Sunday, June 11, 2006

Holy Trinity
Isaiah 6:1-13
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-25
John 3:1-17

Ascribe unto Jehovah, O ye sons of the mighty, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength.

The children were coloring during class and the teacher was wandering around the classroom seeing all their pictures. The teacher approached one child and asked, "What are you drawing?" The child answered, "A picture of God." The teacher said, "How can you draw a picture of God? No one knows what He looks like." The child answered, "They will when I'm finished."

I love the innocent certainty of children. They know what they believe and yet do not expect everyone to change their mind to believe as they do. The child knew something that no one else knew and wanted to share it with the world, but it would not have mattered if someone else could draw Him too.

This little story has made it over the Internet in religious humor emails. I suppose some child somewhere once said this and that the teacher had the experience of seeing what the child believed. I wonder how the teacher reacted. Did he or she tell the child it was a wonderful picture or the reasons why it could not really be a picture of God? There is value to both messages. The first encourages the child's imagination and exploration of his or her understanding of God. The second reminds the child that God is beyond our human imagination – bigger, better and more magnificent than we can possibly explore with our mediocre brains.

This week is Holy Trinity Sunday. I'm not sure if there is any doctrine in the Christian church more difficult to understand. In the spirit of Abbot and Costello, someone wrote the following dialogue: "When you come to church you need to know the key players . . . you know, the ones who are worthy of honor and praise. Honor and praise huh? Well who are they? O.K., now listen closely. There is one God. One God. That seems easy enough. What do you call this one God? This one God is called, "God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit." Now wait just a minute. You told me that there is only one God. That's right! So which is it? So which is what? Which name do you use for this one God? The name I gave you. But you gave me three names. That's right. What's right? God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. So you have three Gods? No, one God. So which is it? Which is what? Father, Son or Holy Spirit? Yes! Yes to what? That's God's name. Which God? Our one God. Why did you give three names. Because they aren't the same. But you just told me there is one God. So which is it? Which is what? Which name is the name of your God? I told you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit But that is three. Yes, but it's only one."

One God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it doesn't make sense and yet when you look at this concept through the eyes of faith it makes total sense. So, throughout history Christians have tried to find some way to share the beauty and the mystery of the Trinity with others so that they might come to see God in His fullness. We've all heard the analogies. "God is like water which can be a solid, liquid or gas (ice, water, steam.)" "God is like the atom with its proton, electron and neutron – three distinct parts yet one atom." St. Patrick used the cloverleaf to explain the trinity because it is one leaf but also three leaves. Mathmatically, the trinity is not 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, but rather 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.

No analogy is perfect and some analogies really do not work well. The idea of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit being like a man who is a father, son and friend to his neighbor is one of those analogies that really does not work. This is because it gives credence to the modalist idea that God is like an actor that wears different masks at different times in different places. God is always Father, always Son and always Holy Spirit in every time and every place. The fact that God is Creator, Redeemer and Counselor is certainly true, but He was not once Creator, then Redeemer then Counselor. He is, was and will be all of these.

Though no analogy is perfect, I like to think of the trinity in terms of the ocean. God the Father is like the depths of the sea – deeper and wider than anything we can imagine. There are places in the ocean that we may never explore, places so deep that they are beyond our reach. Jesus is like the surface of the ocean – the part we can see. Jesus is the visible manifestation – the incarnation –of that which we can't see. We can touch the surface, ride on it, and learn from it. Jesus can be experienced and known. The Holy Spirit is like the waves crashing against the shore, the spray that rises and the evaporation that reaches into the heavens to bring rain upon the earth. The ocean brings forth life, sustains it and even takes it. The ocean is terrible and terrifying even while it is amazing and magnificent. The ocean is bigger than we can imagine but it is also accessible to everyone. God is all these things and more.

We have made amazing strides in discovering all there is to know about the ocean. Even the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, has been explored by manned and unmanned vehicles. There are certainly many things we still do not know, but we continue to try to fathom the depths of this mysterious and fascinating part of our world. Before we were able to explore, we imagined what might be there. For many years after the trench was discovered, no one even thought it was possible for life to exist. At those depths there is no heat, no light, seemingly nothing to sustain life. Now we know that even there life does exist. God even created a creature that comes with its own light.

We do the same thing with God, imagining and exploring Him so that we might know and understand Him better. We look to the world around us, we read the scriptures and we share in the fellowship of communities in which believers dwell. There is so much we have come to know about this unfathomable entity, this God who is one in three, three in one. Yet there is so much that we still do not know, so much left for us to experience.

I suppose there are those who have read this analogy about the ocean and have wondered, "God is terrible and terrifying?" This is a shocking concept because we would rather not experience this aspect of the God in whom we believe. God is love. That is enough. Yet, it is not enough. The scriptures tell us that human beings are not able to approach God. We can't look upon His face without perishing. Even the seraphim attending the throne of God in today's Old Testament lesson do not look upon Him. They have three sets of wings – one to cover their eyes, one to cover their feet and one to fly. They do not look upon God or move unless He speaks and then they go without question to do His work. God is Holy and His holiness is complete.

Paul Tillich, speaking about the holiness of God said, "Glory without purity is the character of all pagan gods. And purity without glory is the character of all humanistic ideas of God. Humanism has forgotten God's majesty, as experienced by the prophet, implies the shaking of the foundation wherever He appears, and the veil of smoke whenever He shows Himself. When God is identified with an element of human nature, as in humanism, the terrifying and annihilating encounter with majesty becomes an impossibility. But "Holy" means also moral perfection, purity, goodness, truth, and justice. God's glory can fulfill all the world, only because He is holy in this double sense. The glory of the gods who are not holy in this double sense can only fulfill one country, one family or tribe, one nation or state, or one sphere of human life. Consequently, they do not possess the truth and justice and purity of the God Who is really God. They are demons aspiring to holiness, but excluded from it, because their glory is majesty without purity. Therefore, let us say, during this time particularly, 'Thou only art holy!'"

This quote was taken out of "The Shaking of the Foundations" published in 1955, but things are not much different today. Perhaps his message is even more vital for us today. We want a simple faith. We want to believe in Jesus, just Jesus, because He is easy to understand. We can see Him, touch Him, hear Him through the scriptures. Even though we can't do so, we know that human beings have looked on His face, lived with Him, and ate with Him. We know that He healed. We know that He loved. He was not terrible or terrifying. He was kind and merciful. Yet, even the one moment when His disciples saw Him in His glory, they were terrified.

In this world in which we are surrounded by terror, we would rather not experience it with the God we love. But the God who is our friend, our ally, our Father and helper is also the God that created the whole earth and who reigns over it. He can't be like a small lake in the mountains. To fill the earth He must be like the ocean and even more.

In our Old Testament lesson Isaiah experienced God. He saw the Lord sitting on a throne, yet he never really saw the Lord. The hem of His robe filled the temple, the foundations trembled and the house filled with smoke. Isaiah was terrified. There, in the presence of God, Isaiah knew that he and all the world were unworthy to stand before God. "Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts." He feels totally inadequate, but God brought Him to this moment for a purpose. A seraph took a coal from the altar and touched Isaiah's lips, a sign of the forgiveness and mercy of God. "Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin forgiven."

At this point God did not say, "Isaiah, I’m sending you into the world to speak my word." Instead, He asked, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" He gave Isaiah a choice. He brought Isaiah into His presence, cleansed him and then presented Him an opportunity. It was not to be an opportunity for success. As a matter of fact, the message that he was to take to the people of Judah would be rejected by most people.

God said, "Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they sea with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed." This does not make sense to our modern sensibilities. After all, aren't we supposed to be preaching to the people so that they will turn toward God? Why would He tell Isaiah to preach a message they would not hear and not understand?

That's the question we ask today as we plan our worship and write our sermons. What is the message we have been sent to give to the world? Should we water down the Gospel so that everyone will accept it? Should we preach the messages that they want to hear? Should we tickle their itching ears and give them the warm fuzzies and only explanations of God that make sense? We will avoid talking about things like the Trinity because we can't completely grasp or explain what it means. We will encourage them to reach deep into their pockets but we will never tell them to look deep into their souls. We'll take them to the cross and the tomb, but we won't take them before the throne of God. It is just too terrifying to approach His glory because there we will truly see our unworthiness.

Isaiah could have said, "I'm out of here." But he didn't. He responded to the invitation by God to go forth into the world to prophesy to the people.

Nicodemus responded to an invitation, also. We didn't hear the invitation, but at some point Jesus said something to make Nicodemus think. He was afraid, however. We don't know exactly made him afraid. It might have been his position in the community. As a Pharisee, he had to be discerning. The people would look to him for guidance and direction concerning the man Jesus. The Jews were already upset because in the book of John Jesus had just cleared the temple of the moneychangers. The message Jesus was preaching was not one they wanted to hear. It would affect their position and their pocketbooks. Don't we tickle the ears of our congregations for the same reason? We would not want to upset the boat or we might be out of a job.

So, Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. He couldn't be seen consulting with Jesus, but perhaps there is another reason Nicodemus came at night. He wouldn't, or couldn't, face Jesus in the daylight. He said, "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him." He was afraid to come before God. What would he learn? What would be expected of him? What would he see or hear that might change his life?

Jesus floored him. "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God." This is beyond our human understanding. Nicodemus answered, "How can a man be born from his mother's womb a second time? This was an impossible thing to ask, but it was not what Jesus was telling Him. This was a statement of new birth, like that of Isaiah at the throne. This is a cleansing, a spiritual rebirth. But poor Nicodemus did not understand. "How can these things be?" Jesus answered, "Art thou the teacher of Israel, and understandest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and bear witness of that which we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I told you earthly things and ye believe not, how shall ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?" Nicodemus could not even understand the earthly things. He could not comprehend the analogies, the parables. He could not receive the mundane. He would never believe the divine.

There was hope for Nicodemus. Though he may have been confused by the things Jesus said to him, he did not give up. As his story unfolds, we do not see him living fully in the faith, but we see him drawing nearer to God. Perhaps, under the power of the Holy Spirit received at Pentecost, Nicodemus was able to fully believe and follow Jesus.

Isaiah was not called to a life of prosperity and success. His first commission was one established for failure according to the eyes of the world. But failure in human terms might just be what God intends for us because it is part of a greater scheme. Prosperity and success does not guarantee justice. Sometimes God's justice is found in suffering and pain. It was certainly found on the cross. Yet that is the opposite of what we expect or desire. How can an innocent man's death bring justice? Because Christ paid the debt we would never be able to pay. He bridged the gap between the impure creatures and the Holy Creator. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life." Is this justice? Yes, it is. In God's eyes.

So, in Christ we are made heirs, children of God. We are brought before the throne and welcomed into His presence. We have a new relationship with God in Christ Jesus. This is possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. The justice of the cross brings us into a community – a community that is founded in community, the Trinity. In Christ we approach the throne and though God is terrible and terrifying, we do not fear for He has made us children of the Father. We are still awed in His presence, for the Father deserves our trembling worship. He is still the Creator and ruler over all the earth.

The Psalmist writes, "Ascribe unto Jehovah, O ye sons of the mighty, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength." Some of the things the voice of the LORD can do is terrifying. His voice thunders, it breaks the cedars of Lebanon. His voice flashes forth flames of fire. He shakes the wilderness. It causes the oaks to whirl and strips the forest bare. His is the Glory, the Power and the Splendor. He is Holy, only as He can be Holy.

And He has called us to take His voice into the world. He has called us to be prophets, to speak the Gospel to all the nations. It is not a message meant to bring prosperity and success, for in prosperity and success we lose touch with the holiness of God. We begin to develop a sense of our own holiness, our own power, our own glory. We turn away from the throne and build one of our own. We stop looking for the wonder and mystery of the unfathomable majesty of God and we think too highly of ourselves. We live in the world and according to the flesh. If we do that, Paul tells us, "You will die."

When Isaiah saw the Lord, the hem of His robe filling the temple, Isaiah was given a vision of that which was to come. In John 12:41 we learn that it was Jesus that he saw, the visible manifestation of that which we can never see or fully comprehend. Though God is bigger than our imaginations and it is bigger than our analogies. But He has drawn us into His presence, He cleanses us with His Spirit and He calls us to go out into the world to take the message of grace. We can go forth knowing that our God is with us – Creator, Redeemer and Helper. Like the ocean that never sleeps, our God – the Trinity – continues to create, redeem and help us in every time and every place. "Jehovah will give strength unto his people; Jehovah will bless his people with peace."

The teacher was right – no one really knows what God looks like. But in Christ we have seen our God and we have been brought into a deeper, personal relationship with Him. We can study His word to discover His depths. We can imagine His appearance, draw pictures and write analogies to share our understanding of those difficult concepts. Yet we will always approach the throne of God with trembling because He was, is and will be greater in His holiness and in His majesty that we will ever know. Thanks be to God.

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