In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +
In the Gospels, there are two phrases, two introductions that Jesus uses that let us know that something very important is coming up. One of those is “Behold” - and that was just a common technique of the day. If you hear behold, you better start beholding because something important is going to happy. Jesus uses another phrase today, three times in fact, a phrase that says you need to be quiet with your jibber-jabber and listen - “Truly, truly, I say to you.” Amen, amen, lego humin! Whenever you hear Jesus say, “Truly, truly, I say to you,” this means He is going to speak a profound, deep truth – one that you'll never understand on your own, one that can only be revealed by Him. So, let's listen to Jesus.
Here's the setting. Nicodemus, a Pharisee big wig, had come to Jesus at night, when no one was around, and Nicodemus starts blowing smoke up Jesus' skirt. It's all an ancient political feeling out flattery thing – the beginnings of a dance to see if they could be allies. And Jesus just cuts him off: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Understand how blunt this statement is. Nicodemus is feeling out an alliance, he's wanting to make his own power plays – and Jesus flat out tells him that what is going on is above his pay grade – that Nicodemus can't even begin to see the kingdom of God at work right now. This is as brutal a shoot down as has ever been seen. “Mind if I buy you a” - “I don't date short people.” You're out of your league, Nicodemus.
So, what is going on? Why the bluntness. Lesson 1 – unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. In the world, we are used to wheedling, whining, begging, and seducing people in order to get our way. From the time we are infants crying for milk or a change to the time we are the old folks putting a guilt trip on the youngins, that's just how we do things. We think in terms of manipulation – and that's not always bad. I mean, if you are a month old, how else are you going to get out of a wet diaper? But it is built into us – we manipulate, we build power bases, we build up support for our ideas and then try to get everyone on board – by hook or by crook we try to convince people to jump to our side and do what we want.
That is not how the Kingdom of God works. Period. That's not how you relate to God. The Church isn't just a political party where we've convinced people to see things our way. The plan of salvation wasn't thought up in some committee somewhere. We don't twist God's arm to make Him do things our way. No – the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – He is in charge. He has created us, He has redeemed us, He is the One who is going to do everything required for your life and salvation. And unless He Himself gives you faith – unless He gives you eyes to see, unless He gives you the new birth, you will not understand. You won't be able to see it. The Christian faith is utterly incomprehensible apart from the Holy Spirit, my friends. I mean, an unbeliever can say what we believe, but they won't see it, they wouldn't get it. Faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a work of the Spirit.
This is third article of the creed stuff from the Small Catechism – I believe 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. Or – Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. And this means that you will never be able to nag, or arm twist, or bat your eyes at someone to faith. It has to be the Holy Spirit doing the job – not our machinations.
And we don't like that. We want to be in control of things, and we hear that we aren't in control, and we get mad and say, “What, so I'm useless here – utterly uninvolved?” Not quite. Nicodemus is flummoxed by Jesus' answer, and so Jesus speaks again. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus starts talking about baptism. While the Spirit alone grants faith, the Spirit doesn't just wander along and randomly zap people out of the blue. He works through means – He uses tools to accomplish His tasks. Not because He has to, but for our good. The Holy Spirit can do what He wants – but in His wisdom and love, He has tied Himself to things, physical things, so that we can see and know what is going on. Such as Baptism. I don't control other people's faith – I don't control the Holy Spirit. But, I, we together, have the gift of Holy Baptism. We've been instructed by God to baptize people – Make disciples of all nations [by] baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptize people, and the Holy Spirit will work upon them. I can't make the people I love believe, but I can bring them to the font where the Holy Spirit has promised to work. And there God has promised to bring people into His Kingdom. And the baptized are – even if they don't see things yet and don't understand yet – at the font the Triune God claims them as His own – claimed you as His own. God is not uninterested in you – He is fully vested in you as His baptized child. He has a stake in you – you are part of His Kingdom and it is His job to care for you and redeem you – and that's His Job, and He'll be the one to do it.
Do you see how this works – it's not a matter of our control, but rather the control that we in our sin so desperately want to exercise is shown to belong to God. That's what Baptism is – it is the public declaration that this person is part of God's family, God's kingdom, under God's authority and control – and that God will work salvation for them, not they themselves. Baptism is the promise of God to be God for you, for your benefit – and the Holy Spirit is there assuredly working for your good.
One other place of focus – because Nicodemus balks at this (and let's be honest – we do too a bit). Jesus makes an analogy to the wind and weather – you don't control the wind. You can see it and know that it's at work – but you don't get to control it. Same way with the Spirit. You don't get to control the Spirit, but you know where He is working for your good. And in exasperation Nicodemus says, “how can these things be?” How, how can all this be? So Jesus responds – Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Dude, have you not read the Old Testament – this is precisely how I worked throughout all of Moses and the Prophets! “Truly, truly, I say to you, We speak of what We know, and bear witness to what We have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things.” Now, this sounds very odd to our modern ears – we don't talk this way anymore. The point is this – the Triune God is revealed in the Scriptures, in the Word. It is in the Bible that God reveals Himself – where that “We speak of what We know” happens. The Scriptures are God giving Himself to us in a way that we can understand. But that doesn't mean that God is suddenly an object to study – no, God is utterly above and beyond us and there are things we cannot fathom nor wrap our heads around. The Trinity for example – we have named our congregation Trinity, but not a one of us can figure out how that works – We get that there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet these Three are One – because that's what the Scriptures say and teach, but how in the world that works – that's beyond me. That's beyond any of us.
When it comes to this church, when it comes to the Christian faith – we don't get to be in charge. We don't get to throw around our own ideas or what we would like – we must remain with what God has said in His Word – and we believe and go with that by the power of His Spirit, even if it is beyond us, even if it is something we cannot explain. Even if it is a mystery. The Scriptures teach that Jesus is both at the same time true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary. How that gets pulled off – beyond any of us. But that is what God reveals and has said, and so we believe, teach, and confess it. And that this Jesus dies – God Himself dies and rises – and because of this our sins are forgiven and atoned for and we are rescued from Satan – theologians have spent 2 millennia trying to sort that out, and we can scratch the surface of what happened, but it's still too wondrous for us to comprehend. In a few minutes, we will celebrate the Lord's Supper – It is the true Body and Blood of our LORD Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink. I can't tell you “how” that works, other than “Jesus says so,” and so we believe, teach, and confess it to be true. It's a mystery far above my pay grade.
And that's okay. You see, part of our sinful arrogance and pride is the idea that we need to know and understand everything – because if you know and understand something then you can manipulate it and make it the way you want it to be. That is part and parcel of the fall – that is our sinful, selfish pride wanting to be “like God”. And so there we are, sinful folks, just messing around and hurting each other and being utterly selfish jerks to everyone – and then God decides to act. He Himself sees that you are dead in your sin, and He gives you a new birth – a new life – makes you to be born again by His Spirit. He washes you in Holy Baptism and brings you back away from Satan's rebellion unto His own Kingdom. He gives you His Word and Spirit so that you can see and believe these wondrous things that are so far above you that you cannot understand them. That's okay – we see Jesus at work for us. And that's all we need.
This summer, as we move through the Trinity season, we will hear Jesus' teaching, we will get glimpses of great and wondrous mysteries. But through all of them, remember that you have been baptized, called into His kingdom, and that they are all for your good. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit +