Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:1–8 | Psalm 29 | Romans 8:12–17 | John 3:1–17
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
First impressions are funny things.
Sometimes they give us a pretty good glimpse about part of the picture… but rarely do they go deep enough for us to truly understand… to truly know who we are dealing with in any meaningful sense. I’m sure we all have an experience or two in this department, but this morning I’ll share just one example with you from my own past.
When I was growing up, I was afraid of my Grandpa.
Although I knew that he was good… he was an upright hard-working Christian, who cared a lot about doing things right… I remember being pretty uneasy and intimidated by him. Granted, I was a pretty sensitive and timid child, but I still believe there were some good reasons that I was afraid of him. He could be pretty gruff and impatient, and often erred on the stricter side of things. To my child’s eyes he seemed like someone I dared not disappoint.
But thanks be to God, I was given the gift of a closer look at my Grandpa. As a young adult, he hired me to work for him, and I started to see a whole new side of this man that I once had feared. Up close, I saw his deep devotion, to God and to his family. I saw his generosity, his creativity, and to my great surprise he even revealed great gentleness, tender-heartedness, and sacrificial love.
Over the years I worked with him, my Grandpa opened up his heart to me, revealing a side of himself that changed our relationship forever. Not only did I have to alter how I thought of him, but how we related to each other changed forever too. My first impressions of him were incomplete; I didn’t have the whole picture of who my Grandpa really was until he started to show me. By truly getting to know him more, we were brought much closer together, and now I’m so grateful for the gift of his friendship and love.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when the Christian Church celebrates God’s gift of revealing to us His own character and nature as eternally Three in One, and One in Three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit… Three Persons, One God.
We know we’re speaking of a mystery when we talk about the Trinity. We’re not mastering or explaining, or nailing God down with our human words… rather, we’re trying to faithfully share what God has shared with us. We’re trying our best to be true to how God has made Himself known to us, even if that makes things more complicated than we first imagined.
The Trinity… the Three-in-Oneness of God is the way we can speak truthfully about the Living God, Who is way beyond our abilities to understand, but Who nonetheless longs for us to grow closer to Him in knowledge and in love. Contemplating the Trinity is an invitation to get past our first impressions about God, and explore the mysterious, and complex goodness of God’s heart…
And it’s an invitation to renew, not only our thoughts about God, but to have our whole relationship with Him renewed as well.
In our Scripture readings today, God’s word opens up this path for us to get to know the Living Triune God, and come to love Him more.
In our reading today from Isaiah, we heard an account of the prophet’s vision of an encounter with the Living God that changed his life forever. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,” he tells us, “high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). Far from a joyous moment, Isaiah’s first impression is terror, and for good reason: he knows that God is holy, pure goodness… and he knows that he himself is not. Isaiah cries out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). This is all true, of course, but it’s also not the whole picture. The vision continues, giving Isaiah, and us as well a glimpse into the heart of the Living God through what He does for Isaiah.
A Seraphim, a spiritual being serving in God’s presence brings a holy coal from the heavenly altar, and purifies Isaiah, touching it to his unclean lips, in order to offer forgiveness… to make this sinful man holy. Sharing with him God’s holiness, and making him able to stand before the Lord with no reason to be afraid any more. Rather than end Isaiah’s life the Lord renews it instead.
But even more than that, God draws Isaiah into His own mission… empowering him to respond to the questions: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” with the faithful, and fateful words “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). Despite Isaiah’s terrified first impressions of what it means for him to draw close to the Lord, the Holy One, Most High, God blesses him instead… and brings about everything that Isaiah needs to serve Him faithfully in the world without fear. Through this vision of God, Isaiah’s mind and heart was changed for good, reshaping his whole life, and preparing him for what was to come.
Moving forward a few hundred years, we come to the Gospel of John, where we hear the story of Nicodemus coming to meet with Jesus. In this passage we catch a glimpse of what this Pharisee and Jewish leader, first thought of Jesus, both by what he says and when he says it: “Rabbi,” he says, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2) His first impression: Jesus is a godly teacher… but a dangerous one. At least, he thinks it’s dangerous to be seen with Jesus publicly.
And again, Nicodemus isn’t wrong… about either of his hunches. After all, the Gospel of John goes on to tell of the consequences others would face for openly supporting Jesus, like being kicked out of the synagogue community. And Jesus was a teacher sent from God. But this is not the whole picture: Christ is much more than a teacher. He is the Son, sent from the Father in heaven to fix the world’s deepest problem: not simply offering new information from God, but new Life! “Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5) “And just 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.” (John 3:14-15).
This response throws Nicodemus for a bit of a loop. He can’t quite wrap his head around what Jesus is saying to him… and for us as well, his words are puzzling, complicated, and mysterious, but are also meant to draw us deeper into the story made known in John’s Gospel, and all throughout the Scriptures. But even here Jesus reveals what He is truly up to… and what lies at the heart of the mission of the Living God… that is, God’s rescuing, life-giving love for our broken world. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).
Jesus is not simply someone speaking to us about God, some teacher, prophet, or even some kind of angelic messenger. He is the Living God Himself, God the Son taking on human life, revealing God’s own character and heart to us in action; all throughout His earthly life, especially at the cross… giving His life to suffer and die to share His life with us all.
Far beyond anything Nicodemus expected to find that night, He had in fact drawn near to the Holy Lord, Most High… for to see Jesus Christ is to see the Living God. So often we can forget this truth that the Trinity reveals to us… that there is no division between Christ and the Father. Again and again, our fears can drive a wedge between what we think God is really like, and the heartbeat we see at work in Jesus Christ. Jesus give us the complete picture of God’s heart.
I’ve shared this quote before, so you may remember it, but I think it powerfully captures what the Trinity shows us: “The Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance tells how, as a young army chaplain, he held the hand of a dying nineteen-year-old soldier, and then, back in Aberdeen as a pastor, visited one of the oldest women in his congregation - and how they both asked exactly the same question: ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ And he assured them both, Torrance writes, ‘that God is indeed really like Jesus, and that there is no unknown God behind the back of Jesus for us to fear; to see the Lord Jesus is to see the very face of God.’” To recognize the face of God in Jesus is the response of faith, which is itself the result of the Holy Spirit at work in us… opening our eyes to see what we otherwise would miss… and opening our hearts to say yes the New Life Jesus shares with us.
Belief in the Trinity affirms that the Three we know as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all the One God… that for all time they share in everything it means to be the Living God, and that they are united in drawing us closer to Him. From their shared self-giving love, God the Father sends God the Son into the world to save us… and to share with us His own eternal life, through God the Holy Spirit… who draws us by faith in Jesus into God’s family, as St. Paul says in Romans, with the Spirit of adoption… transforming us from rebels into true children of God. The Gospel, the Good News of what God has done in Jesus Christ, is the story of the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit all together inviting us into God’s own life. Inviting us to go beyond our faulty first impressions, our fears, and failures, to truly come to know and love the Living God, all so that we too can share in His unending holy love.
Today, may we be open to the truth of the Trinity. May we say yes to God’s invitation to draw closer to Him… to let Him mercifully deal with all our faulty first impressions, our fears, our failures, and instead draw near to Him in faith. May we grow to truly know His holy, life-giving love, and may that love transform and deepen our love for God, for His world, and for each other. Amen.
 T.F. Torrance, Preaching Christ Today, 55. Quoted by William C. Placher in The Triune God: An Essay In Postliberal Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 139.