God so Loved the World
God so Loved the World
St. John 3:1-17
Brothers and Sisters, our God is a God who desires and who seeks to be known. He isn’t hiding somewhere in the depths of space to avoid our finding and knowing him. He didn’t cast Adam and Eve out of his presence so that he could retreat to heaven in a cloud of holiness and leave us bumbling around in the darkness of our own sin. No, our God—the Lord—seeks to make himself known to his people. He spoke through prophets and apostles. The Scriptures are the witness to that Word and the very fact that we have them is the evidence that our God seeks to make himself known to us and that he seeks to make himself known plainly and clearly.
But it’s not just that he wants us to know him. The knowledge of God should never be knowledge for its own sake. The Lord makes himself known to us so that we can be reconciled to him. Even after being cast out of the garden, after being cast out of the Lord’s presence, Adam still knew about him. The real problem for Adam wasn’t a lack of the knowledge of God; it was his separationfrom God. And so, down through the ages, the Lord has sought to restore knowledge of himself to sinners as the first step in restoring those sinners to his presence. And to be restored to the Lord’s presence isn’t—as it’s often so wrongly pictured—to float around on clouds in the presence of God singing and playing harps. No, to be restored to the Lord’s presence is to restored to the position Adam had. It’s to live—to truly live—in God’s presence, with all that entails. It’s to be his image bearers, his stewards, the priests of his temple as we do the ordinary, albeit sanctified, work of being human in our good God’s good Creation. As I said a couple of weeks ago in preaching on the Lord’s prayer, the goal is to see the words of that prayer fulfilled in our own lives and in the world through our own work and ministry: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven.
Trinity Sunday should be a reminder of this. The Holy Trinity is not some abstract doctrine to be known and understood intellectually, to be memorised and recited on Sunday mornings like some kind of mathematical formula. Brothers and Sisters, no, the Holy Trinity is someone to be known. We often think of the Trinity as a doctrine—and yes it is—but more importantly the Trinity is a person—or more specifically, our God, one God, the unity of three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To get the doctrine wrong is to get the person of God himself wrong. To get the doctrine wrong is to run the risk of chasing after false gods and chasing after false gods always leads to chasing after reconciliation with God by the wrong means. There’s a reason why at the root of every cult and false religion is a false conception of God or a false conception of Jesus and his Incarnation. And so the bishops and theologians of the early Church hammered out the very precise (and sometimes, unfortunately, confusing) language of the Creeds as a hedge to protect the Church from heresy and apostasy, from following after false gods and from looking for reconciliation in the wrong places.
Our God desires for us to know him so that we can be reconciled to him. This Trinity Sunday think of Israel in the wilderness. For four hundred years the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt. They remembered the Lord’s promises to Abraham that he would make of him a nation and that through his family he would bless the nations—that through Abraham and his family he would make himself known to the world and bring restoration. But after four hundred years of exile and silence all of that was little more than old legend. And then, suddenly, the Lord had spoken to Moses through a miraculously burning bush. The Lord had manifested his power in ten horrible plagues that fell on Egypt. In those plagues the Lord demonstrated his power and his sovereignty, not only over the great Pharaoh, but over the gods of Egypt, who were powerless to do anything about the plagues.
As if that weren’t enough, when Pharaoh did let the Israelites go free he changed his mind. He sent his mighty army after them and penned them up against the Red Sea. And then just as they were convinced it was all over, through Moses the Lord caused a wind to blow and, in another miracle, he parted the waters. Israel escaped and once she had, just as miraculously as the waters parted, they crashed back into place, drowning the Egyptian army. And there sat Israel in the wilderness, freed from her bondage by a virtually unknown God. They sang his praises. They followed him deeper into the wilderness as he manifested his presence with them in a cloud by day and fire by night. And then at Mt. Sinai he called Moses up into the lightening and the smoke on the mountain top. The people were afraid. Again, this was a God they didn’t really know. They tried to placate what they thought was his anger by praying and singing and dancing the way the pagans of Egypt did. They cast an idol in the shape of a golden calf—not with the intent to worship some other god, but in a wrong attempt to worship the Lord the way the Egyptians and other pagans worshiped their gods. It’s amazing how quickly human beings who have experienced the amazing goodness and grace of God in our lives can so quickly fall into idolatry and false religion when we lack a knowledge of God and his ways.
This was precisely what the Lord had called Moses up onto the mountain to prevent. There he gave Moses his law, written on stone tablets, and then sent him down to his people. The purpose of the law was to restore to Israel a right knowledge of her God, his ways, and his expectations for his people. The Lord redeemed them from bondage, he freed them—giving them reason to trust him and to walk with him in faith—and in the law he showed them what that walk was to look like, he gave them a mission and a ministry. This is how they were to be a blessing to the nations.
Trinity Sunday is for us a bit like our own Mt. Sinai. The first half of the Church’s year walks us through the life of Jesus. In Advent we anticipate his coming (and it’s also a finish to the year too, reminding us that he will come again), at Christmas we celebrate his Incarnation. We walk with him through the Gospels to Holy Week. In the Upper Room with Jesus on Maundy Thursday, eating that last Passover meal, we recognise that Jesus is about to lead us in a new exodus. On Good Friday we stand at the foot of the Cross as he is crucified—taking the place of his sinful and rebellious people and dying in their place—and we visit the empty tomb with Mary on Easter morning to see that Jesus has risen from grave. He has miraculously conquered sin and death and set us free. But at that point we’re like Israel on the far side of the Red Sea. We’re free, we’ve been given a new life, but what do we do with it? And so forty days later Jesus ascended. It’s a reminder that he is Creation’s true Lord, but it’s also like Moses, a human being going up the mountain to meet God. Moses came back with the law written on tablets. Jesus went up and sent the Holy Spirit down to write the law on our hearts. As the law gave Israel direction for living the new life the Lord had given her, so at Pentecost the Spirit gives us the direction we need to live the new life Jesus has given. But more than that—and the reason why the Spirit’s law written on our hearts is far superior to the old law written on stone—the Spirit gives us the ability and the power to live this life Jesus has given. He regenerates our hearts and renews our minds. Where our hearts and minds were once set on sin, the Spirit turns them to the things of God and of his kingdom. The Spirit work is to unite us to Jesus. He grafts our old, dead wood into the living vine and causes us to bear fruit as he causes the life of Jesus to transform us.
From Trinity Sunday we pass into the second half of the Church year. Through the life and ministry of Jesus we have been freed from our bondage to sin and death, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit we have been given new life. And from here until Advent the Church takes us through the New Testament, showing us what the life of Jesus, lived in the power of the Spirit, looks like. From here until Advent we’re given practical instruction on what it means not only to pray “thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as in heaven”, but also instruction in how to live as people of the kingdom and how to proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord.
Our Gospel today gets at much of this. It sort of bridges the gap between the old Israel at Mt. Sinai and the new Israel at Pentecost. Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus. He came at night, which suggests he was afraid of being seen. He was one of the Pharisees—not all of them were bad or hostile to Jesus, but they were the ones who had it all figured out and Jesus didn’t fit well into their thinking. He’d been watching and listening to Jesus. He saw the God of Israel at work. He says to him, “Rabbi, we know that you’re a teacher who’s come from God. No one could do these signs you’re doing unless God is with him.”
Nicodemus knew the story. He knew the God of Israel. But he knew there was more to it. As he’d watched and listened to Jesus he’d figured that out. Jesus was talking about the Lord doing another great work, of the Lord leading his people in another exodus, this time more significant than the last one from Egypt. It didn’t fit into his Pharisaical paradigm, but there had to be something to it, because the Lord was so clearly with Jesus.
And Jesus picks up on the question implied in Nicodemus’ statement. He says, “The central truth you’re missing, Nicodemus, is that you’ve got to be born again to see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus understood so much. If anyone wanted to see God’s will done and his kingdom come on earth as in heaven it was the Pharisees. That’s what they lived for. And Nicodemus saw it in Jesus, but Jesus wasn’t preaching what the Pharisees were preaching. Jesus is saying to him that what he’s missing is this new birth, this being born again.
And Nicodemus doesn’t get it. “How can I be born again, Jesus? Tell me you’re not talking about going back into my mother’s womb, because that’s just crazy.” And of course that wasn’t what Jesus was saying. But what Jesus is hinting at is this idea that Israel needs to be put back on track so that she can fulfil her mission—the one given to Abraham almost two thousand years before. And this idea of birth would have resonated particularly with someone like Nicodemus. To be a Jew was all about being born as part of Abraham’s family. Other things like circumcision and what you ate (or didn’t eat) were important too and especially so for the Pharisees, but those things were important because they identified you as part of Abraham’s family. They also drew a clear boundary between those who were in the family and all the uncircumcised pig- and shrimp-eating people who were outside of it.
What Jesus is saying now is that being born into Abraham’s family in the way the Jews had been thinking about it all this time wasn’t enough. In fact, it never had been enough. And Nicodemus should have known this. For almost two millennia people were being born into Abraham’s family and God’s kingdom still hadn’t come. For almost two millennia people were born into Abraham’s family and still the Gentiles hadn’t experienced the Lord’s blessing through them, at least not on the large scale envisioned in the Scriptures. Just the opposite. Zechariah had spoken of a day when the Gentiles would be grabbing hold of Jews by their clothing saying, “Take us with you, because we hear that God is with you!” Instead, because of the way most of Abraham’s children were living, the nations mocked them and taunted them saying, “Where’s your God now?” It takes more than being born of the flesh of Abraham.
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, unless you’re born of water and the Spirit you cannot enter God’s kingdom. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Israel needs something more than a biological inheritance. By water and Spirit Jesus was probably referring to John’s baptism, which was a baptism of repentance—a baptism in which the people were turning aside not only from sin, but also from old ways and old allegiances and getting ready to follow the one who was promised as he would lead the people in a new exodus. Nicodemus needed that baptism of repentance. He needed to turn aside from his own misguided expectations of the kingdom and of the Messiah. But remember what John promised. When people asked if he was the Messiah he said that he was only the forerunner. John said, “I baptise you with water, but he will plunge you into the Holy Spirit.” And that’s just what Jesus does. As we recalled last week on Pentecost, Jesus takes those who have repented, who have turned aside from every false lord, from every false god, from every false source of security in order to take hold him in faith and he plunges us into the Holy Spirit. And it’s the Spirit who does the work of transforming us. It’s the Spirit who regenerates us. It’s the Spirit who causes us to be born again as he takes our old dead wood and unites it to the life of Jesus, causing us to bear fruit.
In our baptism we’re back at the Red Sea. There was the parted sea and God calling Israel to pass through to freedom and new life on the other side. There was no receiving of the law in Egypt; they had to cross to the other side of the sea to find covenant with the Lord. And so we stand at the waters of baptism today. In them Jesus gives his promise: Repent, turn aside from every false way, trust me, follow me in faith and you will find forgiveness of sins and new life through the Spirit. To pass through the waters of baptism is to take hold of Jesus’ promise and to be born again of water and the Spirit.
But, again, this didn’t fit what Nicodemus knew. “How can this be so?” he asks. And Jesus asks a bit incredulously, “How can you not know this? You’re one of the teachers of Israel!” Nicodemus knew the story. He understood how Israel had so miserably failed in her mission. In fact, that’s what the Pharisees were all about: Calling Israel to be more faithful to the law so that the Lord would return to her. Jesus tells Nicodemus: God has heard and is visiting his people and he’s doing it in me. I’m the son of man, the one spoken of by Daniel all those years ago. I can tell you reliably the things of heaven because I’m the one who has come down from heaven.
I suspect that things must have started to sink in for Nicodemus at this point. He started to understand, because now Jesus really starts to correct what was wrong with Israel’s thinking about herself, about what it meant to God’s people, and about what it would mean for the Lord to come to deliver them. Jesus reminds Nicodemus of an event from Israel’s time in the wilderness. The Israelites grumbled against Moses—which was ultimately grumbling against the Lord—and so he sent poisonous snakes into the camp. They bit people and many of those who were bitten died. But the Lord also gave Moses the remedy. He told Moses to cast a snake out of bronze and to mount it on a pole. Anyone who would look up to the bronze snake would be healed.
And now Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up that snake in the wilderness, so the son of man must be lifted up so that all who believe in him may have eternal life.” Jesus is pointing to his own crucifixion. As the snake was the affliction of the people lifted up for them to look at, so Jesus will take our affliction on himself—our sin and the punishment for it—and be lifted up on the cross. He will be lifted up for all to look upon—to see the horror and the gravity of our sin, to see that the wages of sin is death. But we will also see Jesus taking it all on himself and in that the horror and ugliness of his being raised up becomes an act by which he is glorified. In the cross we see the love of God made manifest in Jesus. And Jesus says in the familiar words we all know, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
Jesus corrects the central error in the thinking of Israel in his day. They were hoping and praying for the day when the Lord would come, not just to vindicate his people, but to judge their enemies—to rain down fire and brimstone on the Romans and all other gentiles. But instead Jesus tells Nicodemus that he’s come not to condemn, but to save all who will look to him. All. The Jews looked forward to the condemnation he would bring, but Jesus says he’s come not to condemn, but to save. And this is where the part about being born again of water and the Spirit comes into play. Being born of water and the Spirit supersedes biology and genealogy. In Jesus God opens his arms to welcome Jew and Gentile alike. Abraham’s family is still central and important, but Jesus reminds us that genes and DNA were never what really made anyone part of Abraham’s family; it was about faith. It was faith for Abraham himself and it was faith in God’s promises for all who followed after: for Isaac and Jacob, for Joseph and Moses and Joshua, for gentiles like Rahab and Ruth, and even for the great kings like David and Solomon. And God’s promise was that through his covenant people, through these people who knew him in faith and were reconciled to him by faith, he would bless the nations. It happened here and there in the Old Testament. Rahab and Ruth are two of many small-scale testimonies to that, but here we finally see the Lord’s promise coming to full fruit. It’s what we celebrated last week on Pentecost as Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on these men of Israel gathered from around the world. They had heard Peter preach about Jesus and what he’d come to do. They rallied to Jesus in faith and in response Jesus poured his Spirit into them. Finally, through Jesus Israel became the source of blessing she was intended to be—not by flesh, but by the Spirit—as these men and women took the Good News to the nations: Jesus is Lord. He has conquered sin and death. In him is the forgiveness of sin, in him is life, in him God has returned to his Creation as King. And in him—the Incarnate Word—God makes himself known. In Jesus, God Incarnate, we have the restoration and fellowship with our Creator that he has been working towards ever since the day we rebelled and were cast out of his presence. In Jesus God’s kingdom—his new creation—has been inaugurated, in us and through us in the world. In Jesus and in us, his people, the promises made to Abraham are being fulfilled and we see that the blessing of God to the nations is for them to know him and to be reconciled to him in Jesus and the power of the Spirit.
Let us pray: Almighty God we praise you this morning for the grace you have shown us. Even as we rebelled against you, our good Creator, you were setting in motion our redemption: Father sending, calling, electing; Son speaking, coming, dying, rising; and Spirit uniting, renewing, regenerating, empowering. In the redemption of the world we see the glory of the Trinity and the majesty of the Unity and in gratitude we fall before you with the angels to sing, “Holy, holy, holy Lord God almighty.” By your grace, keep us strong in faith, O Lord, but keep us also faithful in our witness and our ministry to make your redeeming love known to the world. We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns together with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.