On this Holy Trinity Sunday, a message, appropriately and only coincidentally, with three points.
Scholars speculate about what motives the Jewish teacher Nicodemus might have had for visiting Jesus under cover of darkness one night.
Was he trying to avoid bloodshed?
Was he beginning to believe in Jesus?
We don’t know for sure.
But, whatever his motives, I do think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected scholar, a renowned ruler of his faith. (In the original Greek in which John wrote his gospel, Nicodemus is referred to as the teacher of the Jews.)
But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to all who hang on His every word. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” Jesus says. “There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God,” Jesus was telling Nicodemus. Or to put it another way, "Everyone is a privileged character in the kingdom of God, all equally so."
So, the first point of today’s message: We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single person is a sinner. And every Christian is a sinner given a new life by God. Whatever our status in the eyes of the world, we need to be born again. We need to be created all over again.
This message from Jesus had to have been jarring, maybe even a bit insulting, for Nicodemus. Jesus seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t such a privileged character, after all. Even he needed to exchange his old life of sin and selfishness and presumption, to embrace one simple title, the one that every Christian receives from God above in the waters of Holy Baptism: Child of God.
Nicodemus, this prominent, powerful teacher and ruler of the Jews, may not have been sure that he wanted to become a child of God, at least not on Jesus’ terms of unconditional surrender to Jesus. He may have been content, as all of us can be after we've gotten to a certain age, with being a grown-up who got to do whatever he wanted.
And Nicodemus couldn’t have been too keen on the notion that he, just like all the other sinners Jesus interacted with each day, needed to get a new life.
More than anything, probably, Nicodemus didn’t want to accept God’s new life as a free gift. It's human nature to try to attain things by our own efforts or even thievery rather than being humbled by having to accept a gift we didn't get by our own devices, brawn, brains, or shrewdness. It goes against our grain. We’d like to think that we deserve the riches of heaven, as well as the accolades of others.
But that's not the way it works in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring to us through His death and resurrection! “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
The kingdom of God that belongs not to those who earn it or deserve it, but to all with faith in Jesus!
Steve Taylor, a Christian rock singer, with a satirical wit, says, “Jesus is for losers.” And he’s right! Jesus belongs to those willing to lose control over their lives and lose their sin and lose death.
“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
Every time a person is baptized, whatever their age, born from above, and every time a person renews their faith through daily confession of sin and profession of faith in Jesus’ name, the Holy Trinity is at work to give them new life:
- God the Father sends the Son.
- The Son offers the benefits of His death and resurrection on the believer.
- God the Holy Spirit preaches the Word about Jesus to us through the Bible, the Sacraments, fellow believers, and even preachers so that we can grasp the gifts of forgiveness and salvation God offers us for free.
This is all God’s doing, not ours.
So, point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. We can’t take credit for our faith. It’s pure gift.
When, at the initiative of the Father, through the action of Jesus on the cross and at the tomb, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe and believe, again and again, God gives us new birth, new life.
This is part of what Jesus is getting at in the Bible’s most famous verse, which appears in our Gospel lesson, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
That word that we translate as believes can be more literally rendered as is believing. The tense in the Greek is more complicated than our present tense in English. It denotes continuous action. Belief isn't static but keeps being renewed.
The idea is that the believer is trusting God, not just because she or he was baptized or confirmed or had a warm. fuzzy feeling back in the day, but because they’re actively trusting Jesus Christ today, in this moment. Jesus is their Lord now and they are trusting Jesus moment to moment. They keep surrendering to Jesus every day and they know that they have to keep surrendering to Him, lest the devil, the world, or their sinful selves take control of their minds, hearts, and lives.
Of course, because new and renewing life from God is a gift over which we have no control, we can’t decide to be born again. But we can, like a child about to be born who has no control over the contractions that will happen in labor, respond to the promptings that position us to be born anew.
We can put down our dukes and let the Holy Spirit have His way with us.
We can let God love us.
We can bow to the authority of God’s Word as expressed by Jesus and the Ten Commandments and surrender our thoughts and actions and work and play and bodies and mouths and past, present, and future to Jesus Christ.
This leads to point three: We need to keep being born from above.
Some days, in times of Scripture reading and prayer, I come close to God and see the blazing light of God’s purity and I see my darkness.
I see my sin and I see His grace.
I see His power and see my weakness.
I can hardly believe that God, the maker of the universe, bothers with me, loves me, and gives me new life.
And often, in light of all this, I say, “Thank You, God, for not striking me dead as I deserve. It’s the judgment my sin has earned me. Thank You for the gift of life with You forever!”
The God we know in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is truly the only One deserving of the adjective, awesome!
Three points then about the Three-in-One God on this Holy Trinity Sunday.
Point one: There are no privileged characters and everyone is a privileged character in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God the Father gives through Jesus, God the Son.
Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God the Holy Spirit. It is pure gift.
Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom.
We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.
Let God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--give you new life every single day and in eternity. Trust in Him. Amen!
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]