The Holy God, the Humble God, and the God Who Holds them Together

A sermon for the Holy Trinity [Year B]

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8: 12-17, and John 3:1-17

Several years ago my family took a trip in central Kentucky, and while we were there we visited Mammoth Cave National Park. I did not know what to expect entering a cave. All I knew is that all the facts and information about Mammoth Cave were impressive. For example, I knew that Mammoth Cave is by far the longest cave system known in the world, almost twice as long as the next longest known cave system. It’s enormous, and people are not even sure they know everywhere it all goes, even though people have been using it and visiting it since before European settlers came to this country.

Mammoth Cave 2
The staircase that brings you into the main entrance of Mammoth Cave

I was a little anxious about approaching the cave, but the tour guides gathered us all above-ground as a group for a little pep talk and information session before we went down in it. Then we started off down this inconspicuous trail in the woods before meeting a large staircase that abruptly descended from the forest floor into the earth.  Cold drafts of air arose out of it, hitting our faces. It was 90 degrees and sunny up the surface but they said it would be 58 degrees in the cave. I should have brought the jacket they suggested.

As we walked down those stairs I was perplexed and amazed at what I was experiencing. Daylight dimmed and we wound through damp passageways. Eventually we gathered with our tour guide in the middle of this wide, large chamber of the cave that is called the Rotunda. And there, in the midst of this great big cavern almost seven stories underground, they turned out all the lights. I wasn’t able to see my hand in front of my face. It stayed like that for a few minutes and then the tour guide struck a match and light filled the entire chamber, and if I had all the time in the world and all the words in the world, I don’t think I could describe to you what that was like.

If we had all the time in the world and all the words in the world we couldn’t describe what God is like. God exceeds any human capacity to define and describe. We stand up on the edge, creatures of the surface, beings of finite time and space, with no way of truly explaining the mystery that lies beyond us.

And yet we have encounters with God, and in moments of greater faith we know there is this Being who has created us and who loves us and has called us to be images of the divine in the world. There is no way to fully explain who God is or what God is like, but the Holy Trinity gives us language to approach the mystery of God in our thoughts and in our words based on what has been revealed through Scripture. Thinking about God as the Holy Trinity is like building a staircase right into the heart of a cave—a cave that actually stretches for untold miles beneath the surface of the earth—so that we can talk about who it is that has created and claimed us. So, on this day that the church celebrates this Holy Trinity, I’d like to offer up three points about God that arise out of the texts this morning that may help us build a staircase into this unfathomable mystery.


The first is that God is inherently unapproachable. And by that I mean that we mortals can’t really come to God in the first place, especially in our sin. That’s what Isaiah struggles to explain in the story of his call to be a prophet which is essentially what a few others before him in Israel had discovered, too. God is so glorious and so holy and so totally “other” than anything human and anything created that none of us really has the faculties to perceive God as God is.

When Isaiah is brought into God’s presence he finds he can only use words and images that people use to describe the most royal of kings and queens. God is sitting on a throne and the robe he is wearing is so immense that just the edge of it fills the entire temple. There are beings that he can’t fully describe tending to God in God’s majesty and they sing constantly about how holy God is. There was smoke all around, which was symbolic to Israel of the prayers ascending to God, but I can’t help but think of a fog machine in the background somewhere when I read it. And as he stands before all of this, Isaiah feels completely unworthy and unprepared, just as I know many of us feel each time we approach the altar of God here. God is so good and so powerful that we don’t really have any business being near him.

This aspect of God reminds me of one congregation I served near up in Pittsburgh. It was St. Michael and All Angels Lutheran Church, set down in the valley of the Spring Garden neighborhood near downtown. Spring Garden was historically a very working class area, and the immigrants who moved there from Europe found employment in the local slaughterhouses and rending factories, although by the time I lived near there the population had all but emptied out. The pastor who served there for 39 years, the Reverend Paul Kokenda, developed a worship liturgy that was so ornate and so “high,” as we say, that, I’m told, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic seminaries often sent students there in order to learn how to lead worship.


Pastor Kokenda used incense every Sunday, filling the sanctuary with smoke. There was no part of the worship service that wasn’t chanted, except for the sermon. Worship leaders wore elaborate robes and vestments, and gold-embossed icons were paraded around during the worship service. When you worshiped there you definitely got a sense that God was holy and full of glory. and I imagine that if you were one of the factory workers of Spring Garden, or one of the children of a factory worker, you got the feeling each week in worship as you left the gray, sooty neighborhood behind and entered the door of the church that God’s presence was utterly different than you and everything else you knew. God was ultimately unapproachable, and one was grateful just to be ushered into God’s presence for an hour or so. That was the feeling Paul Kokenda had curated with his worship in that little urban valley.

God is unapproachable…and yet God approaches us, which is the second point to be made. It’s what Isaiah discovers as he admits that his lips are unclean, and that he comes from a people of unclean lips, and then one of these heavenly beings comes forward with a coal and touches his lips to cleanse him. It’s what Nicodemus struggles to understand when Jesus of Nazareth comes into his town, a story that John relates in his gospel this morning. Nicodemus is a wise man, a leader among the Jewish people, and so he understands on a gut level that God is somehow present in Jesus even though it makes little sense. It seems strange that a God who is so holy, so perfect, would just walk around among us as a human being.

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop (Tanner)

And as it turns out this God doesn’t just approach us. God lets loose of the holy robe and angels and the fog machine and becomes flesh like one of us. God so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son and even has him lifted up on a cross so that those who believe in him may not die but have eternal life…the same life as God. Here we have a God who by nature wants to approach us, come to us, reduce himself down to the darkest parts of our own lives so that we can know him and know we’re loved by him.

Here I think of a photo that was texted to me yesterday by one of the people on the camping trip with Pastor Joseph. It was a photo of the campfire they’d built with a small altar table next to it and on the altar was a simple loaf of bread and a chalice. The ground around it was uneven and covered in dead leaves and small rocks and twigs—the kinds of things you’d expect to see out in the wilderness. It was an utter contrast to the fancy worship spaces like Pastor Kokenda’s church, and yet we are able to worship this God in such a place and in such a way because we know God approaches us. God seeks us out in the wilderness.


So just as we find that God’s holiness is an essential part of his character, so do we find that humility is, too. God does not withhold himself from us and so God approaches us in love, broken and imperfect though we are.

Therefore, with one person of God so holy and another person of God so humble, there must be a mighty strong force holding them together! And that’s what we find with God’s Spirit. Flowing between the God who is Father and Creator of all and God the Son who dies on the cross we find this intense, burning love. We could say there’s the Holy God and there’s the Humble God and the God who holds them together, moving mysteriously like wind that blows wherever it wants, bringing life as it goes. This Spirit embraces you and me as we encounter the living Christ and draws us into the life of this holy and humble God. But it does not keep us there, withdrawn from the world, and that is what you and I probably struggle with each and every day.

That’s the third point to make on this Holy Trinity Sunday. Now that the unapproachable God approaches us in love through Jesus, we are sent to approach the world as this God’s children. We do not hold back, we do not keep it a secret, we do not try to be selective in who we bring his grace to. We do not worship the days of our past, we do not grow timid about the days ahead. As the apostle Paul says, we do not “receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption,”—of a future moving forward. When Isaiah is cleansed by the coal that touches his lips, he hears the voice of God say, “OK, Now whom shall I send to approach others with this?” and Isaiah says, “I’ll do it! Send me!”

The Triune God, the one who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the one who is Holy and the one who is Humble and the one who is Holding those together—sends you and me to bear this love to the world. We approach others in places like Spring Garden and by campfires in the wilderness. We approach the world in gentleness and boldness, through things like feeding the hungry and building homes for the homeless, but also in patiently listening to a care-receiver’s needs. And as we approach this beautiful world, we trust that it is the very spirit of God bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children—that others may come into contact with us and know that God’s love is approaching them.

a traditional symbol for the Holy Trinity

And one day we won’t have to worry anymore about how to approach this unapproachable God or how to approach others, for we will be there. We will fully know him, just as we are fully known. Things will be dark, really dark, but then the light will go on and it will never go out. That light will fill all in all, shining with the glow of the risen Jesus, and the whole earth will know what Isaiah hears and what we sing each time we gather around this table—that the earth is full of God’s glory.

And on that day—on that great day—we will have all the time in the world to talk about that glory and all the words in the world to tell His story.



Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Long prayers

a sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter [Year B]

John 17:6-19


Our two-year-old is starting to grasp the ritual of prayer, and it is exciting to watch. Around our supper table we typically hold hands for the mealtime prayer, but he also knows that putting his hands together is a way to pray. The other night before anyone had picked up a fork he put his hands together for the prayer and then bowed his head. We followed his lead and prayed one of our quick rhyming prayers—“God is great, God is good, let us thank him by our food…”—and then, for some reason, after we said “Amen,” our 9-year-old daughter looked across the table at him and said, in an all-knowing tone of voice: “Jasper, as you get older,  the prayers get longer.” It was almost like a warning or something. And I immediately thought to myself as I looked at her, about to hit her 10th birthday, “Girl, you have no idea how long they get.”

Isn’t it the truth, though? As we move through life, there seems to be more to pray for. In my Facebook feed this week appeared a photo of two 16-year old twin boys—the photo taken by their mother—who were sitting in the front of a car, one of them behind the wheel, as they drove off together without an adult for the first time. That mother probably prayed from the moment she snapped that photo until the moment she saw the headlights appear back in the driveway. Long prayer.

This week and this weekend I saw all kinds of posts and photos about college and graduate school graduations. There is a lot of joy and pride in these celebrations, but likely some anxiety, too, as these young people prepare to be thrust out into a sketchy job market, carrying some debt, wondering what they’ll find. Yes, the prayers get longer.

And as we look at the state of world events with alliances between world powers shifting and talk of the nuclear threat again, all our prayers should be getting longer for the world to value peace and prosperity for all.

The same goes for Jesus. The farther along in ministry he gets, the longer his own prayers become, especially in John’s gospel. In fact, the portion of the gospel lesson we have today is from one long prayer he says the night before he is tried and then crucified. It’s a prayer that lasts for one whole chapter. He certainly has a lot to pray about. He has just spent his last evening with his disciples. He has shared a Passover meal with them, he has washed their feet as a sign of the new commandment he has given them to love one another, and he has promised they will receive from God the Father a special Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will lead them into the truth. These have been precious final moments with them when he almost seems to be pouring as much information into them as he can before he leaves to be “glorified.”

It is likely that the disciples haven’t got a clue what Jesus means by that, but they will eventually come to see that love is the glory of God. When he goes to the cross to offer his life for them, and when on the third day God raises him up, and when after that he is taken up into heaven at his ascension they will come to understand how God’s glory is made known in Jesus. And so he prays like crazy as all this begins to happen.

The day of Jesus’ ascension was just this past Thursday. We celebrated it a week earlier because it worked better in our schedule, but at the end of the day’s events we gathered in the columbarium for a worship service and read the story of Jesus’ ascension. At Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus goes up, his love goes out. He is able to fill all in all, as the writer of Ephesians says at one point. And the disciples, as his followers, as his body, were the ones who would take this on, the ones who would embody this love of Jesus spreading out in the world. It seems to me that when the disciples would look back on their time with Jesus, then, when they would stand on the other side of all of this they would look back on this prayer—this long, deep prayer—where he prays for them.

Jesus’ Ascension to heaven (John Singleton Copley, 1775)

I remember spending time with one of our members several years ago who was in the final months of his life. He knew it. His family knew it. They were all trying to come to terms with what it meant. One day when I was out at his house he spoke about how he had been carefully lining things up for his family after he left them. He was disappointed he was going to miss watching his two children come into adulthood, but it was moving to hear about how proud he was of them and how confident he was that they would both excel in their endeavors. It was very humbling to speak with someone who was at the end of life who wasn’t in reflection-mode or replaying the past but who only wanted to talk about the future, a future he wasn’t really going to be a part of. That day happened to be Ascension day, of all days, and I had brought along by Bible to read that passage as a type of devotion, but I realized I didn’t need to. This gentleman had already covered anything I could hope to say.

In many way, that is Jesus as he prepares to leave his disciples. Wanting to focus more on the future than on the past. Preparing his disciples to go out with his love into the world. Of course, Jesus will not be totally gone from his disciples’ forever, and there will be ways in which his real presence will be with them as they wait for him to return—in the reading of his Word and in the holy meal of forgiveness they will share whenever they gather. And they will have the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit with them as they go, teaching them the truth, giving them a voice.

This is Jesus’ prayer for them. He wants them to know we are protected, that not one of us will be lost. Jesus received the responsibility to care for us from his Father, God the Creator, and he has worked like a shepherd to seek us out and keep us. All Jesus’ ministry is centered on this task of searching for the lost, the lonely, and the little, and even now that is his what he is doing.


Many leaders take this part of their role seriously. I think today especially of mothers and other mothering figures in our lives who sacrifice so much to keep little ones in their care, constantly counting their children in public places to make sure they’re near, who never want to lose that connection with their children. To say that he has protected and guarded us and that none will be lost means even more coming from Jesus once has entered even death to make sure we remain the Father’s. He protects and guards us even after we die.

Jesus also prays that his followers will remain one. It will do no good for his mission if his followers begin fighting with each other or working against each other or dividing and separating after he ascends. Just as God’s love is made known in him and he and God are one, so is the unity of his followers important on earth.

One young man who worships with us very often and volunteers along with his wife to lead our 5th and 6th grade youth group has taken Jesus’ prayer for unity among his followers very seriously, and the Holy Spirit has moved him to try to foster some new relationships specifically between Christians of different races in Richmond. He has worked with several African-American congregations and the predominantly white congregations he worships with to organize a cookout together, a chance break bread together and hear about one another’s witness in the community. They’re calling it a “family reunion,” (a wonderful title) and as it happens, it is next Saturday at 4pm at Charlotte Acres in Mechanicsville. Who knows what kind of shared endeavors may come of that, but even a meal in this city between people of different races but of the same faith is a meaningful expression of unity.


It is impossible to overstress the importance of Christian unity. Following Jesus and worshiping Jesus are not Lone Ranger enterprises. It is easier nowadays than it used to be—or, I should say we think it’s easier—to live individual lives in the West, to forge our own ways forward. But in terms of our faith in Christ, that’s just not the case. Our togetherness is the crux of who we are in Jesus. It is not incidental to our faith. The hard part of being together and working as one is fundamental to our identity, Jesus prays.

Lastly, Jesus prays we understand that we are sent out just as he was sent out into the world. We do not retreat from it. Ours is not a faith that withdraws from the realities of the world, as much as they worry us or make us angry. Ours is a discipleship that listens to the needs of the world and, like Jesus, puts itself at the service to our neighbor. It is one thing to grasp this on an individual level, to understand that I go into the world as a follower of Christ, loved and set free, ready to serve. But Jesus is not talking about individual service at this point. He is talking about our collective witness, the things we will be able to do together through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is where things can get really interesting, because Jesus can lead us into places and give us tasks and abilities that no one else can. He fills all in all, after all. It is one thing when one of us feels empowered to go out and make a difference, and that is a great thing to lift up. But how we are sent like Jesus together enables us to do amazing things.


For example, I learned this week that Lutheran World Relief, one of our ministry partners that this congregation regularly supports, is on the ground in Syria even as war rages on there. Support in finances and in prayer and personnel from Lutheran congregations like ours has enabled Lutheran World Relief to rebuild two bakeries in the most heavily-bombed region of that country. These bakeries have fed over 80,000 people at a time when access to basic foods is hard to come by. The bakery is employing people at a time when many people have no jobs, giving them hope they can rebuild their own country. That is just one example of how the church as a whole, as a body, is going into the world as Jesus did. It is just one example of thinking of the future, as Jesus did, and not dwelling on the past, or being content with how things are.

Youth assembling personal hygiene kits for LWR (2011)


As we get older, do our prayers get longer, more involved? I suppose it’s true, but more important than the length or the depth or the complexity of any of our prayers is the fact that our risen and ascended Lord is still praying for us. From his place at the right hand of God, he leans into the ear of his Father and says, “Let’s protect them. Let’s keep them together. And let’s use them to spread our love. That’s their glory…the glory of this love.”


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.