Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist
June 24, 2018
Text: Luke 1:57-80

            The Nativity of St. John the Baptist is a dry run for Christmas.  John is the forerunner of the Christ, our Lord Jesus.  He prepares the way of the Lord.  Not just in preaching, but in his birth, his Baptism, and in his martyr’s death.  John’s birth parallels our Lord’s in so many ways.  Both births were prophesied from of old, from ancient times.  In our Old Testament, Isaiah tells us of the voice who will cry in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord by calling for repentance and comforting with forgiveness (Is. 40:1-5).  He’s talking about St. John.  The same prophet tells us that the virgin will conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His Name “Immanuel,” which means, “God with us” (Is. 7:14).  He tells us this Son will grow up to be the promised Suffering Servant who will bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, yet in making this offering unto death for our sins, He will see His offspring, His days shall be prolonged, and the will of the LORD will prosper in His hands.  That is to say, He will rise from the dead.  This beautiful prophecy of our Lord Jesus Christ is found in Isaiah 53. 
            The births of the two are both miraculous.  John is born of an old woman well past her prime, Elizabeth, bringing to mind the miraculous conceptions and births of the Old Testament, particularly that of Sarah who gives birth to Isaac in her old age.  All the miraculous births in the Bible point us to the greatest of miraculous births, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. 
            Both of the boys receive their names from the angel, and one points to the other.  The son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is to be named John (Luke 1:13), much to the surprise of the crowds (vv. 59-63), and his name points to his vocation as forerunner.  John means “Gift of YHWH,” and that is what he is: a gift to this barren couple in their old age, a gift to the world in his preaching and pointing to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  The Son of Mary, the Son of God, is to be named Jesus, which means “YHWH saves,” for that is what He has come to do, to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).  Both boys receive their name at 8 days old, in the shedding of their blood by circumcision, John first, the forerunner, Jesus the fulfillment.  It is the first shedding of our Savior’s precious blood for our redemption.  He is saving His people from their sins.  He is doing His Name, Jesus, YHWH saves. 
            And there are so many other parallels.  John always comes first, preparing the way.  Jesus always comes as fulfillment.  John decreases.  Jesus increases.  So it must be.  It is the plan of God from all eternity.  John baptizes with water, but Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire.  John’s baptism is prophetic.  Jesus’ Baptism is fulfillment.  You are baptized by Jesus, Baptism in all its fullness, in the Name of our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, delivering all that John’s baptism prophesied and foreshadowed.
            And of course, John’s forerunning would not be complete apart from his martyr’s death.  John is imprisoned in a dungeon and spills his blood for preaching the truth to Herod and Herodias: It is not lawful for a man to have his brother’s wife.  Adultery and divorce are detestable to God.  Even then, preaching biblical truth about marriage and sex brought down the wrath of the government.  John’s head is delivered on a silver platter as a reward for Salome’s lewd dance.  How is that for foreshadowing?  John dies for the sins of the Herod family.  In his case, his death doesn’t make atonement, but it is the direct result of sin, and it is the righteous one dying for the sins of the unrighteous.  It all points us to Jesus, arrested for preaching the truth that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world, put to death for the sins of the people… all people, and that means you.  The Righteous One dies for all the unrighteous ones.  But His death does atone for sin.  His death undoes death.  And this time, He goes first.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  He’ll raise St. John, head and all.  He’ll raise you, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Jesus Christ.
            John is the forerunner, and so at his birth, his father Zechariah sings a Christmas carol.  The Benedictus, we call it, which means “Blessed be,” and we still sing it today in the morning office, Matins.  Zechariah, remember, was struck dumb when he failed to believe the angel’s prophecy of John’s birth (Luke 1:20).  But the moment he wrote, “His name is John” (v. 63; ESV), his tongue was loosed, and his first words were this hymn of praise.  And they’re all about Jesus!  They’re all about what Jesus does.  Remember, praise is not just some endless string of exclamations about how great God is, like He needs some kind of affirmation for His self-esteem.  Praise is telling what it is that’s so great about God, what He’s done for us and for our salvation.  And Zechariah does not disappoint.  God has visited and redeemed His people, Zechariah sings (v. 68).  He has come, in the flesh, to be among us and be one of us, and to give His life into death for us, that our death be turned into life!  God has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David (v. 69).  The King is being born, the Son of David who is greater than David, David’s Lord and ours.  It’s what He spoke by the mouth of the holy prophets.  It is salvation from our enemies (vv. 70-71).  It is the end of sin, death, and the devil.  It is the mercy of God promised to Abraham and all our fathers, to remember His holy covenant, the covenant forged in blood, not just the blood of bulls and goats, but the blood of this Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (vv. 72-73).  All of this so that we be reconciled to God and serve Him all our days, without fear of punishment, without fear of rejection or condemnation, in holiness and righteousness forever (74-75).  Then, and only then, he gets to John.  But it’s still all about Jesus.  And you, child,” John, my son, you “will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (v. 76).  John is the forerunner.  And He will prepare the way of Jesus Christ by preaching.  He will preach the knowledge of salvation.  He will preach the forgiveness of sins.  He will preach the tender mercy of God.  God is not against us.  He is for us.  He sends His Son.  And this news, this Gospel, is light for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.  It guides our feet into the way of peace (vv. 76-79). 
            Comfort, comfort my people,” God says through the prophet Isaiah, as He promises the birth of John (Is. 40:1).  John is born, and does just that.  He comforts God’s people by preaching.  And in the preaching, all things are leveled and straightened.  Every valley is lifted up.  The poor have good news preached to them.  Sinners are forgiven.  The dying are brought to life.  And every mountain and hill is made low.  The haughty are leveled.  Pride goes before a fall.  Pharisees and good Christian folk are told that tax collectors and sinners march into the Kingdom of God before them.  Repent.  Repent of your sins.  Repent of your self-righteousness.  For the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it (vv. 4-5).  It will be a terror to those outside the faith and forgiveness of Christ.  It will be the eternal joy of those who are in Him.  This is the whole sum and substance of John’s life and preaching and baptism and death.
            Everything about St. John the Baptist is, finally, all about Jesus.  And now we know how to read the Bible and how to hear preaching.  The Bible talks in some places about St. John, and in other places about any number of other people and things.  But all of it, in every place, is about Jesus.  When a preacher preaches, his topic may be about any number of the teachings of the Scriptures, the particularities of Christian faith and life, this or that episode in biblical history, and it may relate to any number of things going on in your life and in the world today.  But all of it, in every place, is about Jesus.  It is about Jesus Christ for you.  Or at least it should be.  This is how you can evaluate a sermon.  Is it about you and how you can live a better life by following steps x, y, and z?  That is not a Christian sermon.  That preacher is being unfaithful.  Or is the sermon about Jesus Christ and what He has done to save you from your sins, reconcile you to the Father, and give you eternal life?  That is what every sermon should be about.  Sure, there will be Law.  Do this.  Don’t do that.  Repent of your sins.  But the Law accuses you so that you know just how much you need Jesus.  The Law serves the Gospel.  The Law robs you of any righteousness of your own.  It imprisons you under sin, and ultimately, it kills you.  The Law is good.  But you are not.  And that is why the Law has its way with you.  The Gospel gives you Jesus, who releases you from your bondage and raises you to new and eternal life.  A sermon that leaves you in the Law, leaves you dead and damned.  A sermon that preaches the Gospel gives you Jesus, who gives you His life and salvation. 
            It’s not quite Christmas in July, but this morning and every June 24th we get a little forerunner of Christmas in the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.  How appropriate.  John goes before.  But even as he goes before, he fades from the scene so that our eyes focus on Jesus.  John decreases.  Jesus increases.  It’s all about Jesus.  Jesus crucified.  Jesus risen from the dead.  Jesus for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 6)
June 17, 2018
Text: Mark 4:26-34

            Who would have thought?  Who possibly could have imagined?  This sprig Ezekiel speaks of (Ez. 17:22-24), a mere twig from the top of the cedar, weak and tender, broken, yet planted by the LORD on the mountain height of Israel.  And it grows and bears many braches and produces much fruit and becomes a noble cedar, one under which every kind of bird finds shelter for its nest, a dwelling place, security, a home.  Who can help but think here of the holy cross bearing the weak and tender, broken and dying body of our Lord Jesus Christ, planted on the height of Golgotha for the life of the world?  Indeed, that is what the prophecy is all about.  No one would have guessed that this tree, itself dead wood and the instrument of death, would, in this ignominious execution, become the very Tree of Life.  The low tree is made high, the dry tree green and flourishing.  This Tree bears its own Creator.  Pinned to the wood is the flesh of God.  And from this corpse, Life.  Life grows.  Branches spread.  Preachers preach.  Believers congregate.  They build homes, familial and spiritual, under the shade of this noble Tree and the Crucified One who is risen from the dead.  And the leaves of this Tree, which are for the healing of the nations, and the fruits of this Tree, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, are given us right here at the Altar.  It’s unthinkable, but it’s true.  And it’s what our Lord Jesus teaches us this morning in the Holy Gospel.
            The Kingdom of God is that which is so insignificant, weak, dying, and dead in the eyes of the world, that the world takes no notice.  Who would ever think this could amount to anything?  Better to crush it, like a bug under my shoe.  But in the very crushing of it, in its death, it becomes the very greatest thing.  In another place, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24; ESV).  What is true for the wheat is true for the mustard seed and for the Kingdom.  Out of death, comes life.  Beloved, Jesus is the Mustard Seed.  He is the smallest, the most insignificant, the Last, the Least of these, despised and rejected, broken and crushed.  And from His death grows the Kingdom of God that is the Church, holy believers in Jesus Christ, you.  It’s the last thing anyone would expect.  It’s the Great Reversal. 
            Jesus turns everything on its head.  His thoughts are not our thoughts, and His ways are not our ways.  What man considers great is utter nothingness.  What man considers nothing is the Kingdom of God Almighty.  In the resurrection of the dead, we will see the Kingdom as it really is, in all its majesty.  But for now, what we get is the little group of nobodies worshiping the Man who was nailed to the dead wood.  We get the Church on earth, warts and all.  She’s beautiful.  We love her.  But she kills us.  No offense to you, but she’s full of insufferable sinners, sinners who are really good at sinning, even and especially against one another.  She has her disagreements, her sad divisions, her fightings and fears within, without.  She can be unfaithful, adulterous.  In the Old Testament, her name was Israel, and she went a-whoring after other gods.  God help her, she still suffers those old temptations today.  That’s why God lays the cross of suffering upon her.  He gives her budget troubles.  He gives her contentious members and conceited pastors.  Sometimes, like Gideon’s men, He shrinks our number to a ridiculously small company of people.  Apparently you all lap your water like dogs (Judges 7)!  When the time is just right, God hands us defeat or weighs us down with persecution.  He’s pruning us!  He loves you, so, here’s some suffering.
            Really.  That’s how God works.  We know what He does with things that are weak and insignificant, dying and dead.  We know what He does with our dead Savior.  He raises Him!  And that’s what He does with us.  He raises us from death.  Spiritually now, by water and the Word.  Bodily then, on that great Day when our Lord comes again in glory and calls us by name out of the grave.  For… we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 17). 
            Who would have thought this is how God saves the world?  Who could have imagined this is how God births His Church?  Cross and suffering and death.  And from that resurrection and wholeness and life.  I love the first parable in our Holy Gospel.  The man goes out to scatter seed on the ground.  That is to say, the preacher goes out to scatter the Word in the world.  The Christian goes out to scatter the Word by his confession of Christ.  And then what does the preacher, the Christian, do?  He goes to sleep!  Because he can’t make the seed grow.  It’s not going to help if he sits there and watches it or worries about it.  He goes to sleep, and he rises in the morning, night after night, day after day, and the seed grows, he knows not how (Mark 4:27)!  It’s a mystery.  God gives the growth.  In His time.  In His way.  That’s how it is with the Kingdom.  Now, I’m going to go to a Church convention this week, and we’re going to be all hot and bothered about what we need to do to make the Kingdom grow, and you can either cry or laugh about such a thing, so I’m determined to enjoy the rich irony that we’re having these discussions mere hours after we’ve all preached on this text, the point of which is that you can’t make the Kingdom grow!  God has to do it!  I’ll need a little therapy, or at least some TLC when I get back.  But see how what Jesus says here takes all the pressure off?  Our job is not to make the Kingdom, the Church, grow.  When we do try to make it grow, we’re basically saying God has no idea what He’s doing.  He needs our help.  Repent.  I repent.  Because I suffer those same illusions.  And I worry about it.  I toss and turn at night about what will happen with the Kingdom of God in this place.  You know what?  It’s not my business to worry about it.  It’s not yours either.  God will do what He will do.
            Now, we are given to sow the seed.  That is vital.  We are given to preach, proclaim, confess!  Teach your kids the faith.  Bring them to Church.  Invite others to Church.  Be here yourself.  Give an offering to support the ministry.  God can sow the seed without us, but He has given us a gift, that we get to be a part of it.  He does it through us.  The results of it all are up to Him.  We are simply to be faithful, to speak Him to one another, to Moscow, to the world.  But then He grows the thing.  There is this great Bonhoeffer quote in the Treasury of Daily Prayer, and it’s so important for us to keep in mind as we go about the Mission of Christ in this place.  He writes: “It is not we who build.  [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess—he builds.  We must proclaim—he builds.  We must pray to him—that he may build.  We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.  It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church: you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.”[1]
            And now, here we sit at Augustana Lutheran Church, a newly established, self-standing congregation of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.  Who would have thought?  It’s not much to speak of.  Oh, you see the potential.  At least I hope you do.  I certainly do.  But, I mean, we’re a pretty small group, an insignificant nothing in the world’s eyes.  We congregate in a borrowed building (and many thanks to our very gracious hosts), but we’re like the Son of Man who has no place to lay His head.  No one who’s anyone thought we’d get this far.  I never thought I’d leave Michigan for Moscow, Idaho.  But here we are, thanks be to God.  Not by our efforts.  Oh, I know you’ve put forth plenty of effort to make this happen, and there is plenty more effort to be asked of you.  But that didn’t make this place.  All you’ve done is sow the seed.  If God didn’t want a congregation here, it wouldn’t have succeeded.  But look, the seed is sprouting.  A branch is growing from the Crucified and Risen One.  The Tree of Life spreads its shade even here.  I don’t know what will happen.  Maybe this will take off like gangbusters (what is “gangbusters,” anyway?).  Maybe attendance will dwindle and we won’t last long.  I don’t think that will happen, but it’s not up to me.  God will do what He will do.  Just take up the seed and toss it.  Confess it!  Then go to sleep without a care.  We walk by faith, not by sight (1 Cor. 5:7).  Then again, faith sees a lot here as the Lord works in this place.  The Gospel is preached.  Baptisms bring children of God to new birth.  We gather, week in and week out, with the whole Church of God, in heaven and on earth, to be nourished by the fruits of the Tree of Life, the true body and blood of Jesus Christ.  The Kingdom has already succeeded here!  We pray it will continue to take deep root and grow.  What began as a tiny, insignificant hymn sing at Kraig and Tanna’s house, is a place where Christians can settle in and find a home.  Who would have thought?  Apparently, God did.  And so it is.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

[1] Quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008) pp. 840-41.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Third Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 5)
June 10, 2018
Text: Mark 3:20-35

            Two high profile suicides this past week.  I admit, I know virtually nothing about Kate Spade, though my heart grieves for her family, and especially for her in her hopelessness and despair.  Anthony Bourdain I know from television and the little bit I’ve read of his writing, and I always found his work enriching, teaching us about food, not just as fuel, but as an art form and a key to other places and cultures, travel, philosophy, and (he probably never realized) even theology, because he always urged the importance of communing with people, family and friends old and new, around the table.  He had this vision of gathering around the table with representatives from every people, tribe, nation, and language.  Food not only nourishes our bodies, it cultivates our relationships and cements them around the shared feast of sight and smell, taste and texture, conversation and camaraderie.  That’s a very eucharistic way of thinking.
            I can’t help but wonder if it would have made a difference if Spade or Boudain could have heard the words you and I have heard and read and sung this morning.  From the Introit: The LORD “has heard my pleas for mercy.  The LORD is my strength and shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped” (Ps. 28:6-7; ESV).  What is suicide but a seeking to hide yourself from the presence of the LORD God?  Yet in our Old Testament (Gen. 3:8-15), the LORD comes to His children who have fallen, and it is a gracious visitation.  He comes and He seeks and He finds and He calls.  And though He does not ignore our sin or pretend it hasn’t happened… He deals with it, always confronts it… nevertheless there is the Promise.  The serpent has not won.  The Seed of the woman is coming.  He will crush the serpent’s head, by Himself suffering the mortal bite of death, His heal crushed in serpentine jaw as His feet and hands are spiked to the wood.  It’s the way out.  It’s our hope.  Death is not the end.  Not for Jesus, and not for you.  Our Savior is risen, and your momentary afflictions will pass.  They will give way to joy and life eternal.  Don’t hide.  Don’t harm yourself.  Come into the forgiving, healing, and life-giving presence of your Lord.  He loves you.  We know, as St. Paul says in our Epistle, “that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence… So we do not lose heart… this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory… we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:14, 16, 17, 18).  And we know from our Lord’s proclamation in the Holy Gospel that the strong man, Satan, Beelzebul, the prince of this world, has been bound and plundered by the Stronger Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, by His life, death, and resurrection (Mark 3:26-27).  He has rescued us from all that enslaves and afflicts us.  So we need not despair.  We need not give up.  Things are not as they appear.  Now we suffer in weakness, but we know our vindication is coming.  So “take they our life, Goods, fame, child, and wife, Though these all be gone, Our vict’ry has been won; The Kingdom ours remaineth” (LSB 656:4).
            When we call God’s Word the Word of Life, we aren’t just speaking figuratively.  These Words could have saved two lives this week.  Because the Holy Spirit is in them.  And that’s why you need them.  Desperately so.  Because the only difference between you and Kate Spade, you and Anthony Bourdain, is God’s gracious working in His Word.  This is not to say that Christians aren’t tempted by suicide, nor is it to say Christians never commit suicide.  And it certainly is not to suggest that Christians don’t suffer depression.  Believe me, they do.  But it is to say, you have the only real effective medicine against hopelessness, despair, and death.  You have the Word.  You have Jesus.  And so, you have life. 
            We should here dispel the soul-mudering myth that all suicides go to hell.  That’s just not true.  It’s not in the Bible.  It is a teaching that grew out of the otherwise noble concern that we ought to discourage suicide.  Look, suicide is never the answer.  It is certainly an act of unfaith.  It is not the unforgiveable sin.  We’ll get to that in a minute.  But it is a statement that the state of your life is so bleak and hopeless that not even Jesus could save you from it.  Well, that’s a tremendous lie of the evil one.  And, by the way, it leaves everyone around you devastated.  It’s a very loveless act.  It’s tantamount to abandoning your family and your friends.  DO NOT DO IT!  If you are tempted by this, you must come and see me.  It’s not noble.  It is selfish.  It is a last ditch effort to hide from God under the cover of fig leaves.  So yes, it does put your soul in mortal peril.  But it is not automatic damnation.  Luther said, “I am not inclined to think that those who take their own lives are surely damned.  My reason is that they do not do this of their own accord but are overcome by the power of the devil, like a man who is murdered by a robber in the woods.”  He wrote to a widow named Margaret, “That your husband inflicted injury upon himself may be explained by the devil’s power over our members.  He may have directed your husband’s hand, even against his will… How often the devil breaks arms, legs, backs, and all members!  He can be master of the body and its members against our will.”[1]  This is one of those questions people ask all the time.  Do suicides automatically go to hell?  And before answering, it’s important to inquire, “Why do you ask?”  Because if you’re looking for a pass to do yourself harm, no.  No false comfort for you.  Suicide puts your soul in peril of damnation.  But if you’re looking for comfort because a loved one has harmed him or herself, you should know that our God is a God of mercy.  Just look at what it cost Him to redeem us for Himself.  We are not saved by our work of not doing ourselves in.  Nor are we saved only because we have opportunity to repent before we die.  We are saved by grace, because of Christ.  And no sin is beyond the pale of our Lord’s suffering and death for the forgiveness of our sins. 
            Well, what then about the sin against the Holy Spirit?  Jesus explicitly says in our Holy Gospel, “Truly, I say to  you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29).  This bothers us.  And it should.  Just like suicide should bother us, and all other sins should bother us.  It’s a call to self-examination and repentance, confession and forgiveness.  But we wonder, what does Jesus mean by this?  And worse, have I committed the unforgiveable sin?
            First, you must understand, it is not the case that our Lord’s death on the cross doesn’t cover blasphemy against the Spirit.  No sin is too big for the blood of Jesus.  That goes for suicide.  That goes for depression.  That goes for your particular sin.  And that goes for blasphemy.  The reason the person who blasphemes the Holy Spirit is guilty of an eternal sin has nothing to do with the inadequacy of Jesus or the atonement.  It has to do with the hardness of heart of the person and his willful and persistent rejection of the Spirit’s efforts to bring him to faith in Christ.  The person who blasphemes the Spirit knows full well that Jesus is the Savior and died for his sins, but he rejects it anyway.  He calls the Spirit in Jesus an unclean spirit, a demon, and serves the demons as gods.  He sells his soul for the fleeting and empty pleasures of this life.  And this is why Jesus brings this up against the scribes and the Jewish powers that be.  At some point, they know.  They know He is the Messiah.  They know He is the Savior.  But He is a threat to them.  He is a threat to their power and their way of life.  He is a threat to their own self-righteousness by their adherence to the Law.  So they reject Him.  And they kill Him.  And in our text, they call the Spirit at work within Him an “unclean spirit.”
            Many Christians worry whether they have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Maybe they said something irreverent about Him.  Maybe they even cursed Him at one time or another.  Perhaps they weren’t always believers in Christ.  Perhaps they are weak in the faith even now.  Well, take heart, dear Christian.  The classic comfort here is that you wouldn’t be worried you had committed the sin against the Holy Spirit if you had, in fact, committed the sin against the Holy Spirit.  It is the nature of this sin that the perpetrator has so hardened his heart against God that it is impossible for him to repent or return to the faith.  Think here of Pharaoh and his hard heart, or King Saul.  On the other hand, remember that St. Peter denied Jesus with an oath.  It was a terrible, soul-imperiling sin, and Peter had lost the faith in Jesus in those moments.  But Jesus looked upon him.  And the Spirit sent into His heart the Words Jesus had said, and these brought Peter to the bitter tears of repentance.  Remember also St. Paul, the onetime persecutor of the Church.  In his zeal and ignorance, he sought to put Jesus’ precious believers to death.  He did not believe there was a Holy Spirit in Jesus, but then Jesus spoke to him, on the Damascus Road.  And Paul heard the Word, was baptized, and believed.  And he preached Jesus as the Messiah.  Our Lord’s own family thought He was insane and they tried to bring Him home and shut Him up.  Well, St. Mary is pretty much the queen of the saints.  We shouldn’t pray to her, and she wasn’t sinless, but we rightly love her and imitate her.  And James and Jude were among the brothers who became leaders in the very earliest Church.  This is all by grace.  Clearly Peter and Paul and our Lord’s own family danced awfully close to the border of blasphemy.  We do, too.  Our Lord’s Words this morning about this sin are a warning to us all.  Be careful how you walk.  Examine yourself.  Repent.  Confess.  Cling to the forgiveness you have only in Jesus.  Don’t resist the Spirit’s work in you.  He calls you by the Gospel.  He enlightens you with His gifts.  He sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ.  To blaspheme Him would be to call all of that evil, and not only that, but to harden your heart against it, and to keep hardening your heart against it to the very end, so that you die outside of the faith of Jesus.
            Which is often what does drive people to self-harm and suicide, school violence and substance abuse, and certainly to despair.  What I find so grievous about Anthony Bourdain in particular, is that as enriching as it was to enjoy his work, you could always tell, he doesn’t know Jesus.  He was pretty explicit about that.  I’m not saying he committed the sin against the Holy Ghost.  Maybe he did.  Maybe he didn’t.  And I pray that somehow, some way, in his dying moments, he encountered the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Probably not, but we can hope.  Because we know our God loves Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade.  And we know He loves us.  And His love for every human being is greater than any love we could ever begin to have for any other human being, even our spouse and our children.  And that is a great comfort.  Because God’s love acts for the good of the beloved.  Always.  He can help them, and He does.  He doesn’t force His salvation upon them, but His salvation is there for them, accomplished fact, in the crucified and risen Jesus.  
            And now this.  We know that God so loves us that He gathers us around the family Table.  And He calls us His brother and sister and mother.  And He sets before us a Feast.  If only Anthony Bourdain had known this!  We eat together.  We drink together.  The body of Christ.  The blood of Christ.  And it makes us one.  One with our Host, Jesus Christ.  One with each other, the Body of Christ that is the Church, those of us gathered here and now, and those who join us from other times and places at the one altar of Jesus Christ.  The sights.  The smells.  The tastes.  The textures.  The Word of Life ringing in our ears.  And the joy.  Sins forgiven.  Life eternal.  The Great Feast of the Lamb that has no end.  Do not lose heart, beloved.  This morning you have a foretaste of your eternal reality.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                

[1] Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Westminster/John Knox, 1955) pp. 58-59.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 4)
June 3, 2018
Text: Mark 2:23-3:6

            It is the Sabbath Day, and the hungry disciples are picking heads of grain.  And the Pharisees are bugged.  “What’s up with this, Jesus?  Would you take a look at Your disciples”… “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:24; ESV).  Well, first off, who says it isn’t lawful?  We just read the Commandment in our Old Testament lesson.  Yes, it’s true, God says to His people that on the Sabbath Day “you shall not do any work” (Deut. 5:14).  The Children of Israel were not to go out and gather manna.  They were not to harvest their fields or sheer the sheep.  They were not to send their servants out to work or make their oxen tread the grain.  They were to take care of business the other six days of the week.  But the point of the Law is clear in the text.  “You were a slave in Egypt, O Israelite.  You know what it means to have no rest, no day off, no relief from the taskmaster’s whip.  You are not to be that way.  The LORD your God has called you out from that.  Man and beast need a day once a week to be renewed.  And you need a day to worship, to meditate on my Words, to enjoy the Rest I alone can give.  So the Seventh Day, the Sabbath Day, is to be a holy day, a holiday.  Take the day off.  Take some time with your family.  Take some time to immerse yourself in my holy Word.”  The Sabbath is not given to be a burden, but a gift!  Now, consider again the disciples in the grain field.  Which is more restful?  To be hungry or to be satisfied?  Is it not a labor to be hungry?  And I don’t know about you, but I love to enjoy a good meal when it’s time to relax.  Or consider the man with the withered hand in the second part of our Holy Gospel.  Is it not a labor to suffer under a debilitating disease?  And to be freed from that debilitating disease, to be made whole, that is true rest, the Rest that only Jesus can give.
            Let’s do a little Catechism review.  What is the Third Commandment?  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”[1]  How do we keep the Sabbath Day holy?  How do we sanctify it?  By hearing God’s Word.  Going to Church, having our sins forgiven, remembering our Baptism, listening to the Scriptures and the preaching, and eating and drinking the Holy Supper of our Lord’s body and blood.  Being fed by the Lord.  Luther says, “God’s Word is the treasure that sanctifies everything [1 timothy 4:5]… Whenever God’s Word is taught, preached, heard, read, or meditated upon, then the person, day, and work are sanctified.”[2] 
            In the Old Testament, the Sabbath Day was to be kept on the Seventh Day, Saturday.  In addition to the gift of rest and God’s Word, the Sabbath was to be an act of faith on the part of the people.  God will take care of them and prosper them, even if they don’t work this one day of the week.  God Himself set the pattern.  In six days God did His work of creating the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested from His work, not because He was tired, but because He was setting up the pattern for His people, and He was setting up a Commandment which finds its fullness in Jesus.  Jesus follows the pattern.  Of course, in His earthly ministry, He kept the Sabbath on Saturday, resting and attending Synagogue.  His righteous fulfillment of the Commandment counts for us all, praise be to God, for we have not kept them Commandment, outwardly or inwardly.  But it’s more than that.  In Holy Week, Jesus does the work of New Creation.  He undoes the damage of Adam’s fall and the curse of the Old Creation.  He undoes it by dying on the cross, atoning for Adam’s sin and ours, suffering the curse in our place.  And on the seventh day, in a glorious repeat of the First Creation, He rests!  He rests in the tomb.  This is actually what this has all been about from the very beginning.  God rests from all His work on Holy Saturday.  Jesus rests, having completed the sacrifice.  For it is finished.  And then, THEN, on the Eighth Day, the First Day of the New Week and of the New Creation, Sunday, Jesus Christ rises from the dead.  Behold, He has made all things new. 
            So now, in the New Testament, every day is our Sabbath Day, for Jesus Christ Himself is our Sabbath.  He is our Rest.  For now every day we rest in the forgiveness of sins that is ours in Jesus.  We rest in His peace.  He has reconciled us to God our Father.  We rest in His unending life.  Death is no longer our oppressor.  We rest in His freedom.  We are no longer enslaved to sin and the kingdom of the devil.  We don’t have to go around proving ourselves all the time.  We don’t have to justify ourselves anymore.  Jesus has justified us, declared us righteous, once and for all by virtue of His righteousness and death for our sins.  This is why He says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).  The Sabbath is not meant to be a new burden, but a joyous gift from God to man.  Don’t you need a rest?  Aren’t you always craving a day off or a vacation?  Why?  You need Sabbath!  We all know this instinctively.  Jesus gives it.  Here and now.  In His Word.  In the Sacrament.  In Himself.  Peace.  Be at rest.  Be in Jesus. 
            This is also why He says, “the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (v. 28).  It is the Lord who defines the Sabbath and what it means for us.  The Pharisees do not.  Church leaders do not.  All the manmade laws that grew up around the observance of the Sabbath among the Jews were meant to be a hedge around the Law to keep us from transgressing it outwardly.  But the great irony is that in making the Sabbath into a burden, they broke the very Sabbath they were trying to protect.  They made the Sabbath, not Rest, but a work!  They made salvation dependent on the traditions of men.  They have no such authority.  In so doing, they make themselves gods.  It is not the case, beloved, that the New Testament Church or the Pope or even the Apostles changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday.  Man cannot change the Word of God.  Nor did Jesus change it, incidentally, though He certainly has the authority to do so if He wants.  Sunday is not the Sabbath.  Not in the Old Testament sense.  But that’s just the point.  Now that Jesus is our Sabbath, in the New Testament, every day is our Sabbath.  Saturday is our Sabbath.  So is Sunday.  Even Monday.  And every day in between.  For Jesus has brought us into the New Order of things, the New Creation.
            Why, then, do we worship on Sunday, if Sunday is not the new Sabbath?  Actually, we don’t have to.  Nowhere in the Bible is Sunday prescribed, though it is called “the Lord’s Day” in the New Testament and very quickly becomes the primary day of worship.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Sunday.  Thus Sunday is a very good day to hold the Divine Service and gather around the risen Lord Jesus in His Word and Supper.  The earliest Christians, incidentally, worshipped every day.  After all, every day is the Sabbath, so…  But maybe it’s not practical for us to come to Church every day, so we need to set aside at least one day of the week when we know there will be preaching and Sacrament and Christian fellowship.  We could do it on Tuesdays.  That would not be a sin.  But better, we do it on Sunday as a custom of commemorating our Lord’s resurrection, for every Sunday is a little Easter for the Christian Church. 
            And what is the Commandment for us?  How should the Christian regard the Third Commandment?  Go to Church.  If you had to sum up the command in a few simple words, it would be this.  Go to Church.  And pay attention.  God is speaking.  Listen up.  I was just writing out some graduation cards to a couple of my kids from Michigan whom I confirmed many years ago.  Well, what do you say?  I’m more or less against most of the things we say to kids at graduation (“Reach for the stars.”  “Follow your heart.”  “Live your dreams.”  It makes me sick to my stomach).  So I wrote that I was proud of them, which I am.  They’re good kids.  And then I wrote, “Don’t forget to go to Church!”  A nice little Law thought from their old pastor. 
            It is the Law in the sense that, if you don’t want to go to Church, tough!  Get out of bed and go.  You don’t have anything more important to be doing.  But when you get right down to it, commanding you to go to Church is like commanding your kids to come open Christmas presents.  Look, all of this that we’re doing here this morning, is receiving one continuous line of gift after gift from Jesus.  And these aren’t just underwear and socks kind of gifts.  These are the real thing.  Kingdom gifts.  Forgiveness of sins.  Eternal life.  Heaven.  Resurrection.  The Father’s House.  Joy.  Peace.  Abundance.  The New Creation.  All things.  God only has to command us to come receive these things because we’re so dense.  We’re absolute blockheads, as Luther would say. 
            I don’t really care if you go home and mow your lawn this afternoon, though some Christians would be absolutely scandalized by it.  (I say, do it for their sake.)  That’s not the point of the Sabbath.  The point of the Sabbath, as is the point of everything in theology, is Jesus.  Jesus rested the rest of death, that you might have the rest of life.  The risen Jesus gives you the Rest that is Himself.  He feeds you and He makes you whole.  We’re not worried about the picking of grain on this day or any day.  It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.  Jesus does it for you.  And like King David, your High Priest, Jesus, the Son of David, gives you the Bread of the Presence to eat.  He gives you the Bread of Life, that is Himself.  Come to His Table.  Take a load off.  And rest.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986). 
[2] Luther’s Large Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 34.

Pentecost/ The Holy Trinity

The Day of Pentecost (B)
Confirmation Day
May 20, 2018
Text: John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

            The Rite of Confirmation is not a Sacrament.  It has no command from God.  There is no visible element.  And it does not forgive the sins of the confirmand.  It is a human rite, with an ancient pedigree.  It’s very old.  And it is good.  But we mess it up with our false notions and sentimental piety.  We either act as though Confirmation is nothing more than a rite of passage, a graduation of sorts (phew, the kids are off the hook now, and we don’t have to show up to Church anymore until the kids are ready to get married!), or we assign more to it than we should, as though Confirmation were, in fact, a Sacrament of sorts, that imparts the Holy Spirit, as our brothers and sisters in Rome and the East believe.  This is an historic occasion this morning, the first youth Confirmation class of Augustana Lutheran Church, Moscow, Idaho.  And so, a certain amount of clarity is called for.  We should know what all this is about.  What is Confirmation, and why do it?  And what is it not?  What myths do we need to bust about this ceremony?  And perhaps more to the point, what is this day all about for these five confirmands and for this congregation? 
            The Feast of Pentecost is one of several traditional days for the Rite of Confirmation, and what a great day to have this celebration.  Pentecost is all about the gift of the Holy Spirit, coming upon His Church in all His fullness fifty days after our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, ten days after His ascension.  The Jews were gathered together in Jerusalem for the great harvest festival.  For the Old Testament believers, Pentecost was a feast of firstfruits, bringing their first and best, especially of grain, to sacrifice to the LORD fifty days after the Passover.  It was also the day traditionally celebrated as the anniversary of God’s giving Moses’ the Ten Commandments, so Pentecost is a celebration of God’s Word.  Pentecost simply means “fiftieth,” as in the fiftieth day after Passover.  The first disciples, being faithful Jews, were gathered for the feast in Jerusalem, waiting together in one place, as the Lord commanded them, for the gift of His Spirit, when all of a sudden, the sound of a mighty, rushing wind (spirit, wind, and breath… all the same word in Greek, and all the same word in Hebrew for that matter), came blowing through the house, and, you know the story.  Divided tongues as of fire rested upon the disciples and they began to preach.  And what was incredible about their preaching is that they spoke in tongues, which is to say, human languages they had never previously known or studied.  That, incidentally, is what the gift of tongues is.  Not ecstatic speech or gobbledygook, but the speaking of God’s Word in a language the speaker doesn’t know.  And it’s always for a missionary purpose.  The Jews from all over the known world were in Jerusalem for the Feast, and they were hearing the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostles in their own languages.  They were hearing for the first time about this Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, but who is risen from the dead, in whom they have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  And that is what converts about 3,000 of them that day.  Not the miracle of tongues, but the preaching of the Gospel.  Because the Spirit comes in the preaching.  The Spirit comes by the Word.  So that is what this day is all about in the Church.  The pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. 
            And here is what that has to do with Confirmation.  While the Rite of Confirmation itself does not give the gift of the Spirit to our children, it is a direct result of His being poured out upon them in their Baptism and in their continued hearing and learning of God’s Word.  Beloved, Pentecost is not a one and done event in the history of the Church.  God pours His Holy Spirit upon and into every Christian in your Baptism and in Scripture and preaching and Supper.  The means of grace are the vehicle of the Spirit.  They pipe Him in with all of His gifts.  It’s another Pentecost every time a little baby or a not-so-little adult is brought to the font, every time your sins are forgiven in the stead and by the command of Christ, every time you hear a sermon or attend a Bible study or a sit through a Catechism class, every time you come to the altar to be fed with the crucified and risen body and blood of Jesus.  It doesn’t usually happen with all the fireworks, the mighty, rushing wind, the tongues of fire and the tongues speaking, but it’s just as much a miracle, and you know it, if only the Spirit gives you eyes to see and ears to hear.  And He does.  That’s His job.  He comes on the wings of the Word to bring you to faith in Christ, to give you that faith as a gift, to turn you from yourself and from your sin to your Savior, in whom you have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  He brings you to repentance.  He converts you.  He points you ever and always and only to Christ for salvation.  He gives you faith.  He strengthens your faith.  He keeps you with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  He works in the Church.  That is why the Third Article of the Creed is about the Holy Spirit and the Holy Christian Church.  This is the Spirit’s arena here, in the Communion of saints where the Word is preached and the Sacraments are administered.  Here He forgives your sins.  Here He gives you life.  Here He marks you for the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.  He is the Lord and Giver of Life.  Spiritual life now, bodily life then.  He is the breath of life breathed into Adam at creation (spirit, wind, and breath, all the same word!).  He is the Spirit breathed out by our Lord in His dying breath on the cross.  He is the Spirit Jesus breathed on the Apostles the evening of the First Easter when He instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:22-23; ESV).  The Spirit makes the forgiveness your own!  This is why, when I say, “The Lord be with you,” you respond most properly, “And with thy spirit,” for you recognize the Holy Spirit is in the Word preached, to do these things for you.  This is the fulfillment of what our Lord says in our Holy Gospel, “he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13), for in preaching and in catechesis, and in the tangible Word that is the holy Sacraments, the Spirit does all His work.  And He opens your lips to confess.  You say the Creed.  You witness.  And this morning, five of our children confess that they believe the faith into which they are baptized and as they’ve come to know it in the Catechism.  They believe it, by grace, by the Spirit’s gift.  They believe it, and, in fact, they’d die before they ever forsake it.  That is a confession you can only make if you are possessed by the Holy Spirit.  That kind of confession is pure, divine gift. 
            Confirmation, therefore, is not the pouring out of the Spirit, but the result of the pouring out of the Spirit.  It is the fruit of His work in their lives.  Confirmation is a big deal for that reason.  Here these five young men and women, having learned the Word God gave to Moses and all the Prophets and Apostles, offer their first and best to God on this Pentecost Day in confessing Him.  And He promises, “everyone who acknowledges,” confesses, “me before men, I will also acknowledge,” confess, “before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32).  But the bigger deal is what came before.  Their parents brought them to Holy Baptism.  And then to Church and Sunday School.  Week after week.  And they taught them the faith at home.  They read the Scriptures to them and taught them to pray.  And they brought them to Catechism class, and for two years these kids have met with me every Wednesday for an hour and a half, learning the Scriptures and the Catechism, committing it all to memory, learning it by rote so that they know it by heart.  And they do.  They know it.  But it’s not even the head knowledge, so much, that is the point.  It’s that the Holy Spirit was in all of that, doing His thing, giving faith, giving life, giving Jesus…  And, by the way, you don’t graduate from any of that.  In no sense whatsoever is Confirmation a graduation.  Catechism class never ends.  We’re always learning it.  We’re always students.  And we always need what the Spirit has to give in His Word.  I still expect to see you in Church and in Sunday School.  Every week.  You five already know that, but they may not know that, so I’m saying this for their sake.  You know the Catechism better than they do right now, so if you still need to be here, they still need to be here.  And as I told you, when you’re all grown up and I’m a really old man, I’m coming to your house, and I better find that you still have your Catechism and you still use it and you’re teaching it to your own children, or there’s gonna be trouble.
            The other thing that is a really big deal about today that we often combine with Confirmation, but it’s not the same thing, and it’s actually a much bigger deal than Confirmation, is your First Communion.  This really is a Sacrament.  Here the Spirit really is poured out on you in your reception of the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Having been instructed in the Christian faith, and confessing that faith and particularly what it is you expect to receive in the Lord’s Supper, namely, the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, you now are given to receive this most precious gift with us.  Receive it often.  Every week.  As often as you can.  St. Ambrose said, “Because I always sin, I always need the medicine.”  He was talking about the body and blood of Jesus.  The Sacrament is the medicine that forgives our sins and gives us the resurrection life of Jesus.  It nourishes us and strengthens us and marks us for the resurrection of our own bodies on the Last Day.  So don’t miss it.  Be here.  Be where Jesus is, right here, right now, at His altar, for you.  Giving you His death and resurrection.  Giving you Himself!  Giving you His Spirit.  Giving you to sit at His Table in the Father’s House. 

            Confirmation is not in the Bible, and God doesn’t command it.  It does not impart the gift of the Holy Spirit.  But it is all about the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And for that reason, though it is a human rite, it is a good human rite that we should by all means retain and celebrate.  What Confirmation is, when you get right down to it, is the ceremony that brings together all the important things God does for us by His Spirit here in the Church.  It is a celebration of your Baptism, faith, catechism, and the Supper.  Jesus doesn’t command Confirmation, but He does command Baptism and Catechism class.  You five know the verse well now, by heart: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).  Baptism and teaching, Baptism and Catechism, the two always go together.  You can’t separate them.  And in this way Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v. 20).  And He is.  Really.  In His body and blood.  Which is where those who are baptized and catechized are now fed.  The Spirit gives you birth in the water.  He leads you into all truth.  And He brings you to the altar.  And that is the whole Christian life.  Not just for these five, but for every one of you.  Jesus has been breathing on you, Holy Spiriting you, throughout the Divine Service this morning, from the first word of the opening hymn.  And He’ll do it until the last word of the closing hymn, and in every encounter you have with His holy Word throughout the week, until He gathers you back here around the altar to do it all over again.  That is the pattern.  And that is Pentecost.  The Word of God is Jesus’ breathing life into you, which is to say, His breathing the Spirit into you.  Confirmation is simply your hearty “Amen” to that.  So let’s do it.  Let’s say it, like we mean it, Lutherans: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     


The Holy Trinity (B)
May 27, 2018
Text: John 3:1-17
            On this Feast of the Holy Trinity, our Lord Jesus is speaking to us about Baptism.  That should not surprise us.  For it is in Baptism that our Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, brings us into the ineffable mystery that is His Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.  He puts His Name on us.  He marks us as one of His own, chosen and precious, purchased for Himself by the blood and death of God the Son made flesh.  He writes His Triune Name on us for the same reason you write your name on anything.  Because He doesn’t want to lose us.  Because we belong to Him.  Because he would not have us belong to anyone else.  This is an adoption into the family and life of God, into the love and communion of the Holy Trinity.  In fact, it’s more than an adoption, it’s a new birth.  It is the love between the Persons of the Trinity for one another, flowing forth to fashion a new object of that love, holy believers in Jesus Christ.  You.  You are His child.  Therefore Jesus speaks to Nicodemus and to us this morning about Baptism, the means by which God makes us His own: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5; ESV). 
            And Nicodemus is absolutely baffled.  He is as baffled by Baptism as we are by the teaching of the Holy Trinity.  It doesn’t make sense to him.  Now, when it comes to understanding the finer points of theology, Nicodemus is no slouch.  Remember who he is.  He is a member of the Sanhedrin, a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews.  He’s a rabbi.  So it’s not that he’s intellectually incapable of thinking through a complicated concept.  When he objects to the idea of being born again, asking Jesus whether a fully grown man is supposed to climb back into Mom’s womb and come out again, he knows he’s being ridiculous.  He is not a literalist.  He’s being sarcastic.  It’s a rhetorical device.  He’s telling Jesus that the whole idea is ludicrous.  And this is instructive.  It is not that Nicodemus is incapable of understanding the meaning of the words Jesus speaks, or even the concept.  It’s that he can’t believe it.  Literally, he can’t.  He’s incapable of it.  He cannot believe something so foreign to his own conception of reality, his own reason.  He cannot believe something that depends so little on him.  Think about this.  You were born through no decision or work of your own.  And Jesus is saying it’s the same thing coming into the Kingdom of God.  You are born into it, apart from your will or your good behavior.  In other words, by grace.  It’s God’s work, not yours.  And Old Adam will have none of that.  Which is precisely why Old Adam must die.  Your sinful nature must die.  And you must be born anew of water and the Spirit, water and the Word. 
            Jesus says it right here in our Holy Gospel.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6).  Why can’t Nicodemus accept what Jesus is saying about Baptism?  Because of his unbelieving, sinful nature, inherited from Adam.  He’s born of the flesh.  He has not, as yet, received the new birth of the Spirit.  St. Paul riffs on this in his first letter to the Corinthians.  He says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).  Well, no wonder we have so much trouble with the things of God.  It shouldn’t surprise us that Nicodemus is incredulous, and it shouldn’t surprise us that so many people don’t believe.  As we are born according to the flesh, in our father Adam’s sinful nature, we cannot and will not believe.  We are born spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God.  To come to faith in Him, He must kill us and make us alive.  He must bring us to new birth.  By His Spirit.  Through water and the Word.  By grace.  That’s what He does in Baptism.  And when He does that, when we are born of water and the Spirit, our blind eyes are opened, we are raised to new life, and reconciled to God.  And the things of the Spirit we now see by faith to be true. 
            Remember we’re talking here not about intellectual understanding, but the understanding of faith.  There’s a big difference.  Nicodemus understands perfectly well what Jesus is saying.  He just can’t believe it.  We believe it, but this does not mean we intellectually comprehend it.  Who can?  How can water do such great things, like give us new birth in the Holy Spirit and saving faith in Christ?  We confess that it’s not just the water, but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  That’s a wonderful and true explanation.  But how does that work?  Well, God’s power is in the Word.  Okay.  But do you really understand it, intellectually, how all of that works?  Of course not.  You believe it, because Jesus says it.  And that is enough.  God’s Word is enough.  You’ve gotta get over this idea that you need to rationally comprehend everything God does and says.  You’re like a child, always asking his father, “why?”  Sometimes it’s enough that your Father in heaven simply says, “Because I said so.”  God doesn’t owe you any more than that.  And that’s not the understanding you really need.  The understanding you really need is faith.  And that’s what God gives you when He gives you new birth by water and the Spirit. 
            So the teaching of the Holy Trinity.  Who can comprehend it?  Who can wrap his mind around it?  You can’t.  Not rationally.  Only by faith.  Only as God has revealed Himself in Christ and in Scripture.  One God, three Persons.  Three Persons, one God.  And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.”  Even in the Athanasian Creed, we struggle to say clearly what we cannot comprehend, but can only believe.  There are not three Gods.  Just one.  But He is three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we must not confuse the Persons.  The Father is not the Son is not the Holy Spirit is not the Father.  But they are of one essence, one substance.  The Father is not a part of God.  He is God.  He is not the Son, and yet the Son is God, and they are not different Gods.  Somebody pass the aspirin.  Don’t try to work it all out.  You’ll be wrong.  Although Dr. Winfree has a very intriguing theory about the number e (the number, not the letter) being a good illustration of the Holy Trinity.  He should have you over to dinner sometime and unpack it on the white board for you.  You’ll be riveted. 
            But see, you don’t have to work it all out.  Just believe what you’ve been given.  That is the catholic faith (which, remember, doesn’t mean Roman Catholic, but literally “according to the whole,” the whole doctrine, the teaching, believed at all times and everywhere by the one, holy, Christian Church).  That faith is a gift.  It’s your inheritance.  It’s your birthright.  It is given to you in Baptism.  And in preaching and Scripture and Supper.  It is the Name written on you by the stylus of the Spirit.  And it is that which looks to Christ crucified for your sins and lives.
            The love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not of such a nature that it can be bottled up and hoarded within the Trinity.  It is always love directed outward.  It is love poured out in the coming of the Son into our flesh, eternally begotten of the Father, born in time of the Virgin Mary, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.  God loves us in this way, that He gives His only-begotten Son.  He gives Him to us.  He gives Him for us.  He gives Him into death, the death of the cross, as the sacrifice of atonement for our sins.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, and the Israelites suffering the mortal snake bites could simply look at that serpent and live, so the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, has been lifted up on the cross.  And we, bitten by the serpent, our wicked foe, Satan, justly perishing in our sins, look to Jesus on the tree.  He is suffering our death, there.  He is paying for our sin.  The serpent’s fangs pierce Him.  And in this way, He crushes the serpent.  And we live.  To know that is not to rationally comprehend it.  It is simply to know and trust that it is for me.  Whoever believes that will never perish.  He will not be condemned.  The Son has not come to condemn you.  No, He comes to give you life.  By His death.  In His resurrection.  And you are baptized into that.  Born anew of water and the Spirit.  And it is all His gift.
            The Father gives the Son.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  The Spirit gives you faith in the Son who reconciles you to the Father.  It is the Holy Trinity in action for your eternal salvation.  Don’t worry about how one God is three Persons, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the substance.  Just believe that it is so, and know what this Triune God has done for you and continues to do for you.  He gives you His Kingdom.  And know who He is for you.  He is the Father who made you and loves you as His own child.  He is the Son who became flesh for you, suffered and died for you, lives for you and calls you friend and brother.  He is the Holy Spirit who gives you new birth in the water, your Lord and Giver of Life who works in the Word and the Sacraments to forgive your sins and keep you in the one true faith unto life everlasting, who will raise you bodily from the dead on the Last Day.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Trinity.  He is your God.  He is for you and not against you.  His Name is on you.  His Name is yours to call upon at all times and in every place, as you trace the mark of your redemption upon your body and say: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.