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Born of Water and the Spirit (St. John 3.1-17)

Feast of the Holy Trinity

“Born of Water and the Spirit”
Seminarian Andrew Keller, Vicar

St. John 3.1-17

07 June 2020


+ In the Name of Jesus +

During his life, Johann Sebastian Bach, a confessional Lutheran Kantor, wrote over 200 cantatas, a vocal composition with a musical setting. These were performed during throughout the church year each Sunday and feast day, drawn off the reading from the lectionary. For the Feast of the Holy Trinity, Bach composed three cantatas, the first of which we will focus on today, BWV (Bach work catalogue) 165. Based on John 3, its title, ‘O Heliges Geist und Wasserbad’ is telling as to the primary focus for the text: the Holy Spirit and Baptism (literally ‘Sacred bath of water’). The first movement describes beautifully that gift which Jesus spoke of to Nicodemus in the dead of night: “O sacred bath of water and the Spirit that incorporates us in God’s kingdom and writes us down in the book of life! O flood-tide that drowns all misdeeds through its miraculous power and gives us the gift of new life! O sacred bath of water and the Spirit!”

Nicodemus was an intelligent man and a well-respected Pharisee and teacher. It is often thought that he even held a seat on the Sanhedrin. He approached our Lord on behalf of the Pharisees, who recognized that Jesus’ signs must be from God. Yet, he did not understand nor grasp Jesus’ teaching. His thoughts were flawed and limited only to earthly things. Jesus said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again/from above.’” The teacher Nicodemus now became the student. For him to see and enter the kingdom of God, he could not rely on earthly wisdom or goods, but had to rely on that which was from above.

The world, which tries to suppress the truth of Scripture, will tell us that the Word contains errors. Lies are spread about the origins of the world, the natural order of the family is being rejected, and babies are labeled ‘clumps of cells,’ free to be disposed of if they are an inconvenience or unwanted. The lies of Satan and the world lead to hatred. Just look at the world around us. An innocent man was murdered, yet people use this crime to justify their own crimes of stealing, destruction of property, and other mischief. People use the barrier of social media to accuse, slander and profane their neighbors rather than explaining everything in the kindest way. Lest we grow self-righteous about ourselves, we too fall prey to the siren song of this world’s lies. We do not love God with all our heart, soul and mind. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves. Whether we overindulge in alcohol, envy or covet our neighbor’s possessions, skip church for a sporting event or another frivolous reason, or click on that website that we shouldn’t be looking at, we too allow that Old Adam in us to overtake us. Even though we are baptized, we still daily fall short of God’s Law. Bach’s cantata says, “The sinful birth of the damned seed of Adam brings forth God’s anger, death and destruction. For what is born of flesh is no more than flesh, by sin infected, poisoned and defiled.”

What is the answer to evil in this world, and the evil, which infects our hearts and minds? What can be done?

Let us look to the answer Jesus gave to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” We cannot rely on our work to save ourselves. We rely on the things of heaven, the work of the Blessed Holy Trinity in the world to save sinners. It is the sacred bath of Water and the Spirit, in which we are born again from heaven above. Bach continues, “How blessed is a Christian! By the bath of water and the Spirit, he becomes a child of blessedness and mercy. He puts on Christ and the white silk of His innocence. He is clothed with Christ’s blood, the purple robe of honor in baptism.”

God gives to us His Spirit through the life-saving waters of baptism, as Saint Paul wrote in Titus chapter 3, “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” In baptism, the Triune Name of God is put upon us because it is a work of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father through the Son gives the Holy Spirit upon the baptized, who is then called a child of God and an heir of eternal life. Bach sums this up beautifully in movement 3: “Jesus, who by your great love, in baptism has written me down for life, salvation and blessedness, help me to rejoice in this and to renew the covenant of mercy throughout my whole life.” This is what Jesus called Nicodemus and all of us to do: to be born from above and to lead a holy life according to that rebirth that God has given. Strengthened by Him, we rejoice and renew the covenant of mercy daily, repenting of our sins, leaving behind the things of the flesh, and turning to Christ alone as our help.

All of this is made possible for us through the death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Listen to how movement 5 of the cantata sums up what Jesus has done for us: “Jesus, death of my death in my life and in my last agony let me keep this thought in view: that for me you are the beloved serpent who brings salvation from the poison of sin. Save, Jesus, my soul and Spirit so that I may find life.” Did you catch the illusion to what Jesus said to Nicodemus? “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so (or in this way) 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.” We need to be saved. As from the beginning, when Adam and Eve fell into sin, through the Exodus, and even now, God’s people need saving. Thanks be to God that through His grace, He has sent His Son to deliver us. Just as God saved the Israelites from death in the wilderness by a bronze serpent, so He raised up His Son like the serpent, that whoever looks upon Him in faith should be saved. Jesus was lifted upon the cross for the sins of the entire world, and bestowed His righteousness upon all believers. God the Father has sent His Son into the world to redeem and save the world through His blood shed and His sacrificial death on the cross. That saving work is given to us by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel and the saving sacred bath of water and the Spirit, as St. Paul wrote in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Eternal life is our inheritance, but for now, we dwell in a sinful world, where Satan and death surround us daily. The final movement in ‘O Heliges Geist und Wasserbad’ gives words of comfort while we await the coming of our Lord: “His Word, His baptism, His supper serve us against all misfortune. The Holy Spirit in faith teaches us to trust in these things.” We see the terrors of the world around us. We feel the work of sin and Satan constantly trying to pull us away from God. However, dear Christians, we are not alone. The Holy Spirit continues to strengthen and preserve us in the true faith. We are equipped with the Word and Sacraments against all that the world will throw against us. God sends faithful pastors to His Church on earth to preach this Word and administer the Sacraments in the midst of turmoil and strife. We stand firm in the knowledge that God is working even now to preserve His church. Christians are still being born of the Spirit, who calls them to saving faith by the Gospel in the sacred bath of baptism, as Jane Eckardt was and Rosemary Milner will be this afternoon. With joy and comfort, we know and see the Triune God constantly at work in the world and among us, even in these troubling and terrible times. He gathers the elect into the Ark of the Church using the means of the Gospel and the Sacraments.  Do not put your trust in the earthly things nor in the ways of the flesh. Instead, trust that these heavenly gifts of the Holy Spirit do what God has promised. They give you the forgiveness of sins. They tell you of the Gospel of Christ crucified and risen for you. They are the means in which God has promised to be with you always. Finally, having been having been gathered in to the Ark of the Church through the sacred bath of baptism, we too will rise from our graves and join Christ in that heavenly kingdom which has no end.

In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

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