Awe of the Lord

Holy Trinity, Year C, June 16, 2019

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

Video of sermon on Facebook

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a verse in scripture that is usually translated into English like this: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  And I hate it when it’s translated that way, because when we think of fearing someone, it’s usually because they are bad or abusive, and God is most certainly not bad or abusive.  The Hebrew word “יראת” means fear, but it can also mean reverence, respect, awe.  Like the reverence and awe the Psalmist feels in Psalm 8, when they go out into and look up at the night sky and contemplate the incredible universe God has created.  We put such an emphasis on God as our friend and father that sometimes we forget just how incredibly great God is compared to us, and how little we know of God.  God is beyond human understanding, greater and larger and deeper than anything we can imagine, and we only know God because God has chosen to come among us and be with us and tell us about God’s own self, and it is incredible that we sometimes take that for granted.

We human beings are so small, compared to the universe.  We think we have everything figured out, and yet there is so much we don’t know.  No matter how much we study and research, there will always be things we don’t even know we don’t know.  One of my favorite television shows is called Babylon 5, a sci-fi television show from the 90s.  In one episode, the captain of an exploration ship gets a vague warning about danger at her next stop.  She goes anyway, and when she gets there something happens.  Something is there, something powerful and mysterious that her sensors just can’t figure out.  It doesn’t even notice her, but the wake from its passing almost destroys her ship.  After she gets rescued, the captain goes to the person who gave her the warning and asks him what it was.  He shrugs, and tries to explain it this way: he picks up an ant crawling on some flowers in a display next to them.  He shows it to her, and then puts it back on the flower.  “If that ant were to point to the sky and ask another ant, “what was that?”” he asks, “what could it say?  How could that ant explain what happened to it?  I can’t explain what happened to you any more than that ant can explain what happened to it.  There are some things out there greater than us that we just don’t understand.”

Compared to God, we aren’t even ants.  We don’t understand God much more than ants can understand us.  And yet God created us, God loves us, God made Godself one of us, God saves us from our own sinfulness and heals our wounds, and God inspires us and calls us with God’s own spirit.  Everything we know about God, we know because God chose to show it to us.  And there’s a lot we don’t understand, a lot we can’t understand.  God is a mystery, but not in the way we think of mysteries today: puzzles that can be solved if we just have all the facts.  No, God is a mystery in the older sense.  Mystery comes from the same root as mystic.  A mystic is someone who contemplates mysteries.  Mysteries can’t be understood, and the more time you spend contemplating a mystery the more you realize you don’t understand.  Contemplating a mystery, in the old sense, is like diving into a bottomless well.  No matter how deep you go, no matter how much you explore, it is always deeper than you can go, and there is always more to explore.  You never come to the end of it.  In the same way, no matter how much we learn about God, there is always more to explore, more to learn.

One of the things that has puzzled Christians since the very beginning is the idea that we today call the Trinity.  From the very beginning of Scripture, God was adamant that God’s people were to worship only one God.  “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me.”  And again, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one.”  And then along came Jesus.  Jesus called God his father, and called himself God’s Son.  Sometimes he talked about the Father as if the Father were a different person; and sometimes Jesus insisted that he and the Father were one.  And then there was the Spirit of God that Jesus talked about, that was part of God and yet somehow distinct from both Jesus and the Father.  And the earliest Christians took all of these pieces and studied Scripture, and found that while God had always been adamant that there was only one God, but sometimes God referred to God’s self in the plural: “we.”  And God was usually referred to using masculine pronouns and imagery, but sometimes God used feminine or neuter pronouns and imagery.  And even from the very beginning of Scripture, the Spirit, the breath of God, was present in creation.  And there are places like our reading from Proverbs where that Spirit of God is personified and given a voice of its own as the Wise Woman.  God is One and yet God is more than one.  God is masculine and feminine and neither.  God is creation and wind and fire and salvation.  God is greater than we can imagine, and God is intimately present with us in Christ Jesus.  And they tried to fit all the pieces together into a logical explanation, and every analogy or explanation they tried failed in one way or another.  Finally they threw up their hands and realized that they couldn’t explain God; God is a mystery.  God is one God, and God is three people.  The Father, Son, and Spirit are all God together, and though there are three of them, there are not three Gods but one God together.  And that understanding of God—one in three, and three in one—is what we call trinity.

We can’t explain God, but we can explore God.  We can love God, and we can experience God’s love for us.  God is a three-person dance, God is a family, God is a puzzle ring or a Celtic knot, made up of three parts and yet still one ineffable whole.  That relationship is built on love and joy.  When we say that God is love, that love is at the core of God’s very nature, that is what we mean: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one because they love one another, and that love overflows into all of creation.  They love one another as a healthy family does, respecting and delighting in their differences, united in love and a common goal.

That common goal is the creation and redemption of the world.  That common goal is for the love that they have for one another to overflow into all the universe so that every part of it is shaped and guided by God’s love.  That love is what caused them to create the universe to begin with.  God rejoices in the goodness of all that God has made, and God has from the very beginning.  God rejoices in us.  As tiny and miniscule and insignificant as we are, God loves us.  And when the world was broken by sin and death—when we human beings broke creation with our rebellion—God still loved us.  God was angry and hurt at what we had done, but that anger did not stop God from loving us.  Even in the depths of our sin, even as we kept hurting ourselves and others and the good world that God made, God kept reaching out to us, through the Spirit and through Jesus Christ.  We keep rebelling, and God keeps making peace with us through Jesus Christ.  God keeps pouring God’s love into us through the Spirit.  There is nothing—not our own sinful actions, not the actions of others, not powers nor principalities nor life nor death nor anything in the whole universe that can stop God from loving us and reaching out to us and trying to save us and all of creation.  We know this not because we’re smart enough to understand everything about God, but because God has told us this.

God is not only greater than we are, God is greater than we can imagine.  God is vast beyond human understanding, and we will never be able to comprehend all of who and what God is.  But we know what God has told us: that God created the world, that God loves us, that God is our Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Spirit which calls and inspires us.  God loves us, and is always with us, and will never forsake us.  Thanks be to God.


Our God is so Great

Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND


May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

We worship one God, who is three people.  One-in-three and three-in-one.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each distinct, each different, with their own characteristics, with their own role to play.  Definitely not the same person—they are definitely three.  Yet none of them are God by themselves; they are all three God together.  And if you’re confused, you’re not alone; this concept has been confusing people since the days of Jesus.

The disciple Philip once asked Jesus to show them the Father.  Jesus was a bit frustrated because he’d spent a lot of time trying to teach them that when they saw him, they saw the Father; the Father was there with him in a very tangible way.  Jesus and the Father were one—and yet, at the same time, Jesus prayed to the Father, speaking to him.  All that the Father had was Jesus’, and all that Jesus had was the Father’s—but the Father was not the one dying on the cross.  And then there is the Holy Spirit, who was present with God in creation, through whom all things were made, who was sent by Christ to guide us into truth and call us into right action and stir us up, who breaks down the walls dividing us from God and one another, comforts us in our griefs, pours God’s love into our hearts, and lives among us.  They are one God, who is three people.  And every time in the last two thousand years someone has sat down to figure out logically how it all works, they’ve either failed or fallen into heresy.

I actually find that kind of reassuring, personally.  Don’t get me wrong, I like knowing how and why things work.  But at the same time, God is greater than any mortal can understand.  If we could figure out all the whys and the wherefores and truly understand the depths of who God is … well, that would mean God wasn’t any bigger than we are.  We can’t understand all of God any more than an ant could understand all of a human being, because compared to God, we are smaller than an ant is to us.  All that we know about God, we know because God, in God’s infinite love, has chosen to reveal himself to us.  Think about that for a second: God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  But we know him.  We know him because he loves us.  Us, small, frail, limited as we are.  As the Psalmist says, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them?  What are human beings that you should care for them?”  Yet God does care for us.  God loves us, and so he comes to us and shows himself to us.  And God does that as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, who are nevertheless one God together.  It’s not something for us to be able to logically analyze.  It’s a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

But most of us find that kind of ambiguity uncomfortable.  We like things to be tied up into nice, neat, easily understandable packages.  This has always been true, but it is even more true in the modern age.  Everything is designed to be concrete, easily understandable, one right answer that you memorize and move on.  Take school, for example.  For twelve years—longer, if one counts preschool—we sit our children down for hours a day and teach them the things that will be on the test.  2+2=4, water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule combined, because is spelled b-e-c-a-u-s-e, and the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  The whole system is designed in this way: you memorize the facts and regurgitate them for the test.  There is one right answer to each question, and anything else is wrong.  Then you take the percentage of right answers and use that to determine if the student knows enough to pass the class and move on to learning the next bit of information.  It’s very efficient, and teaches us a lot of things that are very important—but it’s not good at teaching us to deal with situations that can’t easily be boiled down to one right or wrong answer.

This is the season of graduation, when our students who have spent twelve years learning all the things we think everyone should know prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.  And I know that when I graduated high school, brain full of information and a college scholarship waiting for me, I thought that I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the world worked.  Oh, sure, there were things to learn in college, things to prepare me for my adult career (whatever that would turn out to be), but I thought I knew about people and about life and about myself.  I thought that life was like school: you figure out the right answer—and of course there was always a right answer, and only one right answer at a time—and then you do it.  And that would lead to success and happiness, as if life were a test that I was being graded on.  I thought faith was kind of like that too: you memorized the right answers about God and the Bible and that was all you needed to know.  And since I’d been a good kid and gone to church and Sunday School and Bible School and Camp Lutherwood and Confirmation and youth group, I thought that I knew all the answers I would need.

Boy was I wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where I found that there wasn’t a right answer, only answers that were varying degrees of wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where there were many possible “right” answers.  There were times I found that what would have been the right answer for me was a wrong answer for a friend, and if I tried to insist that I knew the answers, all I did was hurt myself and my friend.  There were a lot of times where, forget having the right answers, I didn’t even know what the right questions were.  Life was a whole lot more complex and less defined than I thought it was, when I graduated from high school.  And the worst part of it was, those answers about God and the Bible and faith that I’d learned in church and Sunday School and Bible School and church camp and confirmation and youth group?  A lot of the time they just didn’t fit.  They weren’t enough.  They had answered the questions I had when I was five, and ten, and fifteen; but by the time I was twenty, twenty-five, and thirty, I had different questions.

Thank God that God is bigger than I thought he was.  The older I got, the more complicated I realized the world was—and each time I realized the world was bigger than I thought, or more complicated than I realized, God was still greater.  And God was still with me.  And those answers I learned as a child and teen weren’t enough to answer all the questions I had, but they provided a foundation for asking the new questions and guiding me to new answers.  The things I learned as a child and teen weren’t the be-all of faith development, but they provided a framework on which to grow, like the trellises my mom uses to support vegetables in her garden.

But what I learned most of all, is that the most important thing in life isn’t having all the answers.  Being right and having the right facts ready to hand is not what life is about.  Life is not about having a nice, neat, logical answer to every question—and neither is faith.  They’re about relationship.  Relationships with God, with family, with friends, with the whole community.  Life and faith are both about participating together, about forming bonds together.  The important thing about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t figuring out a logical explanation for how it all works, but realizing that it’s all about relationship.  The Father, Son, and Spirit, all different, with their own person and work, and yet participating together in a common life, filled with love and joy.  And that’s the life that we are called to participate in as Christians—by the Father’s creation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, we are called into a life-giving and love-overflowing relationship with God and one another.  We’re given a model of what love looks like, we experience it, and we are called to live in response to that love.  Instead of focusing on giving us the right answers to deal with life’s questions, God gave us the right guiding principle: love.  As God has loved us, so we are called to love God.  As the Father, Son, and Spirit love each other, so we are called to love one another.  That love—God’s love—is what God has given to guide us through life, through all the questions, through times when there is no simple answer, through good times and bad.

We don’t understand all that God is and does; how could we?  God is greater than we could imagine.  But we don’t have to, because God comes to us, God shows himself to us, God shows us what true relationships and true love look like, and God invites us to live out that love and relationship in everything that we see and do.  May God keep us in that love and relationship all the days of our lives.


The majesty of God

Trinity, (Year A), June 15, 2014

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, the psalmist says. I recently watched a science documentary called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This documentary covered everything from the smallest part of an atom to the vastness of a universe filled with millions of galaxies, and throughout it all as Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained the knowledge science gives us, I was struck with a sense of wonder at the world God has made. Although told from a scientific point of view and not a religious one, the show has a sense of awe at the beauty and majesty of all creation, from the tiniest bit if it to the farthest reaches of the universe. As Christians, we know that God our Father is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And yet it is sometimes easy to forget how incredible that is, how vast God’s creation truly is, and how small a part of it we are.

“O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the vastness of the universe! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” We know more about God’s creation than the psalmist did three thousand years ago when this psalm was first written. We know the universe is vaster than that long-ago poet could have imagined. Every star we see in the sky is a sun like our own, many of which have planets like our own; and there are innumerably more stars out there that we can only see from Earth with the aid of telescopes. And past that, there are other galaxies larger than our own, filled with even more stars and planets. There are all the wonders that science has discovered, all the wonders science will discover in the centuries to come, and all the wonders that science could not possibly understand. God guided creation from the beginning of time, creating the stars and planets and galaxies, and then on our own planet life: first plants, and then creatures of the sea, and then creatures on land, and then, finally, humans. Out of all that vastness, God created us. And loves us dearly.

We humans tend to be egocentric. We tend to think the world revolves around us. But look up at the night skies, or look at one of the photographs of Earth taken from the moon, and you will see how insignificant we truly are. Compared to the universe, we are nothing. Compared to God, we are less than nothing. We are tiny. The universe is vast, and God is greater still. There are mysteries to the universe that we will never know, and it is God who created them. God, who is beyond our mortal imagining. Yet God loves us. God cares for us. God created us, but God didn’t just stop there and stand back and abandon us to our own fate. God is with us, teaching us and guiding us and loving us.

God the Father created us, but we went astray. We fell into sin. And when we did, we dragged all of creation with us. God created the world to be good. Did you notice that, in the creation story told in the first lesson? Over and over, God creates something and says that it is good. But we humans are broken by sin and death, and that has marred the world God made.

So God the Son came to earth and was born as a human. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God became Human. The great, infinite one became finite. Jesus Christ was truly God and truly human at the same time. Because God loves us so much, God was willing to become one of us. Jesus Christ, our Savior, the Son, the Word of God made flesh and come to live among us. He broke the chains of sin and death and freed us so that we might live the kind of good, abundant lives the Father created us to live. He didn’t have to, you know. He could have said, “Well, it’s their own fault,” and let us fall. But he didn’t. He loves us, and so he came to save us and all of creation. Jesus Christ came to put right what we have made wrong, to heal all the harm we have done to ourselves and each other and to all of creation.

Once the Son had broken the chains of sin that we had made for ourselves, he went back to the Father. But God is still with us, for the Holy Spirit came and continues to breathe life into us, to empower us and inspire us in God’s way. The Spirit comes to set us on fire with God’s holy love, to give us the living water that helps us grow as God’s children. The Spirit is never still; the Spirit is always in motion, leading us and guiding us.

There’s a lot about God we don’t know or understand. We have one God, but that God comes to us in three ways: as the Father, as the Son, as the Spirit. Christians have been arguing over exactly how that works since the very first followers of Jesus worshipped him. No one has ever been able to really explain it, but that actually gives me comfort. God created the universe, in all its vastness and complexity, the wonders as great as galaxies and as tiny as atoms. Surely, God is greater than anything we could possibly comprehend. Science and human reason are valuable tools that can help us learn a lot. But if science and human reason were the only tools we had to explore the universe, we would know little about God for God is greater than human reason can understand. Yet God reveals Gods own self to us out of love.

As St. John the elder said in his first letter, God is love. In our second lesson, St. Paul said that God is a God of love and peace. That is the core of who and what God is. Father, Son, Spirit, all three together, loving one another. No one of the three is complete without the others. But in mutual love they dance together as they have throughout all time, with a love as vast as the universe. That love is extended to us. As God’s children, we are invited into that relationship, into that love. We are invited to dance with them, to join the holy community, and to give that love to everyone we meet. And in so doing, we are invited to participate in God’s work. God makes us his partners.

The psalmist puts it this way: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” Out of all the greatness of God’s creation, we are given the task of helping to take care of the world God has made. We are created, saved, empowered, and sent out to be God’s hands in the world. We are brought into God’s own love, and given the task of sharing that love with the world, through our words and through our actions.

We are sent out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We are sent out to love our neighbors, to spread peace where there is destructive conflict, to spread joy where there is despair, to spread healing where there is illness or injury, to spread hope where there is despair, to spread the story of God’s love for all of creation but most especially God’s love for us, God’s own children.

In Unity and Love

The Seventh Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

As Christians, we pray for people a lot.  Sometimes we pray alone, sometimes together.  Sometimes we pray for ourselves, and sometimes for others.  It’s quite a feeling, to know you are being prayed for.  It can give comfort; it can bring humbleness, it can bring inspiration.  I find it particularly moving when I am present and can hear the prayer.  Have you ever held someone’s hand while they’re praying for you and had a chill go up your spine?  I have.  Have you ever listened to someone praying and felt something you can’t describe, that seems to fill the room?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we overhear Jesus praying for us.  Unlike many other times we hear Jesus speaking, he isn’t speaking to us, he’s speaking to his Father.  He’s not telling us a parable, he’s not teaching, he’s not exhorting his followers or telling them how to live their lives.  He’s praying.  Just as we pray for one another, Jesus prays for us.  We are hearing his prayer through the ears of the disciples, who were with him at the time.  Jesus was praying for them, and for all those who would come to follow him.  He was asking the Father to give us the unity and love which only comes through God.

Now, the disciples weren’t a very unified, loving bunch.  Peter was pretty volatile, and always leapt before he looked.  He could be very right, but he could also be very wrong, and he was never quiet about it.  Judas was there at this meeting, and hadn’t yet betrayed Jesus, but it wouldn’t be long before he did.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, jockeyed for position and power and prestige.  Sound familiar?  Like any group, the disciples had conflicts and divisions within their group, and sometimes they focused on squabbling rather than following Jesus and learning from him.

Christians today are, if anything, even more divided than the first disciples were.  Division and strife seem to be part of human nature, and these days we revel in it.  Our culture is ever more fragmented, and it seems like everything is devolving into an us-vs.-them mentality.  Too many people believe that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but stupid and quite possibly evil.  You can see it most clearly in political rhetoric, but it’s everywhere.  Christians are not immune to this tendency, and never have been.  There is a tendency among Christians to schism—to break apart into separate groups whenever there is a disagreement.  Sometimes those disagreements are truly important, but at other times they are small and trivial.  The Russian Orthodox Church once split over whether one should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three; a Lutheran denomination in the 1870s split over whether slavery should be categorized as a sin or as an evil.

Churches have split over what time worship should be at, what language worship should be in, what type of music should be used in worship, how people should dress, as well as deeper theological issues.  And even theological issues that can seem huge and enormous at the time can look trivial in hindsight.  But no matter how small or large these issues are, they divide us and we turn against one another.  It’s so common for Christian groups to say that other Christian groups don’t follow the Bible, just because they disagree on how to interpret the Bible.  The Word of God, which should bring us together, becomes just another bone of contention.  We call for Christian unity, but all too often what we mean is that everyone else should become exactly like us.

And yet, Jesus didn’t pray that we would always be right.  Jesus didn’t pray that everyone would all interpret his words the exact same way.  Jesus didn’t pray that we’d always figure out what things are important and focus on the big things instead of the trivial.  Jesus didn’t pray that we would all become superheroic Christians, capable of single-handedly converting thousands.  He prayed that we would experience the kind of unity that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have, a unity based on love.  It’s a unity that we can’t quite grasp or understand, but which God models for us every day.

You see, there is only one God—but in that one God are three people.  The Father is not the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son are the Spirit.  All three are different, but all three are God together.  Each has their own role to play in the divine relationship: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  Yet despite their different roles, their different personalities, they are always together as one.  Their unity doesn’t mean they work the same way; it doesn’t mean they are identical.  It means they love one another, and work together.  The trinity—the triune God—is a relationship of joy and love.  Sometimes it’s been described as a dance, or like a choir singing together.  It’s a dance that is only complete when all three partners are there and active together.  And a choir can’t have only one person; choirs are about different melodies and harmonies coming together to make music.  It’s not about being completely the same; it’s about enjoying being together, doing something wonderful that no one could do by themselves.  That’s the kind of relationship that Jesus prayed we might have.

A lot of things divide Christians today.  Sexuality, the role of women, immigration, the environment, politics, economics, and, at the root of it all, the question of how to interpret the Bible.  We sometimes think of our relationships with a combat mentality—us vs. them.  How often do we think of our fellow Christians as partners in a dance?  Or fellow members of the choir of all creation who have been called together to praise God?  For that matter, how often do we think of coming together as Christians to worship and pray and hear God’s Word as something we want to do, rather than something we have to do?  How often do we focus on the God who created us, who redeemed us from our sin, dwells within us every day, and calls us to be one?  How often do we focus on our love for one another, instead of our disagreements?  How often do we pray for one another to grow in love and faith?

Jesus prays that we will know the kind of unity that the Father and Son and Spirit have together.  He asks this so that we may show the world what God’s love is like, but he also wants us to experience that unity so that we may know the glory of God.  Now, “glory,” that’s a word we don’t use very often.  The word in Greek can mean power, or majesty, or grandeur, and usually those words are all how we think of the glory of God.  But “glory” can also mean light.  It can mean brightness or radiance.  And, in the Bible, it means the presence of God.  That’s what Jesus is praying for: that we will experience the love and the presence of God through our fellow Christians.  Jesus is praying that we will know the kind of love and joy in one another that the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—have in each other.  It’s not a unity that depends on everyone thinking and acting the same.  Instead, the unity of God is based on mutual love and respect.  What would Christianity—the whole body of Christ—look like if we always treated one another with mutual love and respect?  What would the body of Christ look like if we always remembered that whatever our differences, we are all children of the same God, saved by the same Lord?

Let us pray.  O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living Father, crucified for us and resurrected, who prayed on earth for us and prays even now to the eternal Father, saying, ‘Father, sanctify them in truth; cause them all to be one, as you and I are one in love.’ O Christ, we beg you to assist us with this prayer. Gather us together and keep us in your church. Shield us according to your loving-kindness. Amen.


The mystery of the Trinity

Holy Trinity (Year A), Sunday, June 15, 2011

Gensis 1:1-2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Did you see the new Sherlock Holmes miniseries set in modern times that ran on PBS a few months back?  How about the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie?  Do you read mystery novels?  Do you watch mystery shows on TV, like Law and Order or CSI or Criminal Minds?  I like a good mystery, which is fortunate since mystery shows and books are all over the place in our modern world.  There’s a huge variety of styles and approaches, but the overall pattern hasn’t changed much since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first Sherlock Holmes story.  The detective searches out clues—just the facts, ma’am—and puts them together like a puzzle to figure out whodunit.  By the end the detectives have figured out who did it, and with what, and where, and why.

Today is a day of mystery, but it’s not the kind of mystery we’re most familiar with. The Sunday of the Holy Trinity is the only day of the Church year where we celebrate a doctrine—an understanding of God and the way God works in the world—rather than an event written of in the Bible.  Trinity, put simply, means one-in-three.  We worship one God who is made up of three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are other names for the three persons of the Trinity, for example we sometimes call them the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier.  This way of talking about the Trinity is useful because it helps us remember that God is not just an old guy with a white beard wearing a bathrobe, sitting up in the clouds.  The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God; and yet we worship one God, and not three.  At the same time, the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father, yet all three are one God.  Confused yet?  Don’t worry, you’re in good company.  There’s been more ink spilt by theologians trying—and generally failing—to understand and explain the concept of the Trinity than just about any other aspect of Christianity.

A diagram of the trinity, a triangle, with God in the center and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the corners.  There is a line marked "is" between the center and each of the three corners, and the outer edge of the triangle is lines between the points saying "is not."

Saint Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christianity, was struggling and trying to understand the concept of the Trinity when he had a vision in a dream.  In the dream he was walking along the beach when he came across a child digging a hole.  Now, have you ever tried to dig a hole on a sandy beach?  You don’t get very deep before the sides start collapsing and sliding down.  Augustine watched the child digging, and eventually he spoke up.  “You’ll never be able to dig any deeper,” he said.  But the child replied, “I have a better chance of digging this hole than you have of understanding the Trinity.”

The Trinity is a mystery.  Not a mystery in the sense of Sherlock Holmes, a problem to be solved or a case to be closed.  The Trinity is a mystery in a deeper sense, an older sense.  The word “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystic.”  Mystery means, in this case, something that must be revealed by God.  A true mystery cannot be understood by human reason, for it is deeper and greater than that.  It can’t be reduced to facts, or a diagram (no matter how much we try), and we can’t logically puzzle it out, for it deals with a reality that transcends our limited human imagination.  That makes mysteries even more difficult for us to deal with now than it was in Augustine’s day, because we are far more devoted to literal facts now than people were back then.  We live today in a world where facts reign supreme, where the things that matter most are the things that can be proved in a science lab or a court of law.  In our society almost everything can be reduced to something understandable, something logical, something concrete.  Those things that don’t fit, that can’t be analyzed statistically make us uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, that fact-and-reason approach has given our society great gifts.  For example, I am very happy that my car was designed and built by people who tested and knew how the whole thing worked and made sure that each part was perfectly made to specifications.  I’m glad that if (God forbid) I ever get caught up in a real-life murder mystery like the ones I read and watch on TV, the investigation and prosecution of the crime would be based on evidence and facts.  But at the same time, we are more limited by that understanding of the universe—and of God—than I think we realize.  There are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our (scientific) philosophies.

As poet Killian McDonnell put it,

God is not a problem
I need to solve, not an
algebraic polynomial equation
I find complete before me,

with positive and negative numbers
I can add, subtract, multiply.
God is not a fortress
I can lay siege to and reduce.

God is not a confusion
I can place in order by my logic.
God’s boundaries cannot be set,
like marking trees to fell.

God is the presence in which
I live, where the time between
what is in me and what
before me is real, but only God

can draw it. God is the mystery
I meet on the street, but cannot
lay hold of from the outside,
for God is my situation,

the condition I cannot stand
beyond, cannot view from a distance,
the presence I cannot make an object,
only enter on my knees.

So why did God choose to reveal God’s self to us in this way, in the form of a mysterious Trinity that so often confuses us?  I think it’s to remind us that we are limited, finite beings.  We are the creatures, not the creator.  No matter how smart God has made us, no matter how much about the universe we understand or think we understand, we are not gods.  As God gave us our ability to reason, and created the world that we live in, it is right and fitting that we use our reason to explore and study the gifts God has given us.  And it is right and good to use the gift of reason that God has given us to study the ways God has revealed God’s own self to us.  Yet we should never forget that God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  What we know of God, we know because God has revealed it to us.

What do we know of God, this great being, this one-in-three?  We know that God created us, that God created the world and all that is in it.  We know that God’s Word is powerful enough to transform nothingness into an entire world.  God took a formless void and created a universe of possibilities, all that is, seen and unseen, from the stars in the skies to the creatures that live on this planet and more.  And even more than that, God created the world and all that is in it to be good.  No matter what brokenness is in the world, God made the world to be good.  We are created, all of us, in God’s image.  Once God created us, God didn’t just abandon us to our own devices, but stayed with us even when we turned away.

And when that good creation was broken by sin and death, God loved us so much that he came to save us.  He became truly human in the form of Jesus Christ our Lord, who taught and lived and died that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  Jesus was crucified and died so that we might be saved, redeemed, made whole from the sin and brokenness that trap us.  Jesus did this not because we had earned it, but simply because he loves us.  And he rose from the grave so that we who are tied to his death and resurrection might also rise to new life in him.

And after the Son had ascended to the Father, and was no longer physically with us, the Holy Spirit came.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of God, the wind that moved over the waters of creation, our Comforter in times of trial and our guide through life.  The Spirit came to inspire us, to help us live good and holy lives and to understand God’s word.  The Holy Spirit was with those who wrote down the Bible, and is still with us now when we read it.  The Holy Spirit is with us in good times and bad, praying for us with sighs too deep for words when we don’t even know what we need.

God the Father our Creator, God the Son our Redeemer, God the Holy Spirit who leads us in holiness: these are the three faces of God, who together are one.  God moves in mysterious ways, in wonderful ways.  We may not understand how it all works, and we may not be able to understand all of God’s plan for us and our world, but one thing is absolutely certain: God loves us.  God will never abandon us, and God will never stop loving us.


A three-lobed Celtic-style knot, a symbol of the trinity