Two things are hard for sinful human beings: mystery and riddles. We have one of these in Nicodemus’s late night catechism session. Nicodemus might add that both things are here. The one sure thing present in John chapter three is mystery. The mystery Jesus speaks to Nicodemus sounds like a riddle.
The reason everything Jesus says sounds like a riddle is because Nicodemus is thinking of earthly matters. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? How can these things be? Jesus is speaking about matters that are not so much understood as they are believed.
The nature of faith is believing what you cannot see. Jesus hints at this truth when He compares how things are for people born by the Spirit. The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Smart people spend lots of time and effort studying the wind. For the less curious among us, we are satisfied with believing that there is such a thing as wind. We know the wind came from somewhere and is going somewhere. The wind blows on its own. We can’t control it. We can harness the power of the wind, but we can’t control it.
So it is with the work of the Holy Spirit. You can’t control it. You watch the Spirit do what the Spirit does and marvel. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit is not beyond our reach for us to try to control what He does and where He goes. Think back to last week and Pentecost. Wouldn’t it be nice to try to bring a new Pentecost in the Christian Church? We can’t. That’s God’s work, and it seems to Him that the first Pentecost is steady as she goes.
If we can’t control the Spirit, in spite of ourselves, then we question the Spirit’s work among us. We ask with Nicodemus how these things can be? Don’t we get to take some of the credit? After all, Mom and Dad brought me to the font. If Mom and Dad didn’t do it, then you yourself made that personal choice to be baptized. No one forced you to be baptized.
Beware the personal pronoun! The only thing you get to do is die a natural death. Everything else in God’s kingdom is His work on you. You shouldn’t be surprised that you want to take credit for some religious actions in your life. Jesus knew Nicodemus would want to do that as well. Jesus tells Nicodemus, If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things.
Sinful human beings do not handle a mystery with aplomb. We’re curious creatures. We ask with Nicodemus, How can these things be? There’s no explanation to being born from above. Our Lord institutes baptism when He puts water with His holy Word and makes a mandate that this should be done in order to bring people through death into eternal life. Faith, a gift from God lest you should boast, clings to that water, Word, and mandate and says what faith is given to say: Amen. Gift received. Yes, indeed, Lord. You said it. No explanation necessary, Lord. It’s Your gift, Lord. I receive Your gift the way you give it to me.
Responding to God’s gifts that way is a freeing thing. No longer do you have to go searching God’s judgments and His inscrutable ways, as Saint Paul puts it in Romans chapter eleven. Paul lays it out nice and plain: For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. This is our heavenly Father’s world. He created it by speaking His Word. The breath of His Word brings all things into being from nothing. He gives His gifts where and when and to whom He gives His gifts. He creates faith the same way. You can’t investigate it with a magnifying glass, calabash pipe, and deerstalker hat like Sherlock Holmes. You believe it because you’ll never get to the bottom of it.
Take the bronze serpent on a pole that Jesus uses as an example of the Lord’s inscrutable ways of dealing with His people. We heard this account three weeks ago for the Old Testament reading. The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. The people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses. Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. Perhaps the Israelites tried to remedy the snake bites their own way. Whatever they tried, if they tried anything, their remedies didn’t work. Death reigned.
There was one way out of death by snake bite. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Go ahead, try and explain that remedy. You might think of a better way to handle the situation. A mass healing by a giant, disembodied hand coming down from the sky would be great. A bronze snake on a pole? All you have to do is look at a bronze snake on a pole and you live after being bitten by snakes? That’s madness!
No, that’s not madness. That’s a gift; a gift that brings life in the midst of death. Fast forward thousands of years later to Golgotha. Jesus Christ becomes a curse for us by having His body hanging on a tree. All who believe what that death accomplishes, all who gaze on Jesus with the eyes of faith, live after being bitten by sin that was brought into the world by a serpent lying to Adam and Eve. The bronze serpent on a pole is a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus Christ. Both are gifts. Both bring life in the midst of death. You can’t explain it. You can’t go chasing after it to ask more questions about it. You believe it. Amen. Gift received. Life.
You are saved through water and the Word of God. You are fed with bread and wine put together with the Word of God. You hear preaching, the living voice of the Gospel, that declares the Word of God. The preached Word declares you are rescued from sin, death, and hell by God the Father’s only-begotten Son. The Spirit of God directs you to where the Gifts are given that keep you steadfast in forgiveness and eternal life. You can’t explain it. You believe it. God has touched your lips, your ears, and your life. Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. Amen. Gift received. To Him be glory forever.