Knowing the True God
Trinity Sunday Sermon| Rev. Rolf Preus| May 18, 2008| John 3:1-15
Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God . . . And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:5, 14-15
When you graduate from the Eighth Grade, or from High School, or from College you have accomplished something. You have had to think. You studied and learned. You figured things out. The mind, as they say, is a terrible thing to waste. Thank God for a good education.
Nicodemus was a well educated man. He was a teacher of Israel. He knew how to think. He knew how to teach. He knew how to use his mind. As one teacher to another he came to Jesus. He came at night. He didn’t want to be seen. He wanted to learn a bit from Jesus but he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to be identified with him. Perhaps Jesus could give him some insight into the things of God.
He got a whole lot more than he bargained for! Jesus wasn’t interested in tossing him a few pearls of wisdom that he could add to his collection. Jesus didn’t invite him to share his thoughts. As a matter of fact, Jesus showed no interest in what the man thought about anything. He immediately confronted him with an assertion: “You must be born again.”
You think you know something? Good for you. Know this. You must be born again. No, you cannot be born physically more than once. But you must have a second birth. It is a spiritual birth. It is brought about by the Holy Spirit. It is a birth in which water and the Holy Spirit are joined. Unless you are born again spiritually you cannot see God’s kingdom. You cannot be taught by God.
Oh, you can learn algebra, geometry, American history, and how to diagram a sentence. You can learn music, art, literature, and chemistry. Education is its own reward. But you cannot be educated into faith. You must be born again. You must be born from above.
They say it can’t happen in baptism. They say it can’t happen when you’re just a baby. They say a lot of things that are not so. But that’s because they put God’s word under the authority of their own human reason. If it doesn’t make sense to them they just won’t accept it. Like Nicodemus they respond to Jesus by saying, “How can these things be?” As if to say, if I can’t figure out how it works then it can’t be so.
But you can’t figure out the wind. You can hear it. You know it’s there. You can see what it does. But you don’t understand how it works. Not even the meteorologists on T.V. can understand it. If they could, we’d know when the storm is coming and when it’s not. If we can’t figure out the wind, it takes a bit of nerve for us to presume to be able to figure out God!
Only God can reveal God. Jesus is God. He is the eternal Son of the eternal Father. Nobody can ascend to heaven. You can dream. You can imagine. You can put your mind to work overtime. But you can’t ascend to heaven. But the Son of Man can. He’s at the Father’s side. He remains at the Father’s side in heaven even while he comes to live with us here on earth. He is no mere teacher who has come from God. He is God come to teach. And his teaching is wonderful!
At the very center of his holy teaching is a truth that a child can understand but that the wisest philosophers cannot figure out. Listen again to how Jesus expresses this truth in our text for this morning:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life
There is it. The children of Israel who were dying of poisonous venom were saved from death by looking at a serpent lifted up on a pole. We who are dying from our sins are saved from eternal death and receive eternal life by looking to Jesus lifted up on the cross where he died for us. We look. That’s all. We don’t bring ourselves up to heaven by the powers of our dazzling intellect. We don’t find our way to God by means of clever reasoning. We don’t work our way to heaven by a rigorous regimen of spiritual exercise. We look. We believe. We don’t believe just anything. We believe in Jesus who is lifted up on the cross to die for our sins.
The Father sent him in love. The Spirit testifies to him in truth. And the Son is there, lifted up for the whole world to see. There he is. He is bleeding. He is suffering. He is crying out in thirst. He is praying for his tormentors. He is entrusting his mother to a friend and brother. He is bearing the sin of the world. He is dying. Look! There you see the true and eternal God.
Faith is not a decision. Faith is not an intellectual conclusion reached after analyzing all of the relevant data. Faith is not going along with whatever the pastor and the church and the Catechism say you should go along with so that you can enjoy a rite of passage known as confirmation. Faith is looking at him who was lifted up for you and seeing your Savior.
The six chief parts of Christian doctrine are: The Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, the Keys and Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar. The Ten Commandments show us our sins and our need for God to be gracious to us. The Creed shows us our gracious God, the forgiveness of our sins, and the treasures of heaven. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us how to talk to our Father in heaven with the confidence of true children. Baptism, the Keys and Confession, and the Lord’s Supper are God’s means of grace. They bring God to us and they bring us to God so that we receive from God every gift he has to give and enjoy true and everlasting fellowship with him.
To be born again means to be born for eternal life. It means to be justified by faith alone. It means that we look at our sins and confess them and admit that we deserve God’s punishment. It means that we believe God when he tells us that for Jesus’ sake he forgives us all of our sins and regards us as righteous before him. It means that we talk to God without being afraid of him because we know him as our loving Father who wants nothing but good things for us. It means that we keep on receiving the grace God gives us in Holy Baptism, in his gospel, and in the Lord’s Supper.
When we are confirmed we confess our faith in the Triune God in whose name we were baptized. What we Christians confess about God is a deep mystery. We confess that there is only one God but that he is three Persons. We confess that the Father has begotten the Son from eternity and that the Holy Spirit from eternity proceeds from the Father and the Son. No human mind can understand how God can be one in essence and yet three in persons. No human mind can understand how God the Son could become a man and yet remain the almighty God. When we are confirmed we do not confess that we understand how God can be triune. We confess that the Triune God is the only true God. We know this to be true, not because we understand how it can be true, but because God has revealed it to us in his holy Word.
Rather than try to figure out how God can be triune, our Lord Jesus encourages us to look at him lifted up on the cross for us all. There you will see the Father’s love for us. He chose to lay our sins on his Son whom he had loved from eternity so that we would not have to suffer for them. There you will see the Son’s love for the Father and for us. He obeys the Father and dies for us. There you will see the Holy Spirit’s love and power and comfort. He points us to Jesus dying for us and in this way he brings to us the forgiveness of our sins and strengthens our faith.
When we are confirmed we promise to be faithful to the Triune God until we die. We promise to be faithful in the use of the means of grace, that is, we promise we will continue to go to church to hear the gospel, to receive the body and blood of our Savior given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins, and to be absolved in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. The new birth is a wonderful work of God. God brings us out of the death of unbelief to the life of faith. He keeps us in the faith. He does so by his gospel and sacraments. This is why we go to church. We don’t go to do God a favor. We go to receive his favor. That’s what makes the church the church. It has the gospel and the sacraments that bring us forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Herein is the power of the Holy Spirit to keep us in the faith. He makes us Christians. He keeps us Christians. He does so through his means of grace: the pure gospel and sacraments of Christ. We cherish these means of grace because we love God. For in them is revealed the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise him all creatures here below
Praise him above, ye heavenly host
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen