It’s been a year of milestones.
Emma is graduating from 8th grade. I still can’t believe that. I’m so proud of her and the person she is growing to become. But it’s hard to believe. Next year she’ll be in high school! Am I old enough to have a daughter in high school? I guess I must be, because I also have a daughter old enough to join the Air Force. Eve surprised us all by enlisting and now she’s in her second week of basic training. And then, this year I turned the BIG 5-0! And while I’m extremely grateful to have made it this far, turning 50 comes with the realization that I now qualify for membership in AARP. It’s kind of shocking. I’m still a few years away from getting discounts at the movie theater, but it won’t be long. I guess for Cassie it’s been a year of milestones, too. She is the mother of a daughter graduating from 8th grade, the mother of a daughter graduating from basic training, and the wife of a guy who just turned 50! And to top it off, we’re moving this year! It makes my head spin thinking of all the different milestones we’ve encountered just this year alone.
Our faith has milestones, too.
And in the Christian life, baptism is considered a big one. It marks the time when we dedicate our life to Christ and give ourselves to his kingdom. And it is a time of celebration as we welcome another member into the family of God. Baptism is the first milestone in our faith journey. Not our first step but our first milestone and that distinction is important. A milestone is a reference point. It’s a marker along the road to show us where we’ve been and how far there is to go. In the Christian faith, our life is filled with these markers and from the moment we are born to the moment we die, we are continually walking along that road. If we say it’s the first STEP, then we’re saying that our faith, our journey really only begins HERE – at this point, when we’re baptized. But that’s not true. Just because you haven’t been baptized doesn’t mean you don’t believe in God. Our faith journey starts even before we’re aware of it, because God is active in our lives from the moment we are born. And think about those who are baptized as adults. I didn’t get baptized until I was 33 years old, but I look back at my life and see all the ways God was working in me that entire time. Through my mom, through my friends, through my wife-to-be, all of them were important in my faith journey even before I was baptized. But it was when I was baptized that I made a commitment to Christ. It was then that I finally responded to God’s efforts to reach out to me. Baptism then is our response to a faithful and loving God who is already at work in our lives.
It’s also more than that.
It’s not simply a ritual or a ceremony that we do to commemorate becoming a member of the Church. It is one of the means of grace by which we actually encounter God through the Holy Spirit. In our church, we celebrate only two of these divine means of grace – baptism and Holy Communion. And in both of these celebrations, when we surrender ourselves to God, we open ourselves up to the workings of the Holy Spirit. We call these sacraments because they are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. What that means is there is a powerful transformation of the spirit that happens when you participate in these sacraments. The outward aspects of the service, the water in baptism and the taking of bread and juice in communion, are visible symbols of something transformative and deeper that is happening inside of you. That’s why it is so important to be baptized and why it is the first huge milestone on your journey to becoming a Christian. Not because you get water sprinkled on you, but because baptism opens you up to the Holy Spirit in a new and different way. In our passage this morning, Jesus talks about this with Nicodemus. Now in this passage, Jesus is talking to Nicodemus who you will hear is one of the key Jewish leaders. Jesus had just turned water to wine and had overturned the tables in the temple and after that encounter, this man named Nicodemus comes up to him and wants to talk to him and this is the exchange that happens between them.
1Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
4“How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!”
5Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”- John 3:1-8
I like Nicodemus’ question.
I think it’s something I might have said. I always imagine Nicodemus as sort of an older, fatherly figure – a guy who’s lived a pretty long life and knows quite a bit. He is a member of the Jewish ruling council, so he’s probably a very respected person. And when he first hears Jesus say, “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again,” he probably thinks Jesus is a little bit off. It’s obvious Jesus has been blessed by God, but still, here’s this guy telling him, you have to be born again. I would have been scratching my head. I imagine Nicodemus has kind of a sarcastic tone in his voice when he replies, “How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” But as Jesus explains, he’s talking about something that goes beyond physical birth. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” As important as it is to have been born physically, it is even more important to be born again from the Holy Spirit. Baptism allows the Spirit to enter into your life in ways that give you new life.
Does that mean you have to be baptized in order to be saved?
No. Salvation is a gift from God given to anyone who believes. But ask yourself this, if we believe that baptism opens us up to the work of the Holy Spirit in a new way, why wouldn’t we do it? Why wouldn’t we want to draw closer to God? Why wouldn’t we want to tell people we believe? Because if you believe, if you have faith in the power of baptism to change your life, once you do it, you will be on a road to a richer, more peaceful, more full life. But if you know about baptism and you know that it’s possible for it to change your life for the better and you still refuse to take part in it, consider what that says about your faith and if you truly believe. Baptism is not only about opening ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, but it’s also about our commitment to God. Let us renew our own commitment and our own faith in Christ Jesus. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.