By Paul Koch –
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Love him or hate him, longing to be near him while hanging on his words or plotting against him and finding ways to hang him on a tree, the one thing that comes through the pages of Scripture is that the Son of God cannot simply be ignored. So a Pharisee named Nicodemus realized there was something different about Jesus. He had heard about or even witnessed the miraculous signs that had done, things that only one sent by God could do. So he comes to him. True he comes at night when he might not be spotted conversing with a dissident, but he comes because he has to know more. Perhaps this Jesus of Nazareth just might know how to answer the central question of our faith; if he has truly come from God then surely he will know how one can enter into the Kingdom of God.
There under the cloak of darkness Jesus speaks the shocking truth, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In order to see the kingdom of God, in order to be part of that eternal reality, you must be born again. Now this may not seem too shocking to us today. After all, we have heard this language of being born again with such frequency that we hardly even bat an eye when we hear it. In fact for many, being born again is an act of the will. It is something we seek out and something that we do to make sure that we will indeed see the kingdom of God. So when we hear of being born again, we hear people speak about giving their life to Jesus. We hear about making a decision to hand it all over to God. We are told to look for repentance for heartfelt grief and a commitment to the things of God.
But the language of our Lord, when he speaks about receiving the kingdom of God, is not the language of human work or will or choice. He doesn’t speak about looking within yourself. He doesn’t tell Nicodemus that he has a choice to make or that he must be willing make sacrifices for the Lord. He says that he must be born again. Now the language of birth is one in which the one being born isn’t in control. When my children where born, when my wife went through the pain and hardship of labor, I didn’t lean in and kiss my newborn baby on the head and say, “Good job, way to go, I’m so proud of you.” No I kissed my wife and told her those things. She was the one who did all the work! The child is the beneficiary of the act of birth, not the one choosing how it will go.
So as Nicodemus goes out to find the one sent by God under the cover of darkness, he is not greeted by a kind stranger that takes him under his wing and point out the secret way to enter the kingdom of God. No, he finds the Son of God himself who takes everything from him. He takes the matter of salvation completely out of our hands. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus tries to hold on to this new birth idea as if it was something he could accomplish. He’s not too quick to let go of the possibility that salvation lies within his own work. So he wonders, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” You see, his mind is working away. What Jesus says doesn’t make sense, so he’s trying to figure it out. But Jesus won’t allow him to take salvation back into himself in to the works of man. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” You must be born. You cannot do it. It is a work of the Spirit. And then he adds this; “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” The gift of the Spirit, the gift of new birth, lies in the working of God alone. We cannot control it. We cannot dictate its paths. Salvation lies completely outside of us.
Now this is where the real challenges to our Lord’s words begin to arise. If being baptized by water and the Spirit is the way to see the kingdom of God, then everything else seems to be in jeopardy. All our work, all our achievements, all our passions and desires, all our rule following and good works lose their power if this is really how it works. So the questions arise, “Do you mean to tell me that baptism is enough? What if I was a baby and didn’t even know what was going on? It can’t have such significance, can it?” And the answer is yes! Yes, baptism is enough for there God works as he will to forgive sins. Where there is forgiveness, there is life and salvation also. The God who speaks that promise of “yes” to us does not go back on his word, whether you were 20 years old, 2 months old, or 2 days old.
“But what about my response? Are you saying that I don’t have to make a decision?” Again the answer is yes. Yes, that is exactly what is happening. Yes, for you see the old way: the way where you climbed up by your own strength, the way where you proved your worth through word and deed, the way where you displayed the wisdom of a god trying to earn eternal life. That way has come to an end. That way has died. In fact, that way has been drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism.
So, baptism itself becomes the great enemy of mankind’s delusions of grandeur. Nicodemus personifies our own desires. We want to always look within to find the solution in our own doings. Not that we need to do the whole thing, but just a part or just a little piece of it. We say that piece, that decision, that prayer, that desire, that act of penance, that was mine. I did that piece and Christ did the rest. But God knows that if he leaves just a sliver for us to do, then our whole salvation will depend on how well we achieve that sliver. Baptism turns us completely away from ourselves. It turns us only to the work outside of us, to the Spirit that works when and where he wills. We shout out with Nicodemus, “How can these things be?”
But this is the great work of God. It is his attack on our sin and brokenness. He puts an end to your effort to save yourself.
He stops every attempt to climb up into eternal life by your actions no matter how small and meager they might be. And in so doing, he puts an end to your doubts as well. For in this new birth, by water and Spirit, he promises that the eternal kingdom of heaven is yours.
God’s great attack upon our sin comes from without, it comes to us by an external Word and washing in Holy Baptism. The great challenge of our faith is not to climb up into heaven or to earn our seat in the wedding hall, but to believe that it has all already been done in the One who gave us this new birth in the first place. So the Word continues to be spoken. The gift continues to be proclaimed. Over and again God’s promise, his great action, might echo in our ears.
“God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” You have been given such a gift. You have been born of water and the Spirit. You are the saints of God. You are the baptized, those born again. You are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.