March 20, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“Jesus said: ‘Truly, truly, 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?’”
Who you are born to can affect your entire life. Your parents give you a name. They also can give you a place in society. Depending upon who your parents are, you may have access to privileges and perks that others do not have. But the opposite can be true, too. Disease and ill health can be the result of poor genetics. Those who are born to impoverished households may lack what is considered essential to life. Coming from the wrong side of town, from the wrong clan can seal your destiny for the worse. For good or evil, much is wrapped up in ancestry.
In this morning’s readings, the topic of parentage and given identity was clearly heard. Starting with the Old Testament Reading, you heard of Abram. He was called to a new identity, one disconnected from his native land, clan, and household: “Now the Lord said to Abram: ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Abram was to leave behind what his ancestors had passed down to him, in order to have a new beginning. Instead of only having the heritage of Terah, his father, Abram would be the source of a great benefit to his descendants: “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Called by the Lord, Abram acted: “So Abram went as the Lord had told him, and Lot went with him. . . . And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan.” From the moment of his call by the Lord, Abram’s fate was wrapped up in the promise given to him. His identity was being the believer of the Lord and the recipient of His blessing. This identity was confirmed by what Abram did when he reached Canaan: “And there he built and altar to the Lord and called upon the name of the Lord.” Abram was now the Lord’s person, not the son of Terah. Abram’s clan now the Lord’s clan, not the Semites. Abram’s land was the Lord’s gift of Canaan, not Haran or Ur of the Chaldeans.
Abram’s clan grew as the Lord had promised. It started slowly, having Isaac at an old age. Isaac begot Jacob. Jacob begot his twelve sons. And so the nation of Israel, the descendants of Abram’s flesh, arose. The Lord made good on what He said: “I will make of you a great nation.” But that promise included something much more important: “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The heritage given to Abram would extend to people who were not of his bloodlines. Instead, it would be given to those who shared his true identity: being called by the Lord, being incorporated into His household, and being given to believe His promises.
This is what the Apostle Paul described in this morning’s Epistle Reading. When writing about Abraham, Paul recites the great statement about him: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Paul discusses the implications of this: “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. . . . That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written: ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’” Abraham’s clan was not limited to those who shared his bloodlines. Instead, all who shared the faith of Abraham are connected to him. And how is that faith given? By being called by the Lord, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
Birth is spoken of, but not an earthly birth. A household is described, but not an earthly household. Citizenship is mentioned, but not an earthly citizenship. A heritage is promised, but not an earthly heritage. No, Paul’s writing explains the Lord’s actions that began back in Haran, when Abram was called to faith and given a new identity: “And I will make of you a great nation. . . . And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” All would come true because of Abram’s Descendant according to the flesh, but God’s Son according to His divinity. He would fulfill all the promises made and that Abram believed.
This is what today’s Gospel Reading described: “[Nicodemus] came to Jesus by night and said to Him: ‘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.’” Nicodemus’ statement was true. Jesus is that descendant of Abram, a teacher come from God. But He is even more. He is the One who fulfills the promise made to Abram, the agent through which Abram becomes “the father of many nations.” What Jesus would accomplish was for more than just one clan, one set of bloodlines: “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.”
But access to this great deed comes in the same way that it came to Abram: the Lord calls people to Himself, makes promises to them, and grants them faith to believe it. That is why Jesus speaks about having a new identity given to you, a birth not from earthly parents, but from the Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus says that earthly ancestry does not matter. If one would receive the promise made to Abram, he need not share in the bloodline, being “born of the flesh.” No, a birth from above must be given, as it was to Abram, being “born of the Spirit.” In this way, “the promise rests on grace and is guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.”
Your earthly parentage may have given you great privilege or it may have dealt you a lousy hand in life. But no matter who your mother and father were, they passed down to you a terrible heritage: separation from God and the lack of righteousness. It is given to all who are the children of Adam, the one through whom sin and death entered the world. When it comes down to it, there is nothing truly good that you have received through your bloodlines. Instead, there is a great curse—the curse of death, the wages of your sin. Receiving only that birth, none are right before God, none have a place in His household. That is the upshot of Jesus’ teaching: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. . . . Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
But a new birth, a second birth, a birth from above is possible. Nicodemus’ question shows that it is not of this earth: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” No, of course not. It is a silly thought. But even if a second earthly birth could take place, it would benefit no one. For what is promised about the kingdom of God is not given by human parentage. Instead, it is bestowed when one is born “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
So Jesus speaks of a birth that He brings to this world: a birth of “water and the Spirit.” It is what you have been given in Holy Baptism, where water and the Holy Spirit were present. This birth from above, a second birth, brought you into a new household, a new clan. You were dead, but the One “who gives life to the dead” granted you new life. You had no good in you, but the One “who calls into existence the things that do not exist” gave you His righteousness. This is the promise and heritage of your second birth, a birth in Holy Baptism that connects you to the Son of God who was given for the life of the world.
But you must remember that this is not your doing. Like your first birth, you don’t have anything to do with your second birth, the birth from above. It is the activity of your Father in heaven that brings your new identity to you. Paul’s statement about Abraham is true for you: “If Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about.” But he doesn’t and neither do you. Instead, you have the graciousness of the Lord only to praise: “To the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. . . . ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” You may extol and laud what God has accomplished for you: “the Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”
Born from above, born a second time, you are given to believe in what the Lord has done for you, what His Son has achieved by descending from heaven and being lifted up in crucifixion. He was humbled, so that you may be exalted. He forsook privilege, so that you may have all the perks of being the children of God, members of His household along with Abraham and all believers. It is the great truth about the second birth that we often confess at the beginning of our Divine Service: “In the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become the children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit. May the Lord, who has begun this good work in us, bring it to completion in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” It will be so for you who are “born of water and the Spirit,” Abraham’s offspring, and the children of God, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.