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Sermon: How Can These Things Be? May 30, 2021

June 1, 2021

This sermon was preached at Grace Lutheran Church (River Forest, IL) on May 30, 2021, the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The preaching texts were John 3:1-17 and Isaiah 6:1-8. You can view the bulletin and watch the service in its entirety. The image is a fifteenth-century icon by Andrei Rublev (public domain). Be well, friends. You are loved.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. The hardest questions come in the night. This was certainly the case earlier this week. I thought I’d made it to the end of the day. The boys were asleep. Erika was out for the evening. I had closed my laptop and opened a novel at the kitchen table. The day was done. And then it wasn’t. Greta came down the stairs, plopped a notebook in front of me, and asked a question to strike fear and doubt into a parent’s heart: “How do I do this? “I looked down and saw, to my horror, an algebra problem. With multiple parentheses and variables on both sides of the equation. How do I do this? Greta, your father was much more qualified to answer that question thirty years ago. Fortunately, I had a resource at my disposal that middle-school me did not: the internet. I googled an algebra-help website and typed in the equation. I did not do this so that I could provide Greta with an easy answer. She still had to do the work. But I knew that I could only work the problem backwards, teaching myself as I went and gaining understanding so that I could teach my daughter. Fortunately, I was able to quickly recall the principles of orders of operation and distribution. Looking at the question, I was lost. Looking at the answer, I was able to understand the question. Everything fell into place, although surely it was affirmed that I was better suited to a theological vocation than a mathematical one. Questions are wonderful things, but sometimes we need to start with the answer. This is never truer than when we meditate upon the reality of God, proclaiming that one equals three and three equals one. This is not very good math, but it is very good news, for it is this God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is working out our salvation.
  2. This morning, our readings draw out our questions, those things that keep us up in the middle of the night. With Isaiah, we are drawn into the splendor and majesty of the heavenly throne room. In the face of the divine, we wonder how we, sinful persons who live among sinful people, can find grace or purpose. With Paul, we find ourselves trapped in a spirit of fear, sensing that this broken world has left us orphaned, adrift. And with Nicodemus, we go to Jesus by night, seeking answers to our questions. He is drawn to Jesus, having heard of the signs Jesus has worked thus far. Here is a man, this Pharisee knows, who comes from God. Nicodemus, however, goes as one who assumes that he already has a mastery of the subject, and that he can fit some small, new teaching from Jesus into his worldview. Immediately, however, Jesus throws him off balance, leading to more questions. I must be born again, from above? Can one enter the mother’s womb and be born a second time? I must be born of water and Spirit? How, Jesus, can these things be?
  3. The questions Nicodemus asks, the stirrings in his soul, lead him to Jesus. But there, in the nighttime, across from Jesus, Nicodemus’s world is upended. He cannot question his way to truth. His very life, in fact, must come to an end. To need to be born again, from above, in water and Spirit, is to know that this life must be brought to a close. This life, with its sin and suffering always close at hand, must be ended. This life, bounded by death, must pass so that new life might rush in. This is not the sort of thing Nicodemus was looking for. He’s the expert, after all, not part of the problem. Isn’t he? The preacher Brett Younger paints a delightful, if somewhat too close to home, portrait of Nicodemus in modern terms: He is “chair of the religion department and a mover and shaker in the ministerial association. He has a blog called ‘Religion for Grown-ups.’ Being a professional expert on God is good work if you can get it. Nicodemus is adept at articulating the intricacies of religion and detecting the logical shortcomings in other people’s faith.” The problem for Nicodemus, however, is the problem we all share. Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing God and being known by God. Having turned from God, we cannot return on our own. Having turned aside, we no longer know where to look.
  4. At the end of our questions is an answer unlooked for: Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God. The incarnate Christ comes into this world that deserves condemnation, but he does not come to condemn it. Rather, for the sake of God’s love for this world, Jesus proclaims that he will one day be lifted up on the cross. That in him, the crucified One, we will find life, eternal and abundant. That all we need to do, when our questions have run out, is believe in him. And that even this is the gift of the Spirit, which moves and blows where it will. With Nicodemus, all we need to do is give up our need for control and understanding and receive new life, new birth, as a gift. Starting with the answer, Jesus Christ, our questions fall into place, as we seek to grow deeper in love and knowledge of the One who knows and loves us.
  5. Not long ago, little Huxley was born into this world, a gift to his family. Today, he is brought to the waters of grace. We will see, later this morning, the Spirit moving through this place, claiming Huxley as a child of God. This happens not because Huxley has found answers to life’s questions or come to a logical understanding of the mysteries of God or mastered the Holy Scriptures and the creeds and the Lutheran Confessions. Huxley may, of course, do all these things someday, but they are beyond the current reach of this little one. But he is not beyond the reach of God, and in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God claims Huxley as God’s own, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  6. As the baptized people of God, we meditate today upon the mysteries of the Holy Trinity, this God who is three-in-one and one-in-three. There is no math problem in the world to make sense of this, and our theology, done well and faithfully as we seek to better know our God, must finally yield to mystery and praise. Our minds were not made for such comprehension. Our hearts, however, were made to know that we are loved, to know that we are known. Drawn into the divine community of love by our brother Jesus, we begin to feel God’s Spirit moving in, through, around us, connecting us to the love of the Father. We are orphans no more. We are home, forgiven and free. Standing in the throne room of God, whose glory fills creation, we need not be afraid. For this God is Abba, Father, the loving parent who has done everything needful for our sake; the God in whose love Christ was lifted up for our salvation. In the cross we see the fullness of God’s love on display; there, for you. At the end of our questions, in the face of death, here is this answer that gives new life. His name is Jesus. Here, in the rising of God’s Son, in the outpouring of the Spirit, do we see night finally pass, giving way to the endless light of the Kingdom of God as we await the day when we will gather around the throne, singing “Holy, holy, holy,” to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

And now may that peace that passes all understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

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