In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is necessary. It is necessary that the Son of Man be lifted up on the cross (John 3:14). And this so that “whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15, ESV). But it is also necessary that you look to Him for salvation. It is necessary that you be born again from above if you will see the Kingdom of God (John 3:3). “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, ESV). It is necessary that you be reborn by water and the Holy Spirit if you will enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:5). “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16, ESV). It is necessary.
But, “O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength” (Collect for Lent II). O Lord, we are no children; we know too much. We have seen too much. Our bodies are cold with the chill of death; our eyes are dim from looking into the mirrors of this old world. O God, You see. The nations of the earth are lost in their lust for bloodshed. The chasing after the wind in wealth, power, and easy comfort is unchecked by reflection or care for the needs of others. O God, You see: even the damage done by human ambition cannot mute our selfish pride. Nothing will be impossible for us, we say. “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4, ESV). O God, You see.
And how is it possible for us, as old as we are, to be born again? To be new and innocent; to have our eyes washed clean of all that we have seen; to have new hearts of flesh and not of stone? Surely we cannot enter again into the wombs of our mothers. No. You and I must be born of the Spirit. Whatever has been born from the flesh is flesh; but whatever has been born from the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6). How fleshly we are! How earthly-minded! We can’t think past our lunch, let alone of heavenly things. We are here, in the presence of God, and we are weighed down by these bodies of death. We have done so much damage to and by these bodies, which God called “very good” (Genesis 1:31). We take and take and take what the world has to give us, binging but never purging. O God, the weight!
And our Lord says, do not wonder that I say that you must be born again. But we, like Nikodemus, are dumb-founded. How are these things even possible? You see that we have no power of ourselves. Do you not see how tainted we are by the Old Adam, the man of dust? Do you not see our tired limbs, limping along from pleasure to pleasure, as if they were the measure of the good life? We fear that the Kingdom of God is beyond our reach. The baby in the womb cannot give birth to itself; neither can we birth ourselves into the new life. “Do not wonder”? I wonder, I wonder. Lord, you see our hearts. We do not receive your testimony or the testimony of your Apostles and Prophets. We do not believe you when you speak of heavenly things, of what will become of those who have been born of the Spirit. Can you make us, even us, new again? Can you beget people who love you with whole hearts, whole minds, whole souls? Where shall we, who are dying, look for life? We are the faithless people of Israel who speak against you: we despise your gifts; we do not want to hear your Word; we call worthless the heavenly Food which you have given (Numbers 21:5). We have brought the bite of the Serpent upon ourselves, and the poison works its way through our veins. It comes now out of our mouths, from our forked tongues in biting words, sharp scorn, poisonous gossip. O Lord, show us life or we will die.
And He shows us. Do you wish to see? His life-giving glory is visible, but it is a strange glory. “[A]s Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14, ESV). Do you wish to see the glory of the only Son of the God who loves the world with an everlasting love? If so, do not try to see past that crucifix into some heavenly bliss. Glory that is all sweetness and light is the sort of glory that the world can understand. If Jesus had been speaking of such glory, Nikodemus might have gotten that. He might have understood that kind of rebirth. Oh, of course, Jesus! Now, I see. You mean that we will be transformed from a bodily existence to a spiritual existence. We’ll put off all of this physical weight and ascend into the weightlessness of pure spirit. No. “No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, ESV). The glory of Jesus Christ is not a spiritualized, bodiless glory; it is the glory of a Body crucified. Peter, James, and John could not avoid Golgotha by staying in the glory of the transfigured Jesus; neither may we jump to Easter joy and avoid the holy week that ends in death. There is no raising from the dead unless there is that death. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:23, ESV). And this falling into the earth, this dying, this is the glory of the Father and the Son: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified…And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:23, 32, ESV). “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33, ESV). In His dying, we are born again, the fruit of the cross-shaped tree.
Do you want to be free from the weight of your flesh, from the heavy burden of everything you have seen and heard and done? There is only one way, and it is to be born again. The Kingdom of God is closed to those who want to hang on to old ways and old lives. The Kingdom of God is closed to those who refuse to be drowned by the Spirit. But-perhaps we forget-we have been drowned. Lent is one of the ways we remind ourselves. The Church has set aside these brief 40 days as a reminder for us that our bodies have not yet been raised from the dead in glory. We still live as people of sorrow in a world of sorrow. For now, the Bridegroom is visibly absent, and the friends of the Bridegroom fast and mourn. And so we are reminded; reminded that we live only because we have looked upon the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross; reminded that we are washed in the blood and water that flow from His broken body; reminded that “when the goodness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, ESV). The forty days of Lent stand for all the days of your life; they remind you that that washing, that baptism, was not just a one-time event. Every time you begin to feel the weight of your flesh, every time you begin to doubt that rebirth and renewal are even possible, the way back to new life is always open to you: the way of repentance, which is exactly what it means to be baptized.
And there is no skipping that baptismal step of repentance. You cannot get past baptism and go straight to the cross. Jesus does not say that you must be born again of the cross and pious meditation. He says that, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. You cannot get back to the cross, so the Spirit brings the cross to you. As sure as you are sitting here now, the blood of Jesus flowed through the water in the font when the Word of God was spoken over you. Your Lent began the moment you came into contact with that water, and it will end the moment that Jesus raises you on the Easter at the end of days. You are weighed down. Your eyes are dim. Your pride is endless. The poison is everywhere. You have done much damage in your body, and you have aged far beyond the innocence of infancy. But there is new birth! There is cleansing. There is innocence and paradise regained. Christ draws you to Himself. He lifts you up to the cross. You died with Him there, because it was your sin on His sagging shoulders. And there is new life for you, every single day. Your Father loved you so much that He gave His only Son; and this so that you might believe in Him, leaving death behind for eternal life. He does not condemn you; He saves you. He “gave himself up for the church, that he might sanctify her [make her holy] by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27, ESV). Beloved: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God,” (1 Corinthians 6:11, ESV).
“O God, You see that of ourselves we have no strength.” But “God would not have the sinner die;/His Son with saving grace is nigh;/His Spirit in the Word declares/How we in Christ are heaven’s heirs. Be of good cheer, for God’s own Son/Forgives all sins which you have done;/And, justified by Jesus’ blood,/Your Baptism grants the highest good” (LSB 571, sts. 3-4).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.