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When Nicodemus Met God, the Mysterious Three in One

Holy Trinity by Fridolin Leiber (1853–1912)

Sunday Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8     Psalm 29     Romans 8:12-17     John 3:1-17

Every Christian has heard the phrase, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” many times. We hear it every Sunday during worship, often more than once. We mention all three persons when we confess our faith in the Creed. Prayers often close with a reference to all three persons, sometimes rather lengthy. The pastoral blessing at the end of the Eucharist always names all three persons. We hear it at a baptism. We hear texts with reference to the three persons in more abstruse terms. We all know that God is the Mysterious Three in One, one God in three persons, but we all struggle if anyone asks for an explanation.

This phrase was not familiar to Nicodemus who, as a Pharisee, was well acquainted with the texts we call the Old Testament. He was more accustomed to think of God in terms of the most important words to Israelites: Hear O Israel. The Lord our God is one God. When Jesus began to speak of being born from above, Nicodemus was not prepared to understand what he meant. Jesus actually introduced Nicodemus to all the elements of the Trinity. That concept is not likely the message he took home with him, yet Jesus had to talk about all three persons for his message to make any sense. He pointed out that a person must be born of the Spirit in order to enter the kingdom of God. He talked about himself, saying that he had come down from heaven, where the Father lives eternally, the same Father who spoke at Jesus’ baptism saying, “This is my beloved Son.” He summed up his teaching in probably the most famous words in the Bible, saying that God, who exists in three persons, loved the world so much that the Father sent the Son into the world to save the world. Faith in the Christ the Son is the work of the Spirit, by whose grace and power people are born into the Kingdom of God.

The whole idea of God who is one existing in Three Persons without being divided – it overwhelms human brain capacity and human language. Mohammed couldn’t accept it, and he created the religion of Islam for that very reason. His inability to accept the Trinity as an article of faith led him down a different road. Mormons, on the other hand, seem to acknowledge many gods, even though they focus on God the Father, and they ascribe no divinity to Jesus. They cannot accept One God in Three Persons, either. During two thousand years of Christian history, Christians have felt that they needed to explain this mystery, and this need has led to numerous heresies.

The simple truth is that we cannot explain the Trinity. We can only accept it. It is a mystery. God, infinite and eternal, is already beyond our comprehension. The Trinity is simply another mysterious truth about God. We confess faithfully that it is, but we also confess that we have no idea how it can be so.

The Book of Concord touches on the mystery, summing it up as the message of the gospel. It is the Father’s perfect plan that the Holy Spirit creates true faith in our hearts that we may come to Christ, our Redeemer. The gospel only makes sense if the Trinity is truth, and the Trinity comes clear to the eyes of our hearts in the gospel, even though our minds of flesh are still mystified. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus introduces Nicodemus to the mysterious Three in One, and when John sat down to write about Jesus, he thought this conversation was important enough that it needed to  be preserved,  even though the whole world could not contain everything he might have written about Christ. When we hear this story, we listen as Nicodemus listened, and Christ opens our minds and hearts to the truth of the gospel and the mystery of the Trinity.

Why does it matter? Because God himself, mysterious Three in One, ordained that faith in Christ the Son is the gift of the Holy Spirit by the grace of God the Father. This is the faith we hold dear and confess each Sunday in the Creed.

What difference did it make to Nicodemus? When Joseph of Arimathea took possession of the body of Jesus and laid it lovingly in his own tomb, Nicodemus brought costly spices for wrapping the body. The Trinity made a huge difference to Nicodemus. What difference does it make to you?

© 2012 Katherine Harms

What’s the Truth Here?

Jesus casting out the money changers from the ...
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Sunday’s readings

Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

John 2:13-22

All four gospel writers describe the day that Jesus cleansed the temple in Jerusalem. He was like a whirlwind roaring through, overturning tables and scattering coins everywhere, driving out animals and people in his fury. When we remember that Jesus truly is God in the person of the Son, we know where this fury came from. It takes us back to the wilderness trek of Israel, when God first explained to them what he expected of them. The wilderness is the place where we can put the cleansing of the temple in its right perspective.

In the wilderness, God told the people what sort of sacrifice he expected. Any animal or any fruits of harvest given over to God as a sacrifice was to be the best of all. Over and over he emphasized that gifts to God should be unblemished, perfect in every way. In the temple of Jesus’ day, vendors sold blind, lame, pathetic animals that were the rejects they could not sell elsewhere. Moneylenders who were there to serve people of all nationalities and convert their many different forms of money to coins acceptable for shopping in the temple routinely gouged their customers in the rates and fees for money exchange. As a consequence, every worshiper who did not arrive with his own perfect animal ready for sacrifice was subjected to the untender mercies of vendors and moneylenders who cheated the customers and cheated God. It is said by some commentators that temple inspectors collaborated in the whole scheme by ruling that perfect animals brought from home had defects and must be replaced by animals bought within the temple grounds. The offerings were lies to God as a result of the people lying to themselves. The temple had become a place to celebrate big lies and scorn for both God and people.

Jesus, God incarnate, took action to show what a fraud the whole operation was. His action, taking place shortly before he himself became the only perfect sacrifice for the sins of humankind, highlights what a complete lie the whole worship experience had become. Every worshiper had become part of a scene that honored neither God nor man. Jesus’ action said with great clarity that God hates lies and he hates fraud and he hates the behaviors that sustain such attitudes.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he was preparing it for the day when the curtain that hid the Holy of Holies would be ripped from top to bottom, the day Jesus himself was sacrificed on the cross. Jesus told his disciples, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” and on the day of the cleansing, he acted as purifying truth to cleanse the temple and ready it for the one true sacrifice that would wipe away the sin of all humankind.

This is the truth celebrated in today’s psalm. This is the truth revealed in God’s law. The psalmist knew about that truth. He wrote that God’s law is the revealed truth that the heavens wordlessly sing about day and night. God’s law, which is often viewed as restrictive and oppressive, is revealed by the psalmist and by Jesus’ work of cleansing the temple to be liberating and fulfilling.

Some people have great difficulty “finding” any money to give to God as an offering when they worship. The lesson of the temple cleansing, pointing back to the lessons of Israel’s wilderness days, is that our gifts to God come first. They are the most special gifts we give to anyone for any reason. Our gifts to God must be our first fruits, our most perfect, our free gifts of love and gratefulness. We deny the blessing and mercy of God in our lives when we begrudge him our best.

This is the reason that we must give in gratefulness and love, not out of any sense of obligation. There were, no doubt, individuals who were sickened by the deceitful marketplace the temple had become in Jesus’ day, but their anguish was completely overwhelmed by the power of those who thought of worship as an opportunity to enrich themselves. They had no respect for God, and they caused even faithful worshipers to sink beneath their bad attitudes. There were almost certainly faithful believers who refused to have anything to do with the temple because of this problem.

We can be thankful that this story is in the gospel. It is a reminder first that Christ supplanted all the sacrifices ever burned in that temple by being the perfect sacrifice no animal ever could be. Beyond that, it is also a reminder that we never fool God when we give him less than our best, when we give him only our leftovers. Jesus is the way God tells us that we are so important to him that he gave his best for us. This gift demands that we give only our best to him.

A Moment Outside of Time

Mark’s story of the transfiguration is one of the three gospel records of this important event. Only John leaves this story out of his gospel, but John shares what he learned that day in the book of Revelation. The transfiguration of Christ was a singular event that science fiction writers might call a nexus. It was a moment when the world of time and space intersected dramatically with the “world” of eternity and infinity. Was it an instant? Was it a century? We have only the language of time and space for our use. To speak of such an event as if it had the same limitations and boundaries as our days and minutes is ludicrous. Yet the disciples had only that language with which to speak of it, and the gospel writers had only that language with which to record it.

I worked for a while with a friend who belonged to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She had icons in her cubicle at work, and one day I asked her about them. She explained to me that the icon is a window into eternity. In that sense, the transfiguration was an icon for the disciples, a window into eternity, into heaven.

The gospel writers all tell how Jesus had begun to prepare his disciples for his death. He told them that he would be arrested and executed, and they did not like hearing that prediction one bit. Peter even reprimanded Christ for saying such a thing. Whereupon, Jesus told them something else disturbing: every person who wanted to be his follower would need to be ready for the same fate. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) So, not only did Jesus expect to be persecuted and die; he also expected his followers to be persecuted and die. Jesus was getting serious. The kingdom he kept talking about wasn’t going to be simply a festival of healing and miraculous exorcisms. It wasn’t going to be the fun of being a celebrity in a small town. This news was depressing and scary. No wonder Peter wanted Jesus to stop talking like that.

At the transfiguration, it was Peter who couldn’t stop talking. Peter’s reputation is that his excitement often inspires thoughtless eagerness. At the transfiguration, Peter’s enthusiasm for all the positive things that were happening overwhelmed his good sense. The other disciples were speechless with awe at the sight, but not Peter. He didn’t understand any more than they did, but like a summer camper who doesn’t want to go home, Peter babbled on about staying there on that mountain forever. He didn’t get it.

They should have understood what was happening, because it was all so beautifully staged by God. The disciples all knew the story of Moses at Sinai. Moses went up on a mountain. There was a cloud. God spoke. At Sinai God made Israel his kingdom of priests. He gave them work to do and promised to be with them to carry them through the challenges they would endure. The disciples should have recognized the scene. Instead, they were so flabbergasted by the sight of Moses and Elijah before their very eyes that they were slow to absorb the real message of that day.

The real message was, get ready.

Jesus had warned them of his death. Here he was comforting them with his life. The next time anyone saw him looking so magnificent and full of light would be at the resurrection. This moment looked into eternity, however, not simply the time/space future. The apostle John remembers this moment that way when he describes Christ in the book of Revelation. The Bible says that the disciples didn’t talk about this event after it was over, and I am sure they were simply unable to put such a thing into words. That problem, of course, is the reason it needed to be a visual experience. Christ knew that he could never explain in words that he was truly God and that he could not be confined to a time/space death. His eternal nature as the Son of God was impossible to explain in words. He gave the disciples an icon, a window into eternity, so they would be ready to understand the resurrection. He wanted them to be comforted by this memory when the time came. The words that mattered were the same words spoken at Christ’s baptism, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In time, and in eternity, Jesus was one with God.

What difference does that make to me? I see something comforting for me, as it came to be comforting for the disciples. The fact that Jesus’ story is ancient history does not make it outdated. The reality of Christ is that he can keep the promise he made at the ascension – namely a promise to be with us to the end of the age. If Christ transcends time, then every moment in time is Now to him. He can be with me, because he was, he is, and he is to come. That is what the apostle John learned from this experience, and I take it to heart. The story of Jesus is, as one hymn says, an “old, old story,” but Jesus is forever, as revealed in the transfiguration. He is with me, as he promised, yesterday, today and forever.

Wait for the Lord

Mark 1:29-39, Isaiah:40:21-31

Jesus had a very busy day in Capernaum. Last week, we heard about his exorcism of a demon who dared to interrupt Sabbath worship in the synagogue. This week, we learn that no sooner did he leave the synagogue to go home with Peter for lunch than he was accosted with another problem. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick. The family probably rushed up when he came in the door to let him know that the meal was going to be delayed and inferior due to the illness of the mother-in-law.

Jesus solved that problem, but his day was not over. People waited till sundown, the official end of Sabbath, to bring him more problems, but the line was long and the Bible says the whole town gathered. It would have been late by the time he could go to bed.

The next morning, by dawn, the crowds were starting to gather again. They just assumed that the show would continue. It was a pretty good show. Bring up a sick person, get that person healed, shout and laugh, then do it again. It is exactly the sort of show Satan would like. This performance made Jesus a sideshow, not a savior.

Jesus, however, had a message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) The miracles were evidence of his power and authority as God, but they were not the central message. Only the sick and demon-possessed got any real blessing out of the healings. Everyone else received entertainment. Nobody repented, and nobody even heard the good news. They were all focused on the magic of the moment.  Jesus had not come to earth to become a celebrity. Jesus came to invite everyone into the kingdom of God, and to put God on the throne of every heart.

This is the reason that he went out very early the next morning, before dawn, before the crowds began to line up at the door, to pray. Jesus, true God, had all the power of the universe in time and eternity at his command, but Jesus, true man, needed time with the Father, time for refreshment and courage and inspiration.

We know that Jesus knew the Bible very well. When Satan mounted a frontal attack on him in the wilderness, Jesus responded to every assault with scripture. But the only Bible that existed at that time was the Old Testament. It seems completely reasonable to think that when he went out to pray, he turned to scripture for consolation. Did he wonder if he could ever get the crowds to focus on the real message? Did he wonder if he were really up to the work he had to accomplish? In other places in the gospels we read that Jesus warned the disciples that he would suffer and be killed. Did he wonder if he could carry his message to enough people before that happened? Did he wonder how he would endure what he knew was coming? Did he simply need to connect with his Father and spend some time enjoying that fellowship?

It seems reasonable to believe that in those moments before dawn when he sat all by himself somewhere outside Capernaum, Jesus thought about the first lectionary reading for today—Isaiah 40:21-31.

Isaiah wrote about God as we might see God in his heavenly, eternal throne room. From the narrative in the book of Revelation, we see that the Lamb of God stands beside God in that heavenly throne room eternally. Did Jesus let his human mind wander to his heavenly memories that morning? He knew he had a battle on his hands. Did he ask for more strength and wisdom to combat his eternal enemy?

One part of the text from Isaiah would have comforted him. It comforts many people who read it and even inspired a great song. As he contemplated these words, he would surely have been refreshed and encouraged to move on with his message of hope and repentance to all the people.

those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,

they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

they shall run and not be weary,

they shall walk and not faint.  Isaiah 40:31

 

Jesus knew that his job was not to entertain the people. It was going to be very hard. People much preferred to receive some immediate benefit. They were not so eager to follow him in a life of repentance and service, going against the current of the people around them, maybe being rejected or persecuted themselves. He needed to lead them not only to repent and believe the good news, but also to be willing to turn to God for the strength and courage it would take to live that life.

Today, 2000 years later, the challenge is still the same. People prefer to get something out of their religion rather than give something. Today, Jesus still asks us to give ourselves to him in repentance and service. It isn’t easy to make ourselves do it. In fact, we cannot make ourselves do it. Like Jesus, we need to spend time in prayer in order to have the strength to live our lives as faithful followers. We all must be like Jesus and trust God for the strength to do his work. Isaiah promises us that if we remain connected with the Lord and wait faithfully for his guidance, we will receive the strength we need.

                                                                                      

The War Against Evil

The Harry Potter novels chronicle a fantastic parallel universe in which the crusade against evil is fought in the person of a young man who unknowingly carries an element of his adversary within. That war culminates in a final battle worthy of a James Bond movie. In that story, the kingdom of evil ends with a bang. The confrontations with evil that most of us recognize are much less dramatic. Our gospel for today points us to a sure strategy to experience victory in those battles whether they end with bangs or whimpers.

Mark’s gospel, the one that led the way for many others, is quite concise. The reading today is a brief but dense telling of a powerful story. Its subject might seem a bit quaint to modern readers who do not believe in demon-possession. It is included in the book for an important reason: We need to know how Satan feels about us, and we need to know what to do when we see him at work.

Describing the beginning of Christ’s ministry, a few short verses before today’s story, Mark introduces the message of the ministry. He says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” (Mark 1:14-15) Before the story we read today, Jesus called some of his disciples, so we have reason to believe that Peter, Andrew, James and John, and possibly others, were with Jesus on the day he first preached in Capernaum. On that day they were introduced to the warfare that would be the central feature of the rest of their lives.

The story of this day is extremely important. Jesus’ message of the kingdom and repentance and good news was not good news to Satan. Satan had already tried to appeal to Jesus’ human nature in numerous temptations that would have put a stop to this message. Satan tried to turn Jesus into a traveling medicine show that would have been great entertainment without changing lives or freeing people from Satan’s grip. Even though Satan had lost the day, he never gave up, and today’s story is only one of many episodes in which he continued to attempt to take Jesus off message. He would have loved to see Jesus explode in rage or fly out of control like Moses at the waters of Meribah, and he never stopped trying. To this day, Satan never stops trying to squelch Christ’s message. He never wants to hear the words  “the kingdom of God has come near.”          

When Jesus strolled into Capernaum, Satan was ready and waiting. Jesus went to synagogue on the Sabbath, as anyone who knew him would expect. Because word had gotten around that he was a teacher, he was invited to teach that morning, just as any other wandering rabbi might have been invited to do. We already know the substance of his message. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” People were quite impressed and began to talk among themselves about this unique message and this unique teacher. Why, he taught as if he knew what he was talking about. He didn’t waste any time quoting old rabbis. He taught with authority.

But Satan was ready. Satan did not want people to hear the good news. He did not want them to repent of self-worship. He did not want them to enter into the kingdom of God. He had placed someone in the crowd to put a stop to this nonsense. Right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching, this man interrupted with scornful words. “What are you doing here?” he shouted.” Who do you think you are? I know who you are, you Holy One of God.” Spoken in this tone of voice, those words sounded like an accusation of fraud and deception. Spoken at this particular time, those words were intended to divert people from thinking about Jesus and distract them to think about this demented man. Satan wanted them to turn away from Christ’s message that had inspired them. He preferred them to look at this wild man whose behavior might be entertaining. Satan wanted the people turned away from the message of Christ. He also hoped that this interruption would take Christ off his message.

Satan failed. Jesus did not get angry about the intrusion, and he did not speak scornfully to the man whose state of mind might have earned him a rebuke from most scribes or rabbis. Jesus loved the man and hated the demon. Instead of rebuking the man, he rebuked the demon. The rebuke itself reinforced the message that the kingdom of God had drawn near. Jesus said to the demon, “Muzzle yourself!” It was the same command he would use later to calm the Sea of Galilee in a storm. It emphasized to the demon that the words of Christ were the words of God, the words that nourish the hearts of men and terrify demons. Christ ejected the demon from the man and from the situation. He took back control of the circumstances. He modeled for the assembled worshipers the message he brought to them.

When Christ healed a man possessed of a demon, he showed everyone what repentance could do. He said very clearly, if you turn away from evil, you, too, can be healed like this man. When he sent the demon packing, he showed the people that he actually had the authority he seemed to have when he was teaching. He was the real thing. They could rely on his words. Look what his words could do. When he acted with love toward the man while exerting his authority against the evil that had imprisoned him, Jesus showed them what it took to face down evil. The old saying about hating sin and loving sinners is so very true, and Jesus demonstrated in Capernaum exactly what that looks like. When we say that we want to be Christlike in our daily lives, this example is quite important. We meet evil every day of our lives in the words and deeds of people around us. Many people serve the cause of evil and work for Satan’s goals without even knowing it. It is not for us to malign the people and belittle them or even for us to shout at them in righteous rage. Our call is to love them, just as Jesus loved the demon-possessed man used by Satan that day in Capernaum as an emissary of the kingdom of hell. Yet even as we love people enslaved by evil, we must not allow the evil to succeed.

We are called to confront evil every day. Satan’s emissaries are everywhere. They may be intentional servants, who delight in saying they worship Satan, but those are few in number. A lot more of Satan’s emissaries claim humanist values and decry religion of any kind because of the failings of people of faith. A number larger than we might like to acknowledge are fellow believers whose weak faith and weaker resolve are overridden by Satan’s relentless onslaught. Regardless, we will encounter a lot of evil in our lives. When it happens, we need to remember this story. However, we are not likely to be asked or even expected to perform exorcisms. We must trust the One with the power and authority to do that work. We must follow Christ’s example and demonstrate that the kingdom of God is near.

When God in the person of the Holy Spirit dwells in us, we are emissaries of the kingdom of God wherever we go. When we face evil, our mission is to be like Christ. We must demonstrate the fruits of his work in our hearts — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and trust him to eject the demons. We stand firm in word and deed against evil and its whole agenda. We love the people and hate the evil.

We can never vanquish evil by resorting to its attitudes and behaviors. Evil shows itself in greed, lust, aggression, vengeance, hatred and destruction. Christ shows himself when we act like him. When Christ faced the victim of evil, he loved the victim and vanquished the evil.

Satan never rests. In the time/space universe where we live, he roams free. He still wants to put a stop to Christ’s message. He still does not want anyone to hear that the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

We see him at work in individuals and nations, in disease, in fractured families, in economic crises and personal despair. He uses any weapon that comes to hand in his attempts to make us doubt God and turn away from the kingdom. Christ shows us in today’s gospel that he has the authority and the power to defeat Satan if we trust ourselves and our warfare to him.