"Our Giving God"
John 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-7
He saw Yahweh – God – sitting on his throne, high above the earth. The train of his robe flowed swirling down and filled the earthly temple. He saw six-winged seraphim, angels of fire, above Yahweh, flying and calling out. He heard their song: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
Then Isaiah thought he was in for it, finished. He cried out: “Woe is me! – I am undone. I am cut off. I am dead meat.” He thought, for sure, that he was about to die. And so he made confession: “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah realized that he was suddenly in the presence of Truth Himself. Every lie he’d ever told seemed to fill his mouth with a foul, disgusting, polluted taste.
But then something happened, something he could never expect or predict. One of the seraphim took tongs to the altar before God and lifted a live, hot, burning coal. He carried it to Isaiah, and with it he seared the mouth of the seer. He purged the mouth of the prophet. He told Isaiah: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.” The touch of the living fire of God delivered that gift to him. That day Isaiah became a new man, a man with cleansed lips, and a man with a mission. Now his cleansed lips would speak what his ears heard from God.
Now we come to our Gospel reading. And what a contrast it is! But make no mistake about it: we still see the One whose presence caused Isaiah to tremble in fear. Now, though, He sits, not on a high and lofty throne in heaven, but probably on a dining coach in a humble home on earth. Now He does not wear the great train that Isaiah saw; instead He is clothed in our human flesh and blood. No flying seraphim in sight, but in comes Nicodemus at night. And that darkness describes not only the time of day, but also the condition of Nicodemus’ soul. He was as blind as the darkness outside to Who sat before him. He was as blind as Isaiah was all those times he worshiped at the temple without realizing the terror and awe of God’s unseen presence.
Nicodemus comes eager and ready for some theological chit-chat, maybe even some full-fledged debate. But Jesus cuts right to the heart of what’s on Nicodemus’ heart and mind. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. And how does Nicodemus respond to that? He argues about how that can even be possible: “Surely, an old man can’t creep back into his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” But Jesus does not back down. He cuts to the heart some more. He cuts right to the point of rebirth and new life: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
And what did you have to do to be born, Nicodemus? What preparations did you make? What decisions? What efforts? None! Absolutely none. Your first birth—that gift of life—came to you as a free gift—unasked, unsought, unmerited. And so does being born again. You don’t have to creep back into your mother’s womb. You don’t have to do a single, solitary thing. You only have to receive the gift—the gift of entering into God’s Kingdom by the Spirit in the water.
You see, Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to Baptism. When he says, “You must be born again,” He invites everyone to Baptism. Don’t lose the passive. “BE born.” He did not say: “go, rebirth yourself; go, decide to be born again.” Instead, Jesus is telling you that you need the gift that only water and the Spirit can give, a gift from Him to you. And here’s why you need it: so that you can see and know who the true God is. “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).
That’s the chief problem of our flesh born of flesh: we are blind to God. Sure, we may know and believe that He’s “out there somewhere,” but we view Him in a very dark light. We see Him as the rule-maker and the joy-squelcher. We see Him as the one Who demands this and that. We see Him as the One determined to make us miserable by not letting us do all the so-called “fun” things we want to do. We view Him as the God who says “No,” the God who is out to get us, the God who makes us pay for all the times we disregarded Him and His rules.
That’s the God Isaiah was afraid he had met in the temple. It’s why he cried out: “Woe is me!” That’s the God Nicodemus had bargained with his whole life—trying to buy him off, butter him up, or rub him down by frantically keeping all the rules. He came to Jesus to hear if there were any rules he might have missed. After all, he sure didn’t have the peace that he should have had. Most likely, he had that nagging question rattling in his head and haunting his heart: “Have I done enough?” So he wants Jesus to tell him if there’s something more he needs to worry about in order to serve God.
But there’s only one problem. That God does not exist. Isaiah discovered this with the touch of a burning coal and with the words that delivered the gift of forgiveness. Nicodemus discovered it too, when God in our flesh said to him: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Did you catch that, Nicodemus? Not “does,” but “believes.” That is, whoever believes and receives the Son of Man who is lifted high on a cross, whoever believes and receives the crucified and dead Son of God, the risen and victorious Lord of Life, that person receives the free, undeserved, unasked for gift of eternal life. “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”
The cross, then, shows that our God does not deal with us by means of pay backs or just desserts. Our second reading today asks, “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” The answer is, “No one!” God is not a God who is out to take from you. That’s flesh-born-of-flesh thinking! The Spirit shows that God, the true God, the merciful God sets His heart on giving Himself to you. He is our giving God. And He is the only true God, the blessed Holy Trinity—the Father who gives the Son into our flesh to suffer and die for us; the Son who gives His life into death and resurrection so that we may not die but live; the Spirit who gives us a new birth in Baptism. He brings us to faith in the Son, so that the Son may present us blameless before the Father, clothed in His own holiness, alive with God’s own life.
Today many of you who have been baptized will come to the Table. Today your lips will be touched with the living Body and Blood of the Son of God. And suddenly you are there with Isaiah: “Behold, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.” That’s the gift of life from the God who delights in giving, the Most Holy, Most Blessed Trinity in whose presence we are privileged to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising Him and singing, now and forever: “Holy, holy, holy.” Amen.