In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We have come to the end of the “festival half” of the Church Year, in which we focus particularly on the events of Jesus’ life as we confess them in the creeds: His birth, His suffering and death, His resurrection, His ascension to the right hand of God’s power, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all people, so that all people would hear and believe what Jesus has done for them. But it can sometimes seem, after the dramatic action of resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, that we are stepping out of real history, out of the courtyards of Jerusalem, into a sort of sterile classroom. That Holy Trinity brings us out of physical concrete action into academic abstractions and precise theological formulations, such as in the Athanasian Creed. It fits nicely with the popular perception, at least among certain academic theologians, that early Christians were at first free and vital, moving with the power of the Holy Spirit, open to wherever the Spirit might lead them. Then the theologians got hold of things, and began to narrow and narrow and narrow, until all the Spirit was squeezed out of the Faith, and now we have things like the Athanasian Creed, with its stilted academic language.
But the fact is that the popular perception is wrong. None of that happened in the way we imagine. The Athanasian Creed, among other things, didn’t come about because people—probably men—sat around in a room and tried to figure out what was right and wrong to say about God, and then imposed it on everyone. The confession of the Holy Trinity didn’t happen that way; it came out of the blood and sweat and tears—even the death—of people who refused to say anything more or anything less than what the Scriptures say. They wanted to confess—to say the same as—what God says about Himself and they didn’t want to say anything that came out of limited, fallible human minds. And so we continue to confess the Athanasian Creed. But we don’t confess it so that we can check off our theological doctrine boxes; and we don’t confess it because we think we can understand God. We confess the Athanasian Creed so that we don’t make stuff up about God, and so that we can, with those who first confessed it, say nothing more or less than what God has revealed about Himself. The confession of the Holy Trinity doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes out of the same history that we have just finished celebrating. It does indeed follow from Jesus’ birth, suffering and death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. It flows organically from the same history, because when God reveals Himself, He doesn’t reveal Himself as a theological statement, as a metaphor, as a two-dimensional figure on a page; He doesn’t reveal Himself as a diagram or a symbol. He reveals Himself not in abstraction, but in action. He reveals Himself in flesh and blood—in the flesh and blood of Jesus.
And when that revelation happens, when Jesus comes into the world, you have the sort of conflict that we see in John 8. The leaders of the Jews had their own ideas about time and God, and Jesus would have overturned them. Nothing has changed. People still make up gods, and the true God still reveals Himself contrary to all of them, to all human reason. Examine the religions of the world that have gods: there are religions that have a singular, isolated deity. And there are religions that have many deities. But there is no human religion that has a God who is both singular and plural at the same time; both Three and One. No person would have conceived such a god. So it goes: You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham? No, Jesus says, the other way around: he saw Me. Abraham rejoiced to see My day. He saw it and he was filled with joy. Before Abraham was, before Abraham existed, before Abraham was born, I AM. And they knew exactly what that meant: that Jesus was identifying Himself with the God who had revealed Himself throughout their history. Who continually said, I am Yahweh. I am the Lord, and there is no other. Who appeared to Moses at the bush that was burning but was not consumed, and said, I am the God of your fathers. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Tell the people of Israel that “I AM who is.” I am existence itself; everything depends on Me. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God the Father, and the Word was God. And through Him all things were made, and nothing that is made exists apart from Him. Before Abraham was, I AM.
Jesus is identifying Himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, and hence with the God his opponents claimed to worship. So they picked up stones to kill Him. But Jesus is doing more than that. He is not simply claiming to be God, of the sort that might sit in the heavens, in the Unity of His Divine Majesty only. Jesus had, a few verses before this, told them: Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins. That’s not a threat; it’s simply a fact. Because what else did God say to Moses that day? He said that He had heard the groaning of His people Israel under their burden of slavery, and that He had come down to deliver them. If Israel had refused their God as He chose to reveal Himself, they would not have been delivered from their slavery. Jesus is claiming to be not only God, but the God who delivers sinners from their slavery. Everyone who sins is a slave to sin, Jesus says, children of Abraham or otherwise. So God has come down; the Son has taken on flesh, in order to deliver His people once and for all. He has come so that people will not die in their sins. But those who refuse to see that He is the God who delivers; those who refuse to see that He is Life, they will die in their sins because there is no other god; there is no other deliverer. God has heard our groaning, and He has come down. What joy there is in having such a God!
And yet, it is not all joy. The people of Israel grumbled against God and Moses. They despised His gifts in the wilderness and took His goodness for granted. The leaders of the Jews picked up stones to kill Him. And our sinful flesh would rather look elsewhere for God than where He has chosen to be. Isn’t it strange to think, like Adam and Eve, that what God has given is not good enough? That we would rather have something more, something different, something better? And yet we do: we think that our personal ways of connecting with or experiencing God are more valuable and more meaningful than the ways that God has revealed Himself. But sinners will never find God in their own contemplation; they will never find God in their own meditation; they will never find God in the words they think they hear from Him. They will not find God in the heavens, or in our minds, or in nature. Sinners can find God in only one place—or, rather, God finds sinners in only one way: in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, conceived, born, died, risen, ascended, and glorified. Humans religion always wants to go up to God, but God always comes down. He says, I am, I am. I am the one who covers over, who blots out, your lawless deeds and your sins, for My sake. I will not remember anymore (Isaiah 43:25). I am the Lord, the one who speaks righteousness and proclaims truth (45:19). He comes down and He reveals Himself so that you will not die in your sins. He gives you the very life of the triune God in the flesh and blood of Jesus. He does not leave you to wonder where He is or how He saves you. From the cross, He brings you life in Holy Baptism, life in Holy Absolution, life in the Holy Supper, just as He promises. There is nothing greater, nothing more meaningful. This is our God; this is how He saves sinners. This is our God, for whom we have waited to save us. This is our God, let us rejoice and be glad, and worship the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/22/16