John 3:1-17; Romans 11:33-36; Isaiah 6:1-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What do Isaiah’s burning coal, the bronze serpent raised up in the wilderness, Jesus raised up in death upon the cross, and being baptized by water and the Spirit have in common? Each of these represent an absurd, external element to which God has attached His Word of promise, that those believing His Word would not perish, but would have life.
For, God is holy: pure, righteous, sinless, and unchanging. Isaiah was not, but he was “a man of unclean lips, [dwelling] in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah was a sinner, just like you, and he rightly feared being consumed in God’s righteous wrath against sin, obliterated in the presence of His holiness – and so should you. Isaiah was in utter despair. He cried, “Woe is me! I am Lost!” for there was nothing that he could do to make himself righteous, holy, or clean before God. And, the same is true for you as well. But, do not be afraid, and do not despair, for what is impossible for you is possible for God! “Then one of the seraphim flew to [Isaiah], having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched [Isaiah’s] mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’.” Grace, mercy, love, compassion, forgiveness, atonement, justification – these come from outside of you. They are not your work, your decision, your emotion, your faith, but they come from God, and from Him alone. He showers them upon you as His gift to you who could never deserve anything but His wrath, punishment, and eternal death.
God permitted Isaiah to shake in his sandals a bit and to despair of his life so that he would become a pure recipient of His gracious forgiveness and atonement. Similarly, God permitted the poisonous serpents to bite the children of Israel so that they would become pure recipients of His gracious forgiveness and atonement when He attached His Word of promise to a bronze serpent raised up on a pole so that all who gazed upon it would not suffer death from the poisonous bite, but would find healing and life. They didn’t want to look at it, to be sure, for it seemed to them foolishness, even the repugnant and scandalous image of the very cause of their suffering and death. However, God had once again chosen the lowly things of this world to shame the wise, the weak things of this world to shame the strong that His wisdom and His power might be proven in weakness.
And yet, the bronze serpent was a prefigurement and type of the crucifixion and death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. For, where Moses fashioned the bronze serpent at God’s Word of command and raised it up on the pole, Jesus was the very Word of God as a man raised up in death on the cross. Those bitten by the poisonous serpents, when they looked to the bronze serpent to which God had attached His Word of promise, were healed and lived to die another day. However, those who have been bitten by the poisonous serpent Satan and are therefore doomed to death, when they look to Jesus, crucified, dead, risen, and ascended, they will not perish, but have eternal life.
These serve to demonstrate that your life comes from outside of you. It comes from God. This is why Jesus uses birth as an analogy for your life, both physical and spiritual. None of you chose to be born or to not be born. No one ever has or ever will. You didn’t choose your parents, your gender, your race, your siblings, or anything else about who you are. Moreover, you were born utterly dependent upon others. If you were going to live, everything you needed for life had to come from outside of you: oxygen to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, sunlight to see, sounds to hear. God made you this way for a reason: that you would come to know Him as your Creator, God, Lord, and Father who graciously, lovingly provides you everything that you need to sustain your body and life. Though your sin has separated you from Him, so that you are like Isaiah and the children of Israel in the wilderness, so, as for them, God has provided for you, wholly outside of yourself, a means of forgiveness, atonement, and justification that you may be right with Him again and enter His holy presence without fear, but with boldness and confidence as dear children approach their dear father. And, that Way, that Truth, and that Life which He has provided is His Son Jesus, His Word made flesh, raised up in death upon the cross.
God the Father, who created you and all things, has sent His Son, His very creative and life-giving Word, Jesus, to suffer and die for your sins and to be raised up from death to life that you might be restored to a right relationship with the Father. And, to make this external gift yours, the Son has sent the Holy Spirit to blow upon you through His Word and to raise you from unbelief to faith, from death to life. Thus, just as the fullness of the Holy Triune God was present and active in creation in the beginning, so has the fullness of the Holy Trinity been present and active in your rebirth and recreation. And, like Isaiah’s burning coal and Moses’ bronze serpent, like Jesus’ crucified body on the cross, and like birth itself, your rebirth and recreation is not your work, your decision, your choice, your emotion, your faith, or anything else that you may think, feel, or do, but your rebirth and recreation is entirely the work of the Holy Triune God: the Father who created you, His Son who redeemed you, and His Holy Spirit who has called you to faith through the Word and has sanctified and kept you in faith even unto this present moment.
This is why the Holy Spirit is like the wind which blows when and where it wishes. You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. For, who can stop the wind from blowing upon them? And who can make the wind to blow upon them according to their will, work, or desire? God would have you know how completely without control you truly are, that He might save you! He reveals Himself to you in ways that confound your reason and wisdom, ways that contradict all that the world values and glorifies. Lowliness, weakness, humility, paradox, absurdity – these are the ways and means of God who made you and all things. For, He is God and you are not – period! Therefore, let God be God and every man a fool! Therefore, die to your sin-corrupted reason and wisdom. Die to your self-righteousness and self-deceiving independence. Die to sin and to the world, and be born again by water and the Spirit which come not from within you, but from outside of you, not by your choice, decision, will, reason, or faith, but by the gracious, creative action of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown His mercy to us. As we can give only of what we have received, thanks be to God that He is merciful, gracious, present, and giving through His Word and Sacraments, which come from outside of us, to forgive, restore, renew, preserve, strengthen, fill, and send us out into the world, as He sent His Son Jesus, bearing His life-creating Word upon our lips, hearts, and hands in service to others. In this receiving and giving, our Holy Triune God is glorified.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.