What kind of questions do you have about God?
Where do you go to ask them?
Sometimes I think that my family believes they have an ace in the pocket when it comes to this because they can just direct their questions at daddy. He’s the pastor. He’s got the theology degree, right? Therefore, often when I’m least expecting it—like last week when I was in the middle of pulling up weeds in the garden—two little girls round the corner out of nowhere with pressing questions like, “Who were God’s parents?” or “How did God get on earth?”
Granted, by virtue of some of my training there is a chance I might have pondered these questions a time or two before, but—and I hate to disappoint them—I certainly don’t think I have some kind of insider knowledge about God or what God is up to. My life and experiences aren’t any more or less touched by the divine than anyone else’s, and I’ve come to deeply appreciate hearing the questions and thoughts about God that you’ve shared with me. Quite frankly, I have right many questions of my own, and I’d like to think we’re asking them together.
Thinking about God can be overwhelming, and I think we can all agree that it’s helpful to have some kind of established guidelines as we do it. Like with so many other challenging tasks, it’s beneficial to have some form of received knowledge from other people who’ve asked the same kinds of questions through the ages so we don’t feel that we’re just shooting in the dark, which is kind of what Nicodemus is doing, coming to Jesus under cover of night. He’s shooting in the dark, trying to learn a little more about God from this rabbi who appears to have a theology degree a cut above the other rabbis.
|"Nicodemus talking to Jesus" (Henry Ossawa Tanner)|
Granted, it’s not clear whether this conversation with Jesus clears anything up for Nicodemus, but if he’s listening carefully, he might hear that Jesus does give him some of those guidelines. Jesus talks about God using three different terms that somehow all relate to each other as if they are one. In the span of one two-minute-or-so conversation, Jesus mentions God and Son and Spirit as if they all kind of have something to do with each other.
As it turns out, it’s one of the handful of Scripture passages where we hear these terms for God in close combination. These names and relationships are actually always there, like a mysterious hidden soil that lies beneath the whole story, nurturing it, giving it its life. However, we never get a clear, thought-out description of how it all works. In the earliest years of their life together, Jesus’ followers pored over Jesus’ own words, Paul’s letters, and in even the deep and complex stories of the Hebrew Bible, and they began to see this threefold pattern that they had already been using in their worship. What emerged were creeds and other important writings that became guidelines for understanding the God that is spoken of in the Bible. Soon this became known as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Words like doctrine and dogma get a bad rap these days, but they aren’t meant to be scary, intimidating formulas with which we beat people over the head and make them feel stupid. They’re tools for helping people who know they believe the same thing to say and teach the same thing about it.
So, on this day that the church celebrates this Holy Trinity, and on a day when I know any number of us have showed up wondering about God, I humbly offer up three points about God that arise out of our texts this morning with the hope they may help shed light on this most essential of guidelines.
- God is wholly other, which is just another way of saying that God is holy.
Whatever we are, God is entirely different from that. That is one foundation of Christian thought that is reiterated again and again by the people who had experiences with the divine. It is a sensation that sometimes some of us have when we’re looking into the night sky, studded as it is with millions of stars and planets, or when we behold the wonder of a newborn baby. There is something untouchable and unfathomable about the nature of this Creator-behind-all-of-this who performs wonders far beyond anything a human can do.
In our first Scripture passage this morning we see the prophet Isaiah entering into the courts of the Lord and how he is overtaken by awe at how completely holy and different the presence of God is. In fact, it is this passage that we borrow every Sunday just as we begin to approach God’s presence in Holy Communion:
“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts!Heaven and earth are full of his glory.”
It underlines for us that in a world that so often makes idols out of things that humankind has made—money, status, power, family—the true God remains complete other, outside human categories and outside human control.
One problem with describing God’s total otherness, complete holiness, is that the only language we have is human language. Try as we may, our words will always fall somewhat short of describing what God is actually like and tend to make the high and lofty God in our image.
In Isaiah’s account he says that he sees the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, with the hem of his garment filling the temple. That’s a very human image, but you can tell Isaiah’s grasping for the words to describe something inherently indescribable. In fact, the translators for one famous ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint were so uncomfortable with Isaiah’s description that they left that part about the garment out. To them it made God sound too human. God probably doesn’t really wear garments because God doesn’t really have a body, but what do we know? We know that God is wholly other.
- God touches unclean lips.
God does not let this supreme holiness become a barrier to God’s love. God may be unapproachable to us, but that doesn’t keep God from approaching us.
I ran across a website this week of an artist who takes scenes from famous works of art, typically religious in nature, and superimposes them upon ordinary and often crude scenes of modern-day life. The result is this striking juxtaposition of the sublime and the mundane. In one painting there your see Mary, the mother of our Lord, looking positively angelic and holy, holding the baby Jesus, both of them surrounded by angels in flowing garments playing instruments—but they are all seated on a very shabby looking subway car. In a quirky way the painting underscores God’s desire to touch unclean lips and hold unclean lives, to nestle the divine self within human ordinariness, which is what Isaiah experiences in his own vision. Through an act of grace that God initiates, one of the attendants in God’s holy court picks up a coal and purifies Isaiah’s lips.
This how the high and lofty God deals with human sinfulness. God doesn’t ignore us because of it, like some aloof royal person who doesn’t want to associate with the lowly masses. Nor does God obliterate us because of it, like some mad dictator who doesn’t understand the value of human life. Rather, God lovingly, stoops to recognize us even in our state of being unclean, as Isaiah describes it, and ushers us into God’s presence to have a relationship with us.
It’s such a small action here in Isaiah’s story, but this action of grace will become a central, defining factor of God’s identity. God wants to reach out to humans even in their state of brokenness and redeem them from it. Nicodemus will hear it this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” When we speak of the Holy Trinity, one of the first things we are saying is that the God of the universe has at one point been so in love with this imperfect creation that God has entered it himself. On the cross of Jesus, we come to believe that God doesn’t just want to touch unclean lips but redeem unclean lives and make them pure again. Even ours. And it rescues us from death.
- To know God is to be sent.
When Isaiah enters the courts of the holy God and is transformed by God’s presence, he doesn’t stay there. He is given a message to proclaim to his people about God’s judgment and grace. When Nicodemus hears the message about God’s love through his Son, it is clear that the message is for the entire world. Nicodemus doesn’t immediately go forth, as Isaiah does, but in the end he emerges from the shadows and comes to share in Christ’s mission in his own way by helping remove the body from the cross.
|"The Yellow Christ" (Gauguin)|
Whether it is in the style of Isaiah or Nicodemus or somewhere in between, this is to say, there is something about the nature of God that automatically includes us in whatever God is doing. This relationship with God is not a one-way street where we approach the high and lofty altar and stay there, as if in isolation. The whole purpose of God sharing this love on the cross is to transform us in such a way that we go forth to share it with others.
You could say we end up getting caught up in this love that the Father has for his Son, which is what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter to the Romans. When we cry, “ ‘Abba, Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then…joint heirs with Christ.”
There you have it. We’re drawn right in. This is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, a Spirit which was there even at creation, hovering over the waters and eventually creating a community of animals and plants and mountains and rivers. It is the work of the disciples as they behold the Risen Lord anew on Pentecost and this force of God sends them out to share the message that his holy God makes people’s lives clean.
And, come to think of it, it is the Spirit that is at work in your lives, as he’s gathered you today to open your hearts to questions about God. It’s the Spirit at work in the lives of all children of God, you and me alike, who round the corner with wide eyes and groping questions to approach their true Father who is weeding the bad stuff out of their messy garden. He loves their questions. He takes them all. And they find in this holy moment they encounter a God who is wholly other…a God who even touches their unclean lips…a God who gives them a message. They find Father, Son and Holy Spirit…the blessed Trinity.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.