Text: John 3:1-15
Date: The Holy Trinity + 6/3/07
“In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” you were baptized. You were baptized “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When we gather before God every week since then on His Day in this place set apart and made holy for this purpose, the first thing we do is present our credentials, our passport, our immigration papers, the only evidence that we have the right and can dare appear in God’s presence, the same words of our Holy Baptism, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Our entrance is immediately validated by the words of Holy Absolution, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Then we use the very words of God given to us in the psalms to enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving. After praying the prayer of the heart, “Kyrie, Eleison,” “Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy, Lord, have mercy,” we sing the first of the eternal songs of the angels, “Gloria in Excelsis,” “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth.” This angelic song has been expanded by the Holy Church under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to address the heavenly king, almighty God the Father; the Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, our Lord God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, now seated at the right hand of the Father. We acknowledge Jesus to be the Most High, with the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. We then pray a prayer that sounds the main theme of the season and the Sunday in the Collect of the Day.
The Lord speaks and we listen. For His word bestows what it says.
That’s why we gathered here—not to evangelize others (that is a separate issue!), not to entertain ourselves or for us in any way to be the center of attention, but solely to receive the Lord’s gifts. He borrows the voices of pastors and assistants to speak his prophetic word from the Old Testament and his apostolic word from the Epistles. Then, when the Lord Jesus Christ Himself speaks to us in the Holy Gospel we stand out of reverence, awe and respect. “Glory to you, O Lord!” “Praise to you, O Christ!” The Spirit speaks, then, crafted to our time and situation, through the Sermon.
Only after that do we do something. Only then do we respond to the Word with a hymn of praise, by confessing the one, true faith handed down to us in the Creed; we pray and we give our alms and offerings. Then we do what Jesus commanded us to do, the Holy Communion in his body and blood. And we do it just the way he did it, for he says, “Do this.” But here again is the mystery, for even this is not our doing but the Lord’s. We take bread. He takes our bread. We say a prayer of thanksgiving, break it and distribute it with the very words of our Lord. But it is He who gives it into our mouths, saying, “This is my body for you.” In the same way we take the cup. He takes the cup. We say a prayer of thanks, and distribute it with the very words of our Lord. In reality, however, it is He who gives it into our mouths, saying, “This is my blood for you.” For here Jesus is present with his very body and blood. To him it is, located here, that we sing, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us and grant us peace.” And he does. He gives us the forgiveness of our sins, he gives us life, he gives us salvation.
We then thank the Lord and sing his praise. We go in peace saying our eyes have seen his salvation, and with the very blessing he commanded Aaron of old to give, “The Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine on you and be gracious to you, look upon you with favor and give you peace.”
This! This is what the Divine Service is: not primarily our coming to serve God, but His coming and serving us with His gifts. This is the way, the pattern of salvation. It always begins with God not us. The Divine Service is for people who have been made members of the household of God by being baptized into the Name, whose eyes have been enlightened by faith through the Word and Spirit of God. This! This is what old Nicodemus and ordinary human logic could not and cannot understand. It is the struggle between our fallen human wisdom that always wants at least some credit for ourselves on the one hand and the blessed fact that the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation is totally a free gift of God and not to be credited to our own works or preparations.
The Nicodemus in each of us is confused at this. Born again? But how? Born of water and the Spirit? It is a complete mystery to him. “How can these things be?” he asks.
Okay, then it’s object lesson time, Nick. Children can even understand this. Remember when God’s people complained against God and Moses in the wilderness, and God sent judgment against them by sending the serpents with their fiery, deadly bites? Remember how they then feared God and pleaded with Moses to ask God to save them? Remember how God then commanded Moses to do the strangest of things? He commanded Moses to make a bronze snake, looking just like the ones that were biting them, the very image of the evil that was killing them. Then he commanded Moses to put it up on a stick and lift it up in the sight of all the people. Then he gave a promise, “Everyone who is bitten, when he sees [the fiery serpent on the pole], shall live” [Numbers 21:8-9 (ESV)]. Remember what happened, Nick? Everyone who looked at the bronze serpent on the pole lived and did not die. Remember? Well, in the same way, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus came and was displayed on the stick of the cross, he there being the image of the very sin and death that bites and kills us. Then the promise, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The point is, as Luther said, “Because Nicodemus is a Pharisee, as well as a master and teacher in Israel, our Lord speaks to him in precise, analytic terms about rebirth. So far as salvation is concerned, he totally demolishes nature, human reason, free will, human resources, yes, even the law of God, saying, None of these has any value whatsoever; anyone who wishes to enter the kingdom of God, must be born from above or anew.
“But Nicodemus understands none of this…. Christ says, That’s the way it’s got to be, dear Nicodemus; you must become a tiny baby, suckle at the breast, be diapered, and carried on the arm; for whoever is not born anew cannot enter the kingdom of God. How in the world can that be? Nicodemus asks. My dear Nicodemus, Christ says to him, it happens in an altogether different way from what you think, namely, it is effected by water and the Holy Spirit.
“Nicodemus understands none of this; as a matter of fact, the whole thing seems utterly ridiculous to him at first…. Listen, dear Nicodemus, what I told you about the new birth by water and Spirit is something you have to believe; it isn’t something you can understand with your five senses or with your reason.” Then he concludes, “Note this well! If a person hopes to understand divine truths such as these, you must have faith and you must believe.”
My friends, it’s all about faith. Furthermore, this faith is not just a good hunch, not just a gut-felt desire or hope, not anything you conjure up in yourself by your own power. This faith is a gift, the very creation of God in the heart through the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God. Faith hears God’s Word, believes, trusts and puts all hope in what God says. That’s why “worship” is all about gathering around God’s Word, hearing it, believing it, repeating it, trusting in it, and hoping in it. It really is as simple as it seems. “Too simple to be true” we think. Is it my hearing that makes forgiveness mine? No. Your hearing is only the means, the conduit of the Word that bestows forgiveness. Is it my just being here that saves? No. But you cannot receive the gift if you’re not here.
It wasn’t the bronze image of a snake on the pole that saved the people, but God’s command and promise, and faith in that command and promise. So it’s not the image of the crucifix or your gazing on it that saves you, but God’s action in that which the crucifix represents and signifies. Your gazing on it is only the means by which faith can fix its spiritual eyes on the promise.
So now stand in awe and amazement, not of the symbol itself but of the reality. The liturgy is not just the words written on pages in a book. It is the praying and speaking of those divine words by people with enlightened hearts. And faith is not a product of logic or emotion produced by your mind. The liturgy is the encounter with the living Word of God delivering the gifts of God. Faith is the living trust that hangs on every word of the living God. Worship happens only as one first receives the grace, mercy and peace of God that passes all understanding. That grace is now given to you. That mercy is yours. That peace is now yours. With God’s grace, mercy and peace, then, what more can we say than, “Amen”? And we say “Amen” when we give ourselves to hearing God’s Word. We say “Amen” when we give our time to receive God’s gifts. We say “Amen” when we then serve one another and the world in works of love, not in our own name but “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen