Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sermon: Feast of the Holy Trinity

18 May 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 3:1-17 (Isa 6:1-7, Rom 11:33-36)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some people that you meet are what we call an “enigma.” They are a puzzle. Just when you think you have them figured out, they surprise you. Just when you think you have them pegged, they do something you could have never predicted. Some people are so secretive that you might think they are actually foreign spies. There are some people you can know for decades and still really not really know them.

Other people are candid to a fault. They will come out and tell you everything, even without flinching. Their routines are so regular and their life so locked in to routine that you can set your watch by them. It is as though such people live in a fishbowl. There is no mystery about such people. What you see is what you get.

So, what about God. Is God enigmatic, mysterious, ethereal, otherworldly, and unpredictable enough to be frightening? Or is God predictable, consistent, approachable, plain-spoken, and an open book?

To be sure, God is mysterious, beyond our understanding, mighty, and enigmatic. As St. Paul writes to the Christians at Rome: “Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord?”

When the prophet Isaiah was transported to the throne room of the Almighty God, he was out of his element. Isaiah was dwarfed by God’s immensity. He was overwhelmed by the seraphim, the highest level of angels, who stood at the right and left of the throne, and as mighty and magnificent as they were, they themselves cowered, covering their faces, and crying out from behind their wings the praises of the God whose voice boomed and rattled the doors of the smoke-filled room.

Here we see a revelation of God as the mighty Creator, the King, the Lord of Lords, the Most Holy One, the One whose very presence terrifies the holy prophet Isaiah, who lies on the floor blubbering in the fetal position, whimpering about how unclean he is.

God is so mighty and untouchable, that it should come as no surprise there is much we simply don’t know about Him. Our feeble brains and filthy souls simply could not handle even a fraction of God. Even fleeting glimpses of God in His full glory in Scripture result in utter confusion and terror for those who stood in His presence, as well as for us, who can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to be standing before Him.

But then, even when we think we have figured out that we can’t figure God out, he throws us another curve ball. In our Gospel, we see a man named Nicodemus, a worshiper of the God who revealed Himself to Isaiah. Nicodemus takes a nighttime stroll and finds God. Only God is not on a throne, but in human form, wearing the garb of a rabbi. Nicodemus calls God “Teacher” and proceeds to question God about the nature of the universe and salvation.

In this case, God is plain-spoken. He speaks to Nicodemus eyeball to eyeball, Man to man. He tells him that in order to be a part of God’s kingdom, one must be “born again.” He further explains to a confused Nicodemus that this second birth is not a form of reincarnation from one’s mother, but is rather a rebirth of “water and the Spirit.” Jesus tells him: “Most assuredly, I say to you, We speak what We know and testify what We have seen, and you do not receive Our witness.” Jesus speaks of Himself in the plural: “We” and “Our.” “If I have told you earthly things,” says our Lord, “and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”

Nicodemus encounters God being candid, visible, tangible, available for questions, willing to have a conversation, and openly walking about in space and time, limited in space, and communicating through flesh to flesh. This is the God who sits at table, eats, drinks, laughs, weeps, hurts, is angry, who prays to His Father, who promises to send the Holy Spirit, who admits to being a heavenly king over the hosts of heaven, and yet who is executed by an earthly king egged on by a mob and betrayed by a son of hell.

And so we see God as both enigma and as teacher, as the unknowable and as the self-revelation, as the completely Other and the completely Us, as the Creator who is apart from time and space and as the One who is bound by the very limits of creation itself – all wrapped up in one.

This is the God who has created us, redeemed us, and sanctified us. The God whose demands condemn us, and whose mercy saves us. The God whose perfection must be appeased, and who perfectly appeases that perfection Himself. This is the God into whose Triune name – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we have been baptized. This is the God whom we are too small to understand, and yet, who became small enough for us to understand.

And so, on this day, the Sunday after Pentecost, the Church throughout the world worships our Lord in His revelation to us as both Trinity and Unity. And as we confessed in the Creed: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity…”

And though holding the correct doctrine is a given, notice that the creed does not say we are saved by the good work of holding the right doctrine. Indeed, we are saved by grace, not by works. This is why we confess we are saved by holding the catholic faith. Faith. Faith alone. Faith, meaning belief. The catholic faith is a belief, and yet it is not intellectual. For “the catholic faith is this, that we worship…”

If you are interested in salvation, dear friends, it is not enough to be able to recite the catechism. It is not enough to express belief in God. It isn’t even enough to claim to have faith. For you must hold the catholic faith, the one true faith, the wholesome faith in its entirety. And what is this faith? It is that we “worship.” You cannot be a Christian if you simply believe in God – even simply believing in the Trinity. Even Satan believes in the Trinity. Indeed, to hold the catholic faith unto salvation means to worship the Triune God, the true God in His Unity and the true God in His Trinity.

To hold the catholic faith, to be saved, is to worship the Father, to worship the Son, and to worship the Holy Spirit.

We fall upon our faces before God just as Isaiah did. We sit at the feet of our Master and Teacher, just as Nicodemus did. We are regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit, given the forgiveness of sins promised by the Father and secured by the Son. We are born again of water and the Spirit in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And we worship this God who puts His name on us, who gives us new birth, who draws us into His kingdom, who brings us to eternal life.

One thing God has revealed about Himself is His disposition towards His creation. “For while we were yet sinners, Christ,” that is God, “died for us.” Even when His creation betrayed Him, He desired to save that creation. Even when one He called “friend” betrayed Him, He was to die for that betrayer, and all betrayers. For in spite of the world’s unlovableness, in the face of mankind’s rebellion and sin, our Triune God is a God of love and mercy: “For God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” As our Lord Himself testifies: “Greater love has no-one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

This, dear friends, is the good news of the catholic faith. For our faith isn’t a sterile collection of teachings that you get rewarded for answering correctly, a cosmic version of Final Jeopardy. The catholic faith we hold on to, cling to, hang on for dear life to, is this: we worship the one true God, the one Triune God, the One who took flesh, the One who died a sacrificial death, the One who conquered the evil one, the One who broke death’s stranglehold over us.

We worship the One whose flesh and blood are given to us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. We worship the One who gives us a second birth by water and Word. We worship the One whose Spirit is given to those ordained to pronounce forgiveness. We worship the One whose coal from the altar is placed upon our lips, the One who declares in His mercy, in His love, in His Trinity, and in His Unity: “Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin purged.”

“For of Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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