May 26, 2013
The festival of the Holy Trinity. If there’s any day in the Church Year to focus on God, this is it. What better day to center in on the Triune God, the One in Three and Three in One. It would be sensible to hear a sermon with God as the subject. A sermon with God as the focus. A sermon that is all about God—who He is, what it means that He is Triune, the majesty and the mystery of this great doctrine and truth of the Bible.
It would be sensible. But one thing about God is that He does not always do the sensible thing. And so we won’t either.
While it would make perfect sense, and be a very fine thing to do on Trinity Sunday to hear a sermon with the Triune God as the subject, as the focus, as the one who the sermon is about, we won’t do that today.
Instead, you’re going to hear a sermon on the other guy in the Gospel reading. Nicodemus. Nicodemus will be the one who is the subject of this sermon, who is the focus of it, who it is about. It may not seem that sensible, but then again, Jesus—who is the second Person of the Trinity, who is God in the flesh, who is the prime way the Triune God has chosen to reveal Himself through—thought it was pretty important to focus on Nicodemus. And so we will too.
In fact, it all starts with Nicodemus. He comes to Jesus. He’s not quite sure about Him, but He goes to Him. He talks to Jesus about Him having to be one sent from God, because after all, no one can do the things You’re doing unless he’s sent from God. Now Jesus knows the hearts of men. He knows what they’re really after. He knows motives and the genuine seekers from those not seeking a Savior but wanting to justify themselves.
So this guy thinks Jesus is sent from God, and low and behold it’s true. What Nicodemus’ motives were we’ll leave to Jesus. But we can see that Jesus was getting to the heart of the matter in His response to Nicodemus. One must be born with new birth. One must be born not as he was the first time, of the flesh. One must be born a second time, not this time from his mother’s womb, but of the Spirit. This new birth is birth of water and Spirit.
Since this sermon is about Nicodemus, we see Nicodemus’ reaction to this. I’m not following you, Jesus. How is it possible for a person to be born a second time? Can this person enter back into his mother’s womb, even though he’s an adult?
This is always the way it is when the spiritual is laid before the one who is unspiritual. Jesus is speaking not of physical birth but of spiritual birth. Nicodemus had come knowing Jesus was sent from God, for He was doing works that could only be brought about by God. So why was Nicodemus having so much trouble with this second birth thing? Why could he not grasp that if a person can be born again, and that this new birth is a spiritual birth, then that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to expect from God; for God can do anything, can’t He? Yes, Nicodemus should have known this. Jesus even took him to task for not grasping it, especially since he was a teacher of Israel, and apparently a prominent one at that.
Nicodemus, Nicodemus, what do you really want to know from Me? Or about Me? Or about yourself? I will tell you what you need to know about yourself. You need to be born anew. You need a second birth. A birth of water and the Holy Spirit.
We do not know if Nicodemus ever ended up getting Baptized, but there’s telling evidence that gives insight into his later understanding of Jesus. Just a few chapters after this one, John tells us this about him, when the religious leaders were seeking to bring Jesus down: “Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.’” Nicodemus, who had been questioning Jesus, was now defending Him. The one who was not grasping his seemingly non-sensible statements about new birth, was now seeing the sensibleness of hearing Jesus out and seeing if in fact there was anything to His claims He made.
Then, much later on, right after Jesus died on the cross, John tells us this about Nicodemus: “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.”
At this point, Nicodemus, although we’re never told this in the four Gospel accounts, appears to have seen the light, so to speak, about Jesus. Having first come to Jesus by night, in the shadows, in the cover of darkness, out of sight of the other religious leaders, was now acting in plain sight and taking proper care of the body of Jesus after He died on the cross and laying Him in the tomb. It’s very reasonable to think that at some point after this Nicodemus was Baptized and became a follower of Jesus.
Those words Jesus had spoken to him at night were exactly what the Holy Spirit uses to reach the hearts and minds of men. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” This was the Gospel being proclaimed to Nicodemus and there is every reason to believe that Nicodemus did in fact come to believe just as Jesus had talked about, that whoever believes in Jesus will have eternal life. We know for sure that Nicodemus on one particular night was the recipient of the work of the Triune God—the Father’s love for him in sending His only-begotten Son to talk directly with him, and the Holy Spirit working through these words of Jesus, along with Jesus the Word in the flesh Himself, upon the heart and mind of Nicodemus.
Such is the love of God, the holy eternal Triune God. Such is the true majesty of the God who is the Three-in-One, that He does not find it hard at all to come to such a one as Nicodemus and change his life forever.
However, I need to tell you at this point that I deliberately misled you at the beginning. While I said the sermon would not be about the Triune God, but rather about Nicodemus, that is not true. After hearing a whole sermon about Nicodemus, you might go away with some good stuff, but you would not really have heard a sermon, in the sense that the sermon is a proclamation of the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins, and specifically for those who are hearing that proclamation. And so it would be very sensible indeed to at least wrap up with the Triune God, the God of salvation, as the subject, as the one who is the focus, as the one who this ultimately needs to be about.
Sensible, yes. Even good, yes. But it’s just not the day to do the sensible thing. Rather, it’s the day to do exactly what the Triune God Himself does, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So in conclusion, what you need to hear is not a sermon about Nicodemus nor even the Triune God, but one in which you are the subject. In which you are the focus. In which you hearing a message that is all about you.
For that, dear Friends in Christ, is what it is all about for the God who is the Triune God. For Him, it is not about Him. It is about you. The celebration of the Holy Trinity is not so much a celebration that God is Triune as it is that the Triune God is the God who loves you and gives you salvation. The Holy, Majestic, Eternal, Sovereign, Almighty, Triune God and Lord is the God who had a conversation with Nicodemus. He is also the one who Baptized you. He is the one who comes to you in a simple way, in bread and wine at this very altar to give you His body and His blood. He is the one who is delivered to you in the very proclamation of the Gospel. Because it is all about you. It is about giving you forgiveness and life and salvation.
This is seen in the words Jesus speaks to you. This is given for you. This is shed for you. He gave His life on the cross for you. He rose from the grave for you. On a weekend in our nation where we observe Memorial Day, we can understand very well what it means to sacrifice. We give thanks to the Lord for those who have sacrificed their very lives for our beloved country. And when we see, as Nicodemus had come to see, that his very Lord made the ultimate sacrifice, he gave Him due honor in placing Him in a tomb.
We don’t think of Jesus that way, though. He rose from His death. His ultimate sacrifice gave way to victory over death. And when you see that that victory is given to you in your new birth, your Baptism, you see that the Triune God, astonishingly, did all of this for you. When you see that He delivers this victory to you in His Holy Supper, you begin to see that Jesus knew exactly what He was doing when He said, “This is my body, it is given for you; this is My blood, it is shed for you.” It is for you, for your forgiveness. For your new life. Life anew, life eternal. Amen.