It is good to be back with you all here in the Unites States. On behalf of both of our teams that served in Kenya, I want to thank you for all of your prayers and support. The work that is being done through our congregation is helping to prepare men to serve as pastors throughout the continent of Africa. And who knows, maybe one day, they will come to America to share the Gospel with us. Please stay tuned as we will be presenting on both servant events in the near future, and Pastor May and his family will be here on furlough in the middle of July.
While in Kenya, our team had the privilege of meeting a twenty-six year old man by the name of Abai. Abai was very intentional about getting to know each of us through conversation. He spoke English quite well, which made conversation much easier. Our Swahili is still a bit rough.
Abai is from Ethiopia. However, fourteen years ago, his country’s government decided for whatever reason to eliminate his tribe by way of genocide. Abai, along with his family fled to Kenya to a refugee camp. He has lived in the refugee camp for the past fourteen years.
While in Kenya, we witnessed two momentous occasions in Abai’s life. On Sunday, May 13, we were privileged to attend the Divine Service with all twenty-eight students studying at the Lutheran School of Theology, along with the congregation that Pastor May serves. In all, there were probably about 70 people in attendance. The worship service began with us all gathered outside the church in a circle around the baptismal font. Pastor May, Abai, his life Lucy, and their son Ngathe stood by the font as Ngathe was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We then entered into the church for the worship service which went on for about two hours. During that worship service, Abai, along with six other students were welcomed forward to go through the Rite of Confirmation. They had learned the six chief parts of the Catechism, and they were now prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper as they were confirmed.
So on the same day that Abai publicly affirmed the faith given to him in his baptism at his confirmation, he also witnessed the baptism of his son Ngathe. It was quite a day for us to be present to witness. And how appropriate was it that Ngathe, in their native tongue, means ‘faith.’ And what gift is given in the waters of Holy Baptism? The gift of faith.
In our Gospel reading for today, we hear about the importance of baptism from the very lips of Jesus as he speaks with Nicodemus. The text tells us that Nicodemus is a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews who comes by way of the night to speak to Jesus. But Jesus, who ‘knows what is in man’ (John 2:25), knows exactly why he comes. So, in His infinite wisdom, Jesus directs him to none other than the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Throughout the dialogue, each of Jesus’ responses begins with a common phrase that He is known for using throughout the book of John. “Truly, truly, I say to you.” It is a phrase that he uses to confront those who do not understand who He is or they doubt His message. In our Gospel reading for today in His conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus uses the phrase three times. “Truly, truly, I say to you.”
Truly, truly, Jesus has a word of truth for this man that comes to address him in the darkness of the night. And he certainly needs a word of truth. You see, Nicodemus has a problem. Even, though Jesus is standing right next to him, Nicodemus fails to see Him for who He truly is. Though he is willing to confess that Jesus is obviously from God and God is with Him, he is not able to confess that Jesus is God.
Listen again, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
You have heard the saying before: “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Well, Nicodemus is so close to understanding who Jesus is, and yet so far away.
Nicodemus, like all of us, needs some help. As a Pharisee, he is blinded by his own sinful arrogance. You see, Pharisees thought that they were saved by their works. They were great at pointing out the sins of others, but thought of themselves as those who followed the law perfectly. They couldn’t see that they were sinners. Therefore, they couldn’t see a need for a Savior. And like Nicodemus, he couldn’t see that the Savior, the very Son of God, was standing right in front of him.
Jesus knew all of this. So Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
Truly, truly, Jesus points his evening companion to baptism in order for him to see the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, Nicodemus fails to understand, and thinks that he has to literally be born of his mother once again. We can just imagine the baffled look on his face as he tries to figure out how being born again of his mother is even possible.
But instead of letting Nicodemus’ mind explode, Jesus elaborates on His Word of truth. Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6).
Truly, truly, Jesus is taking Nicodemus to a higher truth. A truth that is beyond the ways of his own earthly understanding. He can see that Nicodemus is stuck trying to figure this all out like it was some sort of mathematical equation. But what Jesus makes clear is that this is not some equation that has an earthly method that can be applied to figure it all out. This isn’t algebra. The ways of God are far beyond the ways of man. Man is limited to the flesh, and flesh dies. But God who is Spirit works beyond the realm of flesh and death.
But alas, Nicodemus remains dumbfounded. “How can these things be?” he asks. And at this point Jesus takes over the conversation. You might have noticed that taking place all along. In the beginning, Nicodemus speaks twenty-six words to Jesus. At the end, Nicodemus only has a five word question before he silences altogether and just sits back and listens.
Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And 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. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:11-17).
Truly, truly, Jesus kindly takes Nicodemus back to what he knows. He helps him to recall the Israelites when they were in the wilderness getting bitten by all those snakes. He points him to what they had to look at in order to be saved from death…that bronze serpent on a pole. Then he connects the dots for Nicodemus. Just as it was for that serpent so it is for the Son of Man. He has to be lifted up on a cross if Nicodemus is going to be saved…if he is going to have eternal life.
Not by his own reason or strength could Nicodemus understand what Jesus was talking about. He needed help. He needed the help of the Holy Spirit given in baptism so that he could see that he was just like those Israelites who were doomed to die in the wilderness in need of being saved. He was a sinner in need of a Savior.
So it is with all of us. Not by our own reason or strength can we understand or believe the words of Jesus. Like Nicodemus, we are blinded by our own sinful self-righteousness. We think far too much of ourselves. Like a Pharisee, we would rather delight in pointing out the sins of others. We carry ourselves around as if we are better than others. We think we are pretty good people. There are no doubt times we even think it is by our works that we are saved. We justify that we are just fine on our own, and all too often we conclude that we don’t need what Jesus gives in order to be forgiven and saved. We fail to see that we are sinners in need of a Savior.
That's what makes baptism so vital. Baptism is where God gives us His Spirit so that we are able confess Jesus as our Savior. Without baptism, we would never realize this to be true. We would never see our need for a Savior. But as baptized children of God, the Triune God has literally joined Himself in love to us. Through water and the Word, He has made clear that He wants nothing to sever the tie He has with His greatest creation. That's why the Father sent His Son. Truly, truly He loves us beyond all human comprehension. Nicodemus may not have understood it all. Nor do we. But when we consider the doctrine of the Trinity here on Trinity Sunday, we can't help but see how much our God loves us as He pours it out upon us in Baptism.
When I think back when Ngathe was baptized that day, I can't help but think about how filled with joy his father Abai was. Then again, I was the same way when my children were baptized. To think that as much as I love them, I could never save them. Only God can do that. And thanks be to God, He sent His Son and gave His Spirit to do just that. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.