1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (ESV)
Introduction: The Difficulty of Praying the Invocation!
A pastor was once asked to name the most difficult part of his ministry. Without hesitating he answered that it was standing before the congregation each Sunday and saying, In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You see, in the invocation we are not simply reminding ourselves who is the one true God; we are also calling directly on the Holy Trinity Himself with trust that He comes among us as He has promised. The pastor invokes God’s presence, saying In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And the people say, Amen, that is, “yes it is certain, the one true God, the One who put His Name upon us in Holy Baptism is present here, now to bless us.”
How difficult can it be to say: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Quite difficult indeed, for we earthbound mortals do not posses the proper fear of God’s holy Name or the perfect trust in His holy Name or the whole-hearted love for His holy Name as we should. We are to fear, love and trust in God above all things, with our whole heart.
How difficult can it be to say: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Quite difficult indeed, for in invoking the Holy Triune God, we confess what is beyond our comprehension: that the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there is only one God. And concerning the one eternal kingdom of this one God, the revelation is equally astounding. Only those born again enter it.
Those born of water and the Spirit enter the kingdom of God!
Nicodemus was an honest, well-intentioned, friendly Pharisee who admired Jesus as a teacher. Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him. But Jesus slams the door on Nicodemus’ positive regard for Jesus as a religious teacher. Jesus is no mere teacher. Jesus is God! And so He responds to Nicodemus by setting forth God’s requirement for sinners entering God’s kingdom. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus says to Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?
Oh what a miracle God gives as we are knit together in our mother’s womb. But Jesus points to an even greater miracle. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Without the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit, it is utterly impossible to enter God’s kingdom and to say the beautiful Name of the Holy Trinity. Apart from the miracle of new birth by the Holy Spirit, no human heart understands the magnitude of its sin or the marvel of the forgiveness given by God who is holy, holy, holy.
Only Christ can reveal the divine love that is greater than our sins; and reveal it He does! He speaks to Nicodemus of heavenly things! He speaks of that which He has seen. He is the Son of Man come down from heaven. The heart of what He revealed to Nicodemus is this; the Father gave His Son to give us life by water and the Spirit. This is the wondrous truth of the Holy Trinity! God the Father does not want us dying sinners to perish eternally. God the Son does not want to condemn us. God the Holy Spirit does not want us to remain dead in our sins. Why? For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Not by human reason but by the Holy Spirit do we believe!
The Holy Trinity wants to show us our total poverty and to give us Himself and His salvation. The Father bestows Himself and His gifts to us through His Son. As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. The Son is brought to us only by the loving action of the Holy Spirit.
This is why we confess in the Small Catechism, I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.
How difficult is it to say: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit? Well, St. Paul tells us that No one can say that Jesus is Lord but by the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:3). And it is in and through Baptism that the Holy Spirit empowers you to confess Jesus as Lord. So drastic is baptism that Jesus calls it being born again. It is a second birth. People do not make themselves Christian. Rather, God creates Christians. The Holy Trinity may be above our thoughts as high as the heavens are above the earth, but the means which the Holy Trinity uses to give us life, forgiveness, and salvation are as earthy as water and word, bread and wine. Jesus makes His church holy, cleansing her by the washing of water with the word (see Ephesians 5:26). He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of rebirth and renewing by the Holy Spirit (see Titus 3:3-5).
It is no accident that Jesus commanded all nations to be baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is no accident that you were baptized into His holy Name. Rather, it is a miracle! Baptism is a miracle for all who are washed by God’s gracious command! As St. Peter proclaims: Baptism… saves you (1 Peter 3:21). And in the Lord’s Supper, you receive the body and blood once for all offered on the cross. As Christ so touches you in Baptism and His Holy Supper, your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.
Jesus lifted up so that we may have eternal life!
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. Jesus being lifted up is the gift of the Father. Jesus was delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. Nicodemus saw firsthand the bloody sacrifice God made to give us new birth through the water and the Spirit. With his own hands, Nicodemus handled and anointed the corpse of the crucified one and wrapped it with spices in strips of linen (see John 19:39).
But God raised Jesus up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him (see Acts 2:24). And now, by that same definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you have been born of the Spirit. Yes, by God’s gracious plan and purpose you have been born from above. By God’s gracious will, the Holy Spirit has breathed new life into you.
Let me repeat that good news: By God’s gracious will in Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit has breathed new life into you. It was this simple treasure that Martin Luther sought to keep before his eyes by beginning his morning and evening prayers with the invocation and the sign of the cross—In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And in his catechism, Luther instructed us to begin and end our days in the same way—by praying the invocation and making the sign of the cross. For thus, we remember and confess that the Father gave His Son to give us life by water and the Spirit. Such is the love of the Holy Trinity for you. Amen.