“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
We celebrate today that God has been revealed to us through the Incarnation of Jesus as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God.
This morning let us look at the Triune God, His Holiness, and how we approach Him.
First, the Triune God.
There is a longing in the human mind to make God understandable, knowable, and definable. The Bible warns us against thinking we could ever do such a thing. When Moses is confronted by God in the wilderness and called to go back to Egypt to bring the God’s people out of slavery to Pharaoh, he asks God who he should tell the people of Israel has sent him. God says, “I am who I am”, tell them, “I am” sent you. I suspect this answer was confounding both to Moses and to the people he told. But God is not circumscribable – we can’t put boundaries around him, he is not definable and so containable.
And yet….and yet…God does reveal some things about his nature to us in revelations through history recorded in the Bible.
The great – I am– or Being or Existence itself, from which all existence is, speaks in the Old Testament of His Spirit – in creation, and in the pouring out of his Spirit on individuals for prophesy, for artistic skill, for courage… And then later in the Wisdom books of the Bible, such as Proverbs, we hear of Lady Wisdom, and we hear spoken of even more in the Wisdom of Solomon [7:15-end], where Solomon says Wisdom is a spirit that is:
“…intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle – for Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades all things. For she is the breath of the power of God and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…more beautiful than the sun…compared with light she is found to be superior, for it is succeeded by the night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail.”
This is written in the Apocrypha, probably in the first century before Christ, using wisdom sources in the Hebrew tradition. There is the repeated and absolute insistence in the Old Testament on the unity of God – the Lord our God is One – and yet already we find these not so hidden ways of speaking about the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament – as Father, Spirit and Wisdom (or Word or Law) – that become more explicit in the New Testament. [Which, can be an introduction to a way of witness to our Jewish friends about the Trinity… who is Lady Wisdom of Proverbs and Wisdom literature? who is the Spirit of God hovering over the waters?] Paul says plainly, Christ is the Wisdom of God [1 Corinthians 1:24].
The New Testament becomes more explicit – Jesus circling us around this doctrine – I and the Father are One…if you’ve seen me, you have seen the Father…I will send you another Counsellor even the Spirit of Truth…Go and baptize all nations in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
But beyond this insistence in the New Testament (and more hiddenly in the Old Testament) that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three gods but one God – we are profoundly and necessarily left confused when it comes to understanding God. How can the finite mind grasp the infinite God?
What can we say?
St Augustine, wanting to pierce into how God could be three and one, a tri-unity, thought one might understand something of this by looking at our own souls, which we are told, are made in the image and likeness of God.
When we say we know ourselves, or we love ourselves, there is a kind of trinity – to be able to reflect on who we are, to have self-consciousness, requires a kind of trinity – the one who sees, the one who chooses to see, and the one who is seen.
We know it is problematic when a person never looks at himself – how distorted a person becomes when we are simply judging others and trying to put them down and so raise ourselves up. Jesus calls on us rather to take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of our neighbour’s eye. That requires a turn towards ourselves – a growth in self-consciousness which is necessary for any spiritual growth. Become like the Trinity.
God perfectly knows and loves Himself – the Son is a perfect image of the Father, and the is Spirit the love between them holding that attention.
As we become more in the image and likeness of God – a more equal trinity appears in us – who we are really (the Father) and who we know ourselves to be are more equal (the Son): Paul says, now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part [myself]; then I shall know fully [myself], even as I have been fully known [by God].[1 Cor 13:12]
Nothing will be hidden, no strange unknown repressed fears or hatred or unforgiveness moving us, no lies trying to hide even from ourselves what we have done wrong – all is revealed to us, and brought forward to God and forgiven. And, there no lack of appreciation of the goodness of who we are either – we see ourselves as God sees us, and loves us. There is a wholeness of being. What we present of ourselves to the world is what we are in reality, there is an authenticity, a humility, and great mercy towards others. Love is manifested in us – we can love others because we know a proper love of ourselves in the light and in the mercy of God.
There is a deep mystery about being itself and of self-consciousness that God reveals about Himself as Trinity, and that is helpful in our own coming to know ourselves. The doctrine of the Trinity is deeply confusing and confounding and yet it can begin to reveal things to us about the inner life of God and also ourselves and our growth in maturity, into God’s image and likeness.
Second, the Holiness of God.
In our readings today, the Triunity of God is revealed in the voices of the angels in heaven and of the host of heaven in their threefold song of praise –
In Isaiah [6:1-8], the song of the Seraphim around the throne:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”
And in Revelation [4:1-11], it is the song of the Cherubim around the throne:
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
God is thrice Holy. This is something insisted upon from the beginning to the end of Scriptures. What does it mean that God is holy?
In the Isaiah reading [6:1-8], the holiness of God can be adduced from the reaction that Isaiah has upon the revelation of God as thrice holy, he says:
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
The holiness of God is contrasted with the uncleanness of the prophet and Israel – Isaiah has spent the first part of his book [chapters 1-5] describing the moral failures of Israel: injustice to neighbours, bloodshed, a lack of care for the fatherless and widow, everyone loves a bribe, there are soothsayers and diviners, the land filled with idols, in their wealth people have become proud, they are proud of sin, they are drunkards, they call evil good and good evil – “they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel…in the land…the light is darkened by its clouds.” [5:24,30]
Here the holiness of God could be understood as the opposite of these things. Holiness is being just in our relations with our neighbours, caring for the fatherless and widows, not perverting justice with a bribe, looking to God alone for direction, humility, moral purity, seeking what is truly good, the moral law, the word of God.
And Isaiah sees that unholiness is in himself too, in the face the thrice holy God – he is not somehow immune from the society he lives in – as they have become unclean, so is he. It is only by the fire of the holy ones, the angels called Seraphim, from the Hebrew verb saraph, which means to burn, and the burning coal from the holy altar, touching his lips that Isaiah can be cleansed and purified, and made ready for a more sustained vision of God, and to proclaim more fully the promised Gospel of Jesus Christ in his remaining ministry. [The Book of Isaiah is seen by many in the early Church as the 5th Gospel because of its clarity about the Incarnation of the Messiah – a virgin shall conceive…and his name shall be called Almighty God, the Everlasting Father… and of the suffering and death of the Messiah – through his stripes shall we be healed…the Lord has put on him the iniquity of us all… and he also speaks of the resurrection of the Messiah.]
In Revelation the holiness of God is emphasized by those who are made able to worship him in heaven – who have been given white robes – those who have washed themselves in the blood of the Lamb – to cleanse themselves of every impurity. [Rev 7:14]
God says repeatedly, I am holy, and you must be holy if I am to dwell in your midst – both outwardly, in our relations with one another in society, and inwardly, in the thoughts of our hearts. Jesus says, Only the pure in heart will see God [Mt 5:8]; Paul says, without holiness no one shall see God. [Heb 12:14]
Finally, how do we approach the holy God?
In our Gospel today, we are reminded by Jesus, at the beginning of the season of Trinity, about the very beginning steps of that approach to the Holy God, about the way to enter into the Kingdom of God.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God… unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The first principle in our return to the holy God, says Jesus, is that we need help from above – the Holy Spirit, who is given in our baptism and through faith, to lead us to see and to enter the Kingdom of God.
“He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” says John the Baptist. [Matt 3:11] “Our God is a consuming fire”, says Paul in Hebrews, [and related to the flaming sword of the cherubim which turned every way to guard the way of return to paradise of Genesis 3:24)] who burns and purifies us, burning away what is dross and leaving only what is pure gold behind.
And Jesus tells us this morning another aspect of that return to God. He reminds us of how the faithful Israelites made their way through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. Every time they were bitten by poisonous snakes, they were to look upon a bronze serpent that Moses was told to make and put it on a stick, and they would be healed. Even so, says Jesus, the Son Man will be lifted up on the Cross, and if we are stung by sin on our journey, we are to look up and trust in Jesus’ offering of himself for us, and we will be forgiven.
Here we have the activity of the Holy Trinity in our salvation: the Father in the Kingdom of God from whom we have our being, our existence, and who created all things and to whom we are returning; who sends the Son to redeems us and washes us continually by His once for all self-offering; and the Holy Spirit, sent from the Father and the Son, to indwell us and leads us in the way of Truth through the Son back to the Father.
This is something that we can say about the Holy Trinity, it is only just a beginning. The whole season of Trinity is about our growth in holiness, about the recovery of the image and likeness of the Triune God in our souls.
Let us prepare ourselves now by repentance and a true confession of faith, to be ready to receive from the altar of God, a burning coal, the Body and Blood of Christ, that we might be purified as by fire and know ourselves to be forgiven. And then sent out, like Isaiah, to proclaim and to witness by our lives the Gospel to the whole world.