Saturday, December 12, 2009

baptism, birth and family

Meaghan was baptized last night, along with another dear person from our church (Adriana). Here is the text of the short message I gave. I hope it blesses you! -Troy

Baptism, Birth and Family

There was a time when you were a baby, but you were still waiting to be born. That is the time when you were in your mother’s womb. Just before your birth you were a fully formed baby but you were yet to be born into the world. In some ways you were already in the world, because your mother was in the world and you were in your mother. But when you came out of her womb, you were in the world in a new and special way.

You are not the only ones to have experienced this. Before any of us were born, we spent a long time soaking in water. Nicolas, my son, was overdue, so when he came out he looked a bit wrinkled (in a cute sort of way) because, as my wife says, “He was soaking for a long time.”

I’ve been talking about wombs and water because it helps explain some things Jesus said once about God’s kingdom (and about baptism). One night, a religious leader named Nicodemus paid a visit to Jesus. Nicodemus wanted to hear more about some things Jesus had been teaching. These teachings had to do with participation in a new world called “the kingdom of God.” The kingdom of God consisted of a new way of life led by a new group of people in which they endeavored to live according to God’s desires and God’s authority over everything. Nicodemus wanted to know more about this so-called “kingdom of God.”

So, Jesus began their conversation by telling Nicodemus that, in order to enter this new kingdom, one had to be “born again” first.

This seemed a strange expression to Nicodemus, so he asked Jesus how it was possible to be “born again.”

Jesus explained that he was not asking Nicodemus to enter his mother’s womb all over again, but that Nicodemus needed to come forth from God’s spiritual womb: Nicodemus needed to be “born of the Spirit.”

These were Jesus’ words: "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.'" (John 3:5-7)

In these words, we have a picture of what the rite of baptism portrays. Baptism is a picture of being “born of water and the Spirit,” as Jesus says. Baptism is a picture of spiritual birth. Just as you came out of water to be born into the world when you were a baby, so when you come out of water in baptism you portray that you have been born out of God’s watery womb. And just as there are some real-life consequences when someone is born physically, so in spiritual birth there are some big things we can notice.

In physical birth, babies often bear some type of resemblance to their parents. (The baby is not an exact duplicate of their parents, but there is usually some type of similarity.) When one is truly born of the Spirit, it is always the case that God’s child bears the marks of God. The child of God is not an exact duplicate of God, but there is always a likeness when one is truly born of the Spirit.

In physical birth, it is often the case that the baby is born to someone that cares for the baby, teaches the child and provides for them. In spiritual birth, God (our spiritual parent) never fails to care for you, teach you and provide for you.

In physical birth, babies are often born into a family that welcomes them and receives them. In true spiritual birth, this is always the case. In being “born again” of the Spirit, you belong. You belong to God; you are God’s child, God’s daughter. And God will always be there for you, helping you, cheering you on, forgiving you when you need it, loving you no matter what.

But “belonging” doesn’t just stop with you and God. There are also others that have been born of God. These “others” are your spiritual brothers and sisters. You have a whole family to which you belong. That’s why later, in your baptism, we’ll ask your brothers and sisters here tonight to say that they commit to caring for you. Hopefully, you will care for those who are in your spiritual family and they will care for you. But, if the family of God lets you down from time to time (and this is likely), always remember: you will always, always belong to God and you will always, always be God’s child no matter what. Nobody can take that away from you. That’s what’s so wonderful about being born of the Spirit.

So, baptism is a picture of being born out of water (God’s water) into a new world (God’s kingdom) to lead a new life (a life of trust in God and love for others).

I should also mention that throughout history baptism has meant a lot of other things, too. (It is so wonderful it can mean a lot of things all at the same time!)

Typically, Christians view baptism as a picture of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection—and a picture of our death, burial and resurrection when we place our faith in Jesus. Just as (when Jesus was crucified) Jesus died to sin, so we put sin to death in us by faith in Jesus. Just as Jesus was buried and rose again, so by faith in Jesus we bury our sins with him (never to cling to us anymore!) and rise again to a new life. When we go under the water in baptism we portray Jesus’ death and burial. Then, when we come up out of the water we portray the resurrection of Jesus--in our own lives.

Baptism also is a picture of new creation. Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water in the first creation story, so in baptism we portray that new life is created in our hearts by God’s Spirit through faith in Jesus. Baptism helps us retell and relive the creation story, new beginnings. And just as in the original creation story, God wanted his creation to “go forth and multiply”, so in your baptism today you will be commissioned to “multiply” yourself in others by spreading the good news of this new creation.

In keeping with the fact that baptism portrays new creation, it is not far-fetched to say that the baptism tank provides us with a picture of being born out of God’s womb. After all, the creation story is a picture of what happens every time a baby is born—life emerges from the water. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus about being “born again” warrant this likeness to real-life childbirth. This is why Jesus goes on to explain to Nicodemus that the Father sent Jesus into the world to suffer and die for us.

In saying this to Nicodemus, Jesus pointed out that, just as natural birth comes through pain, so God endured pain in giving spiritual birth to us. But just as physical birth involves joy in the midst of (and after) the pain, so our spiritual birth also involves joy and results in joy. Yes, Jesus had to suffer for us, but because he forgave our sins through his suffering, we can have joy. The Bible tells us this when it says that Jesus endured the pain of the cross “for the joy set before him.” Like a mother in childbirth, Jesus endured the pain because he knew that through it joy would come in the morning.

Speaking of pain in childbirth, I’d like to explain now why, in today’s baptism, you’ll go under the water not just once, but three times. There are three big reasons why you'll do this. (The third reason specifically connects with this image of birth, pain and joy.)

One, just as a single symphony can have three movements, so your one baptism will have three parts. By going under the water three times, you will remember that you belong to One God that exists in Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Think of this as One Baptism in the Name of the Three Persons.

Second, a teacher in the ancient church (Irenaeus) has said that, in going under the water three times, you are remembering that Jesus was buried three days. The ancients had a way of using repetition to say something more strongly. Baptism is the Christian’s way of emphasizing the point that “your sin is buried, your sin is buried, your sin is buried.” In other words: it is final; it is complete.

It could also be, however, that, because today’s baptism is about new birth, we could think of the three motions as three big contractions. You know that when a mother is going to have a baby, her womb squeezes from time to time to give birth. We call these contractions. Your baptism today portrays the pain Jesus endured to bring you new life. Like repeated contractions in childbirth, Jesus endured labor for the sake of joy.

In case you think this is too far-fetched, you should know that I am not just making this up. Irenaeus also draws this parallel about baptism: “That one moment [is] your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother... [Solomon] said, ‘There is a time to give birth and a time to die’. But in your case it is the other way round—a time to die and a time to be born.”

Baptism portrays new birth. And just as, when a mother gives birth, there is cause for celebration, so today we celebrate that, because you have been born of God by faith in Jesus, you have a new life, a fresh life—a life in which death does not play a part. And we celebrate today that you are God’s daughters, and you are sisters to each other and I am your brother and those in this room are your family. That is because this water here today represents both your grave and your mother. The water here today represents these things to all who would look to Jesus to give them the life that only Jesus has. So, we celebrate now that Jesus has given you his eternal life. Amen.

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