Stuck on How
Deny the Holy Trinity and you loose your salvation; so says the Athanasian Creed. Try to understand the Holy Trinity and you loose your sanity; so says anyone who has tried. Unlike other times in our Christian life on Trinity Sunday we're not stuck on why but with Nicodemus, we're stuck on how.
The first how is implied in the text. The next two are explicit. Based on Jesus' answer, Nicodemus in the first paragraph is asking, "How come though you're doing so many wonderful things I still can't see the kingdom of God in you?" To put it in terms of Trinity Sunday, Nicodemus is asking, "How come I can't see the Triune God in you?" To put it in terms of Paul's letter to the Colossians, he's asking, "How come I can't see all the fullness of the Triune Godhead dwelling in you bodily?"
Nicodemus knows that Jesus has come from God and even more than that Nicodemus must confess that God is with Jesus. But notice that he doesn't reach these conclusions based on the teachings of Jesus. He says, "We know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with Him." Till now, the only two signs John records Jesus doing are turning water into wine and cleansing the temple.
These signs show Jesus' power over nature, over men and the authority of God. Nicodemus is forced to conclude Jesus is from God and God is with Him, but as Tammy Wynette concludes "after all he's just a man." How can Jesus be anything more than that Nicodemus concluded? Turning water into wine and cleaning the temple can be explained away because you really don't see a miracle anymore than we see evil spirits departing in a Baptism, sins being lifted off people's shoulders during Absolution, or the Body and Blood of Jesus visibly on our altar.
You notice how Jesus isn't perturbed by Nicodemus being stuck on how? Jesus answers each one of Nicodemus' "how" question with words introduced with, "I tell you the truth." This is the KJV's "verily, verily" or the NASB's "truly, truly." This expression is used only by Jesus, and it His most emphatic way of emphasizing what He says.
Jesus tells Nick the reason a person can't see how He can be anymore than just a man is that to see more, to see the kingdom of the Triune God, to see all the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily in Jesus you must be born again. It doesn't amaze Jesus that Nick is stuck on how. How else could it be for someone not born again?
This flushes Nicodemus out into the open showing he is stuck on how. "How can a man be born when he is old? Surely he can't enter a second time his mother's womb to be born!" Don't you 21st century Christians feel right at home now? Nick says to Jesus, "What you are saying is scientifically impossible." Yes, and it's scientifically impossible for 3 Persons to be 1 Being. It's scientifically impossible for all the fullness of the Godhead to dwell bodily in Jesus because the finite can't contain the infinite. Likewise, it's impossible for water to be changed into wine by words or for one man to drive everyone out of the temple. And it's impossible that Water can do more than clean physical dirt and for words to do more than express the wish that a person would be forgiven and for Bread to be Body and Wine to be Blood.
Again Jesus isn't perturbed that Nick won't move from how. He just gives him something to chew on. Everyone knows and can see that flesh gives birth to flesh, so why can't Spirit give birth to spirit? But I can see that flesh gives birth to birth. There's no denying what I see with my own eyes. You better hope there is. Because you don't look any less a sinner than the day I met you. The dead Christians I stand beside look to my eyes stone cold dead. My eyes tell me that we are all decaying and dying day by day. If my eyes tell the whole story then we're toast.
Still Jesus doesn't answer the burning "hows" Nicodemus is stuck on. He points out instead that even he doesn't go only by what he sees but by what he hears too. In the opening paragraph Nicodemus passed-by what he heard from Jesus and focused on the signs he saw, but that only got him so far. Jesus had come from God and God was with Him. Then he got stuck on how. And Jesus said you must be born again to see these things which raised another "how". Jesus answers this by saying you can only be born again by Water and the Spirit. And then Jesus starts talking about the wind. Only in Greek it's the same word for Spirit.
Bob Dylan was right. "The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind." Jesus shows Nick who is stuck on the hows of the Faith that even he goes by what he hears. There is another word for wind that John will use in chapter 6. Here Jesus uses the same word for Holy Spirit. Yes, Jesus wants both you and Nick thinking about the Holy Spirit when He speaks of the blowing wind. Though you don't see the wind, though you don't know where it comes from or where it goes, you hear it and believe it exists. What you hear trumps what you don't see. Notice Jesus doesn't say you hear its sound and see it blow things around. He speaks only of hearing.
At this point Nicodemus' mind short-circuits. He's where you're at when you ponder God is 3 Persons, yet there are not 3 gods. Jesus is True Man but all God. Baptismal Water regenerates dead souls. Absolution cleanses guilty souls. And Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus eaten and drank to feed souls. Nick is confronted with a kingdom one can enter and see but only by means of a Spirit that he can't see but like the wind can hear. We know Nick's circuits are blown because he asks not how can this one thing (singular) be but can these things (plural) be?
See where Jesus points the reeling Nicodemus? To what "we speak" to what "we testify." What's with "we" all of a sudden? Does Jesus have a mouse in His pocket? No, the Man Jesus speaks for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit too. The Trinity speaks by the mouth of the Man, Jesus. God has always clothed spiritual realities, eternal truths in material, temporal things that one can only recognize by words not by sight. The Trees of Life and Knowledge were only distinguished from other trees by God's Word. The blood of a lamb painted on a door didn't look different from its blood poured on the ground. Baptismal water does look like simple water only and Communion does look like ordinary bread and wine. But God's Word says something divinely and eternally significant is here.
From talking about such lofty things as seeing and entering the kingdom and the Spirit rebirthing Nick by Water and the Word, Jesus nosedives to an earthly event. Jesus goes to the bronze serpent God commanded Moses to lift up on a pole and promised everyone who looked at it would live even though they had been bitten by a poisonous snake. In this event what is heard and what is seen are joined by God for the earthly salvation of the Old Testament Church.
Nicodemus is stuck on "how" like many people I've met over the years. How could God make the earth in six 24 hours day? How can babies be reborn by Baptism? How can Bread be Body and Wine be Blood? How can only men be pastors? How can it be that Absolution forgives sins, that the dead rise, and angels exist when I don't see them? How, how, how? And just like with the question "why" people think once they have put before you a "how" that you can't answer to their satisfaction, they have carried the day. No, they are the one's who've been carried away.
To Nicodemus final exasperated "how can these things be" Jesus points to what God said and promised about a visible serpent in the wilderness, and then goes to Him being visibly crucified and the verbal promise that every single person who believes on Him has eternal life. There is much going on here. Jesus equates Him hanging on the cross with that serpent hanging on the pole. A serpent was the cause of the OT church dying, and yet they were told to look at one to live. Sin is why we are dying. God took His sinless Son and made Him to be sin itself. And then nailed, and pounded, and crucified your sin on that cross.
How on earth can you ever be forgiven for that moment of doubt and pain when you denied your God, your faith, your salvation? How can you ever be forgiven for sins so foul that you can't bear to think of them? How can you ever be released from this guilt that comes to choke you in the night? How can a foul, decaying sinner like you whose every thought testifies of your sins and whose every pain witnesses to your approaching death have eternal life?
The Triune God doesn't answer all our "hows" but He answers the ones that to be stuck on is to die on. Jesus didn't just come from God as Nick thought. No God the Father gave Him. The Father gave the Son in place of you over to Sin, over to Death, and over to the Devil. You who are so afraid of being punished, being judged for sins you can't forget, by death you know you deserve, and by the Devil who you are no match for, are to see that's what the Father gave the Son for. He wouldn't have given His Son if He expected you, planned or wanted you, to pay your own debt of sin.
And Nick wasn't right when he said that God was with Jesus. No, Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. The Father sent the Son to be with us under the Law keeping it in our place and to be with us guilty as sin to be punished in our place. The Father didn't send the Son to condemn us - He didn't need to send the Son to do that but to save us.
As often as you get stuck on the "hows" of what God says, return to how Father, Son, and Holy Spirit gave all, did all, give all, and do all to save you today and in eternity. Rather than be stuck on "how" be struck by it. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20150531); John 3: 1-17