Video of the Service of the Word is here. The sermon begins around the 33:15 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we are faced with something abstract, something that seems to float in the air of theory only, sometimes it helps to tell a story in order to bring that idea or concept down into the concrete, so we can see what it means, what it has to do with me, how it affects me. And there are two different ways to do that: you can tell a story as an illustration, or you can put the abstraction into a story, show how it fits into a larger story. If you tell a story as an illustration, you have to make sure that the illustration contains the larger story. You can test this by thinking of the best story you ever heard a pastor tell from the pulpit. If you can remember the story, now see if you can remember what the sermon was actually about. If not, it was not a good illustration for the sermon, because you can only remember the illustration, not what it was supposed to illustrate.
When it comes to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, we often try to come up with illustrations to bring that abstraction down into the concrete. So we talk about apples, or shamrocks, or some other thing that seems to have something to do with threes and ones. But the problem is that we really haven’t solved anything. All of those illustrations are abstractions themselves. They aren’t God, and they’re really nothing like God. Besides that, they are all wrong in serious ways that say something false about the Trinity.
Instead of more illustrations, more similes, more abstractions, what if the doctrine actually is the story; the dogma is the drama, Dorothy Sayers once wrote. The teaching about the Holy Trinity wasn’t dropped out of heaven, or invented by some theologians combing the Bible for relevant verses. No one decided abstractly that the Trinity should be on a list of things you check off as you believe them. This is a story, and it’s a story that God is telling.
The problem today is that very few people actually believe that there is an over-arching story to this mess of a world, and the messes of our lives. The best we seem to be able to do is, I tell my story and you tell your story. There’s the story that illustrates my truth, and the story that illustrates your truth, and they may overlap in some ways, but they can never really be the same. So we are individuals wandering around with our stories and our truths, turned in on ourselves and coming into contact with others—or, more likely, coming into conflict with them.
But Christians still believe that there is a story that puts everything and everyone in their places, where everything fits, or will fit. It’s the story that God is telling and it goes back to the very beginning, literally. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And the Spirit was there, hovering, brooding, over the waters of that unformed creation. And God spoke, and through His Word, everything that exists came into existence. So there was the Father, and the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God—the Word that became flesh and dwelled among us—and the Spirit. And then God said, Let us make man in our own image. And since we were not made in the image of angels or any other creature, the “us” is God, specifically the Man who is the image of the invisible God. No one has ever seen God, but the only God who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.
This is the beginning of the story that the Holy Trinity is telling. But the story takes a bad turn when those people, made in the image of God, smashed that image like breaking a mirror because you don’t like the One you see there. And it is only a few chapters later that people are described as having great wickedness, and with hearts whose every intention is only evil all the time.
It should be obvious for anyone who’s spent any time in the Bible at all that it is not the story of everything in all times and places. It is a very specific story: the story of God’s creation, His redemption of that creation, and how He makes that creation holy again. So He’s always dropping hints in the story about where it’s going. When God sees all the wickedness on the earth, and He is grieved about His creation, He sends a flood to destroy it. But He doesn’t simply wipe the slate clean. He chooses one man, and through him He saves His human and animal creation. Now, of course, that doesn’t fix what’s wrong with the creation. Noah and his family don’t behave any more righteously after the flood than anyone else. But Noah wasn’t the one whose story was being told.
Into that creation—this creation—where evil so often threatens to overwhelm us, in the world and in our own hearts—in this world and no other did the Son take flesh. He was born here, as the one in whom the whole story of God would find its fulfillment. And it was in the Son that the Holy Trinity was actually revealed; in the story itself, we find One who does things only God does, who acts like the Lord of the creation. And then the disciples bow down and worship Him. If anyone knows that you don’t worship a creature, those men did. They grew up with the creed, Hear, O Israel, Yahweh your God; Yahweh is one. They knew God as one, and now here comes a man who prays to God His Father, and teaches His disciples to do the same. So there are two, but there can only be one God. And then, after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit of God is poured out on all flesh. Now there are three, but there can only be one God. It is the story of God’s salvation itself by which our religion, our worship, our life is pressed into its Trinitarian shape.
Up to this point in the story, it’s just a story that we are told, but a story that is in very real ways outside us. But then Jesus, the Man, says, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me; therefore, make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them everything I’ve said. This is how the author and perfecter of this story, of your salvation, reaches out and grabs hold of you. He writes you into the story in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You are baptized into the Name of this God, whose story this whole thing is. It’s not a story that you are telling about your life and your truth and you have to figure out where God fits in all of it. It’s exactly the other way around: this is a story that God is telling about the Truth and the Life, and He puts you in it right where He wants you.
And the story goes on: the Spirit continues to call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify by the Words of God spoken by the Word made flesh. New creations, Spirit over the water, remade and renewed in the Image of the invisible God. And where does this story end? It doesn’t. Every story that we tell begins with birth and ends with death. But the story that God is telling doesn’t end with death, because this story is told in the flesh and blood of Jesus. And He is risen from the dead. You know your own story, because it’s now the same as Jesus’ story. What happened to Him will happen to you. The end of your life in this creation has already been written down, but it doesn’t end with this creation. The story goes on and on into eternity.
We have trouble conceiving of such a story. We think we’ll get bored with it. But we can’t imagine the story without sin, and violence, and death, and hatred, and conflict. That part of the story will come to its end, and it will be no more. Then there will be a new chapter, with a new heavens and a new earth, and it will be always further up and further in. Then there will be the great city, and God and the Lamb will be on the throne in the middle of the city, where they belong. Then all things will be put right, in the world and in our bodies. But no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him. All we can say is that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. The story and the celebration in the Presence of the God whose story it is will go on forever and ever.
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, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/5/20