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.
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.
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.
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.