Trinity Sunday – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Trinity Sunday (Series B)
Text: John 3:1-17
Our Savior Lutheran, Raleigh
May 30, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
You remember our old, aristocratic friend Nicodemus, don’t you? That cunning debater, who’s been sitting on the council for probably thirty years now, just like his father and grandfather before him. A large, influential family—old Jerusalem money; they all believe in good taste. Each morning, we’d see him ride by in his chauffeured limousine, heading into the city from his palatial home in the suburbs, sipping his hazelnut coffee and reading the Times.
But whenever Nicodemus would hear that Jesus was back in town, that limo always silently pulled up in the shadows—window rolled down just a crack—to hear what Jesus had to say. He’s always there in those shadows, I’m convinced. In our Gospel lesson, it’s the shadows of the Jerusalem night. But he’s also lurking there when Jesus teaches in the Temple; when the Sanhedrin condemns him to death; when the Romans nail him to the cross; when he’s raised from the tomb. And of course, he’s there at Pentecost, too.
Now we’ve come full circle. We and Nicodemus have followed Jesus’ entire ministry, and on this Sunday—the Feast of the Holy Trinity—we look back on Nicodemus’s first encounter with the Great Teacher. And originally, I thought that Nicodemus would have something to tell us; that reflecting on his encounter with Jesus, he would somehow explain for us the depths of the Trinitarian mystery. But I looked at the text again and realized Nicodemus doesn’t have anything to say at all. In fact, he hardly ever speaks! He gets a couple questions in edgewise, but then gets reprimanded by Jesus. And then there’s the time he steps up to defend Jesus before the Pharisees, “The Law doesn’t judge someone without first listening to what he’s teaching, does it?” But he’s promptly shamed back into the shadows.
So Nicodemus usually just listens. That’s why he went to Jesus in the first place—not to question him, but to listen. Nicodemus had recognized that something wasn’t quite right. Something certainly wasn’t kosher with this prophet from Nazareth. But something wasn’t quite right in Nicodemus himself. His magnificent wealth, his beautiful wife and large family, his influential spot in the inner ring of the Jerusalem elite; all of these things, were no longer enough to make him feel complete. And those stuffy Jewish teachings, the Scriptures he had committed to memory, the “moral” life he led because of them—these just weren’t doing it for him, either. So Nicodemus sought out the latest travelling preacher to see if he could speak any peace into his life.
But instead, Nicodemus listens to himself get beaten to a pulp. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” Jesus demands. All of Nicodemus’s education, experience, and wisdom—his whole life, really—are called into question by Jesus’ searching questions. But Nicodemus doesn’t interrupt; he doesn’t mount a defense. He just keeps listening. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” Jesus carries on, “we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.” In other words, “Of course you wouldn’t understand these things, Nicodemus, because you and your fellow Pharisees haven’t been paying attention to the Scriptures! You’re so caught up in your lavish lifestyle that you can’t even hear what we have to say!”
Nicodemus doesn’t flinch—but that one stung. He barely listens as Jesus keeps talking about the Son of Man descending from heaven, being lifted up like the serpent, and that this is the way that God loves the world—by giving his Son. Suddenly Nicodemus finds himself sitting alone and Jesus is nowhere to be seen. So he climbs back into his limo, feeling even emptier than when he arrived, with Dorothy Sayers’ words on his lips: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing—incomprehensible!”
None of what Jesus said made any sense to Nicodemus. But nonetheless, the seeds of faith were planted. Faith doesn’t require understanding, anyways. And that little bit of faith would drag him back to listen to Jesus whenever he was back in town. Jesus would look out at the people as he was teaching, and then see the Mercedes limousine parked behind the crowd, with the blacked-out windows rolled down just a bit. “Who’s that?” the disciples would ask. “Oh, that’s just Nic listening in,” Jesus responds, with a smile and a wave. Faith listens before it does anything else.
And as Nicodemus’s faith listened to Jesus for those three years, he began to change. He didn’t even realize it! Those old Jewish scriptures suddenly became interesting again; so he started studying them again with a renewed vigor. This left him with very little time to socialize in high society. The elaborate parties that he and his wife would host quickly lost their flair, so he stopped showing up to them. Even the limo became an inconvenience to him—so he started walking the couple miles from Bethany into the city each morning, praying, reciting psalms, and giving alms to the poor as he walked along the way. “Something’s not quite right with Nicodemus,” his friends began to murmur. His wife, too, noticed the change—especially after they saw their neighbor Lazarus out mowing his lawn—a week after he had died!
Nicodemus, however, was completely unaware of these changes to his demeanor. All he knew was that the Passover was at hand, and he hadn’t felt this excited for it since he was a boy. But the family’s preparations were interrupted by a phone call. “The council must be convened—,” a voice said. “immediately—to hear the case of another revolutionary: Jesus of Nazareth.” Shocked, Nicodemus immediately had the car brought around and sped into the city. The events were a blur from then—The Sanhedrin quickly condemned Jesus to death by a majority vote, leaving no time for a defense; then he was sent to Pilate; and the next day he was led to Golgotha to be crucified. Nicodemus was devastated. He didn’t know what to do. But somehow, he found his feet carrying him to the home of Joseph of Arimathea.
As the sun was setting that evening, the midnight blue Mercedes Maybach with tinted windows rolled down just a bit slid silently out of the city and paused at the foot of the hill. Two men stepped out and gazed up at the dead body as the chauffeur set up the ladders. “The Son of Man must be lifted up,” Nicodemus whispered, “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (He was a good listener, after all.) The crowd had long since departed. So the two elderly gentlemen wrestled the corpse of the incarnate God down from the cross, washed and wrapped it, and carried it to a nearby tomb.
And now here we are with Nicodemus—after the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the sending of the Spirit; the work of God completed and yet just beginning. We look back to that first encounter on that Jerusalem night, and we laugh and mutter, “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing—incomprehensible!” That business of the Trinity—it still can’t be explained.
But we know that by that blessed name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—that we are brought out of the shadows into the light of God’s kingdom; that we are reborn to new life and made complete. And that life revolves around listening—listening to those manifold mysteries “deep in prophet’s sacred page, and grand in poet’s winged word.” Thankfully, it doesn’t have to make sense. Because in that Word, the Holy Spirit is calling, gathering, and enlightening us into the body of Christ, whose “life of truth and deeds of love, whose death so steeped in hate and scorn” has reconciled to the Father and given us eternal life. This Triune God we worship and adore, now and unto the ages of ages.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.
Wonderful sermon, so evocative. I grew up on Long Island outside Manhattan, & can see Nicodemus in his limo traveling into and out of “ the city”, as we called NYC. There’s a huge cemetery in Queens called Calvary where I visualize Nic & Joseph taking Jesus’ body off the cross. A powerful image! Thanks for this.