St. Luke’s, Burlington
Sunday, 7 June, 2009
Isaiah 6: 1-8, Psalm 29, Psalm 29 John 3: 1-17
I have always found it to be a challenge to preach on Trinity Sunday. Although the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is one of the most central doctrines of the Church, it is also one of the hardest to understand. In my last parish during one of our book study on Thursday afternoons we studied the book, The History of God, by Karen Armstrong, and we followed how, through history, the Church has been struggling to understand the nature of God and the doctrine of the trinity. So far, the conclusion of most of the Church and of most religions in general is that the nature of God is a great mystery. God cannot be fully known. We can only catch glimpses of God’s nature.
The story is told of St Augustine of Hippo, the great philosopher and theologian. He was preoccupied with the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity. He wanted so much to understand the doctrine of one God in three persons and to be able to explain it logically. One day he was walking along the sea shore and reflecting on this matter. Suddenly, he saw a little child all alone on the shore. The child made a hole in the sand, ran to the sea with a little cup, filled her cup with sea water, ran up and emptied the cup into the hole she had made in the sand. Back and forth she went to the sea, filled her cup and came and poured it into the hole. Augustine drew up to her and said, “Little child, what are you doing?” She replied, “I am trying to empty the sea into this hole.”
“How do you think,” Augustine asked her, “that you can empty this immense sea into this tiny hole and with this tiny cup?”
She answered back, “And you, how do you suppose that with your small head you can comprehend the immensity of God?” With that the child disappeared.
St. Augustine woke from his reverie a wiser man than before. He knew that no one can understand the immensity of God. The doctrine of the Trinity gives us a way to understand only something of God.
In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, we have the story of the experience which changed Isaiah forever and made him a great prophet of God. It was a disturbing time in Israel’s history when the King had died and the people were in fear of foreign rulers ready to take advantage of the power vacuum.
Isaiah is a man of the temple and that is where his is when he has this earth shattering experience of God. The experience is so great that he cannot describe God, but only says that the hem of God’s robe filled the entire temple. Isaiah effectively uses these few words to give us an inkling of the greatness of God which can never be captured in words. The fantastical scene is filled with visions which we cannot even imagine. The seraphim are flying, the foundations of the Temple shake with the voice of their praise, and the temple is filled with the smoke of incense. Isaiah is filled with awe and with a deep sense of his own unworthiness. And yet, by God’s grace his sense of guilt is healed so that when God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”, Isaiah immediately says, “Here am I; send me!”
Isaiah’s vision of God gives us a glimpse of he whom we would call the first person of the Trinity, God the Father. He is a God who is loftier than we can imagine and our words are only weak indicators. In his immensity, he is remote, and so completely “other.” This is the God of the 29th Psalm, the God whose voice breaks the cedar trees and shakes the wilderness. The God whose voice splits the flames of fire. This is the God whom we approach with fear and trembling, and yet we are drawn to seek an experience of this God. We seek and yearn for this God whom we fear.
In the Gospel lesson we have the story of Nicodemus who is also a seeker. He is drawn to find Jesus because he knows that he is from God. He must go at night because Nicodemus was a religious leader and most of the religious leaders of the time were opposed to Jesus. Nicodemus wants to know more about God. By his initial conversation with Jesus, it appears that he wants to get it all figured out logically: “How can anyone be born after have grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus takes him out of his logical frame of mind and speaks of the Spirit. “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone born of the spirit.”
Once again we have the spirit compared to the wind, like last week when the spirit came in wind and fire at Pentecost. The Spirit is as moveable and changeable as the wind. It isn’t about understanding it logically, it is about experiencing it. This is the God in whom we live and move and have our being. It is not the God who is lofty and remote, but it is the God who touches us when we are not expecting it and who leads us into the unfamiliar and unknown and who guides us without words.
The one who mediates this experience of God is Jesus the Christ. God would not be simply “other.” God would be one of us. What a truly amazing thing to realize. This God whose hem would fill the temple would live among us and experience a humble human life and death so that we could find the God whom we seek and fear. And, in the finding, we might, beyond the fear, know a person: a person who loves us and gives his life for us.
At the waters of baptism we remember the Spirit of God who hovered over the face of the deep. In the giving of flame, we remember the Spirit who came in the flames of Pentecost. As people who are baptized we need to remember that we are baptized into a community of people who, together in the faith remind us that God became human, and lived among us. And we remember that God is a community, a trinity who is three and is more than three. For as it has been said, “When we think about the Trinity we must forget how to count.” And let us remember that the nature of God is as mystery. As theologian, Justo Gonzalez wrote, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle. Love is a mystery, a crossword is a puzzle. You try to solve the puzzle, you stand in awe before a mystery." Amen.