Sandy Webb’s Funeral Homily: Baptism Does What?

John 3:1-7, 14-17; Genesis 7:11-13, 22-23; 8:1, 9:8-15; 1 Peter 3:18-21

Sometimes, someone enters your life who speaks the truth, flowing from a heart of love, without pretense or agenda.  Whenever a friend like this becomes part of your life, don’t let him go.  Such people are rare.  Don’t allow being comfortable to obstruct genuine friendship and love.  How few speak what is real and true, making full use of their tact and insight because they love you and care enough to do so.

A person who says what you need for your benefit, not his, is exceptional.  Many don’t mind putting you in your place—but love does not drive them.  No, self-interest does.  Not so for Sandy.  For me, she advised, corrected, and spoke what is truthful in love.  Yes, this is what my friend Sandy became—and I doubt someone with this blend of wisdom, love, and plainspokenness will come my way again.

Despite the pain, if you suffer such a loss, count yourself blessed.  For better to experience the joy of such authenticity than to meander through life, walking in the shallows, without depth and richness.  For a loftier joy awaits, eclipsing the dark caverns of our present sadness.  Those in Christ will meet Sandy again.

Brood over the discussion between Nicodemus and Jesus.  At first, you think two separate conversations are occurring.  Swept away by Jesus’ miracles, such as water into wine, Nicodemus wishes to find out more.  So, he sneaks away during the night, “Rabbi, you must be a teacher come from God.  For no one can perform the signs you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).

Take in Jesus’ response, “Unless one is born from above, he cannot be part of God’s kingdom” (John 3:3).  Are we on the same script, Jesus?  Like Sandy did for me, Jesus tells Nicodemus what He needs, not what He fancies.  “Don’t become enamored by what dazzles your eyes but heed what I say.”

Carried away by astounding deeds, Jesus directs this perplexed man to the real miracle, to the baptism He will soon put in place.  Confused, he doesn’t understand.  No, he thinks he must squeeze back into his mother and be born a second time.

Ah, “anothen,” the word Jesus uses.  How our translations betray us.  For this word can be time-related, something taking place at two different times.  Baffled, Nicodemus assumes this is what our Lord means.  For the befuddled man begins obsessing over a flesh-and-blood, second birth.

Another meaning for “anothen” doesn’t deal with time but a location, something above, from heaven.  Darkened in unbelief, Jesus must enlighten Nicodemus, “Unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).  No, Nicodemus, this isn’t a physical birth, but spiritual.

For flesh can only birth another enfleshed being, Jesus reminds Nicodemus, which is your birth below, from your mother.  Once delivered, you can’t crawl back into your mom’s belly for another go around.  No wonder he is mystified.

Like every birth, being born is something you can’t do to yourself.  No, childbirth is something done to you, by another.  So, this water-and-Spirit birth is God’s doing, birthing someone into spiritual life by the Spirit’s use of water—baptism.

Of course, like Nicodemus, we think we understand better than Jesus does.  For we’ll claim Jesus can’t be talking about baptism because He didn’t yet command His Apostles to disciple the nations by baptizing and teaching (Matthew 28:19-20).

Well, contemplate John 3:16, which is part of this continuing conversation.  To keep us from perishing forever, God sent His Son.  What is Jesus referring to when He reveals this?  None other than His coming death on the cross.  Both events, baptism and His death, are still yet to come.  No surprise Nicodemus is tripping over Jesus’ words, drowning in waters too deep for his spiritual reflections.

Oh, poor man, you didn’t cause your first birth.  What makes you think you can bring about this birth from above?  No, God does this through water and the Holy Spirit.

Somewhere along the way, God decided to use water as a bringer of life, not death.  Consider the destroying flood in Genesis.  Though Noah still trusted God, wickedness in this world became an insatiable beast, never seeking reprieve.  So, what’s on the line when God mentions the evil overtaking the world?  Without intervening, Noah’s descendants will soon forsake the promise of God’s heaven-sent Rescuer to come.

So, God must act.  For if He doesn’t intercede for our salvation, neverending life will not become a reality for the corrupted seed of Adam, for you and me.  Though we ponder the cruelty of God during the overwhelming flood, the water’s greater act is to save a people, so the world’s promised Redeemer will come.

Through a devastating flood, God used water, annihilating almost the entire human race.  After, God placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign, never to destroy humanity by water again.  The real purpose of the flood is to rescue eight people—Noah and family, from whom the Messiah will come.  Did you catch St. Peter running with this idea?

Is God implying anything?  Yes!  No longer will He exploit water to kill, but to give life.  The rainbow foretold this, testifying to what He will do by using water.  So, Jesus intends to Nicodemus to realize what will take place with water.  In the same way, He hopes Nicodemus will understand His coming crucifixion for our eternal deliverance.

So, our heavenly Father rises above our reason and washes away the tidy boxes into which we place Him.  Baptized believers are born into something, which God Himself does.  Still, in depths too profound for our thinking or reason, we often presuppose this can’t be.  “Isn’t baptism something we do?  So, water cannot save.”

Well, baptism is a work.  In this case, however, we must disagree with Nicodemus.  For this new birth from God isn’t something you achieve, like crawling back into your mother’s womb, or trying to, but God’s divine work, done for you.

Why does this matter, besides Sandy wanting me to speak on this?  For she selected the sermon text and hymns, including the baptismal words we sang a few minutes ago.  Here’s why, she wants to make sure you take in this truth, in her love for others.

The Apostle Peter wrote about God saving Noah and His family.  How?  Water.  Likewise, through God’s use of water, baptism also saves you.  Not my words, but Scripture.  How?  Listen as Peter’s Epistle explains, “not by removing dirt from the body, but the appeal of a clean conscience toward God.”

How is anyone’s conscience clear before God?  Only two ways can exist.  The first is by never sinning.  No one meets this standard except Jesus.  The other is to be forgiven.  For if God forgives you because of Christ, He gifts you with His Son’s holiness in place of your sin.  So, this is what God accomplishes through baptism.

Still, we cry out about someone needing faith.  On this, all agree!  So, let’s attend to more of Jesus’ instruction to Nicodemus.  First, Jesus teaches about the Holy-Spirited birth God grants through water and Spirit, welcoming someone into His kingdom.  Where does He go next?  “Like Moses lifted the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so everyone who believes in him may receive everlasting life.”

Within a few words, Jesus points his visitor to baptism but also His crucifixion, both to come.  In one, God bestows a spiritual birth.  In the other, we are to trust in what Jesus does to restore us to God.  Does Jesus separate the two?  No, He contains them in the same conversation of what He does to liberate a fallen and wayward people.

Now, Nicodemus didn’t understand this—but he soon will.  In Christ, we are delivered into a mystery beyond our awareness and senses, clarifying to us God is God and we are not.  To be grounded in our belief in Jesus is to be well-watered in the truth of baptism.  Sandy, wanted you to fathom this and swim in its depths.

So, if God’s work for you in baptism comes across as foolish, don’t be startled.  “Do not be surprised, for I tell you, ‘You must be born from above,’” Jesus said.  A covert encounter with Jesus began something more substantial than Nicodemus imagined.  Later, this same man will defend Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Ruling Council.

A reliance on Jesus started to grow roots inside Nicodemus.  After his secret meeting, he changes and trusts in Jesus as the prophesied Messiah.  A holier-than-thou Pharisee is now a disciple, losing his rebellious opinions for the life Jesus gives.  Later, by whip, nail, and wood, Jesus dies on a Roman cross.  No longer overcome by fear, Nicodemus appears, asking to take Jesus’ body to provide a proper burial.

With the Spirit working in our lives, we never tire of hearing the Gospel of Jesus, which brings us to believe in Him with fresh ears.  Neither does God’s refuge for us in baptism ever grow old.  The faith one receives, and the faithfulness he lives, are not to be separated.  For they are flip sides of the same coin.  So also is baptism and belief.

Find solace in your spiritual birth.  Like all births, birth is something done to you.  Recognize this, and you will gain a reassuring comfort no one can take away because you didn’t bring about your spiritual birth—God did.  For what He does last for all time.

In the end, baptism matters.  In your dying breath, you can rest in God’s saving deed done for you, not fretting about the depths of your sincerity when you asked Jesus into your heart.  This assurance comforted Sandy in her final hours, which is why I assume, she chose for me to preach on this chapter of John several months before.

The Christian faith isn’t about what you did or what you prayed, but what Jesus did and does for you.  Apart from Jesus, everything is uncertain but, in Him, He provides you with certainty for all eternity.  A God-given belief waters and nourishes you to live—and die—in this teaching of Jesus.  Amen.