Trinity Sunday – Series B (May 31, 2015)
“How Can These Things Be?” (John 3:1-17)
John chapter 3. This is Nicodemus’ “catechism class.” He had already been instructed in the ways of the Pharisees. But this fell far short of the ways of God. The Pharisees were all about strictly keeping the Law of God. Trying your best. Being super good. Setting yourself apart from the rest of the impious rabble, especially those unclean Gentiles, tax-collectors, and other “sinners.”
Nicodemus needed further instruction from Jesus. Jesus had to correct and complete Nicodemus’ training. Oh, sure, Nicodemus knew the Scriptures well. But Jesus had to set him straight in regards to what true faith is all about. It’s not about keeping the Law perfectly. You can’t do it. You’re a sinner, just like everyone else. A sinner without quotation marks. You need to be born again. Born from above. Starting fresh and new with the Spirit of God breathed into you. Like a newborn baby, completely and totally dependent on God's work for you, not on your work for God. After all, no baby ever did anything for their parents other than make them smile. Well, maybe make them gag, too, over a particularly stinky diaper.
Nicodemus needed further instruction like the people who were gathered on the Day of Pentecost. They were Jews from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem for the great harvest festival. They had already received their instruction in the Old Covenant. They needed the revelation of the New Covenant through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This is what Peter preached to them that day. The “paths of life” are known through Jesus. He makes us “full of gladness with [his] presence.” After his sermon, the people responded, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter declared, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Nicodemus’ question is the same question you and I have probably asked many times: “How can these things be?” Jesus used earthly illustrations to help Nicodemus understand heavenly realities. Birth. Water. Wind. And yet he still did not comprehend. Jesus asked him, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Even someone as well-educated as Nicodemus, even for a Pharisee who thought he had a pretty good handle on God, he still could not get beyond earthly matters to matters of faith.
And you and I aren’t all that different. You and I are naturally captivated with earthly things. We are inclined to believe only what we see with our own eyes. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” we say, just like Thomas who refused to believe unless he could put his fingers in the wounds of the risen Jesus. We fixate on earthly matters and ignore heavenly matters. What we see with our eyes is more important that what we cannot see … those matters of faith.
We are also inclined to believe the testimony of men over the testimony of God. Scientists and educators are held in high esteem in our culture. Politicians rouse their constituency with soaring rhetoric, even though most of them hire others to write their speeches for them. And they are believed simply because of their authoritative position (well, maybe we’ve learned not to believe everything that comes from politicians). Yet we have the greatest authority who has ever spoken … God himself. We have the Word of God. We have the testimony of the Triune God in the person of Jesus Christ, who said, “We speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” This is God himself speaking and teaching.
Nicodemus was coming close to this knowledge, but he wasn’t quite there just yet. When he first came to Jesus, he said, “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.” Correct answer, Nicodemus! You are almost ready to be confirmed! As a matter of fact, Jesus is a teacher come from God. More than that, he is the Son of God … God in the Flesh. Jesus confirmed his own eternal existence when he said, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” “Son of Man” was a term used by the prophet Daniel that referred to a great end times figure sent with the authority, glory, and power of God. Jesus applied this term to himself, yet made it clear that this Son of Man must first suffer and die for all people. The Son of Man must be lifted up on the cross. God the Father gave his only Son. That’s the way he loved the world. Now, whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son not to condemn, but to save.
But the question remains, “How can these things be? How can I believe these heavenly realities?” Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” and follows it up with the parallel statement, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” To be “born again” can also mean to be “born from above.” It’s a heavenly birth so that we can believe heavenly things. We are unable to believe or confess without heavenly help. To be born of water and spirit means to be born of Baptism and the Word of God through which the Holy Spirit works to connect us to Christ by creating faith in our hearts.
We are unable to believe or confess without the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2, St. Paul writes, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). And later in chapter 12, he says, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Yet these same lips which confess Jesus as Lord have also said some very ungodly things. For Isaiah, the coal from the altar of sacrifice cleansed his lips. For you, the blood from the altar of the cross has cleansed not just your unclean lips, but every ungodly part of you. Your guilt has been taken away. Your sin has been atoned for.
We confess our faith in many and various ways throughout our life. The Rite of Confirmation is one those moments. It’s a significant day in the life of a young person when they get to publicly confess their faith and affirm the promises God made to them when they were baptized. Two of the vows they will make today are in answer to these questions:
· Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?
· Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?
That’s some pretty serious stuff for a couple of 13 year-olds! But you know what? That’s some pretty serious stuff for a 30 year-old, a 50 year-old, an 80 year-old, or whatever age we are as baptized children of God. That’s why the reply is “I do, by the grace of God.” It’s only by the grace of God that any child of God can remain faithful to their confirmation vows.
No matter how old we get, we are all still children. “Like newborn infants” we are always in need of “the pure spiritual milk” as Peter calls it, “that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter. 2:2). It’s always good to get back to the basics. Luther said that no matter how old he was, he saw himself as a perpetual student of the catechism. He said, “I am also a doctor and a preacher … yet I act as a child who is being taught the catechism. Every morning – and whenever I have time – I read and say, word for word, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms, and such. I must read and study them daily. Yet I cannot master the catechism as I wish. But I must remain a child and pupil of the catechism” (From the Longer Preface to the Large Catechism).
It’s important to get back to basics, the “pure spiritual milk.” Yet we’re also called to grow and mature. Elsewhere Paul talks about the need to also be fed with solid food (1 Cor. 3:2-4; Heb. 5:12-14) … ongoing Bible study, ongoing catechesis, further study in the doctrines of the faith and their application to our lives.
This is important because of the challenges to faith that we will face. There is the “unholy Trinity” … the devil, the world, and our sinful nature … that the Catechism says “do not want us to hallow God’s name or let his kingdom come.” We also live in a society that is increasingly hostile to Christianity. Although the difficulties we face here are nothing like what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world face on a daily basis, it is still more difficult to be a Christian than when I was your age (Wow…doesn’t that sound like an old guy talking? “When I was your age…”!!!). But it’s true. We want you to be prepared. That’s part of what Confirmation instruction is all about. To teach. To prepare. To equip. To remind you that Confirmation is not Graduation. This is a step along the way in a lifelong study of God’s Word, a lifelong connection to the Triune God in Word and Sacrament.
How can these things be? How can you believe? Remember Dr. Luther’s explanation to the Third Article of the Creed:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian Church he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day he will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true.
How can these things be? How can you believe?
You have been born again. Born from above. Born of water and the Spirit. For God so loved you that he sent his Son for you. You are forgiven and given eternal life.