My ISP is acting up, so I'm having trouble uploading the audio of the sermon. Look for another post if I finally get the podcast up.
What’s In A Name?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Nicodemus was one of those people who stood on the edge of the New Testament. Obviously, he was not a "leading character" like John or Paul. He was less than a minor figure like Timothy or Titus. We're not told much about Nicodemus. In our text, John identifies Nicodemus as a Pharisee, one of the rulers of the Jews. That means he was a layman who served on the Sanhedrin, that highest of Jewish councils that was dominated by the Sadducees. John also tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night. Perhaps John was making the point that Nicodemus not only came to Jesus "after hours," so to speak, but that he came under the cover of darkness. That is, the fact that Nicodemus came to the Lord by night also pointed to the Nicodemus' spiritual condition. He was still "in the dark," as he had not yet come to see Jesus as the Light of the world. Nicodemus, that man who comes to Jesus by night, will come to walk in the light. At the end of John's Gospel, we read that Nicodemus stepped out of the shadows and joined Joseph of Arimathea, also a secret disciple of Jesus, to prepare the corpse of Jesus for a proper burial. Nicodemus supplied the myrrh and aloes to anoint the Lord's body. Nicodemus might have on the edge of the New Testament, but he is nevertheless significant.
The real significance of Nicodemus is that Jesus revealed Himself to this man; and in doing so, Jesus revealed the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and this revelation from Jesus did not fit into the theology of the Pharisees. These were pious men, dedicated to doing good works. They had vowed to tithe, fast, and keep the Sabbath. But their focus was on their good works, their sincerity. They chose to focus on obedience to the law rather than trust in the mercies of God. It sounds a great deal like today’s popular theology, really.
The first thing that Nicodemus said to Jesus in our Gospel reading points to works. He said, "Rabbi, we know that you are teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him." To his way of thinking, the miraculous works that Jesus does are indicators that "God is with Him," that is, He is operating under the blessing of the Lord God. Immediately Jesus changed the course of the conversation. He said to His visitor: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus was talking about signs and works. But Jesus spoke about rebirth. Nicodemus was confused. He knew that it was impossible to literally be born again. How could a man start his life over? How could a man return to his mother's womb and be "born again"? The answer Jesus gave is important. "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of the water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." This new birth is nothing other than Holy Baptism. Baptism is the Lord's doing, for it is done "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." With the water and the Word, the Triune God Himself puts His name on us and thereby gives us the new birth into His family. Thus Jesus says, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit."
The name of God is essential here. When Jesus gives His apostles the mandate to make disciples, He indicates that disciples are to be made by "baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" and teaching them to keep all things that Jesus has given. Now, to understand the full significance of Jesus' words about "baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" one must go back to the Old Testament. The greatest gift which God gave to the people of Israel was his holy name. In this one gift He included all the other gifts which He ever offered to His people. When God gave His name to the Israelites, He gave them Himself, for by His name they had access to Him personally. He made Himself present for His people. In Numbers 6 God instructs the priests to put His name on the people in the words of the Benediction, the same one which you hear in every Divine Service. Then, after God gives them the words of that Benediction He says, "So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." Where God puts His name, He puts His presence and His blessing. In other words, unless God puts His name on you, you cannot enter His kingdom. With His name put on you in the waters of Holy Baptism, you are born again. That is why St. Peter says, "Baptism now saves you."
Even though he is a "teacher of Israel," Nicodemus still needed of some teaching. He asked, "How can these things be?" And Jesus does teach Nicodemus. Jesus in His words He reveals the Holy Trinity to Nicodemus as He testifies of the Father who sent the Son from heaven to be lifted on the cross, just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so that all who look to Him in faith that is created by the Holy Spirit will not perish by the venom of sin but will receive eternal life, the very life of the Trinity. Jesus directs Nicodemus to the cross, for on the cross the forgiveness of sins was won for the world and that same forgiveness of sins, along with the life and the salvation which forgiveness brings, is given to us in the new birth of Baptism.
It is all in God's name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is the Lord's name revealed to you by the Lord Himself. No substitutes will do, for to lose the name of the Lord is to lose the Lord Himself. But to have His name, to cling to His name in faith, is to have everything that God has put in that name for you. We live in a changing world. Only one thing remains sure and certain, and that is the Lord: Father, Son (+), and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.