June 7, 2020 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20
An Awesome Mystery
Today is Trinity Sunday and most ministers are a bit nervous preaching today. The Trinity is a complex, academic and abstract doctrine. The average Christian today is not impressed or moved by the fact that for centuries, the greatest minds of the church have attempted to talk about the Trinity, only to have their theological exposition lapse into incomprehensible theological jargon.
This is how one of our Standards, the 1561 Belgic Confession explains the Trinity:
“In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible.
The Son is the Word, the Wisdom, and the image of the Father.
The Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.
Nevertheless, this distinction does not divide God into three, since Scripture teaches us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has a distinct subsistence distinguished by characteristics— yet in such a way that these three persons are only one God. It is evident then that the Father is not the Son and that the Son is not the Father, and that likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons, thus distinct, are neither divided nor fused or mixed together.
For the Father did not take on flesh, nor did the Spirit, but only the Son. The Father was never without the Son, nor without the Holy Spirit, since all these are equal from eternity, in one and the same essence. There is neither a first nor a last, for all three are one in truth and power, in goodness and mercy.”
Now this is beautifully written and I believe it is an honest effort to try to capture what is in essence a mystery! But I think I lost most of you after the second sentence!
Trinity, one God in three persons is a hard concept to communicate. In our context, in today’s church it is almost impossible to communicate the concept and still keep people’s attention. One reason is that we, in contrast with our sisters and brothers of 450 years ago, have lost any sense of God’s otherness, God’s transcendence and God’s holiness. As someone said a few years ago: “We have so cut God down to our size that the concept of the Trinity strikes us as something alien and strange.”
Alan Bloom in his Book “The American Religion” says that American Christians have made only one contribution to the theology of the church. “Theology has always stated”, says Bloom, “that we have a need to be with God, that we ought to spend our lives on this earth attempting to get to know God, attempting to obey God, and live with God. American Christians”, Bloom says, “has come up with the notion that God has an even greater desire to be with us. God is pleased with us, impressed with us, and is just dying to pal around with us”.
A classical theologian would say that we have completely sacrificed any sense of God’s transcendence, holiness, and otherness.
I believe that a minister’s task on this day is to emphasize that God is holy, majestic; God is not a human being. God is, in the words of the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, Der Ganz Andere, the wholly Other. On this Sunday we are reminded that God is God, Holy, awesome. We are not able to completely understand the being of God.
Thinking and talking about God, being in the presence of the Holy God should result in us being in awe! Being in the presence of the Holy God strips us from our hubris. And to add to the mystery, this holy God calls us to obedience.
God is a mystery that is utterly beyond our limited human comprehension. God is awesome in the real meaning of the word: God inspires an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration and yes even fear.
Let us remember that the Bible uses familiar images and metaphors to describe to us the nature and essence of God: God is a Shepherd, a Father, like a Mother, a Rock, a Fortress, a King. These images and metaphors are inadequate for God is much more. These images and metaphors offer some help but are imperfect to capture the real essence of God.
Any attempt to make God fit our intellectual space, our values and our projects renders God into little more than an idol that we have made with our hands.
American theologian, Gordon Kaufman points out that we live in an age of the utilitarian god, the god who is useful to us. There is truth in his comment. We are not so interested in knowing God as in using God for our own purpose.
Any effort to use God for whatever purpose falls into the category of idolatry: whether it is to use the name of God or the cross as an inspiration to soldiers of the Roman army, or to use God to justify my ideology, or to use God’s Word for a photo op, or to use God’s name to express my frustration or anger or to simply use God as the source of what I want. These efforts are blasphemous!
God is God, the Holy One, God is Sovereign and awe-inspiring. And holy does not mean that God is very, very good! It means God is distant, different, awesome, sometimes even terrifying!
But by the grace of God, in God’s divine wisdom, God reveals Godself to us, introduces Godself to us, so that we can get to know God! Our response when we get to know God should be to be in awe and to fall down in worship!
You all know the story of Moses when God called him: He had to take of his shoes and Moses was shaken and afraid for he was in the presence of the holy One. The same with Isaiah. The young man. saw a vision of God’s holiness with heavenly beings calling out: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Their response reveals that they understood something that we need to rediscover: We should know that uttering God’s name, entering God’s presence is serious business.
The Triune God calls us and urges us to be in awe when we talk about God, when we are in God’s presence, when we utter the name of God! The Psalmist captures his awe of God in these words: “O Lord our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens!”
The beauty of creation affirms God’s glory andmajesty. Who have not felt the awe of God in a magnificent sunset, in the energy of a hummingbird, a lush green forest or waterfall? God is God not a human being!
There is no place for hubris in the presence of God. God’s holiness is the light that drives out our dark arrogance. Sure, our species is able to do impressive things. But we are also a very sinful, broken and even hateful species.
One of our species sinful flaws is that we are arrogant. Another is that we are deeply insecure. And the combination of arrogance and insecurity is why we measure our worth against other human beings. We think that our worth is determined by the color of my skin, my bank account balance, my education, my sexual orientation, or the job I do. The deep theological fact is that the things that we consider great accomplishments or measures of our worth do not play a role in God’s thinking.
In the presence of God, in the presence of the holy One, we are and remain who we are: fragile, broken, flawed, sinful human beings who need God’s redemption. Some may consider the view that we are fragile, broken and sinful as detrimental to our self-esteem. Martin Luther would disagree. It is when we are honest about our broken and sinful state that we are able to see God and be in awe of God! The Reformer wrote this: “God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, the desperate, and of those who have been brought down to nothing at all. It is in God’s nature to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to enlighten the blind, to comfort the miserable and afflicted, to justify sinners, to give life to the dead, and to save those who are desperate and damned.”
Humility is not a vice! It’s more than two millennia since the philosopher Socrates argued that humility is the greatest of all virtues. His timeless observation was that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know.
Recent research confirms his wisdom: People with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. Humility is especially important for leaders, with evidence that displays of humility can improve strategic thinking and boost the performance of colleagues across an organization. There is no place for hubris in the presence of God.
It truly is a mystery that God, the Holy One, the Creator of the universe calls human beings to obedience.Jesus’ last words in the Gospel according to Matthew is: “Go therefore make disciples of all nations baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
Make disciples, baptize them and teach them to obey what I have commanded you! Baptized disciples have to learn to obey what Jesus commanded them. Now this may seem rather complicated. Matthew’s Jesus often refers to the Law and the Prophets. What do the Law and the Prophets teach? We all know that the laws in the OT are not always easy to understand and even harder to follow. We know that even to this day Christians don’t agree what God wants.
Here is how I read it: The Holy One of Israel, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit calls us to do what Jesus showed us: In Matthew 22 Jesus says: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind soul and mind. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus also says: “When you love one another the world will know that you’re my disciples” (John 13:35). Now this is not or should not be confusing. We shall love in deed for it is easy and not very convincing to love in word alone.
In the Law and the Prophets, we find clear guidance on how we ought to obey the holy One’s commandments: “What do I require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8).
“When you reap the harvest of your land you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard.” Why not? “You shall leave them for the poor and the alien.” (Lev. 19:9-10).
Do yourself a favor and read this important chapter. It shows how to love our neighbor and how to be obedient to God’s commandment.
And in the beginning of that same chapter in Leviticus God says this: “You shall be holy for I the lord your God am holy!” Chilling words! God is holy, holy, holy! God is the Ganz Andere, the wholly Other, the transcendent, awesome Creator of heaven and earth! When we do what God commands, in other words when we follow God’s command to be holy, people would notice that God is holy!
I wonder if the world is indifferent about God, or not convinced that God is awesome and holy because we don’t follow his commands to love God and our neighbor, because we are not always in awe of God, because we use God for our own purposes, because we are too arrogant? How would it be if we are in absolute awe of the Holy God, if we do what God commands and follow the example of Jesus who with the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one? Perhaps more people will be in awe of God’s holiness too. Amen