WHY DO YOU BELIEVE WHAT YOU BELIEVE?

5.27.18 Holy Trinity B

Pentecost B

John 3:1-17

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, t 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

 

It’s amazing the affect a little rain and warm weather can have.  The leaves have popped.  The grass and unfortunately the weeds are getting thick.  It’s summer and that means it’s time for growth.

The change that is happening in nature is also paralleled in the Church.  The seasons have changed.  We are now in the time of year where the focus and main character is still Jesus, but instead of seeing the manger, the baptism, the miracles, the suffering, the cross, the empty tomb, the ascension – you know, the cycle of Jesus’ life, what he did for us – we now see and hear the Rabbi, the teacher with his many lessons that the Spirit uses to cultivate our faith making it more and more productive.

To start this season off every year we talk about one of those teachings that is clear from Scripture but completely unclear to our puny human brains: the Trinity, one God in three persons and three distinct persons in one God.  1 + 1 + 1 = 1.  This defies every ounce of brain capability we have.  It takes something else to have this in our minds and in our hearts.  It takes faith.  And not faith as in how much hope and trust and conviction you have, but faith from and in the Triune God.

To teach us this valuable lesson, to get our SUMMER GROWTH started in the best way, we are digging in to a very familiar section of Scripture, John 3.  I say it’s very familiar because this is the part in the Bible where the gospel is given to us so clearly that we all memorize it. Verse 16, say it with me, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall no perish but have eternal life.” This verse happens to be a part of a meeting Jesus had with a man named Nicodemus.

Nicodemus might not be a familiar Bible name to you, but I think you’ll see that his experience is quite familiar.  Nicodemus belongs to two important groups of people back in Jesus’ day.  The one group is called the Pharisees – they were the spiritual leaders of the day – and the other group is the Sanhedrin – they were the ruling council for the Jews in Jesus’ day.  Belonging to both meant that Nicodemus was a pretty big deal, but it also meant that Nicodemus had some questions swirling inside.  And that is familiar territory, isn’t it?

You see, when it came to Jesus, these two groups agreed, which didn’t always happen.  About Jesus they were all on the same page.  At this time, Jesus was kind of new on the scene; it’s still the first year of his ministry in the public eye.  But these leaders believe Jesus is a menace to Jewish religion and Jewish culture.  He is troublemaker.  He is likely delusional.  He is a problem that needed to be solved.

But Nicodemus also hears the reports about what happened in Cana, that he changed water into wine.  Then, Jesus shows up for the Passover in Jerusalem and performs a few more miracles.  People see them.  They hear Jesus.  Nicodemus sees and hears, and it didn’t add up in his mind.  A delusional menace could not be doing these kinds of things Jesus does.  And maybe he thought to himself, “How could a problem be a man who seems to care about helping people?”

So, he planned this undercover, middle-of-the-night, “I hope my colleagues don’t find out about this” meeting with Jesus because he is dealing with this question, “Why do I believe what I believe?”

A lot of people today will say that the reason you believe what you believe is because that is how you were brought up, you are a product of your environment, and that we all believe the things that we have been told.  According to that, I’m a thick-skinned WELS Lutheran, who loves the Brewers and the Packers, eats brats and drinks Miller because I was raised in Southeast Wisconsin and not California or Europe.  According to many, we are who we are because we have been brought up and brainwashed one way or another.  That’s why so many people say you have to go out and figure stuff out for yourself when you are an adult.  I’ve always thought that is kind of ironic, because it pretty much means that at different times in life you have to go find some other place and some other people who can do a better job of brainwashing you into better, more acceptable beliefs.  And that cycle continues until your dead.

There’s another logical breakdown with that idea. Someone who thinks you believe what you believe because it is what you have been told, because you are a product of where you are from probably says that because that’s what they have experienced, it’s the product of where they are from, what they have learned, and what they have been told.  So that way of thinking crumbles with logical inconsistencies.

It’s also a completely inadequate explanation for faith in the Triune God.  When you are trying to figure out why you believe what you believe about Jesus, God, and the Bible, this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus is a perfect place to find a solution.

Using logic is much MUCH too human.  Jesus says you don’t need logic, you don’t need what a lot of people have said about God.  You don’t need the natural inclination that thinks I have to earn God’s love and do the work to have a relationship with him.  No, Jesus says, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  In other words, sinful humans are going to produce more sinful humans.  And so that means sinful humans cannot and will not come up with the right explanations about God or the correct path to God.  But the Spirit can and will.  The Spirit will do his divine work for you.

And his divine work is always going to point you to something that is not human, his divine work points you to the only thing that will save you from faulty human logic and inadequate explanations.  His work is going to point to Jesus, because only Jesus has brought the unfathomable, the holy, the true God down from heaven to earth.

Jesus says, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”  Every other religion originates in the mind of sinful human flesh, but not Christianity.  Christianity comes from heaven.  You don’t believe this because this is what you have been told, because it makes good logical human sense.  You believe this because the Father loved you and had a plan to save you.  You believe because the Son loved you and left heaven to fully complete that plan for you so that you could call heaven your home.  You believe because the Spirit uses this heavenly gospel to create heavenly children.   You believe in the Triune God, because the Triune God intervened, because the Triune God gave you the rebirth into eternal life.

Whenever you consider why you believe what you believe you cannot go with the human explanations.  Yes, we have been told about God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  For some of us it has been since we were too young to remember.  But that does not explain why you believe what you believe.  What does explain it is the divine intervention, the miracle that happened when the Father sent the Spirit to use the message of Jesus on your heart.

That is the only explanation that will work.  It’s the only explanation because it has nothing to do with your background, your education, your intuition, your perception, or anything else from your human flesh, but it has everything to do with God’s love, God’s power, God’s message, and God’s salvation.

The second person of the Trinity left heaven to make sure he could carry out the first person of the Trinity’s plan so that the third person of the Trinity would be able to use his power on puny hearts and minds like ours.  That is why you believe what you believe.

The world could never come up with this.  Your human head could never conceive this.  It’s far too offensive, too improbable, too divine.  For God so loved [say it with me] the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

First, we have God.  God who is so big, so powerful, so eternal, so infinite, so knowledgeable, so beyond our capacity to understand that it is impossible that any one could understand that he is three in one and one in three.  The God whose chief characteristic is the one that he was able to exercise from all eternity, even before creation, because he is Triune, three persons in one God.  That chief characteristic being love.

This Triune God loved.  John 3:16 does not tell us that he focused his love on himself, not Father to Son, Son to Spirit, and Spirit to Father.  But God so loved the world filled with all sorts of evil, evil that can come out in such inhumane and heinous acts of violence and hate, but also evil that can be cultivated so inconspicuously and privately in your hearts and mine.  Evil that shows up in the way we think about others, the way we talk about others, the way we act towards others with such self-centeredness.

God loved this evil world so much not that the Trinity formed a committee to study the problem, not that he sent us a self-help book to read and fix ourselves, not that he gave us a second chance to get it right.  God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.  The Son came into this world to do all the work of salvation for us.  The Son who lived for you, went to church every weekend for you, listened to his parents for you, cared about his neighbors for you, had the purest thoughts about women for you, stood up for the outcasts for you, was content no matter what the circumstances were for you, was beaten, scourged, crucified for you, broke through the gates of death for you.

God sent his Son into the world that everyone who believes in him, not imitates him, not tries their best to be like him, but everyone who believes in him.  Everyone who denies themselves, denies that they have any abilities, attitudes, or explanations that could save them, and simply clings to Christ.  Everyone who looks at the cross and empty tomb and sees absolutely everything that matters and makes a difference in their life.

Everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life, not get out early on probation, not go through a reevaluation process, not get a lower rate on a loan that you have to pay back but have eternal life.  You have a spot in the home of your Triune God, free and clear, no strings attached, no questions asked.

Brothers and sisters, every word of this verse is the polar opposite of what the world thinks about God and our natural assumptions about who God is and what God does.  There is only one possible explanation for why anyone would believe this:  The Triune God was and still is at work within you.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has created and saved and sanctified you through and through.  In other words, the love of your heavenly Father is revealed through the saving redemption of Jesus Christ, his only Son, and this is made your personal possession by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Word and Sacrament.

This is what Jesus made known to a man named Nicodemus at a night-time, undercover meeting.  This is what God has made known to you so that you will not believe what you believe because you chose it or liked it or came up with it, but you believe what you believe because your God accomplished it in you.

And if this faith in the Triune God is in you and you have his Word, not the words of human flesh but his holy Word cultivating in your heart and mind, then do you know what you do?  Just look what is happening out in nature, you grow.  Brothers and sisters, that time is now.  It’s time for growth in your relationship with your Triune God.  It’s time for growth in your love and service to your Triune God and his people.  It’s time for growth in the work you do for those who might not believe in him.  And when the growth happens the only thing left to say is to God alone be the glory.  Amen.

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THIS IS HOW IT WORKS

 

taking-care-of-our-church

2 Timothy 1:3-14

3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.
6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 8 So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. 9 He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. 12 That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.
13 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. 14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.

 

Faith in Jesus makes a person do and say some strange things.  Faith made Noah build a boat in preparation for a world-wide flood.  Faith made Abraham leave his home.  Faith made Jacob wrestle with God.  Faith made Joseph say “no” to a woman who was throwing herself at him because she was not his wife.  Faith made Moses lead a stubborn and rebellious nation through the desert for 40 years.  Faith made Gideon go up against the Midianite army with just 300 men. Faith moved people to give such treasures and talents to build the temple, as David told us in the First Reading from 1 Chronicles.  Faith made Daniel pray to God when he knew it meant he’d be thrown to the lions.  Faith made Ezra and Nehemiah continue with their work of rebuilding Jerusalem.  Faith made Joseph take a pregnant virgin home to be his wife.  Faith made fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, and others give up everything to follow Jesus.  Faith made servants do their duty willingly and cheerfully as if they were working for the Lord.  Faith made believers take beatings and imprisonments.  Faith made people peaceful as they faced the lions.  Faith in Jesus as the only Savior from sin makes a person do and say some things that are not normal.

What does it make you do?  Now, in this section from chapter 1 of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, you aren’t going to hear this long list of all the things Christians do because God has planted faith in your heart.  There are other sections of Scripture that help us, that train us, that teach us in our life of thankfulness and service.  So today God is not trying to convince you that you have to do something extreme, something great in order to have real, genuine faith.  But it is still a good question to consider: what does faith in Jesus do?  What does it sound like?

For starters, let’s just consider some general examples.  One is John.  He’s your typical guy, who works at the office, likes sports, loves his wife and kids, and has a few hobbies like golfing, hunting, and grilling.  He comes to church a couple times a month.  He strolls in about one minute before the bells.  When he comes his family has to sit in the back left corner.  He sings softly, if at all, because he doesn’t want anyone to hear him.  He listens to the readings and prayers and sermons attentively most of the time.  And then, when worship is over, he’s trying to hustle his family out the door.  Maybe he’ll have a quick chat with a buddy, but that’s it.  He isn’t rude or angry to anyone; he just wants to get home and on with his day.  During the week, he’ll talk about the news or sports with coworkers and friends.  He’ll hang out with his family and read a devotion after supper.  But he pretty much just does his thing.  He doesn’t want to cause waves.  He doesn’t want argue about politics or religion.  John is a normal guy that likes things simple.

Next, you have Mary.  She is the bubbly, chatty one.  She comes to church early so that she can catch up with everyone and greet any new people. (Maybe that means get the latest gossip or talk about her current accomplishments.) She sings alto in the choir because she thinks she has a great voice.  When she brings something for the potlucks, she is always sharing where she found the recipe.  She likes to get involved with projects so that they are done well.  People at work think she’s nice, but maybe a little full of herself.  Her family loves her; she cooks well and has great organization, but they get a little annoyed that things always have to be perfect.  Mary is outgoing and fun, but she struggles with pride in herself and her abilities.

Then, there’s Lacy.  She’s not as outspoken.  She’s gentle and kind. She is the type that bakes cookies for everything.  For the kids at school: cookies.  For fellowship snacks: cookies.  For new neighbors down the road: cookies.  For the big game over at the in-laws house: cookies.  For the office: cookies.   She just wants to help.  She’ll look over the newsletter for the birthdays and anniversaries so that she can send a card or say something to them next time she sees them. She likes the personal touch but she doesn’t get very personal with many people. Lacy is peaceful and loving but also shy and soft.

Now, each one of these people has faith in Jesus.  They believe that Jesus is God’s Son and the Savior from sin and death. We praise and thank God for the Johns and Marys and Lacys.  We praise God because only he could save a John or a Mary or a Lacy.  We praise God like the Apostle Paul writes, because he has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. Only a God with all-knowledge and power could give us this kind of comforting promise that he has loved us from before time began.  Only a Savior who appeared in our world and took our punishment for sin could rescue us from death and hell.  Only a Savior who defeats the devil, the world, and our sinful nature can remove our darkness and bring eternal life to light.  Only a God full of love for the unlovable could make these kinds of people his very own through the power of his Word. Only a God that comes down to us in the sacraments could raise us to live a new life.  All the praise and all the thanks goes to our eternal God.

But I think we would all agree that there is room for growth for the Johns and Marys and Lacys.  That’s why Paul reminds Timothy and all believers to “fan into flame the gift of God.”  The life of faith is all about continual growth! There is something each one can work on.  John can be a little more helpful and thoughtful.  He can own the mission of the church more, meaning he can get involved and serve for others.  Mary can be a little less self-centered.  She can serve others with the kind of self-sacrificing humility and compassion that our Savior gave us rather than trying get the praise for herself.  Lacy can be a little less timid.  She doesn’t have to shy away from people because she’s worried what they might think of her.  She can be bold and powerful with God’s Word.

But that is not really something you can do for yourself.  Paul didn’t want Timothy to despair as he tried to work on some of these things.  He doesn’t want anyone of us to think that our life of faith is “all on me.”  He doesn’t want us to focus on our own mistakes and misgivings.  For a plant to grow it has to get sunlight and water.  Someone else has to do something for that plant to be healthy and productive.  The same is true for us.  God reminds us through the Apostle Paul today, “Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you (that’s faith) – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”   You and I need the Holy Spirit.  We need the resources that he uses to feed faith.  We need a constant dose of the Means of Grace.  We need regular reminders from God as he speaks through his Word.  We need the forgiveness and strength offered in Jesus’ body and blood.  That is where growth happens.  It doesn’t happen because, “I know about God and stuff.”  That’s like a plant saying, “I will grow because I know about the sun and water and stuff.”  Growth happens when the Spirit does his work.  And when the Spirit is doing his work, that’s when Johns and Marys and Lacys grow. As Paul tells us, “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” 

I don’t know about you but to know that God is doing all of this for us takes the pressure off of me.  Our worship series has been all about taking care of our church; it’s reassuring to know that we are in God’s hands.  He is working on us.  He is giving us all that we need to guard the good deposit of faith.  His Spirit gives us the power and love and self-disciple.  And he keeps giving it to us so that we can keep it up.

But there’s one more thing that helps you take care of God’s church.  This is the second letter from Paul.  Timothy had been at this ministry thing for a while.  And the Lord was blessing his efforts.  But that doesn’t mean he was done growing.  And what do you need to grow?  God needs to feed you.  And God will often use someone else to do that.  For Timothy it was Paul writing these inspired words of God.  But Paul needed help, too. Paul had also been working tirelessly and all of that effort got him into prison, again.  It’s this beautiful blending of comradery that describes what faith does.

Do you remember in the beginning, all those examples of extreme things, strange things to some, that faith makes us do?  Well, here is something pretty simple that helps the Johns and the Marys and the Lacys of the church so much.  It’s you.  Timothy needed Paul and Paul needed Timothy. I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.  Paul’s sitting there in prison and he’s encouraging Timothy.  Paul says he’s praying for him.  He directs him to the power of the Spirit working through the gospel of Jesus.  But Paul was also encouraged as he sits in prison by memories of Timothy’s faith-filled family and his own faithfulness.  And he wants Timothy to visit so he can have more joy and comfort.

Brothers and sisters, this is how it works.  God uses believers to help believers.  Maybe you noticed how much that helped David.  Maybe you see how much that helps when Jesus describes repentance and forgiveness between believers.  Maybe you heard the joy in Paul’s words about Timothy and his family.   And that’s what you can be for a Jon and a Mary and a Lacy.  You can be a source of encouragement and comfort.  Your faith can help them and theirs can help you.  When faith does that, when faith in Jesus is supportive like that, then good things happen.

God grant it.  Amen.