Sermon notes 05-30-21   Embracing Mystery

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.  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.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  (ESV)

Almighty God, you have made yourself known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Through the reading and proclamation of your word, make yourself known to us in such a way that we may understand your will and purpose for our lives today.  We offer our prayers in the name and spirit of Christ.  Amen.

 I wonder how many of you might be like me and you are hopelessly lost when it comes to technology.  I don’t mean when I say I am hopelessly lost that I am unable to use technology.  I have a smart phone like many of you, I wear this watch that I think must be even smarter than my phone, I drive a truck that practically drives itself.  So, being hopelessly lost doesn’t keep me from using technology.  What I mean is, I am hopelessly lost when it comes to understanding how any of this stuff works.  I find myself often asking the question that Nicodemus asked of Jesus in our Gospel passage, “How can these things be?”  Most of the technology I use all the time is a mystery to me.  Yet the mystery of it doesn’t keep me from using it.  You might say that I embrace the mystery without understanding it.

Today is a day in the church when we consider a particular mystery.  Mystery is of course a word that means ‘not easily understood.’ A mystery is something that is difficult or perhaps even impossible to explain.  Mystery is something that causes us to ask, “How can these things be?”

Today is Trinity Sunday, the one day of the Christian year in which the Church calls us to intentionally reflect on our belief in one God who is three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  We call this belief the doctrine of the Trinity.  It is a doctrine that is fundamental to the Christian faith, yet it is beyond our ability to wrap our minds around: One God who is three divine persons who are distinct, yet of one substance.  That is certainly a mystery.

Mystery is something that we Christians live with.  There is much about our faith that is mysterious; that is difficult to explain or understand.  For example, when we celebrate Holy Communion, we always conclude with the prayer, “Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery, in which you have given yourself to us.” 

It is a mystery to us that God gives himself to us through bread and wine in the sacrament of Holy Communion, but we claim that he does, even if we can’t fully explain or understand it; even if we find it mysterious. 

The challenge of explaining the mystery of the doctrine of the Trinity has been known to strike fear into the heart of many a pastor.  Trinity Sunday is a day when many pastors choose to be out of town and leave the preaching up to their associate pastor.  I am trying to save my vacation time and I don’t have an associate pastor, so I didn’t have that option.

Trinity Sunday is a day that some pastors fear, because if you are not very careful, trying to explain the doctrine of the Trinity can cause you to slip into heresy, which is saying something about God that is not true.  They used to burn people at the stake for such things.  It can be very difficult to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity while avoiding heresy. 

Here is one pastor’s suggestion for dealing with this problem: “How not to commit heresy preaching on the Trinity: Say nothing and show pictures of kittens instead.”  I am not going to show you any more pictures of kittens, but I am going to tell you before I go any further that you are not likely to leave here this morning with a greater understanding of the Doctrine of the Trinity. 

My goal today is not so much to explain the doctrine of the Trinity as to help you realize it is okay, and even as it should be, that we do not completely understand it, because in talking about the Trinity we are talking about God, who is far bigger and higher and deeper and mysterious than we can presume to grasp or understand.  Yet, God has revealed himself to us in the Scriptures as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so it is good and right for us to seek to know God better by reflecting on his self-revelation.  As we reflect, we need to begin by acknowledging something that might very well add to our difficulty and confusion in understanding this doctrine; that is, the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible.  In fact, there is no specific place in the Bible where the doctrine of the Trinity is explicitly spelled out for us.

That does not mean, however, that it is not scriptural. The doctrine of the Trinity is not so much spelled out as it is derived from Scripture.  It is first of all derived from the Old Testament understanding that there is only one God.  Deut. 6:4, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.  That verse is as familiar to the Jews as John 3:16 is to us.  We Christians affirm the Jewish belief that there are not many gods, but only one God.

Yet, when we get to the New Testament, there are many passages where God is revealed as three distinct persons, and where all three persons of the Trinity are present or are distinctly described (baptism of the Lord, mount of Transfiguration).  So the doctrine of the Trinity was derived from Scripture largely to reconcile the Old Testament understanding that there in only one God with the New Testament witness of God’s self-revelation as three distinct persons.

In our Gospel passage today, Jesus himself names the two other distinct persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Spirit, while seeming to acknowledge our human inability to grasp the mysteries of God’s self-revelation as three persons.

A Pharisee named Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, which is why some call this story Nick at Nite.  We aren’t told why Nick comes to Jesus at night, but it is usually assumed that he did so because he did not want to be seen by his fellow Pharisees, who opposed Jesus.  Nicodemus would likely not have wanted the Pharisees to regard him as a sympathizer of Jesus.  But there may be another reason why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night.  He may have come then because he was so troubled that he could neither sleep nor wait any longer to try to determine once and for all just who this Jesus was.   The things Jesus was doing and saying were things that only God could do, so how could a man do such things?  Nicodemus set out at night to try to find out, and to ask Jesus, how could these things be?

Nicodemus starts out by expressing his puzzlement, saying to Jesus, the presence of God must be with you or in you, otherwise you could not do what you are doing.  Jesus seems to change the subject by saying something that really throws Nicodemus for a loop.  He says that in order for a person to see the kingdom of God he or she must be born again. That statement is about as mysterious to Nicodemus as the doctrine of the Trinity is to us.  Nicodemus says, how can anyone be born again; can they go back in their mother’s womb a second time and be born?  Jesus explains to Nicodemus that he is not talking about a physical rebirth, but a spiritual one.  It is not a rebirth that can be seen, but is rather like the wind.  Jesus explains that even though you can hear it, the wind cannot be seen; only its effects can be seen.

It’s a brilliant illustration.  We have all seen the effects of the wind without seeing the wind.  One place where we can see the positive effects of the wind is in the flight of a hot air balloon.

I have never been in a hot air balloon but those who have say that when you are in a hot air balloon, you do not feel the wind, because you become part of it.  You move with the wind, so it does not blow against you.  Those on the ground see the balloon carried along by the wind, but those in the balloon have a sense of complete stillness while the ground moves below them.

The wind takes possession of the balloon when the pilot of the balloon turns on the burners and causes it to leave the ground.  The action of the balloon becoming airborne is an action of submitting to the power of the wind and becoming a part of that power.  It is much the same way when a person is reborn by the Spirit of God.  We do not know how the Spirit works, but we see the Spirit’s effects in human lives.

Brothers and sisters, we may not convince anyone to become a Christian by explaining the doctrine of the Trinity to them, but the power that leads to changed lives is hard to deny.  The unanswerable argument for Christianity is the changed lives of those who have been born again by the Spirit.  There are some who find the doctrine of the Trinity so exasperating and so difficult to understand that they are tempted to abandon Christianity.  But friends, there are any number of things in life that we use every day without understanding how they work.  Not many of us can explain how electricity or radio or TV or blue tooth or the Internet or cell phones or cars or computers work.  Not many of us know, when we go to the doctor, how medicines work or how our internal organs respond to surgery.  These things are mysterious to us, yet we all use electricity and watch TV, and most of us use cell phones and drive cars and use computers and submit ourselves to the care of a doctor when needed.  In other words, we embrace the mystery.  In our spiritual lives, we may not understand the doctrine of the Trinity, or how the Holy Spirit works.  But in the same way that a lack of understanding technology does not deter us from using technology, an incomplete understanding of God should not deter us in our faith.

We may not understand how the Spirit works, but the effect of the Spirit on the lives of people is there for all to see.

We have a God who is far more than we can comprehend, far beyond all that we can ask or think.   If you have not already done so, why not submit to him, and let him change your life today?

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Almighty God, you have made yourself known to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Make yourself known to us in such a way that we may understand your will and purpose for our lives today.  We offer our prayers in the name and spirit of Christ.  Amen.