Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, but he seems not to be your typical member of the Sanhedrin. He doesn’t have the fear of Jesus that many of his brothers in the Sanhedrin clearly have. So he comes to Jesus—by night, of course; he doesn’t want his moves detected by the spies of the Sanhedrin. And he makes a rather bold confession: “Jesus, we know that You are a Teacher sent from God, for no man can do the things You do unless God is with Him.” This is a remarkable confession because Israel was looking for a powerful and charismatic deliverer, not some poor rabbi. How could Jesus be any help at all, let alone be their Deliverer?
But Nicodemus had a sense that there was something different about Jesus that defied easy explanation. And the first words Jesus spoke to him didn’t help. Nicodemus had not asked anything of Jesus, but Jesus knew what was on his mind. Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” Nicodemus answered Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” What Jesus is saying challenges everything Nicodemus had ever believed, and everything the Pharisees stood for.
Nicodemus suffered from a deadly spiritual blindness—a disease we all have—a blindness convinced that it must see to believe. And somewhere along the road of life, this is an affliction that plagues us all. Maybe you have felt as I seem often to feel. As I look back over nearly 47 years of life, 21 of them as a pastor, I ask myself: “What have you accomplished, not only as a pastor, but as a man?” Frankly, I don’t see anything. I even get “friendly” little reminders that others don’t see that I have accomplished much either. But there are things I cannot see. I may never have any evidence of the blessing that has been received from a word of comfort I have spoken to someone, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. I may never “see” how something I have said or done as a father has been a blessing to my children, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Still, I have this almost insatiable desire to see how I have been a blessing to someone, to see the fruit of my labors. And others want to see the same thing. They want to be able to put a statistic to my efforts; they want a bottom line. And I know that your experiences, though different in substance, are likely to be very similar to mine: personally, professionally, and spiritually.
That was the problem Nicodemus had. He could not see, literally, how what Jesus said could be true. To Nicodemus, to be born anew meant, somehow, to re-enter His mother’s womb and to go through the whole experience of being born once again. He had to see it. And I believe the Church today has that same problem. We need results; we need to see bigger attendance numbers; we need to see bigger offerings. My brothers and sisters in Christ, faith is not about what you see; it is about what you hear. It is not about seeing the growth of the Church, for that is a gift neither you nor I have, and it is arrogant and unfaithful to suggest that we do. When Jesus told His disciples that the life of faith is the life of the cross and that faith does not promise a wonderful life here, but rather is an invitation to come and die, most of His disciples could not get away from Him quickly enough. It is not about what you can see. It is not about putting the work of the Holy Spirit to a statistical analysis. It is about being faithful to the Word of God, and hearing the Gospel, and believing that the Holy Spirit will do with the Church just what He has said He will do.
Jesus said to Nicodemus: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Your eyes can be and will be liars. But the Spirit, who can be heard, will never speak anything but the truth. The Word of the Lord will never tell you anything but the truth. When you see the Sacrament of Holy Baptism administered, all you may see is water being administered by an unworthy pair of hands. But the Word of the Lord says that the new birth, birth into a life of faith that leads to eternal life, is what is really there. When your pastor speaks the Words of Holy Absolution into your ears, the mouth doing the speaking may be offensive to you—you may not even like the guy—but if the Lord has put him there to speak “in the stead and by the command of…Christ,” then it doesn’t matter what you see; what matters is the truthful Word you hear. When you are offered the Holy Supper, it is not much to see. But the bread is the very body of Christ, and the wine is His very blood, both given for the remission of sins. That is something you cannot see; you can only hear and, then, receive. Today is the celebration of the Holy Trinity. There is no evidence you can see of the truth that God is, at the same time, One essence and Three divine Persons. But as the Athanasian Creed says, if you do not believe that, you cannot be saved. It is not what the eye grabs hold of, but what the ear hears from the Word of God, and the heart believes. It is not what you see, but what you hear. Thanks be to God for ears to hear and faith which receives His Word with joy. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.