Trinity Sunday| Rolf D. Preus| June 19, 2011| St. John 3:1-15
There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things? Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 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.” St. John 3:1-15
When I was a boy I used to read Agatha Christie murder mysteries and the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A mystery is something you figure out. The author presents various clues and the reader’s task is to interpret the clues correctly in order to learn whodunit.
The Bible teaches us a different kind of mystery. We don’t figure out biblical mysteries. We accept them because God reveals them to us. In the case of a murder mystery, you first learn the facts and from learning the facts the mystery is resolved. In the case of God’s word, you first learn the mystery and in learning the mystery you understand the facts.
Jesus reveals to us the mystery of God. Jesus was not the first person to reveal that God is triune. That mystery is taught throughout the Old Testament. All three persons of the Holy Trinity participated in the creation of the world. God appeared to Abraham as three men. The angel in Isaiah’s vision sang: “holy, holy, holy.” He did not sing two holies or four holies. He sang three holies. God has always been Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
But Jesus reveals the trinity of God most clearly. He opens our eyes to understand this mystery. We don’t understand how it can be. But we do understand that it is so. How God can be three distinct persons – each person being fully God – and yet they are not three Gods but only one God is a mystery. We can understand the “that” of it – it is so; but we cannot understand the “how” of it – how can it be. We simply bow before the mystery and join together with the entire Christian Church and confess this truth as we do in the Athanasian Creed.
Nicodemus was looking for instruction from Jesus because he respected him as a teacher sent by God. Nicodemus was a Pharisee. He was well educated in the Scriptures. He was highly respected. He strictly observed the many pharisaical rules and regulations.
The Pharisees were legalists. They believed that you become good by doing good and their many rules were designed to assist you to do good. Jesus preached against the legalism of the Pharisees. They taught God’s law as a means of making themselves righteous. Jesus taught God’s law to condemn their pride and self-righteousness. Jesus was not particularly popular with the Pharisees. This is why Nicodemus sought out his counsel at night when he would not be seen. He was impressed by Jesus’ miracles. He knew that Jesus was sent by God. But he didn’t want his colleagues and friends to know that he was seeking instruction from Jesus. Not yet, anyway.
Nicodemus addressed Jesus respectfully. You are a teacher sent by God. Jesus’ reply is somewhat surprising. With the first words out of his mouth he rejects everything Nicodemus has ever taught. “You must be born again. If you are not born again you cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus is claiming to be more than just a teacher sent by God. Jesus is a teacher. But he isn’t like any other. He isn’t going to give Nicodemus additional instruction to add to what Nicodemus already knows. No, Jesus begins his conversation with Nicodemus by telling him that his theology, his piety, his devotion to all of the rules, his sincerity, his hard work, his careful and meticulous observance of all of the legal requirements set before him to do – all of it is for naught. It is of no value. It is worthless. It cannot help him find God. He must be born from above.
He must become a new person. That which is born of the flesh is flesh. Jesus is the second person of the Holy Trinity. He is the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He is God become flesh. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Flesh gives birth to flesh. But when God becomes flesh the immortal God becomes one with mortal man and gives us immortality. He gives us the new birth. We cannot know God or be taught by God or live under God’s gracious rule in his kingdom unless God becomes our brother and the Holy Spirit gives us a new spiritual birth.
Before you can enter into the kingdom of God and know God and love him and serve him you must be born from above. You must have a spiritual birth. To know God is to have a greater wisdom than all of the wisest philosophers in the world. To know God is to know the mystery of human existence. It is to know where you came from and where you are going. But you cannot know God and you cannot see his kingdom unless and until you are born from above.
Nicodemus wanted to understand. He asked, “How can this be?” Jesus responded by pointing out the activity of the wind. You can hear it. You can see the ripples on the water or the waves on the grain, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going. Even two thousand years later, the weatherman can only give us educated guesses about where the wind is going. If we cannot figure out something as common and earthly as the wind, how can we expect to figure out the Holy Spirit?
We cannot explain how the Holy Spirit takes an unbeliever and turns him into a believer. We do know the means he employs. He preaches to us. He baptizes us. The word of God is the means by which we are born from above. St. Peter writes:
. . . having been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever, because “All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of the grass. The grass withers, and its flower falls away, but the word of the LORD endures forever.” Now this is the word which by the gospel was preached to you. (1 Peter 1, 23-25)
The gospel that is preached to us is a means through which the Holy Spirit gives us this new birth. And so is Holy Baptism as Jesus says here in our text:
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
You must be born from above. You may not apply human reasoning to God and figure him out. You can’t examine all of the evidence for God and construct in your mind some kind of reasonable theology that you can then develop into a coherent system of belief. If you try, you’ll just fashion a god in your own image and that’s idolatry. You must be born again.
The gospel we hear and the baptism with which we are washed are not magic. They don’t work apart from faith. They call for faith and they work faith. Faith and baptism go together. Note what Jesus says: “Born of water and the Spirit.” We are born of the flesh. Then we are born again of water and the Spirit. We are not just baptized. We are born again through Holy Baptism. Anyone who regards baptism as mere water or just a sign isn’t listening to Jesus. To denigrate baptism as just a symbol or to deny it to infants as if it won’t benefit them is to take issue with the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Holy Baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit and he is the Lord and giver of life who establishes in us the true and saving faith.
We want to figure God out. We want to figure out his mysteries by our own cleverness. What we can’t figure out we’ll toss out. We want to fit God into our definition of what he must be like. We want him to meet our expectations so that he will do what we want him to do. So we judge him by human standards and fashion him according to the ways of this world.
But he won’t permit it. Jesus says:
No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. 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.
We can’t ascend into heaven to find God and figure him out. God descends to this earth to reveal himself. And he does. He reveals himself as the true God, the Holy Trinity. He does so where Jesus is lifted up on the cross. Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so Jesus must be lifted up on the cross. Those who were dying in the desert from the venom of poisonous snakes were saved by looking at a serpent lifted up on a pole. Just so, those who are dying because of their sins are saved from their sins by looking in faith to Jesus lifted up on the cross where he suffered and died for their sins.
It’s a strange place to look for God. But God will be found nowhere else but at the cross where Jesus suffered and died for the sin of the world. There is where the Father reveals his love for us all for there it was that he gave us his only begotten Son whom he had loved from eternity. There is where the Son reveals God’s grace for us all because there it is that he takes our sins off of us by taking them on himself. There is where the Holy Spirit reveals God’s power to give us the new birth because the true and saving faith is the faith that looks to Jesus lifted up on the cross and sees there the love of God, the grace of God, the forgiveness of all our sins, peace with God, eternal life with God, and victory over all evil.
All of the unchristian sects that claim to be Christian but are not have two things in common. They deny the Holy Trinity and they teach salvation by works. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Unitarian / Universalists, and many lesser known groups all deny that God is triune and they all reject the gospel that sinners are forgiven of their sins and saved eternally, not by their good deeds, but solely by God’s grace through faith alone in Jesus who was lifted up on the cross for them.
The Holy Trinity is the only God we can trust. He puts us to death and raises us back up to life again in Holy Baptism. We are born again. We see him and trust in him and know him as our God as we look to see Jesus lifted up for us on the cross. There is our God. Look to that man suffering for your sins and see the love that blots out all the wrong you ever did, fills you with peace and joy, and promises you eternal life. Look to the cross, trust Christ, and live forever. Amen