Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17
We have a real desire to KNOW, don’t we? The need to understand and explain nearly all things. Technology has pushed us further, as we have become suspicious of those things we don’t understand. Challenging that need is the transcendent mystery of the God of Isaiah, the God of the prophets, who is so awesome that they cannot even approach, must less see, a God who will only say, as he did to Moses, tell them, “I am.” Perhaps even more dizzying and perplexing is the doctrine of the Trinity, the reality of a God who is in “three persons, One God.” So, perhaps what we really need to come to terms with is a balance: between our desperate need to know God, and in some way explain our faith and belief, while understanding that God will not be tamed, explained fully or known fully because – He is God and we are not.
It was for this hope to find balance that I chose the painting on the front of your bulletin this week [shared above]. Take it out, if you would, and let’s look at it. This is an 18th century painting of the HolyTrinity by Luca Rosetti and I selected it from just a handful of renderings of the Trinity in art. And I chose it among the others I encountered because it does a pretty good job of clearly showing the three persons of the Trinity: you have God on the right, Jesus on the left, and the Dove, the Holy Spirit as it is typically thought of and symbolized, hovering above. The tale-tell challenge of God drawn as the old white man in a beard. Jesus looks decidedly western European, too. And God is nearly always bald when He is painted. You would think the God of all the universe would be able to fix that problem, right? I know I would.
But seriously, there are 100’s, if not 1000’s of depictions of the crucifixion, Resurrection, Annunciation, etc. Why only a few of the Trinity? Because it is so very hard to understand, right? And this painting is emblematic of how we try to understand the mysteries of God: by making symbols for God and other religious icons, like the Crucifixion, etc. When we take a scary or confusing topic and we create symbols for us it makes it a) a little less scary and b) perhaps, a little more “real” or concrete or understandable. We don’t deal well with leaving mystery in the realm of the unknown so we try to “know” things and, if we cannot, often we will reject it as fake, fable, or myth.
The OT seemed very comfortable with the awesome mystery of God. In Isaiah 6, we have the call of Isaiah and God is never seen, except perhaps in the smoke that fills the Temple. The power of God is so great, in the Old Testament Jewish tradition that God is never seen directly and angels, in the case of Isaiah, bring the power of God from the altar in the form of coals that touch the lips of the prophet and purify him for his coming ministry. A familiar refrain is seen in the call of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Moses. Moses must veil his face before he goes up the mountain; the essence of God is too powerful for him to look on it directly. In Torah, God’s name is too awesome to even be spoken or written directly so it comes out YHWH, Adonai, or Elohim.
But our modern sensibilities don’t jive with the mystery of God we find in ancient scripture and we are more and more challenged to believe in a God we cannot see or touch. I am going to take a little human license here for which I hope God will forgive me, but I would like to think that God felt the distance, too. We were unable and unwilling to approach God and our Lord God, in His mercy, longed to draw us nearer to Himself and so He came among us, to atone for sin that separates us from the Divine presence. Jesus, the divine name that came to us in His great humanity, is God as He has chosen to reveal Himself to us now: in love, with gentle and wise teaching, healing, and with the selfless sacrifice of His own blood and bone. In Resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the answer to our distance from God and the great and powerful mystery is brought and poured into our lives by His great goodness.
And because Jesus could not be with us in His humanity for all time, he has breathed the Holy Spirit upon us, God’s love made real and eternal and present, nudging, poking and prodding us along the path to Him. And that is really the power and mystery of the Trinity: God who created heaven and earth reaching out to us, in an unbroken circle of life and love with us, His people. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, relating to us as His people through creation, through redemption, and through a sustaining life that never ends.
Jesus reminds us as He speaks to Nicodemus, The power of God is present, in Baptism (water and the Spirit) and it recreates us and makes us constantly new. We understand that the Spirit is with us if we are paying attention to our lives and the possibility of God in those lives. Jesus cryptically says to the dumbfounded Nicodemus, “the Wind (Spirit) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Christ’s words should be a reminder of the balance between knowing and unknowing. We sense the power of Christ’s spirit which strengthens us, through prayer and perhaps even more through the Sacraments of the church: marriage, Baptism, Eucharist, burial. But that Spirit will not be tamed, it goes and comes on its own power. The God who made us will not explain Himself to us fully and will not be domesticated, nor will Christ, as much as we try to make Jesus a mild and meek Savior: what kind of savior would that be, anyway?
But in Christ, God makes His love and designs for us known: we are His and we are saved and He would make us His own. God’s willingness to engage us in His own Son who came into the world not to condemn, but to save, should be a sign and symbol of God’s undaunted and continuing love. Today, may we bind ourselves to the Holy Trinity, God’s desire to draw us near. For Christ, as the hymn says, is before us, below us, behind us, above us, within us, in the mouth and face of friend and stranger. God is all around us and, at the same time, standing a distance from us so that we may glorify and praise Him, too.