God Does What We Cannot Do.
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)