What Wisdom Cannot Bear

Text: John 3:1-17
Date: The Holy Trinity + 5/31/15

At first glance the scripture readings appointed for the Sunday of The Holy Trinity don’t seem to have much to say about that doctrine. So I decided to go to Martin Luther to see how he handled today’s Gospel. To my surprise I discovered he had the exact same question as I, beginning his sermon, saying, “I don’t know why this Gospel lesson was selected to be read on this Trinity Sunday, for it really doesn’t deal with the subject of Trinity.”[1] You don’t see a specific reference to Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Rather you have an example of how beyond all understanding is not only this doctrine but any and all spiritual things.

Look at that painting of “Christus und Nikodemus” by Wilhelm Steinhausen on the front of your service folder. Look at Nikodemus on the left. What do you see? Is he humbly learning what Jesus is saying? Is he praying? Or, more likely, is he depressed, completely confused, ready to give up? This is the issue I was drawn to, namely, how because of our fallen, sinful nature, apart from faith we are utterly incapable of understanding anything from God’s Word. Once again, to my surprise, this is the direction Luther took. He says that Jesus’ talk about being born again “confuses Nicodemus and he doesn’t understand, just as it is impossible for human reason ever to comprehend the fact that salvation cannot be achieved by keeping the Law.”

Well then it crossed my mind to quote the inspired words of the apostle Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians where he says, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,” 1 Corinthians 1:20-23. Again to my surprise I found Luther quoting the next verse 24, saying, “So far as Nicodemus is concerned, this whole sermon makes no sense at all, for human reason is incapable of comprehending a spiritual rebirth, and similar lofty, divine truths, just as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14; ‘The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”[2]

([Giggle, then:] Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you find yourself thinking exactly the way the great reformer Martin Luther himself thought!)

So, how did Luther proceed from here? It’s like he drops his questions about Nicodemus and the Trinity and goes right into preaching Jesus Christ who came so that, like Moses was commanded to lift up the fiery bronze serpent in the wilderness so that God would heal everyone who simply looked at it, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

But wait a minute. Neither Jesus nor Luther gave up on Nicodemus. But this is the exact answer to the old man’s confusion. Luther quotes Jesus saying, “That which is born of flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Then he says, “Christ replies, Nicodemus, if you’re not willing to believe that, you most certainly will never understand it.”[3]

Luther calls the second part of the reading a simpler sermon for children, the story about the bronze snake. But it is still for wise, old Nicodemus who needs to hear and understand the difference between mental understanding and faith.

Because God’s chosen people had sinned by grumbling impatiently in the desert against God and Moses, God “turned the devil loose on them” attacking the people with poisonous snakes. Finally, when the people cried out to Moses God instituted the sacrament (if you will) of the bronze snake. The promise attached to it was that when anyone who was bitten simply looked at the bronze snake on a pole, he would be saved from death. This was a clear foretelling of the gospel when the Son of God would come into our human flesh and then, on the cross, take on the appearance of the very thing that is killing us and everyone. He became sin itself there. Yet by His holy death and resurrection He takes away the sin of the world. Now anyone who simply looks at Him in faith there on that cross, that is, who believe the promise that His death is for you, on your behalf, will be saved by such faith.

So Luther has Jesus conclude, “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. And then Jesus uses the illustration of the wind.”[4]

Like the wind, the Holy Spirit works silently, imperceptibly through the means of grace, the preached Word and the sacraments which are a sort of visible Word. Like the wind, you can’t detect or see the Spirit working. You can’t see faith.

So there you have it. Have what? The doctrine of The Holy Trinity. “What? How?”

From the very first words of the Bible, in Genesis, the very word translated “God” is, in Hebrew, a plural word. Not just “El” or “Eloh,” but “Elohim.” Yet it is not translated as a plural. For the mystery is that God is one. And yet there is a plurality in Him. In His Word He reveals Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are all, or rather, “He is” there from the beginning to the end. And isn’t it interesting that when He created man, when He created you, He didn’t just give us bodies like dogs or sheep, but gave us soul and spirit. So to be human is to reflect even this divine plurality, the image of God.

The reason for hearing and knowing and confessing the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is for the sake of the gospel of salvation, that we might not only know but believe that we are the creation of God, that because of sin we are also the object of His saving work in earthly ministry and the cross of Christ, and that saving faith is always and only then the result of the silent, mysterious work of the Holy Spirit through our eyes and ears in our soul and spirit and body.

When St. Paul wrote about this sublime gospel of God he had the reaction we all should have this day sitting with Nicodemus at Jesus’ feet and word: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:33-36).

[1] Sermons of Martin Luther: the House Postils, Eugene Klug editor. Vol 2, 206.

[2] ibid, 209.

[3] ibid, 209, emphasis mine.

[4] ibid, 213-214.