Sermon, Day of Holy Trinity, 2015, Gospel, John 3:1-17
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 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. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. “ Thus far the text.
These last words from the our Gospel reading in Saint John, are about the most well-known in Scripture. As I mentioned in the children’s sermon, you can see bumper stickers and signs held up at sporting events with just this message, “John 3:16”, and many Christians know what it refers to. I don’t know how much value it has to those who don’t know the message of John 3:16, that God the Father so loved the world, His creation, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. God so loved the world Jesus says. It sounds to us that Jesus is saying that God the Father gave us His Son because He loves us so much. And there is truth in that statement. But the word “so” in the text means less how much God loved us, and more in what way God loved us, how He loved us. Another way to understand this statement is, “God loved the world this way, that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
For God doesn’t love so much our rebelliousness, our sinfulness. He doesn’t think that we are just naughty, misunderstood kids, who are basically good, and just need the example of His Son to set us straight. He knows that we are by nature sinful and unclean, and deserve punishment in this life and the next. But He doesn’t want us to perish. So in His justice and in His mercy He sends His Son to die for us instead. He loved us this way: His Son dies, we live. His Son gives us His righteousness. We give Him our sins. In Jesus’ death, we have new birth. Luther calls this “The Blessed Exchange.” This way God showed His love for the world, you and me.
This way God has made things right. He reconciled Himself to us sinful children, and we to Him in Jesus’ death two thousand years ago. It is a done deal. It is finished, as Jesus said on the cross. There is nothing for us to do to be saved except receive by faith the gift of forgiveness won for us on the cross by our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. God holds out to us the keys to His Kingdom, and shows us the way to the palace. We either take the keys and follow God’s way, or we continue to do it “our way”, as the Frank Sinatra song goes. And as prideful humans we always want to do it our way. That was the first sin–wanting to do it our way, wanting to be our own gods. God knows that we are stuck in this way, “our way”, so He helps us in His way, this way: He sends His Holy Spirit to create faith in His Son through the hearing of HIs Word and through the receiving of His Sacraments–through water and the Word, as Jesus says. That Holy Spirit gives us the faith to receive the gift of forgiveness won by Jesus’ death on the cross. When you received the Holy Spirit in your Baptisms your were born again, this time not enslaved to sin as in your first birth. This way, God the Father recreates the fallen world. This way God the Son saves us and builds His church.
God loved you this way. He baptized you in His three-in-one name, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He gave you new birth. He adopted you as His own child. He gave you the Holy Spirit to help you understand and trust His Word. Without the Holy Spirit you cannot believe the Words of God. You cannot believe that Jesus is true God and true man, that He died for your sins. Without the Holy Spirit you are clueless when God speaks. His Words sounds like nonsense. But with the Holy Spirit, you believe the Word, no matter how unlikely it sounds, because you are reborn with an understanding that surpasses human understanding.
Today we celebrate the Holy Trinity, the one God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We praise God the Almighty, All-knowing, Eternal, who has revealed Himself to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. But the Triune God is not easy to understand. God is eternal, with neither beginning or end, and yet was born a baby in a specific place and time on this planet, less than a day’s travel away by plane, over two thousand years ago. God is infinite, filling all of creation, here and in the farthest reaches of the universe, yet contained in the body of a man, and before that in the body of a baby in Mary’s womb. God is ever living, yet He died on Mount Calvary. This is hard to understand.
It has always been hard to understand. You may have heard people who claim that the concept of the Trinity was created in the 4th century A.D. They point to the lack of the word Trinity appearing anywhere in the Bible to support their claims, ignoring the description of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which are everywhere in Scripture from the first chapter of Genesis to the last book of Revelation, from Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, where the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove and rested on Him and where the voice from heaven, the voice of God the Father, said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”, to the words of Jesus in Matthew 28 where He commands the apostles to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Why can’t the unbelieving world and our own sinful flesh comprehend these clear professions of the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Because it can’t be comprehended with human reason. It’s easier and so much more reasonable to see Jesus as simple a very holy man, another wise man, like Confucius, or the Buddha, or Ghandi. Then we can either take Him or leave Him, follow or ignore Him. And let’s face it. It’s a lot easier to ignore Him in today’s world, which has declared Him as outdated, with His lifestyle-cramping concepts of sin and morality.
Besides the world and our sinful flesh, let’s not forget one other very important person urging us to doubt. That is the devil. Why does he want us to doubt the unity of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Because then we would not believe that God loves us this way, that He gave His only Son to die for us. Because if Jesus is not truly God’s Son, his death means nothing to us except another example of non-violent resistance. If we believe that Jesus is not true God, His dying on the cross means nothing for us, for as a man he could have died for Himself only. Only God can die for the sins of everyone, of you and me, of the world. If Jesus were not true God, He would not be a Savior, but another prophet, a blasphemous, false prophet, as the Sanhedrin accused him of being, for He said that He descended from heaven and that He and the Father were one. But Jesus is true God. God the Father sent Him into human flesh to die for us humans. He vindicated Jesus as His Son by raising Him from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because Christ is risen, we who believe in Him are no longer dead in our sins, our sins of thought, word and deed, our doubt.
Doubt is powerful and destructive, and we should not take it lightly. It has the power to erode faith until it disappears, if left unchecked. But there is someone who stops the erosion, who checks doubt, and that is the Holy Spirit who works this way: through the hearing of the Word of God, and the receiving of the Holy Sacraments Christ gave His Church. Just as Jesus reached out bodily with His hand out to Peter as he was sinking in doubt and spoke to him, Jesus’ Holy Spirit reaches out to us today with His Word, strengthening our little faith, weakening our doubt. He speaks peace to us in the hearing of His Word in the liturgy of the church, in the Scripture readings, in the lyrics of the hymns, and in the preaching in the sermon, just as He gave peace to the doubting disciples huddled behind locked doors on Easter evening when Jesus spoke to them.
He speaks to us when we hear the words of forgiveness spoken to us in absolution. He assures us that our prayers are heard by the Father. He speaks to us when we hear the words of prayer spoken over us on our sickbeds and on our deathbeds. He speaks to us when we read in our daily devotions about the forgiveness he offers, the repentance he gives by the power of His Holy Spirit. He promises to strengthen us, and to be with us to the end of the age, to the last day, to the end of history, and beyond, when the Son will return and raise our bodies in glory like His to be with Him and His Father and His Holy Spirit and with all the saints who have gone before, are living now, and are to come.
This way we are reborn as children of God. And as children of God we show our thanks this way: we gather together regularly with our brothers and sisters in Christ to receive God’s gifts and to offer our praise and thanksgiving; we give back to God a portion of what He has given us in our tithes and offerings, we trust and believe in His Word above all things. We bring up our children in the faith. We support the ministry of the Word. This way we let our light shine so that others may come to know this way, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Jesus Christ, as the only way to the Father. Amen.