Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday at Our Saviour Lutheran Church
3 June 2012
Text: John 3:1–15 (Isaiah 6:1–7; Romans 11:33–36)
The audio recording of the sermon can be found here.
Today’s Gospel text from John 3 gives us a rather disjointed conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. As is so often the case in John’s Gospel, the reason the conversation is disjointed is that Jesus doesn’t seem to be answering the other person at all, but rather using their words as an opportunity to launch into a conversation of His own. In this case, Jesus completely ignores Nicodemus’ rather polite and deferential conversation opener—“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”—and launches straight into a speech on the need for new birth.
However, even though this may seem a strange and haphazard way of going about His business, when we examine the text in closer detail, we discover that Jesus’ way of speaking makes good sense as long as you see the world the way Jesus sees the world. So, let’s do just that and examine the text in closer detail.
First, we need to ignore the chapter break in our Bibles. The original text of the Bible had no chapters at all, but they were added some centuries later. When we ignore the chapter break we find that the Gospel text for Trinity Sunday from John 3 continues immediately from where chapter 2 leaves off. And in fact, the end of the previous chapter gives us an important clue for understanding Jesus’ rather strange conversation with Nicodemus, and for understanding what God’s word has to say to us on this day of grace, Trinity Sunday and the day of Baptism of our dear sister Žina.
There are two very different events described in John 2: the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned a prodigious quantity of water into wine, and the cleansing of the temple, where Jesus drove out those who had turned God’s house of prayer into a market place — and promised the raising of the Temple of His Body after three days. The evangelist tells us that the wedding at Cana was the first of the signs Jesus performed, manifesting His glory, so that His disciples believed in Him. The raising of His body from the tomb on Easter morning would be the final sign and manifestation of His glory.
At the end of that chapter, John tells us that “many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing. But Jesus on His part did not entrust Himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He himself knew what was in man” (John 2:23ff.).
It is at this point that the Gospel selection for Trinity Sunday begins, telling us that “there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” who came to Jesus at night.
Jesus did not entrust Himself to them, for he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He Himself knew what was in man. Now 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.” In other words, Jesus paid little attention to Nicodemus’ compliments, because He knew what was in man, including the man Nicodemus. The man who came to him in the night, in the darkness, the surroundings of that hour a reflection of his spiritual state.
We may suppose that Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews, thought himself to be paying Jesus honour by his visit, not to mention his kind words. But Jesus could see into Nicodemus’ heart. He knew what was in man, and He was not impressed. He was no more impressed than He was impressed by the faith of those who believed on the strength of the impressive signs of Jesus. Jesus knew what was in the heart of man; Jesus knew just how unreliable such faith is; Jesus knew how worthless is the admiration of those who do not truly know Him. Nicodemus was in the dark, so that even though he was a Pharisee, a teacher of the Law and an expert in the Scriptures, he was unable to recognise God’s promised Messiah even when he was face to face with Him and had witnessed the signs He performed, and only considered Jesus to be a teacher from God.
That, dear friends, is the best of what is in the heart of man: even our best religious instincts and the highest admiration for Jesus fall short of knowing Him as He truly is, and leave us in the dark as Nicodemus is in the dark.
And such were you, my friends, such were you. Children of darkness, inheritors of the mortal sickness of Adam and Eve and their rebellion. Whether rough and vicious or polished and virtuous, you were in the darkness of sin and death, captives to the Devil and bound for everlasting damnation. Creatures of the Triune God, the Creator of heaven and earth, intended to bear His image in perfect faith and love, you were instead bearers of the image of your fallen first parents, children of wrath and unable to trust or to love.
But since our Triune God is a Trinity of perfect love, a love that brought forth a good world in love, a love that created man in His image in order to love them and to have them love Him and one another—our Triune God is not content the leave the world to its own devices, bereft of His image and His love. And so there came an ever greater outpouring of love, as the Father sent the Son to bear the mortal image of man so that by His perfect righteousness, innocent suffering and death and glorious resurrection He may draw all men to Himself and begin the work of new creation, and as the Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit into the world to gather God’s elect to Him.
Even today, this Love is at work wherever the Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered, giving new birth to children of darkness. In the blessed waters of Holy Baptism, children of darkness are given new birth by water and the Holy Spirit. As at the dawn of the first creation, the Spirit of God was hovering above the waters, and at the Baptism of our Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him as He came up out of the water, so at every subsequent Baptism, the Holy Spirit is at work in and with the water through the power of God’s Word, beginning a new creation in children of man.
Only a few moments ago, our sister Žina had the life-giving water of Baptism poured over her head, and she was brought out of darkness into the wonderful light of Christ. In that moment, Jesus fulfilled His promise for her that whoever believes and is baptised will be saved. She was born anew into eternal life; she was clothed with the righteousness of Christ; the old Žina died and a new Žina was raised—a Žina who will never die as Christ whose righteousness she now bears will never die.
For on this Trinity Sunday, Žina’s life was taken up into the life of the Holy Trinity. The Father sent the Son into the world to live a life of perfect righteousness so that that righteousness may be given to Žina as a gift, to die for the sins of Žina so that she may be released from God’s wrath, and to rise so that Žina may live eternally. The Father and the Son sent the Holy Spirit so that Žina may receive the gift of faith in Jesus and through faith in Him be declared righteous. And with the water and word of Holy Baptism, the name of Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was placed upon her. She now lives her life within the life of the Trinity, as the object of the mysterious, overflowing love of the love of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Having been thus born again, that is, born from above—the Greek word ἄνωθεν means both—Žina has entered the Kingdom of God.
And all that is true of Žina, the latest child of God in this place, is true of every child of God who has been baptised. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit has buried your old Adam in deadly waters as He buried the unbelieving world in the Flood and the armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea, and has united your life with the life of Christ in that life-giving washing. The incomprehensible mystery of the Holy Trinity is not merely some abstruse theological truth for you to acknowledge—it is the guiding reality of your life now. The Father is now your Father, the Son is your brother, and the Holy Spirit is your life. Your life is hidden with Christ in God!
Dear friends in Christ Jesus, we are in the presence of an awesome mystery! The Holy Trinity is present amongst us. Through the word, the Holy Spirit is bringing to us Christ, the word of the Father. In the waters of Holy Baptism, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have given life to Žina and through that Baptism He continues to give life to as many of you as were baptised. In only a short while, we will join the cherubim in their everlasting song of praise as we prepare to receive into our presence the Lord of hosts, even Jesus Christ, who comes to us in His body and blood. Yet, as those who have received new birth, who have been saved by the washing of regeneration, we will not prostrate ourselves in terror of death at the divine presence. Instead, we will bow in reverence and lift up our heads with joy, as our lips are touched not with burning fire but the life-giving body and blood of Christ, in whom we have access to the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit! Your lips have been cleansed, the darkness of your bodies and souls have been cast away and filled with the light of Christ. It is no longer you who live but Christ lives in you, and the life that you now live you live by the faith of the Son of God who loved you and gave His life for you.
And at this point, all explanations cease and give way instead to the joyful confession of the mystery of our salvation:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor? ” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? ” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.