“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.
Even to say the words is not to clarify, “O yes, now I understand who God is,” but rather it is to confound and confuse us immediately. As if to deliberately destabilize our desire to wrap things up, to close off our minds to further investigation and to be satisfied with our understanding of who God is.
We are set off balance. And surely this is what God has in mind, it is a good thing. When we try to think on God, we are immediately confounded.
Now there is technical language that draws out something of what we can say and what we cannot say, and we will say the Athanasian Creed after the sermon and the choir anthem. But I think what we want to know is what does this doctrine, this teaching say to us about who the God we believe in is.
Different theologians in the Church have tried to use imagery from nature as analogies to see something of how God can be three in one. For example, St Basil used the example of the sun in the sky (the Father), from which comes forth light (the Son) and from which we experience its heat (the Holy Spirit). Three but one.
Some modern minds have tried to use the Trinity to further certain agendas – some have argued that God is a community in diversity – it a bad argument, since the Church has always taught from Scripture that is no difference between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit other than their relation to one another. The terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit are only describing the relation between the persons in the One God, nothing more. [Not that we are not a community in diversity, or that people are not different in their gifts, but the argument for difference from the nature of God is not appropriate.]
St Augustine’s reflections are helpful – when he tries to understand how our souls might be like the Trinity. He sees in God, the experience we have of being self-reflective – that to know ourselves requires a kind of Trinitarian psychology, the ability to look upon who we are – that being self-conscious, awake, requires a kind of trinity. The Father looks upon the Son, in love, and the Son looks upon the Father in love, and that love between them is the Holy Spirit. It is I think very normal for us to think of God loving himself.
When we think of us loving ourselves we quickly think negative things because we know its danger in us, that it can become imbalanced, narcissistic – an excessive or unbalanced love that would exclude others, or take credit for aspects of our creatureliness that are rather gifts of God, and even shutting ourselves off from thinking on God. Being lost in self-reflection. Yet, with God there is self-love, and His love is proper since God is Good and Just and True and Beautiful – supremely worthy of love. We are called to love ourselves as God loves us, to care for ourselves, in a proper way – holding that love within a right love of the One who made us and the right love of our neighbours whom God has also made.
When we try to hold in our minds that God is the Trinity in Unity, it also brings to mind immediately the idea of a certain dynamism – an ongoing activity within the Godhead and also in creation. John says in his Gospel, “The Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing [miracles] on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.’” [5:16-17] Knowing God as Trinity, makes us more open to God’s activity in earth – in our very souls, and on earth – in our communities and the wider society, as in heaven. We see the light brought to us in Jesus Christ, we feel the heat of the Spirit in our hearts, and we feel rest when we think of God above it all, unchangeable, eternally in the heavens.
Such knowledge is too wonderful and excellent for me, I cannot attain unto it. Where shall I go then from your Spirit, or where shall I go then from your presence? If I climb up into heaven, you are there, if I go down to hell, you are there also.. [Psalm 139:5-7]
We have three readings from Scripture this morning that speak of where we are going and of how to get there.
The readings from Isaiah [6:1-8] and Revelation [4:1-11] describes where we are going.
There is the vision of God that Isaiah had in the Temple in Jerusalem. The vision itself is of One seated on the throne – John later says, that this is a vision of the Son [see John 12:40-41]. Paul, speaking of this moment, says that the words Isaiah heard were from the Holy Spirit [Acts 28:26]. [Commentary by Christopher Wordsworth]
The vision is accompanied by the shaking of the foundations. Something similar happens in the manifestations of God on Mt Sinai or at the dedication of the Tabernacle and the Temple. One way to view that is that God is the foundation, and even those things most stable on earth are unstable in relation to the stability of God. The smoke that also appears in all these visions reminds us of the hiddenness of God – we see now through a mirror darkly, but then, face to face!
The threefold “Holy, Holy, Holy”, taken up in our liturgy each Sunday, speaks of the plurality of persons in the One God. Verse 8 strangely says “whom will I send, and who will go for us?” It may remind us of the obscurity of God’s language in making humanity –Let us make man in our image [plural] –in the image of God [singular] he created him. [Genesis 1:26-27] Or the obscurity of the interaction between Abraham and the three visitors, sometimes calling him Lord, and sometimes addressing them in the plural. [Genesis 18]
In Revelation another holy man, John the Apostle, is taken up near the end of his life, in the spirit, to witness the ongoing worship of God in heaven. Like in Isaiah, John hears the threefold “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Heaven is a place of worship and adoration. It is just one of the many visions of heaven given in Revelation – of a garden, a city, a new heavens and a new earth. All point to something inexplicable about our future life, just as God is inexplicable, incomprehensible, ungraspable to the finite mind. But nonetheless enough of God is revealed through the Son as Love, as mercy, as Judge, as Beautiful, to make us seek Him out, and of heaven, to make us seek it out.
Our Gospel this morning [St John 3:1-15] might seem out of place with these visions in Isaiah and Revelation of the glory of the Holy Trinity. But these readings describe where we are going, and the Gospel describes how we get there.
Nicodemus, a monotheistic unitarian Jew, comes to Jesus at night in secret to discover more about who he is and about the path to God. Jesus knows before Nicodemus speaks why he has come and gets to the heart of the matter:
…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 starting point for us to ascend from the earthly life into the heights of heaven is baptism. Jesus says it is only by God’s grace that we can be lifted into that life. And God is ready to offer that grace, by the pouring out of His Spirit into our hearts. His Spirit is given to us that we might see and enter heaven.
But somehow Jesus has a place in our ascending to heaven too. Jesus says he can lead us there because the Son of God comes from there and knows the Way [John 3:13]. And curiously Jesus adds to this statement of his origins, a reference to His crucifixion:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. [3:14-15]
You remember the story of the Israelites journeying through the wilderness to the Promised Land – when they sinned they were bitten by snakes, but there was a remedy, a bronze serpent on a pole that they could look upon if they believed and they would be healed. Jesus’ crucifixion happens in history before the Spirit can be poured out. The crucifixion before Pentecost. And in our lives, we must turn towards God and ask forgiveness before he will purify us and lift us heavenward. And in our wilderness wandering towards the life of heaven, we will no doubt continue to wander on and off the path. Jesus assures us we can look to the crucifixion again and again for ongoing forgiveness and cleansing on that Way.
This morning we are confounded by the mystery of the Trinity. It is no doubt because God is greater that we can know, but it is also because like Isaiah, we are people of unclean lips, living among people of unclean lips. And it is only the pure in heart who shall see God. [Mt 5:8; Heb 12:14]
Jesus promises each of us this morning to cleanse our lips that we might be opened up like Isaiah was to the greater purposes of God on earth and ultimately to the vision of God in heaven. He had begun to be a prophet already, declaiming Israel’s sin, but it was only after this vision and cleansing that he began to proclaim about the birth, life, suffering, death, resurrection, second coming of the Messiah and of the general resurrection. [Wordsworth Commentary]
This morning we will soon look on the Son of God lifted up in the wilderness to receive healing. We have opportunity to receive a living coal from the altar of God today. It will be appropriate for us to hear, as we receive Christ’s body and blood, the words of the Seraphim to Isaiah (words that Orthodox priests say privately after they have received the Holy Communion):
“Behold, this has touched your lips,
your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
Then we can continue in the Way to, and in the service of, the thrice Holy God.