Sermon for the Festival of the Holy Trinity
Ezekiel 18:30-32 + Romans 11:33-36 + John 3:1-15
Dear Christians: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” With those words we began our service. With those words you were baptized and the name of the Triune God was placed upon you. The doctrine of the Trinity is an important doctrine, to say the least. “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith…And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.” One God in Trinity, in “three-ness.” And the Three-ness in Unity, in One-ness. Neither confounding, that is, confusing or mixing together the three Persons, nor dividing the Substance, that is, turning Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into three separate “Gods.” It sounds mysterious. It sounds incomprehensible. And, indeed, our God is beyond our understanding, and we rightly echo the words of St. Paul in today’s Epistle: Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!
But thankfully, it isn’t necessary that whosoever will be saved must “comprehend” one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Whosoever will be saved must worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. And so we do. We simply worship one God: the Father who loved us and gave His Son for us, the Son who loved us and gave Himself for us as the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and the Holy Spirit who loved us and has brought and continues to bring the Son to us by means of Word and Sacrament, thus bringing us into fellowship with the Father. Not one Person, but three Persons. Not three gods, but one God. That’s it. We don’t claim to comprehend our God. We simply worship Him as He has revealed Himself to us for our salvation.
It’s this simple understanding of our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that Jesus presents to us in today’s Gospel. To the unbeliever, as Nicodemus was at the time he spoke with Jesus, it’s still nonsensical. But to the one who has come to know the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—, specifically in the Person of Jesus Christ, who revealed God to us in the flesh, it’s beautiful.
Nicodemus recognized that Jesus had come from God. For no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him. Now, what Nicodemus meant by that was that Jesus had come from God like other prophets had come from God, that is, they were called directly by God sometime during their earthly life, called to be a prophet and to teach God’s Word. Nicodemus did not yet know or believe the real truth, that Jesus was unique, that He was no ordinary prophet, but that He was a Person of the Holy Trinity, who came from God like no one else has ever come from God, as the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds—the Son who, as Jesus says, “came down from heaven,” as He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
But, you notice, Jesus doesn’t spend any time explaining or describing that mystery of the Trinity to Nicodemus. He goes right to the matter of life and death, of salvation and condemnation. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Jesus takes Nicodemus right to the pressing issue of his own salvation, of his own entering the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus says, can only happen if a person is born again.
Why? What’s wrong with our first birth, our natural birth from our mother’s womb? “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me,” says the Psalmist. Adam’s children are fallen from birth, spiritually dead and doomed from the start. And what’s wrong with the things we’ve done in this life? What about our good deeds? Our sacrifices? Our works of love and obedience? “There is none who does good,” says the Psalmist, “no, not one.” As you heard Ezekiel say in the First Lesson, you have to “get a new heart.” So Jesus drives home the point to Nicodemus: your natural birth is useless for getting you into the kingdom of heaven. And all your works are useless, too. Nothing will get you in, nothing will help you, except for a complete change, a second birth—a second birth that comes with a new heart.
And the thing about that is, your birth is not something that you do, is it? It’s something that’s done to you. Jesus explains the manner of this urgent rebirth: Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Water and the Spirit. Holy Baptism, the Holy Spirit’s means of rebirthing people, saving people and bringing them into the kingdom of God. St. Paul says the same thing to Titus: Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy God saved us, through the washing of regeneration (rebirth) and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior. There it is again, a reference to the Holy Trinity: God (the Father) who saved us, through the Spirit’s washing of rebirth, through Jesus Christ our Savior.
Now, it’s true, Baptism is not the Spirit’s only means of causing people to be born again. He also does it through the Word alone, through the Gospel, as Peter says, You have been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever. Or as James writes, Of His own will God brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures. It’s the Word of God that the Spirit uses to change us, to convert us, to bring us to faith in Christ and to give us new birth. Baptism is simply the Word of God attached to water, an external rite, instituted by Christ, that is tied to the promise of God. As we say in the Small Catechism, Certainly water does not do it, but the word of God that is with and in the water, and faith that trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a water of life, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.
In our Gospel, Jesus is astounded that Nicodemus doesn’t grasp any of this. Not that Baptism had been around for very long, but God had always taught in the Old Testament that no one could be saved by natural birth or by works, but only by a Spirit-wrought change in a person, through repentance and faith, faith in the promise of a Savior from sin and death. One of the key images of that in the Old Testament was the bronze serpent. The Israelites had rebelled against God and Moses again and were being fatally bitten by poisonous snakes out in the desert. But God gave them a means by which to be saved: a bronze serpent lifted up on a pole, combined with the promise that whoever looked to it would be saved from the serpent bite.
Jesus applies all this to Himself: all men are dying from the serpent bite of sin. But the Father, in His mercy, gave His Son to be lifted up on the cross, with the promise that whoever looks to Him in faith will not die, but live. And that faith, to look to Christ for spiritual healing, for forgiveness, is created by the Holy Spirit through preaching, through water and Word, through the Means of Grace. That’s the Holy Trinity, the God of our salvation.
Dear confirmands: You have been baptized in the name of the Triune God, born again of water and the Spirit and brought into the kingdom of God. You have been brought by God’s Holy Spirit to trust in Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and so to know a loving Father in heaven who will never forsake you, never betray you. I’m so thankful for that. I myself was Christ’s ambassador in baptizing three of you, not that it matters who the pastor was who baptized you. But it has given me another reason to give thanks as I have watched you continue to grow and learn about the Triune God and continue to confess and to worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity. Your parents and grandparents have been instrumental in making sure you have continued in the Word of Christ. That will, no doubt, continue for a while longer while you still live with them or close to them. But today, today you are here to tell us that you do not wish to rely only on your parents or grandparents, but that you yourselves believe what we believe and confess what we confess and that you intend to make this confession and to hold to this faith for the rest of your lives, even to the point of giving up your life and facing death rather than fall away from the faith of the Triune God.
Now, after three years of extra study of God’s Word and of the Small Catechism, we are about to recognize your confirmation. See, it’s not that you’re confirming anything yourselves, or that we, the Church, are confirming you. By the profession of faith you will make here today, you are simply giving evidence of the fact that you have been confirmed by God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and will continue to be confirmed by Him, if you cling to His Word, pray diligently, abide in God’s goodness, and faithfully use the gifts you have received. As you do that, I am fully confident that God will sanctify you in love; that He will protect you in your great weakness against the devil, the world, and the flesh; that He will rule and lead you in His ways; raise you up again when you stumble, comfort you under the cross and in temptation; and preserve you for life eternal. This is the work of God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it. Amen.