Sunday, May 31, 2015

"A Wider Perspective"--A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne,
high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”  Isaiah 6:1

            Erik Mebust and I had coffee together last weekend, and we talked about all his exciting plans for the next several months.  Erik will be studying literature for a term at Kings’ College in London, and I was able to give him some advice about museums, historical sites and churches.  He also has two or three weeks after his term finishes to do some travelling around the rest of Europe, and a big list of places he’s dying to see.  There’s Paris, of course, and the Rhine Valley in Germany, and wouldn’t it be wonderful to see the Alps, and he has a friend spending a term in Montpelier, down on the Mediterranean Coast.  And I was trying to slow him down a bit.  You don’t want to spend half of your time on trains, after all, and you might well be able to go back again later in life and try some of what you will need to miss this time. 

But of course, by American standards, all these places are really quite close.  This is part of the wonder of Europe to an American.  In a few hours you can travel between places whose languages, histories, foods, music, and architecture are completely different.  New York State really isn’t all that different from Minnesota.  But Spain and Poland are a world apart, and the distance is really about the same. 

Of course, the fascination works the other way when Europeans come to America.  New Testament scholar N. T. Wright, who is British, taught for a time at McGill in Montreal.[1]  When his English friends came to visit him for a vacation, they would propose completely unrealistic itineraries, because they are used to everything being so close together.  Let’s drive down to New York for the day, they might say, and then maybe we’ll go on to Disneyworld, swing by the Grand Canyon and end up in Seattle.  He eventually found a map of North America for his guest bedroom with a tiny inset in the corner that showed Britain on the same scale—that as, as about the size of Alabama.  Oh I see, the guests would say, that puts matters in a clearer perspective.

But what would it be like, Wright wondered to have a map that worked the other way, one that showed North America on the scale of Britain?  Well, you just keep unfolding and unfolding a map like that—it would fill the whole room.  It’s almost impossible to get your head around that much space.

Isaiah walked into the temple at a troubling time in Israel’s life.  King Uzziah had died.  He was, by the standard of Israel’s rulers, a good king.  His reign had been an era of stability, when the nation had prospered and remained united in peace.  And it wasn’t certain what would happen next.  His son, the new king Jotham, was still largely untested.  Reading between the lines in Isaiah’s prophetic message, there were mounting social and political problems.  Some were advocating that Israel develop different diplomatic alliances, the wealthy may have been taking advantage of weak oversight to oppress the poor.  It was an uneasy time, when the future was far from certain, and Isaiah probably wasn’t the only person who went to the temple that day hoping to turn over some of his troubles to God. 

And what a vision he received!  Isaiah sees the Lord,  seated on His throne of glory.  He is high and lifted up and the edge of His robe seems to fill the whole temple, which was almost certainly the largest space Isaiah had ever seen.  The seraphim, the sacred guardian angels that surround him fly about proclaiming that God is holy—thrice holy, set above all things as ruler and judge.  Isaiah falls to his knees, undone by this sight, and confesses his sin, his unworthiness to behold such a sight.  The anxieties of Israelite politics are far behind him now.  He is entirely fixed on this vision.   And God’s voice sounds out from the majestic throne, commissioning Isaiah as a prophet, a bearer of His word to the people.  It would be a hard word which would be rejected often, but a sure word, for his eyes had seen the Lord. 

Surely, it was a moment that Isaiah remembered countless times in what would be a long ministry full of frustration and uncertainty.  When he was discouraged, when the message seemed too difficult to bear, He turned back to the Lord, seeking Him in the temple.  Isaiah’s perspective was widened that day.  From that moment on, Isaiah knew that God would be with him, this thrice-holy God, the King enthroned over all.  His eyes were opened to a whole other dimension surrounding earthly life, and once he had glimpsed it, the truth of that vision remained with him forever.

This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, exists for the sake of our common worship.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is not a meaningless theological abstraction, and we do not teach and celebrate it today just to endorse the conclusions of a church council from 1600 years ago.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity defines the One whom we worship, and to confess the Trinity is to witness to God’s saving work that has brought us into fellowship with Him.

 Our God is the thrice-holy God whom Isaiah saw in the temple, who created all things and rules eternally.  And He has sent His only Son into the world to become one of us, a true man, in Jesus of Nazareth.  The Son is not the Father, yet He exists eternally with Him, of the same substance, sharing together in the same work.  And the Holy Spirit, proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son.  He is the One who lives within us and pours out His gifts upon us.  The Spirit is not some lesser part of God, but equal in dignity and power, bringing to fulfilment the one plan of salvation.  The three persons are one God, distinct yet united, and if all this seems a bit to understand, that is as it should be. 

Be wary of those cutesy metaphors people sometimes use to explain the Trinity, as the theologians tell us that they usually run afoul in one aspect or another.  The doctrine of the Trinity testifies to God, but does not control Him.  Even the writings of our most brilliant theologians can but grasp the train of His robe.  We can say clearly what God is not.  He is not brute force or doddering benevolence.  He is not a capricious trickster like the ancient pagan gods, sheer oppressive will like the master of the mosque, or some abstract higher power, the creation of our own whims.  He’s much bigger than all that, much more majestic and profound, and to meet Him, as Isaiah found long ago, is to be transformed forever. 

Perhaps like the prophet, you bring anxieties with you to God’s House today.  There’s trouble with your job, someone you love is sick.  You worry about the future of our congregation or the stability of our nation.  You don’t really know how to pray about it, but you know that is the place to come when you need a change of perspective.

May you find Him today, the One who fills the temple and blazes with glory, the one thronged by seraphim who has come as the Savior and who lives within you in His Spirit.  Whatever you are facing, you can be sure that our God, the Triune God, is wiser, stronger and purer than whatever troubles you.  May you see Him in new ways and know without a doubt that when your life is in His hands, there is no safer place to be.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] This wonderful story and text connection comes from Scott Hoezee, The Center for Excellence in Preaching—Trinity Sunday B. 25 May 2015.

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