Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews, a teacher of Israel. But he is in the dark and does not understand. He tries to come to Jesus by the Law instead of by faith, but it doesn’t work. He reasonably considers himself an expert in matters of religion; he’s evaluated Jesus on the basis of what he knows, and he’s reached a preliminary conclusion that is flattering and complimentary. Yet, for all of that, he is ignorant and naive. Jesus must stop him in his tracks and take him back to school: not for academic information, but to be reborn as a brand new person.
You are likewise in the dark, conceived and born under the Law, and you cannot see the Kingdom of God — you cannot perceive or recognize it — except as you are born again, enlightened by the washing of water with the Word and Spirit of God in Holy Baptism. Otherwise, you would still have the same problem that Nicodemus did on that night when he first came to Jesus.
By your own natural reason and strength, you think you know what God is like, but you are wrong. You imagine that God must be like you; that He must think like you, and act like you, and deal with you in the way that you would deal with your neighbor. But that is not so. You believe that you know what “spirituality” is, and what it should look like, but you really don’t have a clue.
You cannot recognize God when you see Him, and you would never have been able to find your way to get to Him. You could never have climbed your way into heaven by any strength or skill of yours, although in your sin you presumptuously make the attempt. But Christ the Lord, your God, has descended from heaven to you, in order to raise you up with Himself in His Ascension.
By your conception and birth of flesh and blood, you have inherited your parents’ sin and death, which blind you to everything pertaining to God. It is only by the new birth of water and the Spirit that you have entered the Kingdom of God — through the Cross & Resurrection of Christ Jesus. Through Him, the promised Seed of Abraham, you have become a child of Abraham by faith.
All of this is the gracious good work of God, His gift to you. And yet, you could not recognize it, nor even receive it, by your own perception or insight — not by any ingenuity or understanding of your own. It is all the more impossible for you, as it was for Nicodemus, to perceive rightly or to understand the Sign that Jesus performs in the Hour of His Glory on the Cross. That is where He glorifies the Father’s Name, but He surely does not look like a teacher sent from God upon the Cross; far less does He there appear to be God Himself, manifested in the flesh; yet, so He is.
Indeed, it is by His Cross and Crucifixion, first of all, that He is lifted up for you, in order to atone for your sins, to call you to Himself, and to bring you with Himself back to the Father in heaven.
And it is through His death that you are born again, unto life with God.
There is no Resurrection or Ascension for you, except by the way of the Cross of Christ. For it is only by His Cross and Passion that you are reconciled to God and able to live in peace with Him.
Look to Christ, therefore, as He is hung upon the Cross for your life and salvation. All who look to Him in faith, all who believe and are baptized into Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life. Look to Him, and live. He has not come to judge you or condemn you, but to save you.
But how on earth are you even able to know or believe any of this?
Faith and life in Christ are not within your natural grasp. You could not see or comprehend Him, much less believe in Him, nor could you ever do so by any will or wisdom of your heart or mind.
But the Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel, enlightens you with His gifts, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith, unto the life everlasting. That is the essential key to everything, by which you enter the Kingdom of God through Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son. The Spirit reveals Him to you.
It is the Holy Spirit who, by the Ministry of the Gospel, fixes your eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith. Because He loves you, He lays Christ upon your heart with the Gospel, the forgiveness of your sins; and He lays you upon the bosom of the Father in and with Christ Jesus.
So has the Holy Spirit also given you the new birth of Holy Baptism.
The Church, therefore, the Lord’s own beloved Sarah, has thus become your Mother in Christ, having given birth to you from the womb of the font by the Word and Spirit of God; so that, not only Abraham, but God Himself is now your Father, and you are His own dear child and heir. But you do not have the Father without the Mother. You do not have the Lord your God apart from His Bride, the Church. You do not have your Father’s eyes, unless you have your Mother’s ears.
The Holy Spirit is actively present and at work within the Church on earth, and He speaks the Gospel to you by such earthly ways and means. Here He is breathed upon you from the Cross of Christ in words of forgiveness, in the water and the blood. Do not suppose that you will lay hold of heavenly things apart from these earthly means. You will not. You cannot. But the Holy Spirit performs His work upon you with earthly things that you can see and touch and handle and taste.
You cannot see the Spirit with your eyes, nor can you predetermine His comings and goings. Do not even try. But you do hear His Voice, because He calls you by the Gospel out of darkness into light, out of the nighttime of your sin and death and unbelief, into the Day of the Lord.
You have known His Voice in the waters of Holy Baptism, when He came down to rest and remain upon you in the bodily form of that Sacrament, and the heavens were opened to you, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ spoke to you by His Son. So does the Spirit speak to you and concerning you, that you are a beloved and well-pleasing son of God in Christ.
You still hear the same Spirit’s Voice in the preaching of the Gospel, and in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution, which is the free and full forgiveness of your sins in Jesus’ name and for His sake. It is, indeed, the life-giving Holy Spirit who is speaking to you here and now, in this sermon, forgiving you all of your sins, blessing you with life in Christ (the promised Seed of Abraham), and opening your eyes to behold the Kingdom of God by faith in Him.
So do you hear the Spirit’s Voice and behold the Kingdom of God in that precious Word of Christ Jesus with which He gives to you His Body to eat and pours out His Blood for you to drink. This is the new and everlasting Covenant that He has established and sealed for you and for the many in Himself, in His own holy flesh and precious blood — which He shares with you by His grace, as He remembers you in love and grants you perfect peace and Sabbath rest in Him.
He speaks, and it is so. His Word does what He says and gives what He declares. His Word opens your ears to hear, your heart to believe and trust in Him, and your eyes to perceive His grace and glory in the Cross. In the Cross that He has borne for you and for all, and in the Cross that you now bear and carry in His Name, in your vocation as a Christian. So does His Word open your mouth to show forth His praise; to pray and confess, to give thanks and sing; and so also to eat and to drink from His hand, to be fed and nourished by Him, and to be satisfied with His good gifts.
It is by this Word of Christ Jesus, which is indeed the Voice of the Holy Spirit, that God the Father declares you to be righteous. That is the judgment of the mouth of God concerning you, and His judgment remains, now and forever. For He who by His Word has called all of creation into being out of nothing — who made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them by His speaking, and called forth the light out of the darkness — who raises the dead and makes all things brand new — He also, by the Cross and Resurrection of the Incarnate Son, has reconciled the world to Himself in love, and now by that Gospel He justifies the ungodly.
He forgives sins and saves sinners by His grace; and that free salvation is the very glory of God.
He forgives you, and He saves you. He does not condemn you for your sins, but He judges you righteous for Christ Jesus’ sake. So He speaks, and so you are.
And at the last, the same Voice of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, will raise your body also from the grave and bring you, both body and soul, into His Kingdom forever and ever.
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen