“Nicodemus was looking for the kingdom of God apart from Jesus” Holy Trinity 2023

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04. June 2023
The Feast of the Holy Trinity
John 3:1-17

 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, 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.”

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, a man well-versed in the things of God. He was well qualified to recognize that, because of the things Jesus did, He had a special relationship with God. Today we would call Nicodemus a theologian. But as John tells the story, it soon becomes evident that, even though Jesus is religiously important, Nicodemus has no idea about what Jesus means when He says that Nicodemus must undergo a complete change in his being if he is going to be included in God’s kingdom.

Because of his sense of religious self-importance, Nicodemus, like his fellow brood of vipers, had refused the baptism of John the Baptist. This would have required a public admission of sin. He thought that debasing himself in baptism meant forfeiting his position as a teacher in Israel. Nicodemus wanted to come to God without facing up to what he really was. Without some remorse for sin, Nicodemus was not even ready for the most elementary catechism lesson. He wanted to come to God without the means of the Spirit. He could not accept that God was in the water of baptism—forgiving, regenerating, and giving faith.

We encounter people like Nicodemus all the time. For them, religion is interesting, but it does not affect who they are or what they do. Since they live only for themselves, they cannot understand how God lived and died for them. Any idea of God’s sacrificing Himself for us sinners in Jesus is to them completely unintelligible. They might come to church out of curiosity, but nothing in Christianity grasps their inner being. After a while, talking to these people becomes a waste of time. Thus, when Jesus finds He is getting nowhere with Nicodemus, He cuts the conversation short and sends the confused teacher away. It was just as the Evangelist said at the beginning of his Gospel: “The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not figure what it was all about.”

Since Nicodemus cannot confront his moral inadequacy, he is not entitled to learn of the mysteries of the Christian faith. Such great truths as that Christ is God’s Son and that He died for sin are reserved for those who, in Baptism, confess their sins. Despite his superior religious qualifications, Nicodemus will be excluded from knowing anything about the mysteries contained in the Holy Trinity. He will remain ignorant of things of God and how He sacrificed His only Son for the world. The bottom line is that unless a person can face up to who he is before God, he can have no place in the kingdom of God. 

Levels of knowledge have little to do with salvation. Baptism requires humiliation. Only those who came to John the Baptist confessing their sins found a place in the kingdom of God. Nicodemus was not among them. If there is a positive side to the personality of Nicodemus, he was not a hypocrite. Others might have pretended to have a sense of remorse; he did not. Nicodemus may have been invincibly ignorant, but he could not pretend to be something he was not.

Now we must show how the invincible ignorance of Nicodemus and the humiliation of ourselves before God have something to do with Trinity Sunday. Many people, not just Christians, regard Jesus as an important religious person. Still, these people admire Mahatma Gandhi, the Buddha, and Mother Theresa as compelling religious figures. They have done things for others and stand in sharp contrast to those who live for themselves. If there is a God, then hopefully, this God has the principles these people do. That’s not what Nicodemus needed, to hear a brilliant religious guru. Nicodemus looked at Jesus in this kind of light. He told Jesus he was convinced that God was with Him because of what He was doing. Jesus had a special relationship with God. Nicodemus had a valuable insight in recognizing that Jesus had a special relationship with God but did not recognize that He was God’s unique and only Son. 

Since he didn’t know who Jesus really was, he could not understand what Jesus meant that unless Nicodemus were born from on high, he would not see the kingdom of God. Since he refused the baptism of John, he could not know the things of God. So things are no different now. Without the birth from heaven in baptism and by the Holy Spirit, Christianity will remain for unbelievers no more than another philosophy, one religious option among others.

Then follows what, at the same time, is perhaps the most humorous and pathetic discourse in the entire Bible. Nicodemus thought Jesus was asking him to crawl into his mother’s womb and be evicted again. The idea of shrinking ourselves into zygotes exceeds the bounds of normal sanity. No writer of fiction could have invented such a conversation. To keep matters straight, Jesus was not asking him to be born again but to be born from on high.

At this point, Jesus ends the conversation with these words, “You are a teacher in Israel, and you do not know these things?” As cruel as it might seem, obstinate unbelief makes additional religious discourse meaningless. If Christianity is unintelligible to unbelievers, unbelief to Christians is invincible stupidity. Arguments cannot overcome it, the evidence of apologetics, the accumulation of biblical passages, or the rehearsal of doctrines. Unbelief can only be overcome by the Holy Spirit in the Gospel, and the Sacraments, and even this is not automatic. The Holy Spirit converts whom He wants. There are no guarantees. 

In virtually every English Bible, John 3:8 is incorrectly translated. It is not the wind that blows where it wants, but the Spirit who blows where He wants. In hearing preaching, we hear the Holy Spirit speaking, but we do not know what He will do or when He will do it. The Gospel always contains the Spirit, but the Spirit works out His own schedule of what He will do. So it is with all things of God. Our Augsburg Confession teaches the same thing. God determines when He brings people to faith. As much as we would like to control things and expand the kingdom of God by throwing hundreds of thousands of dollars after high-priced techniques and low-cost gimmicks, we cannot control the Holy Spirit. When we do this, we are not letting God be God, and we become idolaters.

Nicodemus had refused the humiliating experience of being baptized by John the Baptist and instead had gone directly to Jesus. In Lutheran terms, the means of grace were not good enough for him. Because he refused to be baptized, he could not recognize that the very kingdom of God he wanted for himself was standing directly in front of him. The kingdom of God is not the church. It is not something within us. It is not some far-off reality in another world. It is not something that comes when we die. The kingdom of God is Jesus and nothing else. Nicodemus was staring right at the kingdom of God and did not see it.

Because Nicodemus was blind in recognizing who Jesus really was, he was not allowed to hear that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man had to be lifted up and that whoever believes on Him has eternal life. Nicodemus will not hear about the greater Trinitarian mystery: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but shall have everlasting life.” This knowledge is reserved for those who confess their sins before God.

But things do change, and they change when we do not expect them. The Spirit not only drives forward, but He also drives in reverse. The man who avoided the self-humiliation, which baptism requires, overcame the pride of religious accomplishment and social standing. Jesus, in His death, was an offense to His own disciples but not to Nicodemus. Jesus’ body was destined for the common grave of criminals, but Nicodemus helped remove that tortured body from its cross and carry it to the tomb from which Christ rose. From that tomb, we find resurrection for ourselves. Nicodemus finally realized that the kingdom of God only comes after we have died to sin.

Without our dying and rising with Christ in baptism, the Trinity remains distant and unintelligible, but in the cross, we know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we have everything God has to offer. Today many are asking whether we can find God outside of Jesus Christ. Nicodemus was looking for the kingdom of God apart from Jesus and didn’t find it. That search for some continues, but the answer remains the same. “Believe and be baptized [in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], and you will be saved.” And by the Spirit, you will be given to know the things of God. Amen.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin

Based on a sermon by Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer, June 19, 2003.