Holy Trinity Sunday is one of those Sundays where theology can be the death of us. Any preacher who tries to explain the how’s, where’s and why’s of the Trinity is headed for sure and certain disaster. Take, for example, St. Augustine, who wrote a 25 volume essay on the subject entitled “On the Trinity.” It took him over a decade to write it. Don’t you think that’s a little bit of overkill? If we managed to read the entire thing do we REALLY think we would understand the Trinity any better than we do now? There’s nothing worse than trying to explain a subject to death!
The other error we preachers make, besides explaining it to death, is oversimplifying the Trinity. While a Mason jar filled with ice cubes, water and air makes a nifty children’s sermon, it fails epically at trying to describe the God whose Spirit fluttered her wings, and gave birth to the cosmos; whose Word spoke Light into being, and created the universe with unimaginable creativity and precision.
So where does this leave us? What’s a preacher to do besides sing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty” and go home?
Well, as I began the task of writing my sermon this week, I was immediately drawn to our first lesson. The reason why this caught my attention is because Isaiah has a vision of God that is powerful and experiential. He almost seems at a loss for words in trying to describe what he experienced, but he gives it his best shot anyway. Isaiah begins with the Almighty sitting on a throne which is a symbol of power and authority. The most important detail of this description is that the “hem of God’s robe filled the temple.”
What Isaiah is trying to tell us is that God cannot be contained in a box, even if that box is as big as the Temple in Jerusalem. We can only handle the smallest portion of the Creator of the Universe. In this case, it’s the hem of God’s robe. The wonderful thing about this description is that even the hem of God’s robe causes the entire worship space to be on the verge of collapse. Isaiah tells us that the “pivots on the thresholds shook” which means the foundation of the building is on the verge of collapsing. The other-worldly song of the Seraphim, who are signing God’s praise, is causing structural damage. Now, that’s a powerful description of the Creator of the Universe who cannot be contained.
Isaiah then ups the ante with his observation that the temple is “filled with smoke.” This language hearkens back to the description of God’s presence on Mt. Sinai during the years of Israel’s wilderness wandering. Exodus tells us, “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.” [Ex 19:18]
This holy smoke obscures God’s presence, like smoke obscures our beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains during a forest fire. Smoke adds another layer of mystery to the story. God cannot be seen clearly. God is mysterious and cannot be fully known. As far as I’m concerned, this description of God beats St. Augustine’s 15 volumes any day, any time. It also makes a Mason jar of ice cubes, water and air seem far too simplistic to describe a God who is virtually indescribable.
This is why I think a preacher is headed for sure and certain disaster if we try to explain the how’s, where’s and why’s of the Trinity. No matter what we say, or how well we say it, we will fall short of the mark. The God who is revealed to us as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is not meant to be described. God is meant to be experienced. And once God is experienced, once we catch the smallest glimpse of the infinite and almighty God, there is only one response that is appropriate.
This is where Isaiah gets it right. After he experiences the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, after the foundations of the temple begin to shake, and the place is filled with smoke, Isaiah is overwhelmed by the experience. He falls to his knees, saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
The Voice brings out some of the emotion that accompanies Isaiah’s confession: “I am in so much trouble! I’m ruined! I’m just a human being—fallible and stammering. My lips are encrusted with filth; and I live among people just like me. But here I am, and I’ve seen with my very own eyes none other than the King, the Eternal, Commander of heavenly armies.”
Isaiah is humbled, shocked, and just a little bit overwhelmed because God has paid him a visit. He knows he is standing on holy ground and can make no claims on God. He also realizes he cannot possibly know what God is thinking or what the Almighty wants from him.
The reason why I find his response so powerful is that there are a lot of people these days who seem to know EXACTLY what God is thinking. They act as if they have God personal (and highly secret) Twitter account yhat is accessible to only a chosen few. When these people speak, they believe God is speaking through them. They are God’s mouthpiece and the rest of us mere mortals should be hanging on their every word.
Well, Friends in Christ, if you don’t know it by now, I’m not one of those people. I do not claim to speak on behalf of God or know exactly what the God whose hem filled the temple is thinking. I best describe my role as preacher and pastor as one who reminds others that everywhere we go is holy ground. The Almighty and infinite God, who gave birth to the cosmos, can be found in the most unlikely of places if we only have ears to hear and eyes to see God’s presence all around us.
The beauty of Isaiah’s narrative is not only that God shows up in a mighty and powerful way, the situation gets small and intimate pretty quickly. One of the Seraphs takes a coal from the altar, which I presume is being used for incense. It’s purpose is to cleanse and purify the worship space. The Seraph takes this coal and touches it to Isaiah’s lips. This is where God’s love for Isaiah is demonstrated in a beautiful and personal way. “Now that this has touched your lips,” the Seraph says, “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
In other words, to stand in the presence of the almighty and infinite God is a bit overwhelming, but this same God invites us to be there. We do not need to fall to our knees in fear. Instead, we fall to our knees out of reverence; grateful that God has invited us to be there. We may feel unworthy, but God has made us worthy.
The story ends with God asking Isaiah a question: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” In other words, who will be my messenger? Who will tell others what they’ve experienced. And Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!” Note how the relationship between God and Isaiah has changed over just a few verses. Isaiah is overwhelmed and convicted, then he is cleansed and empowered. His life is changed because of his encounter with God. Isaiah leaves the place, not calming to understand everything there is to know about God. Isaiah leaves the place, as a witness; someone who is willing to share his experience with God and how it changed his life. This is exactly what Isaiah did. It’s the reason why we are reading a portion of his story this morning.
So, Friends in Christ, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Holy Trinity Sunday. You might be disappointed that I’m not going to try to explain to you the how’s, where’s and why’s of the Trinity. But that’s not really my job. Like I said before, any preacher who tries to do this is headed for sure and certain disaster. Instead, my job is to remind us that the God who is revealed to us as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, is a lot more mysterious than we care to admit. The biggest part of this mystery is that God can be very, very big but God can also be very, very small.
God can be so big that the hem the Almighty fills the temple, and rocks our world. But God can also be so small that the glowing coal of God’s presence restores our frazzled nerves and feelings of unworthiness. God is the One who birthed the cosmos, but is also the One who spoke to Elijah with a still, small voice. Jesus is the One who defeated death forever, but also shows up in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The Holy Spirit is the One who was poured out on those first disciples with the rush of a violent wind and tongues of flame, but is also the One who was breathed quietly on the disciples in the gospel of John, accompanied by the words “Peace be with you.”
This is the God of our experience. This is the God who is worthy of our worship. This is the God we serve. We are not called to tell others what God is thinking. Instead we are called to share with others the stories of how God has changed our lives forever. Like Isaiah, we are the ones who have been cleansed and restored. We are the ones who have answered the call “Here I am; send me.”
So, on this Holy Trinity Sunday, rest in the knowledge that none of us needs to explain the how’s, where’s and why’s of the Trinity. We simply need to be open to experiencing the presence of the Triune God in our lives and, then, share our story with those around us. AMEN.
Copyright ©2018 David Eck