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June 11, 2006 (The Holy Trinity)

Interim Pastor Steve Jensen

John 3:1–17

My good friend Martin Luther, with whom I used to lift an occasional liter, is quoted as having said, “To try to deny the Trinity endangers your salvation; to try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

Another contemporary of mine, John Wesley, said about this theology of the Trinity, “Bring me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God.”

So I won’t pretend to have the definitive answer on the theology of the Holy Trinity, and aware that more than one person has been burned at the stake for preaching heresy, you’ll note I have removed any stakes and flammable materials from the church property....

Perhaps the safest route today, then, is to pay attention to the appointed Gospel reading and the focus on a person of faith not unlike us—Nicodemus. Indeed, he seems to belong as much to our time as his own. He is open to new ideas and possibilities and independent enough to give Jesus a hearing for himself. He is skeptical enough to want straight answers before he commits himself to anything. He is willing to take the risk of breaking step with his colleagues in the Sanhedrin and make up his own mind about Jesus and his movement. He is cautious enough to do so alone and by night. He likes a theological discussion and prides himself in his sensibleness and logic. He likes to keep the stakes low; he is reluctant to put his reputation or career on the line.

His question is fundamental and may not be unlike our own. Somewhere deep within he seems to yearn for a faith that is both vital and certain. He yearns for some sign that God really exists. I suspect that the rituals of prayer and fasting, of liturgy and sacrifice had become meaningless and unsatisfying. The politics and formalities of institutional religion were draining his faith of its spirit and power. He wanted more than a secure place in the religious establishment; he wanted a taste of God.

Nicodemus was not going to be taken in easily by the popular rabbi and his motley crew of followers. Jesus was called a Nazarene (basically a “hick”), a friend of drunks and sinners, a fraud, and a blasphemer. He also knew something of the fear and jealousy of his detractors. And he was impressed by Jesus’ mighty signs. Not simply showy magic, but healing, the kind of response to the hurts of people that God would offer.

So combining boldness and caution, faith and doubt, confidence and trembling, he meets Jesus in the dark of night. He comes with neither a question nor a commitment. He shares his logical and yet tentative conclusion about Jesus: “Rabbi, your miracles make it obvious that God has sent you.” I suspect he expects an enthusiastic response. After all, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin would give prestige and credibility to Jesus and his unwashed followers.

But, in Nicodemus’ mind, it would be up to Jesus to sell himself and his cause. We don’t know what Nicodemus wanted from Jesus. He may have not known himself. He certainly did not need Jesus to convince him to believe in God. He was already something of a religious fanatic.

If Nicodemus were like some church-goers of today, he may well have wanted to discuss doctrine. He might have wanted to test Jesus’ orthodoxy. Did Jesus support the heresies of the Zealots? Did he cop out with the compromises of the Sadducees? Was he supporting subversive political movements? Or leading one of his own? How did he relate his religion to politics? Und so weiter.... You know the kind of questions with which modern day prophets are stoned.

No, it appears Nicodemus had grown weary of an institutionalized and bureaucratized religion which “kept the form of religion while denying its power.” He looks to be a religious man in search of God. Have you ever felt that way? Has your involvement in the machinery of churchly activity—organizations, budgets, programming, etc.—ever seemed to choke the life and spirit and joy and freedom of faith? Maybe it would be helpful for many of us to slip away for a quiet night’s encounter with our living Lord.

Many Americans today, both inside and outside the church, I suspect, stand with Nicodemus on the question of God. The issue is not whether God exists. Last year’s Gallup poll tells us over 95% of all Americans believe there is a God, and only 1% firmly believe there is no God. The question is not so much whether God exists, but who or what God is for us and what relevance He may have for our lives.

Luther stated it as only he could. He contended that everyone has a god. There is simply no such thing as a person without a god! The question of faith, then, is not whether or not we believe in a god, but who or what is really god for us.

Luther provides assistance with that issue. He says, if you remember your catechetical training, that whatever we fear, love and trust above all else, that is our god. If Luther is correct, then I won’t discover my real god by checking out the creeds of my church. I will discover my god by asking where I find my security, what is it for which I hope, what do I prize most highly in life? Viewed from this perspective, the false gods of our age do not come from doctrinal heresies and alien religious ideas but from inverted loyalties. What is it that people today trust and love most? Military power and national glory? Family pride? Financial or social security? Status and popularity? What do you trust and love most?

Paul Tillich spoke of “God” as that for which we have an “ultimate concern.” Simply, whatever matters, REALLY matters, for us, that is our god. Seen thusly, our struggle for faith in God has to do with tension over what is at the center of our lives that gives direction and meaning to everything else we do.

This doesn’t mean that when we trust and love money, status, social acceptance or other things most of all that we give up our formal affirmation of God in a more religious sense. Actually, we have a way of tailor-making our sense of God to suit our needs and aid us in achieving what really matters to us.

Some of you may remember the book Your God is Too Small by J. B. Phillips. In it he describes such do-it-yourself god-making, helping us understand how a person with a need for emotional support might develop a concept of God as a “Cosmic Psychic Crutch.” People who crave law and order to give stability to their world, may conceive of God much like a “Cosmic Cop.” Those who want to escape from the jarring reality of a harsh world may project for themselves a soft and warm “Heavenly Marshmallow.” God might be conceived in the image of a “Universal Computer” for those who find security in precision and consistency.

You can play the game for yourself—matching life values with concepts of God. More important, you can do it for yourself. How do you shape your thinking about God to harmonize with what you fear, trust and love most in the world around you? Such gods are created in our image. They are not the God who created us in his image. They get in the way of God’s claim on our lives.

Some atheists I’ve encountered over the years would argue with Freud that people search for God because they crave an all-wise and all-powerful father who can take the responsibility of living from their shoulders. People create God, he says, because they outgrow their parents.

I believe most of us do have this sort of need for a caring Father; and God does indeed look after the needs of his people. Yet at this point I disagree, not surprisingly, with the atheist: I do NOT believe in the same God he doesn’t believe in. I don’t believe in the gods people create for themselves whether for noble or selfish ends. Idols are carved out of human wants and needs as well as wood and stone.

Is this what Nicodemus needs to learn? His religion, piety, logic, religious establishment and ritual could get between himself and God? Nor could his logic or wit unravel the mysteries of the kingdom of God.

Jesus essentially by-passed Nicodemus’ initial observation that God must be with him or he would not be able to do his healing wonders. Such logic will not lead to faith. Nicodemus will not find God by getting answers to his questions.

Jesus’ response seems at once more simple and much more profound than Nicodemus could have expected: “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” No clarifying footnotes. Nicodemus will simply have to wrestle with that statement—as shall we.

“That’s physically impossible!” he protests. “A grown man cannot return to and from the shape and place of his birth.” Jesus doesn’t rescue him from his puzzlement. What is needed for faith, Nicodemus will have to learn, is not old logic but new birth. He may search for God in the rituals and writings and theology of his tradition, but it will be God who does the finding. He may try to fit God into his box of religious categories, but the new-life giving Spirit, Jesus says, blows as free as the wind and Nicodemus’ logic will not be able to catch it or even know where it comes from or where it goes.

So let us learn along with Nicodemus. The God who creates the universe and holds all things in the palm of his hand cannot be confined in the structures and rituals and architecture of formal religion. The God who comes offering himself in human flesh in Jesus to make us whole is less understood in the wonder of his miracles than in his suffering servanthood. The Spirit that generates new life and new relationships for the kingdom cannot be confined to our logic, predictions or institutions.

“Blaze, Spirit, blaze; set our hearts on fire,” goes one of our With One Voice hymns. “...mirrored here, may our lives tell your story.” Let the Spirit blow. Sense him blowing in the good news we share that we are accepted and loved and given eternal life in Christ. Sense the Spirit blowing as we celebrate the unity we share with one another in the kingdom and family of our Father. Sense the Spirit blow as we search out together day by day the new meanings and new directions God gives to us.


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