anyone by his or her own efforts to have eternal life and not perish under the judgement we so properly deserve.

    Human life, human spirit, and earthly miracles are not enough.  We need divine life and the Holy Spirit, given to us by heavenly miracle.  It's not enough for us once to have been newborn-- we need also to be newborn from and by and through God.

    When Nicodemus, the member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus by night, he wondered whether Jesus' presence marked the coming of the kingdom of God.  The coming of the kingdom was an event all good Jews eagerly awaited.  Jesus has been doing miraculous signs in Judea and Galilee, and Nicodemus recognizes by this that Jesus is a teacher sent from God, and the Lord is with Him.  Plainly, the next question is, "Rabbi, are You the Messiah, and will we see You inaugurating the kingdom of God very soon?"

    Nicodemus was expecting the time when God would fulfill all His covenant promises to His chosen people, an unending time of blessedness and joy for those who belonged to Him, with a simultaneous experience of punishment and woe for the enemies of God and Israel.  To a great extent, Nicodemus and his good Jewish countrymen were right.  But it's more than that.  The kingdom of God also has to do with the condition of every human heart.  Is God our Sovereign and Master-- or will we continue to be enslaved by sin?  Jesus gets right to the point: In order to see the kingdom of God-- that is, to be able to experience it, live in it, and enjoy the eternal life that only God can give-- it wasn't enough to have been born of the bloodline of Jacob.  No, "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

    For Nicodemus this is such a bizarre thing for Jesus to say that he tries to imagine an adult man crawling back into his mother's womb and having her deliver him all over again.  Absurd and impossible!

    But Jesus is not talking about anything natural or anything of this earth.  This new birth is from first to last an act of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  In order to participate in the kingdom of God, we must be newborn from God.  Jesus says, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."   Elsewhere in John's gospel the Evangelist records how Jesus promised the Samaritan woman living water that would become a spring welling up to eternal life.  When He preached at the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus spoke of "streams of living water flowing from within" those who believed in Him, by which He meant the Holy Spirit, which believers would receive.  Repeatedly in Scripture water, especially flowing, running water, is used as a means of physical cleansing and refreshing, and as a symbol for spiritual cleansing and revival.  John the Baptist baptised people in the Jordan River, so they might be ready to accept the Messiah when He might be revealed to Israel.   Behind the physical element of water stands a powerful truth about what God does in the human heart so each of us can be fit and ready to see the kingdom of God.   

    And you and I can't do or be a single thing to bring the kingdom of God to us, or to make ourselves clean enough to see and enter it.  Jesus won't allow Nicodemus or us to delude ourselves.  We must have a spiritual rebirth, and that can happen only by the will and pleasure of the Holy Spirit Himself, who is God.  Can you or I control the wind?  No, we only see its influence and feel its force.  And so it is with the new birth from above-- it's totally up to God and His sovereign will.

    But we can take heart.  "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."  God has provided the way for us to be born again and to have the life and Spirit that is more than enough.  Jesus Himself is the way, and as we believe in Him through the work of the Holy Spirit, we pass from life to death, from condemnation to adoption as sons, from darkness into light.

    Baptism is God's divinely-ordained sign and seal of this tremendous heavenly reality.  We take a common element, water, plain old H2O, and as we in faith invoke the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, our Lord promises to apply His promises to us and our children.  Our Christian baptism is our initiation into new and eternal life-- because, St. Paul says (again, in Romans, chapter 6), our baptism into Jesus Christ is our baptism into His death.  In John 3:14 and 15, Jesus says that "Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."  By this He looks towards the death He was to suffer on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  His death washed away the guilt and stain of our sins in His own blood, and in the waters of baptism we are symbolically plunged into the blood of Jesus, that we might arise cleansed and purified and worthy to enter the kingdom of God.

    No one who refuses to come to God through the medium of Christ's atoning death will see life.  But if we are united with Him in His death, as Paul says, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  With Christ in death, with Christ in newborn life-- this is our hope and our glory.

    But we also rejoice that when we are baptised into Christ, our old sinful self stays dead so we are no longer slaves to sin.  Oh, yes, that old sin nature still hangs around within it us, nagging us and tempting us to go back to what we used to be.  But now that we have been baptised into Christ, we are no longer what we used to be.  We are newborn from God-- truly innocent, truly perfect, truly holy-- because we have been united with Jesus Christ, the truly innocent, perfect, and holy one.

    As we baptise H-- A--, we express our faith that God will do for him what He has promised in Jesus Christ.  He is only a tiny child, and will not be able to express his faith in Christ as His Lord and Savior for many years.  But it was in our very helplessness that God took the initiative to revive and quicken us and raise us up in the power of the Spirit so we might call Jesus Master and Lord.  The Word of God written will teach H-- about Jesus and His death for him, and through the ministry of Christ's church as you surround him with your love and godly example, this child will come to  acknowledge and confirm the blessing of newborn life God gives to him and all of us in Christ. Young or old, whether you are a recent convert or a long-standing pillar of the Church, let us reaffirm our own baptisms, and humbly accept the what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For God so loved you that He gave His only-begotten Son, that if you believe in Him, you will not perish, but have everlasting life.  By His sovereign grace you are reborn into eternal life.  God has done it, let us receive it, and praise His name forever and ever.  Amen.

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