The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–7 | Romans 11:33–36 | John 3:1–17

Text: John 3:1-15 (Isaiah 6:1-7, Romans 11:33-36)

Trinity Sunday is a feast day to remember that God is transcendent, and in many ways for us, unknowable.  He’s greater than us, and not just in the way that a king is greater than his servant, because He is “ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).  He’s stronger than us, and not just in the way that a body builder is stronger than a computer geek, for He is rightly called Pantokrator[1] or All-Powerful, Almighty.  He is infinitely stronger than any human being—“Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than He?”[2]  He is also beyond all human understanding.  His thoughts are not our thoughts; nor are his ways our ways.[3]  No matter how we may apply our reason to Him, He is beyond us.  That’s why every analogy for the Trinity—apples, sun, or clover—ultimately cannot encompass the mystery of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But in our egalitarian society, we have a hard time comprehending the greatness and otherness of God.  We’re told from childhood that, deep down, everyone is the same.  We all have the same aspirations and fears.  And we see this in practice when presidents invite common citizens for a beer, celebrities are seen at Wal-Mart, and the pope chooses to go for a walk rather than ride in the bulletproof motorcade.  With so much equality among men, it’s hard for us to remember that God is always above us.  The singer Joan Osborne wrote the anthem for this sentiment when she sang decades ago, “What if God was one of us?”

And yet God is far from unknown to us.  How can this be?  We know Him from Holy Scripture.  He calls Himself our heavenly Father.  Now with our earthly fathers, when we were kids, we thought of our dads as invincible and infallible.  But as we grew to be an adult and especially when we had kids of our own, we saw that our fathers were people just like us.  Not so with God the Father.  It’s more than an flawed analogy; rather, God is the originator of all fatherhood, but He will always be greater than us. He is truly the One “from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.” (Eph. 3:15)

But in an attempt to deal with our fear of God, we like to convince ourselves that God isn’t as scary as He was in the Old Testament.  Remember Uzzah, whom the Lord put to death, while the Ark of the Covenant was being carried into Jerusalem:

“Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”[4] 

The God we have come to know through Jesus Christ is the same holy God whom we worship today.  But our fleshly security is uncomfortable with the truth that “our God is a consuming fire.”[5]  We prefer a Heavenly Pushover, who is impressed with our clever decisions and cheers us on from the sidelines.

This Sunday is also a time to consider what the Holy, Transcendent God does.  Many man-made religions recognize that God is “Immortal, Invisible,” and “Only Wise”[6]  But if that’s all there is, then we’re toast.  Woe to us! For we are lost; for we are people of unclean lips, and we dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.[7]  God has more to show us than His omnipotence.

The Gospel from John 3:

3 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

No matter how we peer into heaven, we are incapable of grasp God—“no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27)  In fact, what Jesus says here is that that’s the wrong direction.  Stop trying to ascend to get a glimpse into the divine.

            Instead, God makes Himself known to us.  Even though “the eye of sinful man His glory may not see,[8] the Holy One has come down from heaven.  As John says in His prologue, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father.”[9]  We aren’t the ones who ascended to know God, but as Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” So, right after explaining that no one can know Him except by His choice, He invites you, “Come to me…and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

            All too often, we approach God with our own ideas—ideas about who He is, how He works, and what He should do for us.  But that all gets turned around: “You must be born again!  Flesh gives birth to flesh, and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”  You must cast away your fleshly thinking about God, and receive Him in humility.  “Be born again by water and the Spirit” and you will not only see God, but you will also be brought into His Kingdom!

            The Son of God—“true God, begotten of His Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the virgin Mary” (Small Catechism, 2nd Article)—has come down from heaven, but He didn’t come down just to give us supernal thoughts about the divine.  The Lord whose Name is majestic in all the earth,[10] came down to earth to be lifted up from it.  Jesus explains, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  This is what He came down from heaven for: to be lifted up in weakness, the humility of death.  The King of Heaven Himself was lifted up on the cross to save us lowly, sinful creatures.

            In our experience, those who are great don’t help the weak.  When we, who have comfortable homes and stable jobs, see someone who is homeless and unemployed, we turn our eyes away.  Some of their misfortune might rub off on us!  It might cause us to have to sacrifice some of our comfort to aid them in their suffering.  But praise the Lord, who is not miserly and selfish like we have been!  In 2 Corinthians 5, St. Paul writes, “For our sake He was made sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”[11]  The Holy God in human flesh became unholy and a sinner.  It was pure gift to us, who are unholy from our very hearts!

            Thinking of the Old Testament lesson, how was it that Isaiah could stand in the presence of God?  Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”[12]   God’s holiness would have consumed Isaiah, yet with what came from the altar, his sin was atoned for.

Now, where did those coals on the altar come from?  Were they offered by us?  If this had been the altar of the Levitical priests, it would have been the remnant of the sin offering.[13]  No, those coals were of a sin offering which the Holy One Himself made on our behalf.  “So must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  And through that sacrifice alone can we stand before the face of the thrice-holy God.

The Transcendent One has come down so that we might be raised up.  He was raised up on the cross, “that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”  We like to boast about ourselves and our lives.  When we have a bad day, we feel better when we see others having a worse time.  But in truth, we are poor and needy, lowly, and afflicted.[14]  Our transgressions and the evils that happen to us bring us very low, sometimes even to the point of death.  But He who is Almighty is also merciful and compassionate toward us.  We have a great High Priest who is like us un every way, except without sin, one who invites us to draw near with boldness to the throne of grace (Hebrews 2, 4).  Thus, He comes to us, like the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, touches us, and bids us to rise and have no fear.  “Your guilt is taken away; your sin atoned for.” (Isa. 6:7)

God has taken our humanity into Himself so that we would truly be raised up.  Jesus takes away the shame that covers us.  He heals our bodies and souls by His own wounds.  When death looms over us, we have eternal life though Him.  We live confident of all of this, hoping for the End of all things, when He will exalt us completely.

In that Day, we will still be creatures.  But we will be restored from the pitiful state we live in now.  The perishable will be raised imperishable, and we who are mortal will put on immortality.[15]  Our longing to be free of evil will at last be satisfied and all the faithful whom we have lost will be restored to us.             God is unknowable by human ability.  But God’s light shined in our darkness.  The Triune God made Himself known in the womb of the Virgin, in His human life from infancy to adulthood, in His passion and death, and gloriously in His resurrection and ascension.  He bore our death so that we might live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  “What if God was one of us?”  The glorious Son of God has made the Trinity known, in a way that we are left to cry out, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:22)  The Lord God Jesus became one with us, and He has given us a share of His divine life.  So, we do indeed praise God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

[1] Rev. 1:8

[2] 1 Cor. 10:22

[3] Isaiah 55:8-9

[4] 2 Samuel 6:5-15

[5] Hebrews 12:29

[6] LSB 802, “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

[7] cf. Isaiah 6:5

[8] LSB 507:3

[9] John 1:14

[10] Psalm 8:1, 9

[11] 2 Corinthians 5:21

[12] Isaiah 6:6-7

[13] Lev. 4:10

[14] Psalm 70:5, 138:6, 69:29

[15] 1 Corinthians 15:42:57

The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–8 | Acts 2:14a, 22–36 | John 3:1-17

Text: John 3:1-17

On this celebration of the Holy Trinity, we encounter a great mystery of the Christian faith—the nature of God.  Many men have sought and still seek to know God, to be part of something greater than themselves and to connect with the unseen.

The 11th century Benedictine monk, Anselm of Canterbury, attempted in his day to write single proof for the existence of God. His idea was that God is the highest thing that human understanding can conceive of. He wrote, “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogion)  This excited him, because in philosophical terms, he had a handle on the truth of God’s existence.

Writing in the first quarter of the 20th century, Ernest Holmes, devised a philosophy based on the Bible, called Science of Mind, in which his approach to God is this:

“I believe, that Infinite Spirit, God, or whatever symbol is used to denote the All-Inclusive Intelligent Power running the Universe, has always existed—no beginning and no end. Infinite.” (Ernest Holmes, Science of Mind (1926), pp. 4)

Holmes acknowledges that God is infinite, eternal, and running the universe, but man can only make contact with the Infinite through devoting himself to study (a.k.a. buying his books) and contemplation.

The ancient religion of Hinduism believes the ultimate in the universe is the Supreme Soul or Brahman, as explained in a story in one of their sacred texts called the Skanda Purana:

“This knowledge of Brahman can only come to that person who is unattached to anything in the world. It is true that the disciple seeks a guru to gain knowledge. However if all the desires lurking in the heart are eliminated, then this knowledge automatically manifests in the heart. Such a person will attain Brahman.”[1]

So for the Hindu, knowing the Supreme can only come to a person who prepares themselves by eliminating all desire first.

Suffice to say, man has a lot of assertions about God—most of them very complex and open to only the elite who can attain to the “right” understanding.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night with his own kind of assertions: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Granted, they were assertions based on Scripture: Moses was given signs to prove himself to the Israelites in slavery. Elijah and Elisha showed they were true prophets by providing for a widow, raising the dead, and cleansing a leper.  So the fact that Jesus is doing signs shows He has some link with the Lord God.

But Jesus makes it clear right from the beginning that Nicodemus doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows.  It’s not because of some notion that he isn’t capable because he hasn’t purged his heart of desire, as the Hindus say.  It’s not that Nicodemus wasn’t intelligent enough to handle logic.

Rather, Jesus explains that the real problem with man not knowing God is a failing on our part:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Ignorance of God (true agnosticism)…is common to all men, and leads us to conclude wrong things about God.  “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  It’s not simply a matter of deriving the perfect proof of God so that God dwells in your mind, or growing in spiritual prowess, or reforming yourself so that you rise above this physical existence to reach God where He is.

You must be born again.  Not reincarnated to give it a go with a fresh perspective.  You must be born from above—God’s work.  Our flesh has some deadly flaws in the spirituality department.

It leads us to extremes. On the one hand, saying God is found in this building, this group of people, this Lutheran synod.  On the other hand, saying God is found everywhere, even out on the lake while the rest of the congregation is at worship.  But far be it from God to promise to be both everywhere and specifically in a place like where His Gospel is preached, in the waters of Baptism, or the consecrated Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.

Our flesh leads us to accuse God of being silent in times of need, forsaking us because we can’t feel or see His activity.  God, you failed me when I watched my child die.  I tried reading the Bible, but I just didn’t feel any better when I did, so I just stopped.

We equate our apparent successes with the Lord’s endorsement.  Because this program had tremendous feedback and involved a lot of people, it must be blessed by God; but if very few if any come then it must mean we need to try new measures.  Joshua was tempted to this just before Jericho fell:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped.

Our sin-filled flesh wants to get some kind of handhold on God, because if we could just understand a little more, have some window into His hidden work, then we would be more in control of our lives.  But that isn’t the way the true God is. We have been deceived.  Contrary to our experiences and accomplishments, He says, “You must be born again” “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17) and “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Matt. 11:25-26)

The model which the true God portrays to us is of a newborn baby and a little child.  Flesh has given birth to flesh, and despite mankind’s best efforts for millennia, none has ascended into heaven—not with our morals, not with our mystical experiences, and not with our minds.

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The knowledge of the true God is a gift bestowed by Him.  Despite what the devil and our sinful flesh might say, God actually does want to be known among us.

But you may ask, what is with the Holy Trinity?  Isn’t that far too complicated for the average child?  It doesn’t make sense mathematically; we can’t picture it except with ornate arrangements of circles and triangles; and when we try to explain it to our friends, they might just side with the Unitarians who say the whole thing was made up to overcomplicate religion.

Yet, as children of God, we confess the Holy Trinity—one eternal God in three distinct Persons—because that is how God has made Himself known among us.  No pope or monk invented this, except Tertullian coined the shorthand name for Three-in-Oneness. We aren’t asked to make it add up, or help God out with flawed analogies.  What the Triune God desires us to know most of all is what He has done for you through His Son, because when He wanted to be known by His human creatures, He came down to us.

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

It is enough, dearly beloved, humble child of God, to know that your Father in heaven loved you before you were even born.  He arranged your adoption into His family, the forgiveness and removal of all your sins, and to bring you into His Kingdom.  He did this before you ever had your first blasphemous thought, or sin ever bore fruit in your thoughts, words, or deeds.  Here in time, His Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you His enlightenment.  He has shown you Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross—“suffered for [your] salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty” (Athanasian Creed, 36-37).

There is so much more to grow into in this Kingdom—much to dedicate our hearts and minds to learn from His Wisdom, many ways which our flesh must decrease and the Spirit’s work increase in us, and many times when we will misunderstand or stubbornly refuse to hear correction.  But your Father is gracious and patient, and most of all He loves you enough to do everything in His almighty power to keep you in this true faith.

This is what we as Christians confess.  We have three Universal Creeds to explain what we believe, and each has to go into greater detail because of the devil’s subtly and man’s pride in his own understanding.  But above all, we believe in God as He has made Himself known to us.  As holy and mysterious as His nature is, He has put His Name on you.  With His Name put on you in Baptism, this profound adoption took place. He made you His own child, and richly pours out on you all the blessings of His household: ears to hear His Word, eyes of faith to recognize His work, an open audience with the Almighty ruler of the universe, His life-giving strength for everything you must face in this life, and the hope of the resurrection from the dead and the life of the world which is to come.

It’s with good reason that we praise Him this and every day, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.

[1] htt/