Festival of the Holy Trinity June 3rd, A. + D. 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches Fairview and Sidney, Montana
This morning, as we celebrate the Festival of the Holy Trinity, I’d like to conduct a little thought experiment. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that pretty much all of you here today assume that God is real. Assuming then, that there is a God, how do you expect God to be? When you think about God, about the character and essence of God, what God is like and what God does, what comes to your mind?
Given that most of you are members of this Lutheran Christian congregation, I expect, and I certainly pray, that your thoughts about God would be fairly well in keeping with the way God has revealed Himself in the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. For with Luther we confess to be bound and held captive by the Word of God. But being familiar with the Word of God recorded in the Bible does not guarantee that you will have a correct understanding or concept of God. We poor miserable sinners are more than capable of hearing God speak, but ignoring Him, of hearing the truth about who and how God is, but not letting it sink in, preferring to think our own thoughts, no matter what the Bible says. Even being a Biblical scholar is no guarantee; consider Nicodemus.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a student of the Holy Scriptures. And Nicodemus acknowledges God, for he says he knows Jesus must be from God, because of the signs, the miraculous things, he has seen Jesus do. But what does Nicodemus think about God?
Right away in their conversation, Jesus challenges Nicodemus’s concept of God, by declaring that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. And right away our come by night Pharisee replies that this can’t possibly be right. After all, a man can’t crawl back into the womb and be born again. Nicodemus acknowledges God, and has studied the Holy Scriptures diligently, and so he should know about how God created Adam and Eve, He should know about the miracles in the desert, the burning but not burned bush, the Red Sea parting, the manna, Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones coming to life. However, when confronted with the way that God will bring sinners into His kingdom, Nicodemus, thinking in materialistic, human terms, balks, protesting it can’t be, because it doesn’t fit with his narrow, material, human-experience based understanding. Despite his training in the Scripture, Nicodemus expects God to fit into the understanding of his limited human mind.
It’s interesting, in a depressing sort of way. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus must be from God because He has done signs, miraculous things, that break the rules of everyday living. So you would think that Nicodemus would be ready to hear that salvation, deliverance from this dying world into God’s kingdom of eternal life, is also a miraculous work of God. But no. Jesus can turn water into wine, fine, but Nicodemus cannot accept salvation in the description Jesus gives of Baptism, the new birth of water and the Spirit, this means of grace He would soon give to His Church as the way for sinners to enter the kingdom. That God would forgive sins, create faith, and give new life to sinners through the new birth of Baptism, no, this can’t be, not for Nicodemus.
We humans haven’t changed much. Many people today are well-versed in Holy Scripture, and not just in the Old Testament that Nicodemus knew, but also in the New Testament, where Baptism is discussed all over the place. And yet, many people today, well versed in Scripture, are unable or unwilling to simply accept what God has declared: Baptism now saves you. God washes sinners clean through Baptism. The new birth of the Christian comes humbly, invisibly, through God’s washing of water and word. And yet we protest, that can’t be, something so easy, yet powerful, something invisible to our eyes. It doesn’t make sense to us, so there must be another explanation. God can’t work like that, can He?
Well, I ask you, does this way of thinking about God make sense? If we acknowledge God, that is, if we acknowledge a Being who is the Creator and Sustainer of each one of us, and of all that we see, a Being who is greater than all, and before all, and who possesses all power and knowledge, shouldn’t we expect that this God Being would act in ways that we creatures, who are made by God, less than God, dependent on God, might not fully understand? Of course we should expect God to be unexpected in character and beyond our understanding. I mean, if we can stand outside of God and say, “Oh no, God can’t act in this way,” or “God can’t do that,” aren’t we making ourselves His judge? Aren’t we saying that we are above and independent from God? Wouldn’t that really mean that we are God, and not Him?
This is, unhappily, a real problem for many people, for all of us, really. We are all tempted to put God in a box, and demand that He play by our rules, and fit our understanding. The plain and clear words God has given us about the Creation, and our re-Creation in Baptism, and about our sinfulness, and about the power of His Word and the truth of His Supper, these we do not happily allow to rule over us and our reason. Rather, we want to rule over them. We acknowledge Jesus, we acknowledge God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of course, sort of, but on our terms, fit within our own limited understanding.
This will simply not do, because everything God does through Jesus Christ flies in the face of what we expect and think. Our natural concept of God includes the notion that we must make some contribution to this project of bringing us into His Kingdom. God surely has a right to demand we contribute. So surely our efforts, at least our very best efforts, must be part of the equation, part of the answer. But no, says God, none of our works measure up.
Well, at least we must decide for God, right, make up our minds that we are going to commit to Him? It must be so, we think, because otherwise God would be just so different from all that we know, different, and frightening. And, we would be so much less important than surely we must be. But Jesus says the work of God is to believe in the one whom He has sent, and even this faith must be a gift from Him.
Well, after we are saved, surely then we must maintain our status as the elect, chosen of God, by doing good works? But no, says God, your good works He prepared in advance, and yes, you should walk in them, for your neighbor’s sake. But the work of keeping you within the Church, within the Father’s hand, well, this too must be done by God.
We think all kinds of limited, human ideas about God and how He is and how He must work, but this is not what Jesus teaches. Certainly Jesus did not act according to such expectations. The work Jesus did for the salvation of the world is completely contrary to our natural thoughts and ideas about God and salvation, and this is proved already here, in the rest of John chapter 3. Nicodemus does not understand the promised New Birth by water and the Spirit, and so we probably expect Jesus should slow down, and back up a bit, and help Nicodemus get a grasp on what has been taught so far. Jesus should clear up this Baptism problem for Nicodemus, before moving on to even more difficult things, shouldn’t He?
But Jesus does the opposite. You don’t understand Baptism Nicodemus? Well what will you understand? What if I tell you heavenly things, secret things of the Father, like the plan for the Son of man to be lifted up? Yes, like Moses with his snake on the pole, built at God’s command when venomous serpents were throughout the camp, destroying the sinners of Israel. As the Israelites died, God had Moses build a bronze snake and put it on a pole, and then all that it took for the dying Israelites was to look to the snake, and they were saved! So also, says Jesus, all it takes for us sinners, bitten and enslaved by the Great Serpent, Satan, all it takes is for us is to look, with eyes of faith, to Jesus lifted up, Jesus crucified for us, and by this faith, God says: we are saved!
How contradictory is that to all that we expect? That Jesus, the eternal Son of God, would come down out from His glorious throne in the heavens, to join us in our predicament. That God became flesh, in order to die. And not some peaceful, noble, Platonic death, showing a way of escape from worldly suffering. No, Jesus came to suffer, and die on a Cross, the worst of executions reserved for the lowest, most vile criminals. How can these things be?
These things must be. There is no other way that sinful men and women can be qualified for the Kingdom of God, except that God take all our sin and punishment upon Himself. Our problem is that bad, despite all we like to tell ourselves about human potential and capacity. This is how it is, Nicodemus. This is how it is, sinner. There’s no other way, whether we like it or not.
Nicodemus, and we, like to ask: how can these things be? Don’t ask “how can this be?” God is God, not some watered down humanly imagined God, but fully God, fully in control, all powerful, without equal, the source of everything. So, God does things the way He does things, period. We ought not ask how, but rather, we should ask, “Why?” Why would God choose to do these things? Why has God loved the world in this way?
And the answer? Because God is love. That is, because God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who love each other perfectly. God, the eternal divine being, is, within the oneness of the only true God, also three. One God, in three persons, eternally loving one another, perfectly, and completely. The Father loves the Son and gives Him all things. The Son loves the Father and does all for Him, perfectly fulfilling the Father’s will. And the Spirit flows from and between both, not glorifying Himself, but giving glory to the Father and Son, by declaring who they are and what they have done. In this way, God is love, and has loved, forever.
As God is within Himself, so also He is toward us, His nature does not change. God created and loves humanity, because He is love. Likewise, by His nature God loves His whole creation, and wills to rescue mankind from our sinful foolishness. The Why of the Cross, the Why of salvation by grace through faith, a free gift completely separate from our works, the why of Baptism and the Supper, the why of God working through His Word, the Why of all God does for our salvation, all these Whys are eternally wrapped up in the very Good News that God is love, and so He does these things, for you, His beloved.
Because we are creatures, fallible, sinful, forgetful, we will continue to struggle with our concept of God. There are very good and difficult questions about God and His salvation for which we do not get full answers in this life. But remember this: God is love, and God has poured out His love for you through the lifting up of Jesus on the Cross. Remember that God chooses to deliver the forgiveness Jesus won through humble means like words and water and wheat and wine. Remember that God loves you through these things, and rest in that love, for the love of God will carry you into His kingdom,