The Holy Trinity

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

Text: John 3:1-17

You may think that faith is just a mental activity. It all happens in the mind, which assents to the proposition that there is a God, that this God is so favorably disposed toward us that He decided to send His Son into the world to seek out those who would agree to this eternal truth. Yes, we may allow this thought to seep into our emotions and evoke joy, happiness, and contentment. But at the end of the day, all of this takes place in the conscious mind.

This is Christianity according to modernism, the child of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. All that’s truly important can be grasped with the mind, measured by the caliper, and viewed by the microscope or telescope. But the modernist has a problem with the faith which clings to a God for whom “the whole three Persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped.” (Athanasian Creed) Again, when one approaches the one true God with the mind, he ends up saying with St. Paul,

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33)

This leads many to despair of ever knowing the God who Created all things, who Redeemed the world, and who Sanctifies us and brings us out of sin and death into eternal life. They say maybe it’s an elaborate fabrication, or maybe such a complex deity has no interest in foolish little people like us.

But know that this God really does want to be known by us, and the proof is as close as our five senses.

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
    the whole earth is full of his glory!”
        (Isa. 6:1-3)

Isaiah saw with his eyes the throne room of the Almighty. He heard the song of the angels proclaiming God thrice holy. But when he despaired of life because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of Hosts, the seraphim touched his lips and spoke this word into his ears:

“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

In the Holy Gospel, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the darkness of night, where shadows play and obscure the sense of vision. He came with the assumption that what his eyes and mind were perceiving were the whole truth of the Almighty.

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.

The Son of God taught him that the Almighty makes Himself known in the sense of touch—the new birth of water and the Spirit. By this He also gives us perception in our vision, that we may see the Kingdom of God and where He is at work. Just as the wind rushes against the skin and makes its sound in our ears—not giving perception as to where it comes from—so the Spirit gives assurance that He has come near to bring His hearer into the Kingdom of God.

Again, the eyes are employed in the reminder of the serpents in the wilderness. After the people’s disobedience of the heart, grace and salvation were given to those who looked upon the serpent Moses fashioned at the Lord’s command (Number 21:4-9). Yet more potent is the gaze of faith upon the event where the Son of God Himself is lifted up. All future generations, who hear this news with their ears, whoever faithfully looks upon Him may not perish, but have eternal life.

Our God makes use of our senses so that we may perceive and believe. So far, we’ve seen how He has come in sight, in touch, in hearing. He doesn’t neglect our sense of smell and taste either. The sense of smell was in the sacrifices offered up to the Lord—a recognition of the deadly price of our sins. On earth, it is the smell of death, but before God, He calls it a pleasing aroma. Hear the account of Noah:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” (Gen. 8:20-21)

Likewise, the sense of smell filled the worship of God’s people through the fragrant incense. This smell was to connect them to this place, where prayers ascended and were graciously heard by the Lord. Thus, David sung in Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” In many places where the faithful gather, incense marks the worship with this potent reminder of our fellowship with our Triune God. Yet, even our sanctuary has a smell imbued by the burning candles and the smell of Holy Communion.

The Lord also made Himself known through the taste. For His people in the wilderness who ate the manna, “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (Exod. 16:31) In the sacrifices, the peace offering was eaten before the Lord, where that taste wasn’t just the savor of the roasted meat, but one of joy in having been reconciled to God (Leviticus 3).

As people living in the New Testament, the words of the Psalmist ring true, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8)  God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. The only-begotten Son says to the believer, “Take; eat. This is My Body given for you.” “Take; drink. This is My Blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

So, you see that the Holy Trinity, which is too high for our minds to comprehend, descends to us so that faith may take hold of this mystery even with our lowly senses. Thanks be to the Triune God who makes these truths known to us in our bodies! This gives us so many opportunities to reminder His work:

  • With water, we remember our Baptism into the Name of the Holy Trinity.
  • With the hearing and reading of His Word, we embrace His speech to us with repentance for our sins and joy at how He restores and gives us new life.
  • With the smell of church—the burning of candles or incense—call us back to where He gathers us together around His cross
  • With touch, as for centuries, Christians have made the sign of the cross upon themselves in remembrance of Baptism.
  • And today, with the taste of Holy Communion. It’s not so much about the appeal of the simple bread and wine, but faith believing that this bread and wine are our Lord’s own Body and Blood for us.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–8 | Acts 2:14a, 22–36 | John 3:1-17

Text: John 3:1-17

On this celebration of the Holy Trinity, we encounter a great mystery of the Christian faith—the nature of God.  Many men have sought and still seek to know God, to be part of something greater than themselves and to connect with the unseen.

The 11th century Benedictine monk, Anselm of Canterbury, attempted in his day to write single proof for the existence of God. His idea was that God is the highest thing that human understanding can conceive of. He wrote, “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogion)  This excited him, because in philosophical terms, he had a handle on the truth of God’s existence.

Writing in the first quarter of the 20th century, Ernest Holmes, devised a philosophy based on the Bible, called Science of Mind, in which his approach to God is this:

“I believe, that Infinite Spirit, God, or whatever symbol is used to denote the All-Inclusive Intelligent Power running the Universe, has always existed—no beginning and no end. Infinite.” (Ernest Holmes, Science of Mind (1926), pp. 4)

Holmes acknowledges that God is infinite, eternal, and running the universe, but man can only make contact with the Infinite through devoting himself to study (a.k.a. buying his books) and contemplation.

The ancient religion of Hinduism believes the ultimate in the universe is the Supreme Soul or Brahman, as explained in a story in one of their sacred texts called the Skanda Purana:

“This knowledge of Brahman can only come to that person who is unattached to anything in the world. It is true that the disciple seeks a guru to gain knowledge. However if all the desires lurking in the heart are eliminated, then this knowledge automatically manifests in the heart. Such a person will attain Brahman.”[1]

So for the Hindu, knowing the Supreme can only come to a person who prepares themselves by eliminating all desire first.

Suffice to say, man has a lot of assertions about God—most of them very complex and open to only the elite who can attain to the “right” understanding.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night with his own kind of assertions: “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.”  Granted, they were assertions based on Scripture: Moses was given signs to prove himself to the Israelites in slavery. Elijah and Elisha showed they were true prophets by providing for a widow, raising the dead, and cleansing a leper.  So the fact that Jesus is doing signs shows He has some link with the Lord God.

But Jesus makes it clear right from the beginning that Nicodemus doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows.  It’s not because of some notion that he isn’t capable because he hasn’t purged his heart of desire, as the Hindus say.  It’s not that Nicodemus wasn’t intelligent enough to handle logic.

Rather, Jesus explains that the real problem with man not knowing God is a failing on our part:

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. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Ignorance of God (true agnosticism)…is common to all men, and leads us to conclude wrong things about God.  “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  It’s not simply a matter of deriving the perfect proof of God so that God dwells in your mind, or growing in spiritual prowess, or reforming yourself so that you rise above this physical existence to reach God where He is.

You must be born again.  Not reincarnated to give it a go with a fresh perspective.  You must be born from above—God’s work.  Our flesh has some deadly flaws in the spirituality department.

It leads us to extremes. On the one hand, saying God is found in this building, this group of people, this Lutheran synod.  On the other hand, saying God is found everywhere, even out on the lake while the rest of the congregation is at worship.  But far be it from God to promise to be both everywhere and specifically in a place like where His Gospel is preached, in the waters of Baptism, or the consecrated Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.

Our flesh leads us to accuse God of being silent in times of need, forsaking us because we can’t feel or see His activity.  God, you failed me when I watched my child die.  I tried reading the Bible, but I just didn’t feel any better when I did, so I just stopped.

We equate our apparent successes with the Lord’s endorsement.  Because this program had tremendous feedback and involved a lot of people, it must be blessed by God; but if very few if any come then it must mean we need to try new measures.  Joshua was tempted to this just before Jericho fell:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped.

Our sin-filled flesh wants to get some kind of handhold on God, because if we could just understand a little more, have some window into His hidden work, then we would be more in control of our lives.  But that isn’t the way the true God is. We have been deceived.  Contrary to our experiences and accomplishments, He says, “You must be born again” “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17) and “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Matt. 11:25-26)

The model which the true God portrays to us is of a newborn baby and a little child.  Flesh has given birth to flesh, and despite mankind’s best efforts for millennia, none has ascended into heaven—not with our morals, not with our mystical experiences, and not with our minds.

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The knowledge of the true God is a gift bestowed by Him.  Despite what the devil and our sinful flesh might say, God actually does want to be known among us.

But you may ask, what is with the Holy Trinity?  Isn’t that far too complicated for the average child?  It doesn’t make sense mathematically; we can’t picture it except with ornate arrangements of circles and triangles; and when we try to explain it to our friends, they might just side with the Unitarians who say the whole thing was made up to overcomplicate religion.

Yet, as children of God, we confess the Holy Trinity—one eternal God in three distinct Persons—because that is how God has made Himself known among us.  No pope or monk invented this, except Tertullian coined the shorthand name for Three-in-Oneness. We aren’t asked to make it add up, or help God out with flawed analogies.  What the Triune God desires us to know most of all is what He has done for you through His Son, because when He wanted to be known by His human creatures, He came down to us.

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.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

It is enough, dearly beloved, humble child of God, to know that your Father in heaven loved you before you were even born.  He arranged your adoption into His family, the forgiveness and removal of all your sins, and to bring you into His Kingdom.  He did this before you ever had your first blasphemous thought, or sin ever bore fruit in your thoughts, words, or deeds.  Here in time, His Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you His enlightenment.  He has shown you Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross—“suffered for [your] salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty” (Athanasian Creed, 36-37).

There is so much more to grow into in this Kingdom—much to dedicate our hearts and minds to learn from His Wisdom, many ways which our flesh must decrease and the Spirit’s work increase in us, and many times when we will misunderstand or stubbornly refuse to hear correction.  But your Father is gracious and patient, and most of all He loves you enough to do everything in His almighty power to keep you in this true faith.

This is what we as Christians confess.  We have three Universal Creeds to explain what we believe, and each has to go into greater detail because of the devil’s subtly and man’s pride in his own understanding.  But above all, we believe in God as He has made Himself known to us.  As holy and mysterious as His nature is, He has put His Name on you.  With His Name put on you in Baptism, this profound adoption took place. He made you His own child, and richly pours out on you all the blessings of His household: ears to hear His Word, eyes of faith to recognize His work, an open audience with the Almighty ruler of the universe, His life-giving strength for everything you must face in this life, and the hope of the resurrection from the dead and the life of the world which is to come.

It’s with good reason that we praise Him this and every day, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.

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Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

This Lent, we have the privilege to walk through several stories in the Gospel of John, which demonstrate to us the power of God for salvation to all who believe. We’ll stop in John 3 today, where we meet Nicodemus who learns the grace of the Kingdom of God. Next Sunday, we’ll hear about how important forgiveness of sins is for entrance into the Kingdom. Then we’ll ponder the nature of sin with the man who was born blind. Finally before Palm Sunday, the Lord will bring us down to the very grave before raising us up with Lazarus, whom He calls forth from the tomb. That brings us to the Palm Sunday procession in John 12, which was largely populated by people who had seen Lazarus rise.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, because he thinks he can identify the things of God. After all, he’s a trained expert in them. It stands to reason if you want to know about God, you study the Scriptures and that makes you well-qualified to know what God is doing. But Jesus points out the fatal flaw in man-knowing-God. Human understanding doesn’t recognize the fullness of God’s work of salvation. It can behold the miracles, but not the fuller reality behind them. “You must be born again.”

Without being born again, people profane God’s Name. Without being born again, they just go through the motions of religion because its what their family does, or it’s to get their spouse off their case, but they are only inspired by the order and the moral example the Bible gives. Likewise, without being born again, people shun religion and say it’s nothing but judgmental people. They turn away from God because they either view Him as an angry judge or as something that people in the dark ages made up in the name of social control.

“You must be born again” says that we are born incapable of recognizing God’s work, rightly knowing how God thinks, or even understanding how to read His Word (even if it’s in plain English). By the Holy Spirit we see the fullness of God’s heart. He doesn’t just love the people who meet certain criteria. He loves these people of the flesh—sinners with real lives that have real doubts, guilt, fear, etc. He loves the world, and if you are in the world, He loves you.

His love, though, doesn’t come to us merely on human terms; it come on God’s terms. If it were on human terms, it would be subject to our biases—who we think is worthy of His kingdom. The recognition of God’s love in Christ is wider than human expectation, and it is better.

Unfortunately for us, hearing these words in 2020, “love” has been mutated into a strange version of its original intent. Love is a strong feeling, love is permissiveness, love is…altogether human. But we heard this in last week’s Epistle reading, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Human love takes that to mean a blank check, that between the Old and New Testaments, God had a change of heart and decided to not be so hard on people. Instead what it really

means is that God loved us enough that, in spite of our wretchedness, our rejecting Him, that He still gave the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son. That was what we truly needed to be saved.

Our salvation being the result of God’s work alone is called monergism—meaning God alone has the power to save. And this makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable to be out of control of something so important. The Spirit moves where He wills. “He creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who believe” (Augsburg Confession V).

Because God doesn’t hold out on His salvation based on what we’ve done, we can take confidence that He forgives the sins of all who have been born again. But how do we know when we’re born again?

“And 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 refers back to the incident with the fiery serpents in Numbers 21, when God sent serpents to bite the people who grumbled against the Lord so that they died.

It means that all who feel the pangs of death and acknowledge that they have offended not just social standards or their own expectations for themselves, but have sinned against God. All who believe this—not only that He exists and He saves theoretical sinners, but that He has saved you, a sinner, have eternal life.

Today it’s all too common to over-simplify this message, and cheapen the Gospel into Good news for bad situations, regardless of sin. But how much this harms people, because if sin is not serious, then why was Christ condemned? If sin doesn’t actually lead to us perishing, then why was God’s Son treated so cruelly?

Today the Church is challenged two-fold: one that God receives sinners, and two that God calls sinners to repent. If you lose either of those points, you miss out on the Gospel. This is why the cross remains such an enduring and powerful symbol for God’s Church. It’s more than two lines to form the lower-case ‘t’ on “co-exist” bumper stickers. The cross shows the darkness in all people, and what God did to bring us back to Himself. Every human attempt to do this has resulted in disillusionment or delusion. Some get “burned out on religion” because all they hear is a demand to do more, be better, and stop sinning. Others will want a message that says God just wants us to accept each other as we are.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017
Text: John 3:1-17

“For God so loved the world.,.,” (you know it, finish it!)  This passage contains one of the most beloved verses in the Bible, the Gospel in a nutshell.   Let’s go deeper, though.  Hearing these words of Jesus in context opens us up to the full depth of what it means to not perish but have everlasting life, and what that gift cost.
God granting eternal life to all who believe is not to be thought of the way H&R Block advertises tax refund money.  God is not holding out on people, waiting for them to unlock the right way to discover everlasting life.  The way He gives eternal life to mortal, sinful people is not just a matter of making a change in His records.
Eternal life is a costly gift.  We understand that preserving someone’s years is a costly thing.  A couple weeks in the hospital is likely to cost more than a family makes in a year.  But after all that money is spent, you still only have mortal life.
Instead, the Lord purchased and won eternal life not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.[1]  In order to gain eternal life, He bore rejection by all, the agony of body and soul, the nails, and death.  This is what it cost to undo the power of sin and death so that “everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
How is this gift bestowed?  Jesus compares it to the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  “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.”  On Jesus’ part is the bloody agony and death, on our part is the faith which looks to Him.  Yet even that believing is God’s work,[2] for no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again by God.
Then there’s the flip side of eternal life.  What would we have if we had no Son of Man on the cross in which to trust?  We ought to look back to the account of the bronze serpent in Number 21:5-9:
And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
What came first was the people’s impatience and rebellion against God and His servant, Moses.  God gave them what that sin deserved: death.  They perished in their sin instead of reaching the Promised Land.  Yet, God in His mercy commanded a way of salvation: raise a bronze serpent on a pole and every bitten rebel who looks upon it will live.  Though they rebelled, God forgave them and gave them life in the Promised Land.
The same is true for each of us.  We are children of Adam and Eve, whose rebellion we heard about last Sunday in Genesis 3.  “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die…My Spirit shall not abide with man forever but his days shall be 120 years…Death spread to all because all sinned.”[3]  The bite of the fiery serpent has touched us all, and we deserve temporal and eternal death.
Yet God in His love sent His own Son to be lifted up, nailed to the tree of the cross, that every sinner who looks at Him in faith should not perish—should not die under the wrath of God, should not be condemned to hell with the devil and his angels—but have eternal life.
But for all who refuse to look upon the Son of Man, who turn away from His voice and deny both that they have rebelled and the fiery serpent’s bite, they shall perish.  Sure, they may seem to be alive today, going about their business, enjoying family time, eating and drinking.  But without faith in the Son of Man, they will surely perish.  Their good things will come to an end, and their eternal inheritance will be the fires of hell.  “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
But God gives eternal life to all who believe.  When you reach 100 years old, it’s a milestone.  You get a letter from the President and everyone wonders what your secret was to such a long life.  What would you say if you met some of the patriarchs before the Flood?  Methusaleh, what’s your secret to such a long life of 969 years?  I don’t know, my father Enoch only walked with God for 365 before God took him.[4]
Eternal life is not something we can measure by the standards we know.  We need a new way of thinking about eternal life.  It’s not just an extension of status quo life as we know it.  Maybe that’s a shortcoming of the word “everlasting” as King James English translates it.
Eternal life is a present possession of all who believe.  “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life”—not “will have,” but has eternal life.  You and I, and all who belong to the Lord through faith have eternal life already.
That means death’s power over us is empty.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”[5]  Because God, who raised Jesus from the dead, has given us eternal life, we live even if we should be taken by God.
That’s why Enoch is significant.  We might say he lived only 365 years before God took him, but what does that matter?  Whether he lived on earth or with God, he had eternal life.
It’s the same for us when we’re smitten with dreadful illness and even when our bodies succumb to death.  What does death matter?  It’s an empty shadow.  Painful? Yes, but it is powerless over the one who has eternal life.  So our prayers for those who are sick are to the end that God preserves them in faith that they keep the gift of eternal life and their Savior’s victory over the grave.  The prayer is not necessariy answered by restoration of health, but by keeping them in the true faith until they are delivered from evil and lie down in their grave.  Our prayer for those who have wandered from the faith or are in doubt is that they would believe so that they too would not perish, but also have eternal life.  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, Creed, 2nd Article, alluding to 1 Peter 1:18-19
[2] John 6:29
[3] Genesis 2:17, Genesis 6:3, Romans 5:12
[4] Genesis 5:21-24, 27
[5] Psalm 23:4 KJV