The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–7 | Romans 11:33–36 | John 3:1–17

Text: John 3:1-15 (Isaiah 6:1-7, Romans 11:33-36)

Trinity Sunday is a feast day to remember that God is transcendent, and in many ways for us, unknowable.  He’s greater than us, and not just in the way that a king is greater than his servant, because He is “ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).  He’s stronger than us, and not just in the way that a body builder is stronger than a computer geek, for He is rightly called Pantokrator[1] or All-Powerful, Almighty.  He is infinitely stronger than any human being—“Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?”[2]  He is also beyond all human understanding.  His thoughts are not our thoughts; nor are his ways our ways.[3]  No matter how we may apply our reason to Him, He is beyond us.  That’s why every analogy for the Trinity—apples, sun, or clover—ultimately cannot encompass the mystery of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But in our egalitarian society, we have a hard time comprehending the greatness and otherness of God.  We’re told from childhood that, deep down, everyone is the same.  We all have the same aspirations and fears.  And we see this in practice when presidents invite common citizens for a beer, celebrities are seen at Wal-Mart, and the pope chooses to go for a walk rather than ride in the bulletproof motorcade.  With so much equality among men, it’s hard for us to remember that God is always above us.  The singer Joan Osborne wrote the anthem for this sentiment when she sang decades ago, “What if God was one of us?”

And yet God is far from unknown to us.  How can this be?  We know Him from Holy Scripture.  He calls Himself our heavenly Father.  Now with our earthly fathers, when we were kids, we thought of our dads as invincible and infallible.  But as we grew to be an adult and especially when we had kids of our own, we saw that our fathers were people just like us.  Not so with God the Father.  It’s more than an flawed analogy; rather, God is the originator of all fatherhood, but He will always be greater than us. He is truly the One “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.” (Eph. 3:15)

But in an attempt to deal with our fear of God, we like to convince ourselves that God isn’t as scary as He was in the Old Testament.  Remember Uzzah, whom the Lord put to death, while the Ark of the Covenant was being carried into Jerusalem:

“Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”[4] 

The God we have come to know through Jesus Christ is the same holy God whom we worship today.  But our fleshly security is uncomfortable with the truth that “our God is a consuming fire.”[5]  We prefer a Heavenly Pushover, who is impressed with our clever decisions and cheers us on from the sidelines.

This Sunday is also a time to consider what the Holy, Transcendent God does.  Many man-made religions recognize that God is “Immortal, Invisible,” and “Only Wise”[6]  But if that’s all there is, then we’re toast.  Woe to us! For we are lost; for we are people of unclean lips, and we dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.[7]  God has more to show us than His omnipotence.

The Gospel from John 3:

3 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.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

No matter how we peer into heaven, we are incapable of grasp God—“no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27)  In fact, what Jesus says here is that that’s the wrong direction.  Stop trying to ascend to get a glimpse into the divine.

            Instead, God makes Himself known to us.  Even though “the eye of sinful man His glory may not see,[8] the Holy One has come down from heaven.  As John says in His prologue, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father.”[9]  We aren’t the ones who ascended to know God, but as Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” So, right after explaining that no one can know Him except by His choice, He invites you, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

            All too often, we approach God with our own ideas—ideas about who He is, how He works, and what He should do for us.  But that all gets turned around: “You must be born again!  Flesh gives birth to flesh, and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  You must cast away your fleshly thinking about God, and receive Him in humility.  “Be born again by water and the Spirit” and you will not only see God, but you will also be brought into His Kingdom!

            The Son of God—“true God, begotten of His Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the virgin Mary” (Small Catechism, 2nd Article)—has come down from heaven, but He didn’t come down just to give us supernal thoughts about the divine.  The Lord whose Name is majestic in all the earth,[10] came down to earth to be lifted up from it.  Jesus explains, “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.”  This is what He came down from heaven for: to be lifted up in weakness, the humility of death.  The King of Heaven Himself was lifted up on the cross to save us lowly, sinful creatures.

            In our experience, those who are great don’t help the weak.  When we, who have comfortable homes and stable jobs, see someone who is homeless and unemployed, we turn our eyes away.  Some of their misfortune might rub off on us!  It might cause us to have to sacrifice some of our comfort to aid them in their suffering.  But praise the Lord, who is not miserly and selfish like we have been!  In 2 Corinthians 5, St. Paul writes, “For our sake He was made sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”[11]  The Holy God in human flesh became unholy and a sinner.  It was pure gift to us, who are unholy from our very hearts!

            Thinking of the Old Testament lesson, how was it that Isaiah could stand in the presence of God?  Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”[12]   God’s holiness would have consumed Isaiah, yet with what came from the altar, his sin was atoned for.

Now, where did those coals on the altar come from?  Were they offered by us?  If this had been the altar of the Levitical priests, it would have been the remnant of the sin offering.[13]  No, those coals were of a sin offering which the Holy One Himself made on our behalf.  “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  And through that sacrifice alone can we stand before the face of the thrice-holy God.

The Transcendent One has come down so that we might be raised up.  He was raised up on the cross, “that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”  We like to boast about ourselves and our lives.  When we have a bad day, we feel better when we see others having a worse time.  But in truth, we are poor and needy, lowly, and afflicted.[14]  Our transgressions and the evils that happen to us bring us very low, sometimes even to the point of death.  But He who is Almighty is also merciful and compassionate toward us.  We have a great High Priest who is like us un every way, except without sin, one who invites us to draw near with boldness to the throne of grace (Hebrews 2, 4).  Thus, He comes to us, like the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, touches us, and bids us to rise and have no fear.  “Your guilt is taken away; your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:7)

God has taken our humanity into Himself so that we would truly be raised up.  Jesus takes away the shame that covers us.  He heals our bodies and souls by His own wounds.  When death looms over us, we have eternal life though Him.  We live confident of all of this, hoping for the End of all things, when He will exalt us completely.

In that Day, we will still be creatures.  But we will be restored from the pitiful state we live in now.  The perishable will be raised imperishable, and we who are mortal will put on immortality.[15]  Our longing to be free of evil will at last be satisfied and all the faithful whom we have lost will be restored to us.             God is unknowable by human ability.  But God’s light shined in our darkness.  The Triune God made Himself known in the womb of the Virgin, in His human life from infancy to adulthood, in His passion and death, and gloriously in His resurrection and ascension.  He bore our death so that we might live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  “What if God was one of us?”  The glorious Son of God has made the Trinity known, in a way that we are left to cry out, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:22)  The Lord God Jesus became one with us, and He has given us a share of His divine life.  So, we do indeed praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

[1] Rev. 1:8

[2] 1 Cor. 10:22

[3] Isaiah 55:8-9

[4] 2 Samuel 6:5-15

[5] Hebrews 12:29

[6] LSB 802, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

[7] cf. Isaiah 6:5

[8] LSB 507:3

[9] John 1:14

[10] Psalm 8:1, 9

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[12] Isaiah 6:6-7

[13] Lev. 4:10

[14] Psalm 70:5, 138:6, 69:29

[15] 1 Corinthians 15:42:57

The Feast of Pentecost

Readings: Genesis 11:1–9 | Acts 2:1-21 | John 14:23-31

Text: John 14:23-31

We often think of the Day of Pentecost in the past tense.  Around May 11 in the year 33 (or 29),[1]

“they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”[2]

That day, there were miraculous signs at which the people wondered.  Peter stood up and gave a miraculous, multi-lingual sermon, and that day 3,000 people believed and were baptized.  Such an event catches our attention, but nobody has seen it since.

Many Christians are misled by teachers who claim to recapture the wonders of that day.  They claim the Holy Spirit always causes people to speak in new tongues.  But as one pastor noted, it’s like children who get so distracted with the wrapping paper that they ignore the gift itself.[3]  The great miracles that accompanied Pentecost are just wrapping on the gift of multitudes believing in Jesus and being baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.  So, the real center of Pentecost is not the impressive signs, but the last verse Peter quotes from the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[4]  That’s of course, why the selection for the Second Reading ends at that verse.

And if that’s the main point of Pentecost, it’s certainly not just a past event that we long for or try to recreate.  If you think about it, isn’t it interesting that the charismatic movement claims to recreate the events of Pentecost, even though this was the once-in-time birth of the Christian Church, but nobody thinks to recreate the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, which was accomplished once for all.  The Holy Spirit is a very present help, because Pentecost is about the peace which the Holy Spirit delivers to souls from every nation.  To you, He brings the peace with God of your sins forgiven.

In fact, the Holy Spirit has always been God’s messenger of peace.  The newly formed creation fell through the unfaithfulness of Adam and Eve.  By just the 10th generation of the human race,[5] people had become so corrupt that God said, “I am sorry that I have made them.”  So God planned judgment against all of sinful humanity in the Flood, but “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”[6]  God showed mercy by delivering sinful Noah and his family from the “torrents of destruction.”[7]  The Lord called them into the safety of the ark while the rest of the unbelieving world was judged.  Then at the end of the flood, Noah sent out a dove.  At first, the dove returned because she “found no place to set her foot.”  But 7 days later, Noah sent the dove out again, and “behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf.  So, Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth.”[8]  The dove returned as the messenger that God’s judgment was complete.  She proclaimed a new peace between God and man for all who believe.

Then there was the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (chapter 37).  “The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry.”[9]  They were the bones of sinful, dead people.  In their despair, they said, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.”[10]  They had fallen under God’s just condemnation.  But the Lord also said, “Why will you die, O house of Israel?  I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn and live”[11]  So the Lord commanded Ezekiel to prophesy to the breath:  “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.”[12]  The breath of God, which is His Spirit, proclaimed peace and resurrection to those slain by sin.

Finally at the banks of the Jordan, the Spirit appeared again.  God’s only-begotten Son, Jesus, came to the river and was baptized by John.  “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’”[13]  Just as the dove on the Ark announced the end of judgment, the Spirit announced the end of God’s wrath in His own beloved Son.  Just as the Spirit raised those dry, slain bones of sinners, the Spirit preaches peace and resurrection in Jesus, the Christ.

In the Gospel, Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”  In the scope of all time, Jesus was with us for a tiny fraction of that time, just over thirty years.[14]  If salvation only happened for Jesus’ contemporaries, all the people before and all of us after are lost.  But in that short period of time, Jesus accomplished foretold, everything necessary for the salvation of the world.  He was born and shares in our flesh, yet without sin.  He was perfect in His fear, love, and trust in God above all things and He perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself.  He was also the perfect atonement for our sins.  God raised Jesus from the dead, never to die again.  Finally, as true God and true Man, He ascended to God the Father to blaze our way to heaven, and serves as our heavenly High Priest.  All of that took place over the course of 33 years, but the results are eternal.

Just before the Gospel reading starts, in verse 16, Jesus tells His disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.”  The Helper, the Holy Spirit, is the one who draws people—past, present, and future—to call upon the Lord Jesus and be saved.  He does this through the powerful Word of God, which He “brought to the remembrance” of the Apostles.  In the Spirit, they wrote the New Testament as the trustworthy record of God’s Word.  Now, the same Spirit calls you to believe through the Scriptures.

And the Holy Spirit is more than simply a memory aid.  What the ESV translates as “Helper” is literally Paraclete—an Advocate, or Counselor.  Luther said this about the Spirit’s title:

[It] designates a person who acts as counsel for one who is accused or charged with some crime, and who in that capacity undertakes to defend him and win his case, to advise and aid him, and to admonish and encourage him as occasion may require.[15]

The Holy Spirit takes an active role in bringing the word of Christ to our minds and hearts.  And we desperately need His aid!  The devil, the world, and our flesh are also busy trying to make us forget Christ’s Word and substitute it with some man-made imitation.  Like the Catechism says, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature which do not want us to hallow God’s Name or let His kingdom come.” This work is not as simple as forgetting God’s Word.  The work of God’s enemies is so that we profane God’s Name by not taking Him at His Word and making the Gospel into a new burden.  Rather than, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (period),” they would have us add our own works to prove we’re genuine, true Christians.  In a dreadful wavering between doubt and pride, souls are harassed to think they have never truly achieved such a wondrous gift as being called children of God.  Instead of proclaiming the Gospel, as we hear Peter and the Apostles in the New Testament do, it’s always listening to that hissing accusation, “Yes, but are you really a Christian?  How many people have you told about Jesus?  How many hours did you spend reading the Bible this week?”  Sorry to say, even though this sounds like good guidance, and may come with plenty of Bible verses to recommend it, but actually it’s confusing the Gospel and turning it into a burden.  The Church and her children are born out of the preaching of the Gospel to the undeserving, the weak, the failures, the thoroughly sinful.  Out of that new birth comes the joy of salvation, the impetus to tell others of the great things God has done for you, the delight in His Word, the free spirit which loves to serve God and neighbor.  But the Gospel which the Holy Spirit proclaims is always Peace in Christ.

God the Holy Spirit comes to us in our weakness.  When the world and the devil call us unworthy, delusional hypocrites, the Holy Spirit preaches, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” and “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”[16]  When we see our sins washing over us, so that we think there’s no hope left for someone as awful as me, the Spirit consoles us with the words, 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[17]  So, the Spirit truly does advocate for us and counsel us with God’s living Word.

In the Spirit’s comfort, Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  It is the peace which He gained for you by all of His work—His birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and His coming again.  It is a peace beyond that of the world, because there is no perfect peace on earth.  Many have promised it, but none have delivered.  All of them are either failures or tyrants. If we look for that peace anywhere besides Jesus, we will always be left troubled. 

But your Lord gives you peace beyond the fleeting comforts of this world.  His peace stills all fear because your life now belongs to the eternal God who rules over all.  Are you troubled by what you’ve done or failed to do?  His blood covers all of your sins.  Are you afraid of what will happen in the future, or that you won’t be able to handle it?  Your days belong to His loving care[18] and there is “nothing in all creation that is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”[19]

This is the peace which the Helper, the Holy Spirit gives to you.  The peace of God is yours through good and evil times, because it’s built on the sure foundation God only-begotten Son, given for you.  So, believing this Word of God, and His power at work through His Word, The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

[1] 50 days after the traditional dating of Good Friday as March 25.  33 based on the length of Christ’s earthly life.  The date of His birth is debated because of calculation errors, and is likely to be 4 BC based on extra-biblical history.

[2] Acts 2:2-4

[3] Pastor Rolf Preus, Sermon for Pentecost 2012 –

[4] Acts 2:21, Joel 2:32

[5] Genesis 5:3-29

[6] Genesis 6:7-8

[7] Psalm 18:4

[8] Genesis 8:11

[9] Ezekiel 37:1-2

[10] verse 11

[11] Ezekiel 33:11

[12] Ezekiel 37:5

[13] Matthew 3:16-17

[14] Luke 3:23

[15] Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3, p. 300 (ed. John Nicolas Lenker)

[16] Luke 19:10, Matthew 5:6

[17] Matthew 11:28-30

[18] Matthew 6:34

[19] Romans 8:31-39