Holy Trinity Sunday
Nicodemus answered him, ĎHow can these things be?í Jesus answered him, ĎAre you the teacher of Israel, and donít understand these things?í
I think this might be one of the worst questions that Jesus can ask, especially of those who are teachers of the word. I consider myself a Bible teacher. Iíve taught workshops and classes, preached, and written Bible studies. I have been posting this devotional for nearly nineteen years, which often includes lessons on the scriptures alongside the inspiration and spiritual aspects. I should know and understand everything, right? If I went to Jesus with my doubts, I am sure He would ask me the same question.
This is particularly true about the Trinity. I get it, really I do. God is three in one and one in three. He is the Godhead, three persons or essences of the same One. He is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There are dozens of possible analogies that get bandied about at this time of year trying to explain to our limited human minds this incredible and impossible concept. I read through the Athanasian Creed and try to grasp the seriousness of this doctrine, but I canít come up with the words that will silence the critics and nonbelievers. How do you teach something that is completely beyond our grasp so that others will receive it with faith?
ďHow can this be?Ē ďAre you a teacher and yet do not understand?Ē
No, Jesus, I donít understand. Not fully. So much about what is happening in the world around me does not make sense. I see the issues from too many points of view. I see what you have said and what you have not said and what everyone interprets from the words you have said, but I still have doubts and concerns. I know enough to have an opinion, but not enough to be assured that it is what you truly want me to understand. Then you throw Bible texts at me with the expectation that I will know and understand what you mean.
We canít believe everything we hear or see, especially if we are getting second or third person accounts of a story. Have you ever been at the water cooler, involved in a conversation that turns into a debate because everyone has heard different versions of the same story? ďI heard ten were killed.Ē ďThe radio just said fifteen.Ē ďThe news website reports that the sheriff said the early figures were too high, there were only two killed.Ē Not a pleasant example, but the confusion is more distressing when the reporters canít get the story correct. When the dust has settled on the situation and someone finally takes charge of the information, we can finally get the real answers to our questions. Unfortunately, in todayís world we can receive news immediately and the reporters are more than willing to continue talking even if they do not know what they are talking about.
People of faith see the world from different points of view. Some believe we should do one thing and insist that the Bible says that is the answer. Others see the problem differently and insist that the Bible supports their point of view. Unfortunately, they are, in many ways, both correct, and yet that doesnít solve our problem. We simply donít understand and we end up fighting with one another because we canít come to an agreement. Soon we are faced with yet another tragedy and we still canít understand.
Nicodemus didnít understand, and he belonged to a group of people who had very specific ideas about what it meant to be faithful. Somehow he heard about Jesus, but what he heard was confusing. It didnít fit into his ďbox.Ē He must have had a glimmer of faith, but the things Jesus was saying did not quite fit into his knowledge. We donít know how he heard about Jesus. He may have been lingering on the edges of the crowd, listening along with the rest. He may have been told stories by people in his household or overheard conversations in the market. He may have simply wanted better information so he could make a righteous decision about the Jesus problem.
According to John, Jesus had just cleared the temple and He was amazing the crowds with miracles. The crowds were just beginning to believe in Him. He offended the leadership with talk of destroying and rebuilding the Temple of God; they didnít realize He was talking about his body. They laughed at the thought of Jesus rebuilding a building that took their forefathers forty-six years to build. Jesus was quickly making enemies, and Nicodemus wasnít sure what might happen to him if he showed an interest in what Jesus was doing so Nicodemus went at night.
Nicodemus wanted to know more. Whether he heard the words from Jesus, or he had just heard the stories that were being told about him, Nicodemus needed to clear up the confusion in his mind. Something he heard made him think. It made him want to study and learn and understand. Even face to face, the words Jesus was speaking didnít make sense, but Nicodemus took what he heard, that which made him seek out Jesus and that which Jesus told him directly, and continued to ponder. Nicodemus later argued for fair treatment for Jesus (John 7:50) and helped Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesusí body. We donít know if he ever really understood, but we do know that he became more open with his support of Jesus.
There are many people who try to tell us what the Bible says and how we should live according to Godís Word. They insist that they have the answers to our problems, and believe that we can fix it all ďif only.Ē We live in community and God has given us teachers to help us understand, but we need to remember that even the teachers can be confused. Nicodemus was a teacher but he needed to learn more. He didnít know what to believe, so he sought knowledge and pondered what he heard. We have an advantage. We live after the crucifixion and resurrection, after Pentecost when God sent His Spirit to His people. Now when we hear things, we have the Spirit, along with the Church and the written Word, to help us see what is true and what is not. We canít do it on our own. We need Godís help to understand.
Sadly, we donít always seek Godís help in dealing with our problems. We insist that our human solutions will be enough. Jesus once said, ďThis kind can come out by nothing, except by prayer and fasting.Ē Sometimes we need to stop seeking understanding and trust by faith that God is at work.
We must remember that God is greater than our human brains can ever fully understand. It is ok that there are mysteries about God that we have to take on faith. After all, what is the point of worshipping something, or someone, that is less than or equal to ourselves? We were made in His image, but too many want a god who is made in our image. Too many want to fix the world with human ideas and actions, but forget that only God can make things right in the end. Perhaps the concept of the Trinity is a reminder to humble ourselves and remind us that we are limited in ways that God is never limited.
On Sunday we celebrate the Holy Trinity. Three in one, one in three is beyond our ability to comprehend. We can come up with dozens of different analogies to help us explain the doctrine, but those analogies always come up short. Something limits the validity of those human explanations of a divine reality. Take, for example, the analogy of water. Yes, water can be liquid, gas or solid when it is warm, hot or frozen, but it cannot be liquid, gas and solid simultaneously. It is alright that we canít reduce the Trinity to simple human terms. If we could, God wouldnít be God.
Knowledge is never a bad thing; our connection with our God grows stronger as we seek and study and learn about Him, but concepts like the Trinity must be accepted by faith. Unfortunately, too many are willing to reject Christ because they canít accept aspects of Christianity which they find foolish, unexplainable or beyond proof.
Nicodemus wanted answers. Thankfully most of the adults who come to my Sunday school class ask questions about which I can usually find the answer. However, there are definitely things that I donít completely understand. I struggle with some of parables and stories of sacrifice and war. I know that the crucifixion was a necessity to make things right, I donít really understand why God couldnít choose another way. ďWhy did God...?Ē is a question I donít think Iíll ever be able to answer with certainty.
The story from Isaiah is another reminder of our limitations. Imagine this scene: Isaiah found himself standing in the presence of the Holy One. This must have been a frightening experience. Isaiah believed that no human could stand in the presence of God, and he was a man of unclean lips. He belonged to a people of unclean lips. The words of our mouths indicate the state of our hearts; Isaiah knew that he was a sinner and that the people of God were not worthy of anything He might give. He knew that he was doomed. But he wasnít doomed. God took care of the concern: the angel burnt off the source of Isaiahís fear; He cleansed Isaiahís mouth. We know we are sinners; how can sinners ever truly understand? How can we be the ones to continue the work of God in this world?
God could have ordered Isaiah to do anything, anything at all, and Isaiah would have obeyed, but God did not command Isaiah to do anything. He simply asked, ďWho can I send?Ē Isaiah could have looked at his feet, hoed and hummed and kept his now pain-filled lips shut. He could have walked away. But the mercy of God is overwhelming and we are drawn into His heart. It is amazing that God would seek the help of a lowly, sinful, human being. Yet, He does. He makes us right with Him, and then He calls us to be actively involved in His work. He sends us into the world. He charges us with the task of telling the lost and dying about the grace of God. ďWho can I send?Ē Isaiah answered, ďHere I am, send me.Ē Are we willing to do the same?
The hard part of doing Godís work in the world is that there will always be people asking the hard questions. They donít understand and they want answers. When confronted by those questions, how do we respond? Do we sneak around at night hoping to find answers? Or do we volunteer to go wherever God is sending us? We can truly do this work because we have something that will help us: the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit will put faith into the hearts of those who hear and receive His grace. We donít have to have all the answers; we are called to simply go wherever God sends us and do whatever He is calling us to do. He does this with a promise: ďI will be there with you.Ē
Isnít it amazing that the most beloved of scriptures (John 3:16) would come in the midst of such a confusing text? Nicodemus wanted to understand. He knew there was something about Jesus worth pursuing, and though he was frightened he sought answers. He did so at a time when the whole work of Jesus was not yet complete. He had not yet died or resurrected. He had not ascended to heaven or sent the Holy Spirit to help His disciples. He was just beginning to reveal Himself to the world and Nicodemus wanted to know more.
Jesus knew how to teach in a way that made people discover the truth. He guided the discussion with questions, asking the student to give input. Jesusí lessons were difficult because they were so different than what was expected and known in that day, but He was willing to teach those willing to learn. I donít think that we should fear this kind of conversation with our Lord, even if we are not confident in our answers because Jesus is looking for people of faith who seek the truth. We are always going to have questions; the things of God are too much for our limited human brains. The point of our life is not to find all the answers, or even to fully understand everything, but to believe, worship and pursue the God who loved us so much that He sent His Son Jesus to die for us.
There will always be those who refuse to believe because they canít understand. We will be rejected when we canít explain the unexplainable. We wonder, ďWhatís wrong with me?Ē when we get rejected. We wonder what we could do differently. I know the feeling; Iíve been rejected, too. I once sent an article to a number of publications and received the standard rejection letter. Usually the letter stated that the editor was thankful for the submission but the magazine did not need any articles on that subject at the moment. It usually went on to invite me to submit something else at a later time, pointing me to a set of guidelines and a calendar of themes. No matter how polite and encouraging they were in those letters, I still took the rejection personally.
I remember when I was doing a lot of online ministry, in chat rooms and through mailing list discussions, many people took every disagreement as a personal rejection: if you didnít agree with their point of view, then you were rejecting them. This attitude does not leave a lot of room for learning or growing. It also led to a lot of hurt feelings. We see this even more in discussions today, not only online, but at our dinner tables and around the water cooler.
Nicodemus was willing to listen and learn. Instead of being upset by the statement of Jesus, he asked how it would happen. It is difficult for us to know the tone of voice, or the intent of Nicodemusí question. Was he confused by the idea of a second birth, or was he being sarcastic? His answer, ďHow can a man be born from his motherís womb a second time?Ē It sounds mocking and yet in Nicodemus we see a glimmer of faith. Later in John, Nicodemus did things to help Jesus, actions of a man who had not rejected Jesus. Yet, we do not know if Nicodemus ever experienced that second birth. We donít see him at all after the burial. There are those who say that he was martyred, possibly by the leaders who disagreed with him about giving Jesus a fair trial. Other than that, we know nothing.
Isnít that how it is for most of us? Do your coworkers or neighbors know you are a Christian? Can they tell by your daily actions that you follow Jesus? Or do you follow Him at night, worship Him only Sunday morning, serve Him physically but not verbally? Most of us would rather not wear our faith on our sleeve, not because we are afraid, but because we donít want to be intrusive. We donít want to appear as though we are rejecting someone because their faith is different than ours, so we quietly serve Christ. We especially do not want to have to answer the questions about things we do not understand. We are more than happy to do good works in Jesusí name, but we donít want to speak. We confess, like Isaiah, that our lips are unclean.
The silent Christian is no different than the secular volunteers in your neighborhood. Are your good works better than that of the the guy who works for the lodge down the street or for the volunteer fire company? Does the world know that the reason you are sharing your resources, time and talent is because you love the Lord your God? You donít have to be born of the Spirit to be kind and generous. But our kindness and generosity is self-serving if we donít do it in a way that glorifies God. We might end up with nice certificates or even plaques, but if Godís name isnít praised, then our work is useless. We hear all too often, ďShe was a good person; she is surely going to heaven.Ē There is no way for me to know, except that I know it isnít goodness or service that gets us into Godís kingdom; faith in Christ is the only path to that kingdom.
This is a hard lesson; it is no wonder that Nicodemus was confused. It sounds impossible. We canít be born again from our motherís womb, but the idea of a spiritual rebirth is not tangible. How do we know? How can we be assured that God has changed us? How can we know that we have been born from above? Perhaps there is no way to know for certain; there is no proof in flesh and blood. Thatís why we live in faith. We who have been given the power of the Holy Spirit can say ďI believeĒ and live according to the spirit in faith and trust and hope no matter what circumstances we face, knowing that God is God even when we canít fully understand what that means.
We tend to serve quietly because we do not want to be rejected. We donít want to be mocked for our faith, but we know that our faith demands that we serve God. So we do good deeds without speaking Godís word to our neighbors, hoping that God will make it clear to them that we do what we do in His name. Weíd rather not suffer; we are afraid. Paul reminds us, however, that when we join with Christ we join Him in everything: His suffering and His glory. We need not be afraid, for God will use whatever we do in His name for His glory.
Human beings do not want to be confused or have their world turned upside down, and thatís exactly what the Gospel does. Our analogies that describe God in human terms can be easily dismissed because there are holes in the logic. And the other questions that are asked, about evil and suffering and hypocrisy, give plenty of reason to reject Godís Word and those who take it to the world. Thatís what makes it hard. We donít like to be rejected.
But thatís why we live by faith. In Christ we are made heirs, children of God. We are brought before the throne and welcomed into His presence. We have a new relationship with God in Christ Jesus. This is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. We might be rejected by the worldówe will be rejected by the worldóbut it doesnít matter because we are embraced by God and made part of His Kingdom.
In Christ we can approach the throne and though God can rattle all creation, we do not need to fear. We are still awed by the presence of this God who is beyond our understanding, for the Father deserves our trembling worship. He is still the Creator and ruler over all the earth. We may be confused by doctrines that make no human sense like the Trinity. But God is God.
We are merely human, but despite our imperfection God invites us into His presence and makes us part of His kingdom. We are merely human, but we are heirs to a kingdom ruled by the King. We donít need any special abilities, for it is Godís grace and His power that brings His promises to fulfillment. It is His Word that brings life and hope. The transformation of the world is not the task for mere humans. It can only be accomplished by God. So, this message is about the God who can do the miraculous, who can bring life to the dead and who can cause people to be reborn after they have been born from their motherís wombs.
The psalmist describes God as powerful, majestic, strong, full of might. His voice breaks the cedars and makes the heart of the nations skip a beat. The voice of the Lord strikes like flashes of lightning and rattles the world. The Lord sits enthroned over history and over the future. He is King over everything past, present and future. This same Lord has the power to bring down giants, to end nations, to turn the universe to dust. Yet, what does this Lord do? He gives strength to His people and blesses His people with peace. He can rattle all creation, but with that same voice He gives us the best news we can hear: we are loved.
And we glorify God by answering His call to go into the world to share the Gospel message with those who are still hiding in the darkness, speaking the name of Jesus to the entire world. We will be rejected. We will suffer. But we canít take it personally. They arenít rejecting us; they have hardened hearts. They have heavy ears and eyes that are closed. They canít see, hear or believe. They are rejecting God. But despite the possibility of rejection and suffering, we are joined with Christ in the bad and the good, so we can know that we will be joined with Him in His glory.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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