Amen to That
"Amen to that!" is what you say when in hearty agreement. The first use of amen in the Old Testament is to affirm a curse on one's self if you're lying. The double use of it ends the first 3 books of the 5 books of Psalms. The double use of it in the New Testament is exclusively the God-Man's way of speaking. When Jesus us it 3 times in His short discussion with Nicodemus we're moved to say, "Amen to that!"
The first time Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Amen, Amen I say to you unless you're born again or born from above no one can see the kingdom of God." What a blow this was to Nicodemus: a member of the Jewish ruling council, a Pharisee, a teacher of Israel who had the nerve to come Jesus, even if it was at night. He concedes that Jesus is a Rabbi from God Himself who surely must have God with Him because of the miracles He does.
If a pastor spoke to anyone in a Bible class the way Jesus speaks to Nick, he would be out on his ear in nothing flat, and you can say, "Amen to that." Jesus tells the ruling, respected, teacher of Israel, you don't see squat; you can't see squat because you have not been reborn. I said the next word can either be translated "again" or "from above." Nick takes it as "again" because he states it's physically impossible to be born a second time. But I think Jesus means it spiritually, by an act of God from above, and Nicodemus, who believes he sees everything more clearly now than Jesus, scornfully hears it the other way.
Either way Jesus' double Amen turns on rebirth. Nicodemus is sure he sees the kingdom of God based on the works he sees Jesus doing. Jesus blows him out of the water, actually He is going to blow him into the water, by talking about rebirth. And whether you translate born again' or from above', it's impossible for you. But without it, no one can see God's Kingdom. Something radical has to happen to us or God's kingdom is to us what colors are to the blind. Not one of us on our own sees God's kingdom. We think we see it here when the church is full, or there when our health is good, or over there when like a mighty army moves the church of God. We're sure we don't see it when steeples are falling or when by schisms the church is rent asunder. Our church leaders have taught us this. They see the kingdom when someone gives a large sum of money to a college, a seminary, a mission, not when the widow gives her mite.
Apart from being reborn, I'm blind to God's Kingdom. Say, "Amen" to that. After Nicodemus scorns the idea of rebirth, Jesus hits him with another double shot of Amens. "Amen, amen, I say to you if ever someone isn't born out of water and the Spirit he is not able to enter the kingdom of God." Not only is Nick not seeing the kingdom. He's not in it. Remember this is an every Sabbath day goer, church ruler, leader, and teacher. If he ain't in the kingdom, ain't nobody in it. But we know Nick isn't because he had rejected Baptism. Jesus says that in Luke 7. "The Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John."
Do you feel your cheek stinging now the way Nicodemus' did? You came to Jesus this morning sure you see God's kingdom clearly. Certain you're in it. But God's Law says otherwise. Flesh gives birth only to flesh; sinners produce only more sinners. But you can go a long time, make it all the way to your deathbed thinking you see the kingdom and you're in. But the truth is, you're relying on having come from Christian parents and leading an outwardly clean life which gives you a fleshy confidence that you're going to heaven.
The slap of the Law wakes you up to the fact you're wrong, and it's supposed to happen each Sunday moving you to confess to being a sinner worthy only of punishment now and forever. It is supposed to happen again and again in the divine service repeatedly moving you to plead for God to have mercy upon you and to rejoicing at last that His mercy endures forever. But you can go through the motions of the liturgy without even hearing the words. So God in His mercy preaches the Law to us in other ways. When crushing doubts descend making us unsure where God's kingdom is or isn't, that's to drive us to God's words rather than our thoughts. Or age can creep up on us and we suddenly realize we're not even sure we have the energy to enter next year let alone God's kingdom.
When we say Amen' to that, then we see that Jesus is more than a teacher come from God, He is God come to earth as Man, and the comfort is not that God is with Him, but that Jesus is Immanuel which Isaiah tells us means "God is with us." Don't you remember you're first day somewhere? It could have been at school, college, a job, the military, wherever, someplace you'd never been before, and someone showed you around. Someone pointed out things and told you what you were seeing. Someone showed you how to enter into the cafeteria, the mess hall, the commissary, the library, the break room.
Nick's 2 problems are our 2. We on our own can't see the kingdom of God. We don't know what we're looking at, and we can't get into it with our strength, our purity, our knowledge, our pedigree. God took on flesh and blood to show us around, to open our eyes to what's what and get us into the kingdom. The illustration brakes down though because Jesus doesn't just show us around the new campus, job, or place. No, He takes on our flesh and blood and lives under all the rules required to enter God's Kingdom. And having done that perfectly, He sheds His blood, cries His tears, and pours out His sweat. He does this in a body tortured, damned, and killed with every bit of God's wrath in every slap, every punch, every lash of the whip, and every blow of the hammer. And for the eternity this goes on, He feels that guilt you can still feel; He feels that shame you can still blush with; He feels that total hopelessness only the damned know.
No, Jesus doesn't just show you around. Telling you what's what and how to get in here and there. No, He by Water and the Spirit takes all the forgiveness He won from the Father, all the good will He paid for and gives it to you in Baptism. And now we've reached today's celebration of the Holy Trinity. "[W]herever and whenever Baptism is administered according to Christ's command, heaven stands open and the entire Holy Trinity is present and does the baptizing" (LW, 58, 49). Surely you baptized, born again from above sinners can say, "Amen!" to that?
But Jesus has one last double amen salvo to fire at us. "Amen, amen if you don't hear and see the Trinity in the voice and deeds of the Man Jesus, you'll miss heaven." The Holy Trinity is a mystery the Church owns, doesn't explain, doesn't rationalize, but owns, i.e. recognizes because it's revealed in Holy Scripture. We hymn it; we praise it; we revel in the mystery but we don't look too long at it. Spend a few moments in the first couple chapters of Ezekiel and once your mind is frazzled by images the human mind can't assemble, retreat to the Son of Man.
When Jesus says, "Amen, Amen, we speak of what we know and we testify to what we have seen," He doesn't have a mouse in His pocket. He is referring to the fact that He, God the Son, speaks of what all 3 Persons of the Trinity know and see. If God Almighty spoke directly to you, it would not be the wah, wah' of adults on Charlie Brown. The voice that breaks cedars and causes mountains to skip would not only break your eardrums, it would explode your head. And if the Spirit conveyed to you all that the Triune God knows in His majesty, in His essence, you wouldn't burn out like an overloaded electrical circuit, you'd go insane and try to scratch such knowledge out of your head by scratching yourself blind and deaf.
Jesus reveals here what we confess in the Athanasian Creed that Jesus in one Person is both God and Man not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh but by taking the manhood into God. Here Jesus says it this way, "No one has ever gone into heaven except the One who came from heaven the Son of Man who is heaven." That last part about the Son of Man being in heaven even as He is speaking to Nick on earth is in the original, but only 13/38 English translations have it. Why? Because it blows your mind. The God-Man is here, there, and everywhere all at once. That means there is nowhere the holy, overpowering, awful mystery of the Holy Trinity is that your Savior, Shepherd, and Friend Jesus is not.
Luther called the knowledge of God outside of Christ the only knowledge recognized, referred to, or allowed in American society; the knowledge that Nicodemus was content with "'a knowledge of the wrong side of God'" (Piper, I, 389). It's only knowing the Hulk not Bruce Banner. The second distribution hymn is a Luther hymn that shows where the teaching of the Trinity belongs. For Luther, "Teaching about the Trinity concentrates on nothing but the gospel, on how [our] liberation took place: [by] the freedom Christ acquired and brought to us [from the Father], which Heimparts to us through the Holy Spirit by the Word" (Bayer, Martin Luther's Theology, 224).
You can say, "Amen!" to that. You can't say Amen to the Triune God in His essence. 17th-Century Catholic theologian Paschal said of God's omnipotence that the single greatest feature of it "is that our imagination gets lost when thinking about it" (Pensees, I, XV). I would say not just our imagination gets lost but all of us does in the essence of the Triune God. You don't worship, you can't worship the naked God', God in His absolute essence and majesty (Luther on Worship, 15). You can only worship God as He reveals Himself in Christ and then in accordance with Psalm 100 you can enter the gates of His kingdom with the worship of thanksgiving and praise.
Our word gospel' comes from the Old English word "godspel". That's usually translated good news', but it can be rendered news of God' (Browser's Dictionary, 158). The Gospel John 3:16 is a summary of all the news of God that He wants you to know. Amen to that. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20180527); John 3:1-17