Isaiah 6:1-8 | Psalm 29 | Romans 8:12-17 | John 3:1-17
Today is Trinity Sunday. The day we remember how absurd our faith is. The day we remember that the identity of the God we have put our trust in is a total mystery – God is three and God is one. As the old confession goes, “I believe in one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Try explaining that. You really can’t.
And if the irrationality of such a claim isn’t enough to make us throw out this idea of the Trinity, you’d think that the fact that the word Trinity never appears anywhere in Scripture would be. At yet, here we are 2,000 years after the beginning of the Church, and we’re still proclaiming this paradoxical truth. “I believe in one God – Father (Mother/Parent), Son, and Holy Spirit.”
If you think about it, it’s kind of weird to have a special Sunday dedicated to the Trinity, since we might rightly say every Sunday is Trinity Sunday. For those of us in the Christian tradition, every time we say “God” we are referring to the Trinity, whether we think about it or not. Every time we say God, the adjective “triune” is implied, unless we are specifically referring to one of the particular persons – the Parent, the Son, or the Holy Spirit.
But it’s important that at least once a year we remind ourselves of the Trinity. Just as, technically, every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday because our worship always springs out of the resurrection of Jesus, and yet we feel the need to remember, on Easter, the moment of the resurrection, the morning everything changed, so also do we need to spend at least one Sunday a year talking about the Trinity.
I know Earnie agrees. After Trinity Sunday last year, Earnie went on a big Trinity kick. I’m sure you all remember. He still hasn’t given me my Richard Rohr book on the Trinity back. I think he’s a little upset we aren’t doing anything special for this Sunday.
This time around, I don’t want to try to explain the Trinity. Instead, I want to do the opposite. I want us to remember how little we know. I want us to bask in uncertainty. I want us to embrace mystery.
As a kid, most of my family’s vacations were camping trips, often to National Parks. And having a science teacher as a father means always stopping at the visitor’s center for a few hours. Whether it’s Arches, the Grant Canyon, Zion, Yosemite, Yellowstone, or any other destination, the visitor’s centers were always similar. Maps, pictures, videos, and a million informational displays told you the history and geology of the place, as well as the flora and fauna you might expect to see if you’re lucky.
I must admit that my dad’s love of visitor’s centers has rubbed off on me. I think all that information is fascinating. Reading about how the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon were formed, or how the Grand Canyon was carved out, or what causes the geysers in Yellowstone to erupt is all intriguing. But at some point I always get bored at the visitor’s center, and it’s usually about an hour before my dad’s ready to leave.
You can only read so much. You can only learn about something to a point. Eventually, you want to get out and see it for yourself. You want to encounter it.
Likewise, there’s something so interesting, so fascinating, about the idea of the Trinity. I personally really enjoy reading and studying the Trinity and other theological ideas. But it only goes so far. At some point, knowing about something reaches its limit. At some point you have to get out there and see it, feel it, walk around in it. An informative display about the Grand Canyon does not compare to standing on the rim and looking over the edge.
The mystery of the Trinity is not something to wrap our heads around, but something to give our hearts to. It’s not something to understand, it’s something to come to know. It’s not an idea, but an encounter – a touching of lives, we might say in light of last Sunday’s sermon.
There’s no indication that the prophets, priests, kings, and everyday people of the Old Testament had any concept of the Trinity, but there are passages from the Old Testament that Christians, looking back through the lens of our own beliefs sometimes interpret as hinting toward the Trinity, because we believe God has always been Triune, it just wasn’t until later that that became apparent. Throughout Christian history, some have understood our reading from Isaiah as one of those texts that hints at the Trinity. Primarily because, at the end of the passage, God says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us.” God refers to Godself in both the singular and the plural (God is three and God is one).
But I think the strongest connection between our passage from Isaiah this morning and the concept of the Trinity is not in the use of the word “us.” It’s in the mystery of both Isaiah’s vision and the doctrine of the Trinity. The connection is in the mystery.
In this passage Isaiah is describing a theophany – a visible manifestation of God – but he doesn’t actually describe God at all. He describes everything around God. The closest he gets to describing God is describing the hem of God’s robe, which fills the temple. But Isaiah doesn’t just see the hem of God’s robe. He sees God. He’s clear, he says, “…my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” He sees God, but he never tries to describe God.
God is at the center of the picture Isaiah has painted, and yet Isaiah has left the center of the painting blank, an empty space on the canvas were nothing is depicted, yet anything can be depicted.
In Isaiah’s description, God is, in a sense, nothing so that God might be everything. Isaiah doesn’t hem God in, doesn’t make God an idol. Instead, God is a limitless mystery at the very heart of Isaiah’s vision.
Isaiah 6:1-8 is not a description of God, it’s a description of an encounter with God. It’s a testimony, to use yet another word from last week. Isaiah doesn’t try to tell us who God is. He simply tells us about his encounter with God. It isn’t objective, it’s totally subjective. It’s what he saw (God, the seraphs). It’s what he heard (the seraphs calling out “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory”). It’s what he smelled (the smoke). It’s what he touched (hot coals!). And yet, in the middle of all that Isaiah can describe – and Isaiah describes a lot – God is something he can’t describe. God remains a mystery.
This is a radically freeing, exciting message for us because it opens up the ways that God can and has and will reveal Godself to us. I’m guessing none of us have experience a theophany like Isaiah’s, but many of us have encountered God through worship, through prayer, through Scripture, through nature, through friends, through family, through food, through poetry, through music, through silence, through any number of ways.
Most often, our experiences with God aren’t something we can back up, or even explain. Like Isaiah, we can’t tell you exactly who this God we’ve met is. Like Isaiah, we can’t describe God’s face, but we’ve experienced God’s presence.
Which means there will always be those who doubt us. They will want proof. Or they’ll provide their own proof for why that wasn’t God. Have you ever experienced something like that? You share with someone a time you felt close to God, a time you experienced what Celtic Christians call a “thin place” where heaven and earth seem especially close, where they touch, and the person says, “No. That’s not what happened. I don’t believe you.”
It was the music, not God.
You were just vulnerable and susceptible to your emotions.
God doesn’t work like that.
God doesn’t look like that.
God doesn't sound like that.
God isn’t in those places.
God isn’t with those people.
People are always making an idol out of God, telling us where God is and how God works (or more often, where God isn’t and how God doesn’t work). They’re always trying to take away the mystery. But as we read through Scripture, and especially on Trinity Sunday, we remember just how limitless God is. We remember that it is up to God to move in whatever way God wants. In the words of Jesus from our Gospel reading, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, 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 Triune God is like the wind, blowing from this direction, then that, leading us one way and then the other.
What is really surprising, though (and a little disconcerting), is that, despite the mystery of God, Isaiah is compelled to speak of God. Isaiah’s lack of knowledge doesn’t invalidate his testimony. In fact, God wants Isaiah to testify. God asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God is looking for those who will testify, and Isaiah cannot keep silent. “Here I am; send me!” he shouts. God is surely asking us the same question. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
We live in a time and culture where the facts are all that matters. Proof is required. Cite your sources, back up your claims, verify your theory. You’re results must be quantifiable and reproduceable. But, of course, none of that is possible with God. We cannot replicate an experience with God. We can play the song that brought us to tears yesterday again today and find ourselves bored to death. We can read that book that changed our lives years ago only to find it deeply problematic and troubling today. We can visit that place that evoked our wonder only to find what was once shining to be dull and tired.
We can’t say exactly how God spoke to us or what happened in the exchange. We can’t prove God. We can’t even tell you if we felt it in our hearts or our heads or our guts or some combination of the three.
This is why I have little time for Christian apologetics. Of course we cannot prove God. Prove that God is three and one? Prove that Jesus is fully human and fully divine? Prove the resurrection? Prove the indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
I cannot prove God to you or anyone else. But you cannot deny my experience…unless you’re a real jerk (and some people are). I can’t prove God to you, but I can tell you about hiking in the woods by myself, feeling the wind pick up and blow through the trees, feeling that I was not alone, and feeling a peace from outside myself settle on me. I can tell you about seeing God work in the life of someone I love, bringing healing to them in a time of great pain. I can tell you how, on ordinary mornings, sometimes the words of a book written thousands of years ago move me.
Isaiah doesn’t care if you believe him. Like most prophets, most of the people he spoke to didn’t believe him. Isaiah isn’t here to prove his experience. He’s here to tell you what he has seen and what he has heard, what he has touched and smelled and experienced. Take it or leave it.
But that doesn’t mean that Isaiah takes this responsibility lightly. God’s mystery doesn’t make God trivial, but imposing. Standing in the presence, beholding the face of the unknowable God, Isaiah is overcome by his own limitations, his own inadequacy. “Woe is me,” he cries, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet I have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” One of the angels, called seraphs, flies over to Isaiah, takes a coal from the alter, and touches Isaiah’s lips with it, which somehow cleanses his lips and burns away his sin.
Isaiah knows he cannot speak of God and yet he must. He is inadequate, but who is adequate to speak of the transcendent God? He has been found by God and yet he finds himself lost. In the words of Hebrews, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The mystery of God is not something to dip our toes into, it’s something we fall into head first, something that envelopes us, changes us, disorients us, turns our world upside down. It’s something we get lost in.
It’s hard to put words to this experience. Like Isaiah, we may feel lost trying to explain what we have seen, heard, smelled, and touched. Like Isaiah, we may think we are not worthy to speak of God, because of what we’ve done or haven’t done, what’s happened to us or what hasn’t happened to us. We may think we’re not smart enough, not good enough, not holy enough. But Isaiah has nothing to do with God’s choosing him, except his willingness to respond, “Here I am, send me!” Isaiah doesn’t initiate this encounter, and Isaiah isn’t able to prepare himself. God initiates the encounter. God cleanses Isaiah of his sin. And God will give Isaiah the words to say. Isaiah needs only to respond to God’s question, “Whom shall I send?”
As the people of God in the midst of the world, we bear witness – we testify – to a mystery. A Triune God that, as soon as we start to try to explain, we get lost. What can we say about God? What do we truly know?
Augustine, explains this dilemma well. He says, [Read The Confessions, Book I, 4.4.]
We sympathize with Augustine. What can we say about this God, incomprehensible, full of paradoxes? And yet, how can we not speak? All we can do is tell our own story, tell of a God who reached into our lives and moved us in whatever way, by whatever means – a God we have found ourselves so lost in, we cannot find our way out, and wouldn’t want to if we could.
We are caught up in the movement of the Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit, and we cannot explain it to you. We can only tell you the story of how we got here. We can only invite you into the dance.