The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad homilies
In Christ Jesus, who is one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit—one God uncreated, infinite, eternal, almighty, and worthy of all praise—, dear fellow redeemed:
The Apostles’ Creed
Before He ascended into heaven, Jesus gave His disciples a great commission: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” He said. “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” (Mat. 28:18-20). Now if they were to baptize in this way, they would need to teach people who the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are.
This is what the Apostles’ Creed does. But how did this Creed originate? An old tradition was that on Pentecost the twelve apostles gathered together, and each of them contributed a phrase to this statement of faith. While this is possible, the New Testament contains no mention of it happening. We call it the “Apostles’ Creed” not because it was written by the apostles, but because it summarizes the doctrine, or the teaching, of the apostles. We don’t know exactly when it was written, but a statement of faith with similar wording can be traced back to the year 150. So Christians have been reciting this Creed for nearly 2,000 years.
The Apostles’ Creed contains three parts, the first about God the Father, the second about God the Son, and the third about God the Holy Spirit. From an early time, the Apostles’ Creed was known as the “Baptismal Creed.” An adult who wished to be baptized was expected to recite this Creed and be able to explain its teachings before being baptized.
The shortest article of the Apostles’ Creed is about God the Father. He is described as “Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” The earth and everything in outer space did not come about by chance. All things were created by the Father. Every amazing detail came from His own creative brilliance. He was able to do this because there is no limit to what He can do. He is all-powerful, “Almighty.”
The second and longest article of the Apostles’ Creed is about God the Son. God the Father sent His only Son to take on human flesh in the virgin Mary’s womb. The purpose was so that He could suffer and die on the cross in the place of all sinners. Having completed His atoning work, Jesus descended into hell to declare His victory to the demons and to the damned (1Pe. 3:18-20, Col. 2:15). Then He rose from the dead and showed Himself alive to hundreds of His disciples before ascending visibly into heaven. He now rules over all things at the Father’s right hand until His visible return on the last day.
The third article of the Apostles’ Creed tells us how the saving work of Jesus comes to us today. It comes by the power of the Holy Spirit who works in the holy Christian Church. He works in the Church through the powerful Word and Sacraments of God—through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of Baptism and Holy Communion. Wherever the Gospel is, the Holy Spirit is, bringing the forgiveness of sins and preparing the saints of God for the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed
The details of the origin of the Nicene Creed are clearer than those of the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed was formulated at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 and finalized in 381. It was written to settle a doctrinal controversy about the nature of God. A theologian named Arius was trying to argue that God was not triune, but that only the Father was God from eternity. He said that the Son was perfect, but only a creature of God, which meant that “there was a time when he was not” (Arius’ slogan).
Arius was very effective at spreading this unbiblical teaching, and many followed his ideas. With the church divided, the Roman emperor Constantine called for an ecumenical council, or a council for the entire Christian Church. 220 bishops traveled to Nicea for this council, including Arius. Through the efforts of a young pastor named Athanasius, who at the time was only twenty-nine years old, the council affirmed the teaching of the Bible that God is triune. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, of one substance, but are still three distinct Persons. By the grace of God, Arius’ false teaching had been rejected.
The Nicene Creed is similar in many ways to the Apostles’ Creed, but it is expanded for important reasons. God the Father is again confessed as the almighty Creator, but the phrase “of all things visible and invisible” is added. This is a reference to Colossians 1:16, which states that “by the Son,” the Father created “all things… in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” If the Son participated in every part of creation, He could not be a creature Himself.
The second part of the Nicene Creed clearly outlines the teaching that the Son is eternally God. The Son is “begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” If the truth of the Bible had not been preserved, the certainty of our salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection would have been lost. If the eternal Son of God was not there on the cross for us, the scales of God’s justice could not have been balanced. But because Jesus is true God, our guilt is atoned for and our sin is forgiven.
The third part of the Nicene Creed emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is also our eternal Lord. He is the Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. Because He is true God, He deserves to be worshipped and glorified. He inspired the words of the Bible by speaking through the prophets and apostles. And He continues to bring us the gifts of Jesus. Unlike the Apostles’ Creed, this Creed specifically confesses “one Baptism for the remission of sins.” This shows that the early Church rightly viewed Baptism not as our work for God as some of the Reformed and Baptist churches teach, but as God’s work for us.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Nicene Creed.
The Athanasian Creed
The Athanasian Creed bears the name of the great defender of the faith, Athanasius, who helped guide the formation of the Nicene Creed. But like the Apostles’ Creed, which probably was not written by the apostles but is based on their teaching, so it is with the Athanasian Creed. The earliest evidence of this Creed dates to the mid-400s, fifty years or so after the death of Athanasius.
The Athanasian Creed is by far the longest of the three ecumenical creeds, and it is not structured like the other two. It was written to explain in detail the Bible’s teaching about the one true God. It teaches that God is triune, one God in three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God is three people or that He has three personalities. “Triune” means that while distinctions can be made about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, they share the same substance; they are one God.
Our minds are not able to comprehend this truth and sort it out. But then it shouldn’t surprise us that there are things about the almighty, eternal God that are beyond our limited reason. We believe what God has revealed about Himself in His holy Word. We believe no more and no less than what the Bible teaches.
The very beginning of the Creed speaks about “the catholic faith.” The word “catholic” means “universal,” so the catholic faith is the universal Christian faith based on the Bible’s teaching. It does not mean the Roman Catholic faith, which is not always based on the Bible. The end of the Creed says something surprising. It says, “they that have done good will enter into life everlasting; and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.” This is actually a direct quote from Jesus (Joh. 5:29). He is not teaching us to trust in our own good works. He is referring to the good that is only possible by faith in Him, and also to the evil that is counted against those who reject Him.
Let us confess our holy faith in the words of the Athanasian Creed.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
(Historical information from “I Believe: A Study of the Three Universal or Ecumenical Creeds” by Bjarne W. Teigen, 1976)
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(picture from painting of the First Council of Nicea in 325)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity & Saude Confirmation – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Romans 11:33-36
In Christ Jesus, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit are worthy of eternal honor, thanks, and praise, dear fellow redeemed, and especially you, Alex, Avery, Layton, and Will on your Confirmation Day:
Over the last few months, the letters “SGN” have entered our vocabulary. These three letters stand for “Some Good News,” an impromptu internet show highlighting positive things happening in our country. Hundreds of years before this, the composer Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the three letters “SDG” on his musical manuscripts. The letters “SDG” come from the Latin phrase “Soli Deo Gloria,” which is translated: To God Alone Be the Glory! So Bach, who is perhaps the greatest composer of all time (and a Lutheran by the way), wanted any glory for his achievements to go to God.
How about you? How willing would you be to put this message on the major things you accomplish? When you graduate, get a promotion, land a big contract, or are recognized for a major success, you say: To God Alone Be the Glory! How about you confirmands on this big day? Does God get the credit for everything you’ve done?
The thing is, we know how much hard work goes into the major accomplishments of our life. Shouldn’t we get some credit for these things? Even Bach must have enjoyed the accolades from those who heard his music. He must have recognized that he was producing music at a higher level than many who had come before him. So did he really mean “Soli Deo Gloria,” To God Alone Be the Glory! Or was it just an expression to make him seem more humble than he actually was?
Well that’s the struggle, isn’t it? In the big picture, we have nothing to boast about before God. He is our Creator. The universe we live in would not exist apart from Him. He made it, and He keeps it going. More personally, you and I would not exist if God had not granted us life in our mothers’ wombs. He also sustains our life. We could not accomplish much if God did not make the food grow that we eat. And what about the sun that warms us, the rain that refreshes us, the air that we breathe? When we take all these things for granted, it is easy to think we are the masters of our environment and our fate.
But if our power and abilities could fill an ice cube tray, God’s power and abilities fill the earth’s deepest trench, and then some. There is no comparison between us. The Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to express this difference in the words of today’s text: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” When it comes down to it, none of us has come up with one good deed, one good word, or one good thought that did not originate with God. We are copycats—and we’re not even very good ones!
Ask yourself this: What useful thing do you have that did not start with God? You would not have a house, a car, clothes, food, or any other thing without the raw materials God provides in creation. We cannot make something out of nothing. Only God can do that. And yet even though all “riches and wisdom and knowledge” come from Him, we think we can outdo Him.
We presume to know what God is thinking where He is silent in the Bible. So for example, when there seems to be a logical gap in the question of why some are saved but not others, we supply what is missing with our reason. We say that those who are saved must be a little bit better than those who are not, or that God is waiting for us to show an interest in Him. These may be reasonable explanations, but they also contradict the plain teaching of the Bible, that we are unable to go to God because of our sin. He must come all the way to us and save us.
Or we try to advise God about what He should have said more carefully in the Bible, so that no one feels judged or left out. Or we expect Him to do what we want, when we want Him to. But we are not God. We are far below Him. Paul emphasizes this by quoting from the Old Testament books of Isaiah and Job: “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” (Isa. 40:13, Job 41:11).
Then he writes, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” It is no mistake that Paul uses three prepositions to describe the Lord’s work: “from,” “through,” and “to.” He also spoke about God’s “riches and wisdom and knowledge”—three things. This use of three is by design, because the one God consists of three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The work of each Person is emphasized here in this text.
All things come to us from God the Father. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. He made and continues to produce all the riches we see around us. We notice this especially in springtime, when our fields and gardens fill with growing green plants, and the flowers and leaves emerge again after the wintertime. But an even greater gift has come to us from the Father. He has given us His only Son to save us. This is where we see the exceedingly deep love that the Father has for us. Martin Luther wrote in one of his hymns: “He gave His dearest Treasure” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary #378, v. 4).
All these riches from the Father come to us through God the Son. The book of Proverbs describes the Son as God’s Wisdom, who was with the Father “before the beginning of the earth” (Pro. 8:22). He fully participated with the Father in creation. “[A]ll things were made through Him” (Joh. 1:3). Any physical life that exists or could exist came through Him. The same is true of our spiritual life. We could have no spiritual life apart from His suffering and death in our place. Forgiveness and life and salvation come through Him and through Him alone.
These many blessings we have from the Father and through the Son lead us to look to the Lord in confidence and thanksgiving by the power of God the Holy Spirit. He brings us the saving knowledge of the true God through the holy Word. Without the work of the Holy Spirit through His Word, we would not know the Son or the Father. He has enlightened our minds and hearts. He has revealed the “secret and hidden wisdom of God,” the deep things about our salvation through Jesus (1Co. 2:7ff.). He strengthens the faith He has given, so that we are drawn closer and closer to the Holy God and our eternity with Him.
“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” That means that the glory for all things belongs to Him, (including all those long hours of study in Catechism Class). Every good thing we have and accomplish comes to us by the power and grace of our merciful God. He does not have to bless us, as though He owes it to us. “[W]ho has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” But He loves us with a love that is so broad and long and high and deep that it cannot be measured.
He loves to supply all the things we need. In our spiritual poverty, foolishness, and ignorance, God provides His riches, wisdom, and knowledge. Where we have amassed a debt of sin before Him—all those times in life that we failed to spend ourselves in righteousness—He does not gives us the wages for our sin. He gives us the free gifts of forgiveness and eternal life (Rom. 6:23). Since the time we became believers, we have been credited with Jesus’ perfect life. When God the Father looks at us, He does not see our failures anymore; He sees us filled with the good works of Jesus.
All of this is foolishness to the world, and sometimes it may seem foolish to us. How could all of our sins and misdeeds be taken away just like that? The world is not impressed by grace; the world respects money and power and human ingenuity and fame. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1Co. 1:27). Our boasting is not in what we might accomplish, but in Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (v. 30).
This knowledge of our salvation through Jesus is imparted to us and grows in us every time we hear the saving Word and partake of the Sacraments Jesus instituted. We rejoice that our confirmands will now join us at the Communion rail to eat and drink the true body and blood of Jesus for their forgiveness and strengthening. This is not the day that our confirmands “graduate” from studying God’s Word. They are just getting started. They have a lifetime ahead of them to continue to gain “the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” The same is true for each and every one of us here. God never grows tired of giving us His gifts through His Holy Word.
What the Triune God has done and still does for us is “SGN”—“Some Good News.” We are His dear children. He has not given us what we deserved. He has given us everything by grace and given it in abundance. For this reason, we give thanks to His name. Like J. S. Bach, we write “SDG” on the manuscript of our lives: “Soli Deo Gloria.” The glory for all the good that we have and do is His alone, and His for all eternity.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, who became the Son of Man that we might join Him as sons of God and heirs of eternal life (Gal. 4:4-7), dear fellow redeemed:
Most kids believe—at least for a time—that no one is stronger than their own dad. Dad can lift them off the ground with one arm. Dad can pick up things that no one else can budge. Dad can open jars that Mom can’t. In their eyes, he is very impressive. But as they get older, kids realize that some other guys might actually be stronger than Dad. They become aware of their dad’s limitations, and not just the physical ones. Dad sometimes gets distracted and misses important things in their lives. He doesn’t always seem to understand what they are going through. He isn’t always right there when they need him.
Dad can do a lot of things. But he isn’t all-powerful. For his part, he feels the pressure to be what those around him need him to be. He faces the demands—spoken or unspoken—of providing for his wife and children. Others outside his household like his relatives, friends, and co-workers might also look to him for support. People rely on him the way he used to rely on his dad. He doesn’t always feel ready for the responsibility. He is well aware of his shortcomings.
You know as well as I do that there is no such thing on earth as a perfect father. We admire those men who seem to be excellent fathers. We see others who more or less fulfill their duties to their family. And then there are some who do not seem fit to be fathers at all. Some of these fathers harm their children or abandon them. For these children, it can be difficult to put their trust and confidence in God the Father. Their perception of God as Father is colored by their experience with their earthly father.
But God the Father does not take His cue from earthly fathers; earthly fathers are to take their cue from Him. The heavenly Father is the pattern for fatherhood. He did not learn fatherhood from anyone. He had no father. But in His infinite wisdom, God established fatherhood on earth after His image.
God does not model the sort of fatherhood that the world likes to see. The world does not praise fathers who stand up for godly truth and honor. They praise the fathers who fan the flame of their children’s ego, who keep their mouths shut when their sons and daughters behave immorally, who might offer a shoulder to cry on but no words of wisdom. There are many who even portray God in this way. “God loves me just the way I am,” they say. “He doesn’t judge me, and He is always there when I need Him.” But that is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible loves us, no question about it. But He does not love everything we do and every choice we make. To the contrary, He firmly rebukes our sin. He does not overlook it or act as though it is not that bad. And if we refuse to repent of our sin, He warns us of the eternal hellfire that will come upon any who reject His Word.
The seriousness with which He looks upon our sin is made clear by the sacrifice required to save us. God the Father did not send His only-begotten Son into the world so that Jesus could pat everyone on the back for choosing to live life their own way. He sent His Son to suffer and die for our sins in our place.
But how could a Father sacrifice His only Son? Did He think so little of His Son? Some have suggested that the punishment and wrath the Father poured out on His Son at Golgotha was really a form of “divine child abuse.” Was that the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, that the Father was an overbearing tyrant who forced His Son toward horrible suffering and death?
That is hardly how Jesus portrayed it. The night before His death, He told His disciples, “I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father” (Joh. 14:31). And again, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (15:9-10). And in a prayer directly to the Father, Jesus said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
That does not sound like a Son who is forced to do something against His will. Even in the midst of severe anguish, Jesus did not lash out at His Father as though His Father were manipulating Him. He said, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luk. 22:42).
God the Father sent His Son to do the terrible work of atoning for sin, because His Son could do it. His beloved Son could carry that load and still reclaim the glory that was His from eternity. He could win the victory over sin, death, and devil and still return to the right hand of the Father. God could do for man what man could never do for himself.
Jesus made this abundantly clear to Nicodemus, the teacher-turned-student in today’s Gospel lesson. Nicodemus started the conversation by saying, “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.” Was this flattery? Was it an invitation for Jesus to tell more about Himself? Was Nicodemus trying to sound smart?
Jesus replied that whatever the Jewish leaders thought they knew about God, they knew much less than they realized. Jesus was not some mystery they could solve. He was not some code they could crack. Their human wisdom was not going to cut it. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Jesus was not talking about the need for a physical rebirth but a spiritual one.
This spiritual rebirth does not happen by any human effort or through a free human will, contrary to what many Christians today think. They say that “being born again” means making a decision for Jesus and opening one’s heart to Him. Jesus says this rebirth happens through “water and the Spirit,” through Baptism. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this and not human flesh. A translation just as valid as “born again” is that one must be “born from above.”
God must do this—He must regenerate and renew us—because we cannot do this for ourselves. We cannot do this by the strength of our bodies or minds, or by the power of our will. If this were possible, Jesus wouldn’t say what He does in today’s text: “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven.” Because we are not able to go up to God, God comes down to us.
But why does He do this? Why does the Father send His Son, by His side from all eternity, to be sacrificed for sinners, whose legacy is stained and whose lives are fleeting? God does this out of love for His rebellious children. He did not walk away when mankind thought more highly of the forbidden fruit than His command. He did not destroy them in His anger which He could have done. Instead He promised to join them in their anguish, to be with them in their troubles, and to free them again from their chains of sin and death.
But not all recognize or care about their Father’s love. They are like those who reject their earthly fathers because their father does not give them everything they want or let them do what they want to do. Like those who do not “honor [their] father and mother” as the LORD commands them to do, so unbelievers do not honor the LORD and “fear, love, and trust in [Him] above all things” (Small Catechism).
But those who do recognize their sin and who trust that the Son of Man came to be lifted up on the cross for their sake, can be certain that they are in good graces with their Father in heaven. He loves all who cherish and pay attention to His holy Word (Joh. 14:23). He promises to pour upon them the blessings of His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. This starts at Baptism when the holy life and cleansing blood of Jesus are applied to the sinner, and it continues throughout life as these gifts are administered through His gracious Word and Sacraments.
Through these means, He strengthens us and helps us follow His example of love and sacrifice in our various stations in life—fathers in their fatherhood, mothers in their mothering, children in their obedience, and all of us in our lives of service. None of us carries out these duties perfectly, and we are only too aware how we have fallen short. But God has promised to abide with us and to bring blessings to those around us even through our weak and faltering efforts.
No one on earth does everything right. No one can fix every problem. No one can save his own soul, much less the souls of others. God Does What We Cannot Do. He is our perfect Father, whose will was carried out by His righteous Son, whose rich blessings are distributed by the Holy Spirit. This God is the only true God. He is our God, and we are His children.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(portion of painting, “Good Friday Morning: Jesus in Prison” by James Tissot, 1836-1902)
The Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, the Wisdom from above, who came down to enlighten the hearts and minds of sinners by His saving grace, dear fellow redeemed:
Some time after the Flood, the people of the earth decided to work together to build a city and a great tower “with its top in the heavens” (Gen. 11:4). They thought they could do anything they set their minds to—perhaps even finding a way up to God (v. 6). But this effort was self-serving, not God-pleasing.
Many of the leading scientists of our age are likewise engaged in things that do not please God. They are continuously looking skyward like the people of Babel. They search for signs of life in our galaxy and beyond, trying to figure out where life on earth came from. A good number of them loudly deny that there is a divine Creator, a God who established the structure and laws of the universe. At the same time, they are very willing to consider the possibility that aliens came to earth long ago and planted seeds of life here.
They think they are very wise to deny God, and they think Christians are very ignorant. But the God-denying scientists are the ignorant ones. The Apostle Paul writes that the existence of God is plainly evident. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” But many ignore this evidence. They are those, as Paul says, who “became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:20,21-22). True wisdom does not come from up here (the head). True Wisdom Comes from Above, from the God of heaven.
Nicodemus no doubt considered himself a wise man. He was a prominent Pharisee, who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a ruling council made up of 71 judges. Jesus also called him “the teacher of Israel,” which may indicate that few were more esteemed than he was. But Nicodemus was troubled by something. He couldn’t figure out what to make of Jesus. So he did something commendable. Instead of accepting as true the opinions and theories others had about Jesus, he decided to talk with Him directly. He very candidly 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.” The evidence was clear to them! Only someone coming from God could do what Jesus was doing.
But this was not the same as acknowledging that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus sought to clarify this. He said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” That seems a strange thing to say. What did it have to do with Nicodemus’ statement? The connection might be lost in translation. Most English translations say, “unless one is born again,” which is not wrong. But the word for “again” can also be translated “from above”—“unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus called Jesus “a teacher come from God,” but was Nicodemus such a teacher? Was he “a teacher come from God”? Had he been “born from above”? Or was he of the earth, one who “claimed to be wise,” but was only a “fool” in God’s sight? Jesus plainly said that “the teacher of Israel” should understand more than he did. Nicodemus had not understood the words of the Old Testament prophets, those who had revealed God’s plan of salvation. Along with his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus thought salvation depended on what they accomplished. For this reason, they were not looking for the Messiah’s arrival. If they had been, it would have been obvious to them that Jesus was He.
Their knowledge and wisdom were only human. It is an entirely human idea that we can make amends with God for our sins, that we can somehow prove ourselves worthy to enter heaven. This is the core teaching of the non-Christian religions of the world, that our salvation depends on keeping God’s law, and if we don’t keep it, we will be condemned. These are terrifying religions. They do not comfort, because the law can never comfort. The law makes demands, “Do this”—“Don’t do this.” And it always convicts us, because we always fall short of it. Even many Christians who have heard time and again that the Son of God became Man to die on the cross for all sin, still think that their salvation ultimately depends on what they do.
This is not what you and I think, and yet we still find ourselves keeping a tally of the good things we do. Or we at least note the bad things that others do. It is much easier to judge the sinful words and actions of others than to judge ourselves. This is how the Pharisees like Nicodemus operated. They held themselves up as “the holy people” and looked down their noses at others who were not as righteous as they were. They thought they were fulfilling the law of God. But if they kept it outwardly, they certainly did not keep it in their hearts.
This is what each of us must examine—not the failings we see in others but our own failings, and the sin in our own hearts. You may not have done evil toward others, but have you wished evil on them? You may have said what you needed to avoid an uncomfortable situation, but was it the truth? You may go out of your way to help others, but do you do it out of love for them or to bolster your own reputation?
Jesus said, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” We are conceived and born in sin, and sin wants to have free reign in our bodies. Our sinful nature leads us to desire what the world calls wisdom, messages like: get as much money and stuff as you can, follow your heart wherever it leads you, take care of yourself before you take care of others, never apologize, don’t take criticism from anyone. This is the world’s wisdom, but it is not the way of Christ.
He came from above, from His throne in heaven, and lived a life of great humility. It was not a false humility but a humble love for sinners flowing out of His righteous heart. He wanted to save His enemies, not do them harm. He wanted them to know the truth even if they attacked Him for it. He loved them even when they nailed Him to the cross and put Him to death. The sinful world cannot understand the humility, love, and sacrifice of Jesus. It makes no sense to the natural mind.
But it does register with those who have been “born again,” who have been “born from above.” These are the ones who have been “born of water and the Spirit.” They have been baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is no empty, human ritual. When water is applied while Jesus’ words are spoken, the Triune God comes to the sinner—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God comes from above with heavenly wisdom to impart. He comes to work faith in the sinner. He comes to bring the peace of sins forgiven. He comes to bestow eternal life.
This is done for us totally by God’s grace. We do not earn it or deserve it. We cannot say why we are saved and others are not, since we are just as sinful by nature as everyone else. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 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.” The Holy Spirit works as He wills. We cannot explain why one sinner is converted but not another, or why the Holy Spirit seems to work more powerfully at some times and places than at others. It is not for us to know. But we can and should give thanks that He has come through the means of grace to give us True Wisdom from Above—faith in the Savior Jesus.
Since we have this wisdom from above, since we have been “born from above,” we do not live as though we are still of the world. James writes that “where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (Ja. 3:16-17). The True Wisdom from Above shows itself in a Christ-like attitude, having humility and love for our neighbors and putting their concerns even before our own.
We grow in this True Wisdom by “seeking the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1). We seek and find the blessings of God by hearing and receiving His Word and Sacraments. The means of grace is where heaven meets earth. This is how God promises to come to us and pour out His grace upon us. God is not reached by building a tower up in the sky or by sending satellites deep into outer space. God is not reached by our efforts, whatever they may be. The Triune God comes down to us.
We also grow in True Wisdom by “putting to death what is earthly in us” (3:5), as Paul says. Where we have sinned, we don’t put the blame on others or try to cover it up. We confess it, acknowledge it. This is how we return to our baptism. We drown our sinful nature by admitting our sin, and our new life of faith comes forth again as we are pointed to Jesus, who covers us in His righteousness and forgives all our sins.
Nicodemus also gained this True Wisdom from Above, when the Holy Spirit brought him to faith. We are told that he later defended Jesus in a meeting of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Jn. 7:50-51). And he was one of two men who took Jesus down from the cross and laid Him in a new tomb (19:39-42). Nicodemus learned, as you and I learn and re-learn throughout our lives, that there is no wisdom worth having apart from faith in Jesus. But in Jesus, we have a wisdom and a knowledge that lasts not just for this lifetime, but for all eternity.
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(portion of painting by Fritz von Uhde, “Christ and Nicodemus,” c. 1886)
Festival of the Holy Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. John 3:1-15
In Christ Jesus, whose thoughts are not our thoughts, which is why we have righteousness and salvation in Him, dear fellow redeemed:
One of the greatest gifts God has given to humans is the ability to reason. This is among the First Article blessings of God the Father: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still preserves them” (Luther’s Small Catechism). He gave us this ability so that we would be equipped to manage His creation, to build homes and communities for ourselves, and to collaborate with our neighbors.
But the primary purpose for our reason is that we should acknowledge and give glory to God. Paul told the people of Athens that the true God wants all nations to “seek [Him], in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him” (Ac. 17:27). Sinners cannot reach God and establish communion with Him on their own, but they can certainly know He exists. Even those who have never heard His Word should know this. Paul explained in his Epistle to the Romans, “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (1:19-20). He goes on to talk about how the existence of conscience, the inner sense of right and wrong, should further convince people that there is a God (2:14-16). And if there is a God, they should obviously want to serve Him.
But as it is with any of the gifts God gives, sinners do not use their reason the way it is intended. It is popular today to claim that faith and reason are totally opposite each other. The idea is that those who claim to have faith are no longer using reason. And those who utilize reason do not need faith. This is especially applied in the field of science. Science is thought to be the ground of reason, where no room is made for faith. Never mind that many of the great scientists of the last 2,000 years were Christians. Never mind that science, properly speaking, is nothing else than the study of God’s creation. Modern, atheistic science does not welcome those who contend that there is (or even that there may be) a higher power at work in the universe.
This leaves us wishing that the scientists who praise reason so highly, would actually use it. It is often said that atheists reject God because they are using their reason only. But denying that there is a God is actually unreasonable, as the evidence around us and inside of us shows. The psalmist declares, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1). Such unbelievers remain under the wrath of God. Paul writes that “they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:20-21, 28-29).
So there are proper and improper uses for our ability to think and reason. When this ability is utilized for sinful plans and pursuits, then good and holy thinking will become more and more clouded. Before you realize it, you may even lose sight of any standard of right and wrong. You might picture it this way: The Christian life is like holding a map with a clear path to your destination. You know where you are heading and where you belong. But as you go on your way, you get sidetracked. You hear the sounds of people having a good time to the right and to the left. You see bright lights beckoning you in a different direction. Maybe you can still reach your destination by taking a little detour. You turn into a dark alleyway and then another. You find the alternate path is not as clear as it seemed. Before long, you are lost. And you are vulnerable.
Your mind is capable of traveling an infinite number of paths. If you let it walk down the path of hatred, it will be satisfied with nothing less than revenge. If your mind is full of greed, there will be no room for spiritual riches. Whatever sinful thoughts you fail to keep in check, those thoughts will consume you. And inevitably, sinful thoughts unchecked lead to sinful actions, then sinful habits, and then sinful addictions. And then it becomes very difficult for the brain to think the thoughts of God.
In today’s sermon text, Jesus was approached by a ruler of the Jews named Nicodemus, whom Jesus referred to as a “teacher.” Nicodemus had an honored position among the Jews and did not want to jeopardize it. This is why he “came to Jesus by night.” He was undoubtedly a gifted man, but for all his intellectual abilities, he had a hard time understanding Jesus’ words. Jesus told him that every person born in the natural way needs to be born again. “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus asked incredulously. Nicodemus did not understand, and I do not think we would have fared any better.
What Jesus was telling this “teacher of Israel” is that human reason has its place, but that salvation is accomplished not by man’s will but by God’s will. The Holy Spirit brings about spiritual rebirth and renews the mind, so that it is filled with godly wisdom. The Holy Spirit begins with God’s law, to show each sinner how far off his thoughts are from God. Jesus summarized the first part of God’s law in this way, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37).
Jesus says that keeping God’s law means loving Him, among other things, with all your mind. Your mind should serve no other God but Him. Your mind should communicate in words that are for His glory alone. Your mind should be filled with His Word and thereby attuned to His will. Loving God with all your mind means acknowledging your weaknesses and recognizing your limits. You know how often you have thought and acted in ways that were self-serving, instead of thinking about how to serve God and your neighbors. You have also questioned God and ignored His Word because you thought you knew what was better for you than He did.
Many people follow only the parts of the Bible that agree with their own thinking. But the Christian who has heard God’s law knows it is the other way around. It is not the Bible that has problems, but my own reason. It is tainted by sin. It does not guide me in the way I should go. Only God can do that, and He does. God the Father sent His Son to be “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4-5). God the Son perfectly followed His Father’s will with all His heart and with all His soul and with all His mind, and perfectly loved His neighbor as Himself. He kept the law for you, in your place, so that you would be judged holy in God’s sight. He also made satisfaction for your sins by being lifted up like the bronze serpent to save you from the poison of sin.
These blessings come to you by the work of the third Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit—a reference to baptism—, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” The Holy Spirit works unseen through the Word and Sacraments to change minds and convert those who formerly pursued foolish things, including you and me. He reveals even to the most stubborn minds what they did not know they were missing. They could never have imagined “what God has prepared for those who love him” (1Cor. 2:9). Without the work of the Holy Spirit, the salvation willed by God the Father and won by God the Son could not be distributed. But it is distributed, even throughout the entire world.
How any of this can be, is a mystery to human reason. We cannot understand how God can be one and three. We do not know how the God who created, can make Himself a creature, or how the God who is Life can die. We do not comprehend how the God who was sinned against can so deeply love the sinners. We cannot imagine why God wants the likes of us to be with Him forever in glory. But even though our brains cannot comprehend these things, they are nevertheless true. They are true because God says so, and you are I are in no position to challenge Him. Paul says as much in today’s Epistle lesson, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?’ For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33-36).
The truly great minds recognize that our human knowledge and ability are nothing compared with the thoughts of God. The great minds bow in humble awe at what God planned for sinners even before the foundation of the world. The Great Minds Honor God for His never-ending grace and mercy.
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