A Mystery for Nicodemus
June 12, 2022 anno Domini
There are three great mysteries in the Christian faith – the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement. How can one God be three persons? Why would God become a man and how can one man be at the same time true God and true man? The greatest mystery of Christianity is why would Christ die for you?
There are several other mysteries in Christianity like baptism – how can Saint Cloud tap water do such great things? Faith – how can infants believe in Jesus? The Lord’s Supper – how can the bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ and be on the altar in Saint Cloud and on the altar in Houston, Texas at the same time.
Today we also face a smaller mystery. Why did the supersecret committee who picked the Scripture readings hundreds of years ago pick Nicodemus for Trinity Sunday? The story has nothing to do with the mystery of the Trinity. Perhaps it was chosen because Jesus presented Nicodemus with a mystery. (Read vs. 3)
Martin Luther said this text was not for children or dimwits. It might be okay to start your discussion of the Christian faith with John 3:16, but not with John 3:3. Jesus starts with a mystery because Nicodemus was probably one of the best men in Jerusalem at the time. He was a Pharisee which meant he lived a pious and holy life. He was far more careful to avoid sin and to do what is right than you and I are. He was educated in the Scriptures. He knew the Scriptures better than we know the events of Jesus’ life. He was a leader among the people – one to whom others looked up. He didn’t come to argue with Jesus, but to learn. He didn’t come to debate, but to receive.
Jesus knows Nicodemus and Nicodemus needs a mystery for his faith. He needs to hear something above and beyond his religion, his knowledge, and his stature. He needs to hear something he cannot fathom. He needs to be put in the place of having nothing before Jesus.
This is a mystery of Christianity. Life in Jesus starts with your death. Before God can give you life in Christ, He must put you to death to yourself. You cannot come to God bringing your wisdom, your stature, your gifts, your anything. Here’s the mystery – you cannot come to Jesus. You cannot choose to believe. You cannot give your heart to Him. You cannot decide to follow Jesus. That is the mystery Jesus is confounding Nicodemus with when He says, “unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
How much did you participate in your own birth? Did you choose to have a personal relationship with your particular mother and father? Did you decide to become a Timm or a Thurn or a Tomporowski? You had nothing to do with your birth. You brought nothing to your creation. You were made by others – your mom and dad. Everything you are they gave you in procreation.
As it is in your birth according to the flesh it is even more so in your birth according to the Spirit. That’s a mystery for Nicodemus. He is a grown man. How can he be born again? He’s thinking of his flesh alone, but Jesus is thinking of the whole Nicodemus. Nicodemus must be born again. God must make Nicodemus over. The Holy Spirit must create faith in Nicodemus’ heart – faith that believes Nicodemus has nothing and Jesus is everything. Faith that doesn’t trust his stature, his power, his education, or his piety, but faith that trusts Jesus alone. As Luther says, “Nicodemus must become a completely different man than he is.” How does that happen? By being born again. By water and the Spirit, by being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ so that you believe you were dead, and Christ has made you alive again. Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus you are no good. Everything you are and everything you do is bad, soiled with sin. You must become good – but you cannot make yourself good. You must be made good. I alone can make you good – by making you new, by being born to the Father above, by being baptized into the faith by water and the Spirit.
Then Jesus leaves the mystery of being born again and speaks the mystery about the wind. (Read vs. 8) The wind is a mystery. One moment the lake is calm and the next there are white caps. You can feel the wind and hear the wind, but can you explain it. Where does the wind come from? Where is it going? What is its purpose? If you cannot explain the earthly wind, how can you explain the Holy Spirt and the heavenly birth? When it comes to a mystery you accept it without explaining it. Just as you know when it is windy, you also know that where there is water poured in the name of the triune God Christians are being born from above by water and the Spirit.
Now just in case your name is Nicodemus, and you don’t have a clue what Jesus has said, Jesus speaks clearly what is no mystery. The serpent on a pole gave life to the Israelites after they had sinned. That snake on a pole was a little Christ in the Old Testament pointing to the full and final Christ of the New Testament – Jesus of Nazareth on the cross.
The Israelites sinned and their sin came back to bite them with death. They poisoned God’s name with their complaints and God sent fiery snakes among them. Luther thought those snake bites burned and that the Israelites skin turned fiery red. That was their hell as they died. The Israelites tried everything they could. They asked the pharmacist as Walgreens for every potion, lotion, and pill. The travelled to Mexico to get illegal drugs. If Dr. Fauci had been around he would have promised them a vaccine, but it wouldn’t have worked.
God was the only one who could save Israel from their deadly sins. He told Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a pole. Whoever looked at that bronze serpent would live. What foolishness! What mysterious medicine! No doctor is going to write a prescription of fake snakes for real snake bites, but this is God’s mysterious way. Look at the snake and you will live.
Don’t let this be a mystery for you if you’re like Nicodemus. You are a sinner who sins. You think you could do a better job than God so you complain and grumble about His work and His gifts to you. That is going to come back to bite you in death. There is one answer. The Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, lifted up on the pole of the cross. Just as the solution looked like the serpent in the Old Testament so the Savior looks like a sinner on the cross. Jesus was like us in that He was fully man. He was not like us in that He had no sin, but on the cross He was just like you because He had your sin. On the cross He took your poison. He swallowed the fiery anger of God. He got burned with hell and bitten by death so that by the waters of baptism you could be quenched and born from above as God’s child.
The snake on the pole was simple. Look at the bronze serpent and live. Life forever is simple. Look at Jesus on the cross and believe that He died for your sins and rose again, and you have life. It’s simple, but it’s also a great mystery – why would God give His Son for you? Why would He love you in that way? I don’t know, but He did, and that’s a blessed and wonderful mystery for you. In the name of Jesus. Amen.