Homily for the Feast of the Holy Trinity (2008)
For the world, what you can see is all that’s real and all that matters. For the Church, what we can see is real, but we know it’s only the least part of what’s real, and it isn’t what ultimately matters. We’re committed to living from, orienting our lives toward, realities that are not seen and so there’s no explaining to the world what we’re up to. There’s no rational making sense of it. We don’t rely on sight, but we do rely on hearing. The Church is all about ears, not eyes. And the ears open up our inner eyes to see what truly is by the Spirit’s power.
Isaiah had a moment, though, when it went beyond ears. The whole liturgy of the temple was a point of connection between the unseen world and the visible world, between heaven and earth, if you will. But it was all ear stuff. Words and promises. Sacrifices that all pointed beyond themselves. Blood of innocent animals pouring out and yet the blood that was seen there wasn’t the big thing. And everyone knew that. For Isaiah a day came that changed his life. He got to see with his eyes the invisible world, the world that all that worship had been oriented towards. It was the year King Uzziah died and there in the liturgy on day, earth dropped away and heaven became visible. Isaiah saw the Lord, Yahweh, sitting on His throne, high and lifted up. The train of His robe filled the earthly temple like the billows of the sweet incense. And above Him, the spirits of fire, the seraphim, six winged, many eyed, and covering their faces in humility before the Lord of all and crying out as they flew: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The earthly temple was shaking at the voice of the heavenly critters flying about and calling and the smoke of the incense filled the house with glory.
Isaiah’s response is instructive. Not: Wow, isn’t this neat! I’ve always wanted to see God with my own eyes and now I am. Sweet! Rather: Woe is me! Oy vey! I’m lost. I’m a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips and now my eyes have seen the King, the real King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah thought he was dead meat. Such is the reaction of all people when the invisible world is suddenly made visible, when they see the realm that is beyond sight. And what happened next? Did God reveal the invisible world to Isaiah in order to destroy him? No. One of the seraphs grabs some tongs – note that, the angel uses tongs – and plucks a live, burning coal right off the altar and starts winging it toward Isaiah. No place to run, no place to hide, and fiery coal headed straight toward his mouth. YOUCH. His lips are seared and yet this pain is not bad, but good. The angel whispers: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” When the invisible world crashes through and terrifies us, it is not for the purpose of terrifying us, but for the purpose of touching us, taking our guilt and our sin away with the fire from God’s altar.
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable his ways! And so Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. And there in front of Nicodemus is the entire temple and unseen world that Isaiah beheld. Here in front of Nicodemus is the Lord who sat upon that throne, hymned by the seraphim, now made flesh and blood, dwelling among us. He knows that our Lord must be “from God” but he’s not sure what that “from God” entails. Jesus tells him: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born again (or from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You need a new birth to see the unseen world – the kingdom! Nicodemus, his mind on earthly things, on the visible, stumbles over this rebirth talk. Jesus doesn’t back down: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And make no mistake about it: THAT’S the goal of God. That we enter His kingdom, that we live from the world that is unseen in this age, that we are given new birth and pardon and forgiveness. What’s born of flesh is flesh and sees nothing more than what the eyes behold. What’s born of the Spirit is spirit and begins to see what no eye has seen and no ear heard and what has not entered into the hearts of men, the love that God has for them.
Nicodemus not getting it frustrates our Lord. “How can you believe if I tell you heavenly things if you don’t get these earthly things. No one has ascended into heaven except the Son of Man who descended from heaven.” He’s the key to unlocking the unseen world. And where does He do that? “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.” The cross is the key, as always. Baptism – that new birth of water and the Spirit – opens the eyes to see what the cross was all about. Look not only on the visible – on the man laboring to breathe, crying out in suffering, bleeding, dying, and dead – look instead upon the scene from the Spirit’s perspective, from heaven’s perspective. Here is the Lamb of God, sent from the Father, bearing the sin of all the world, so that all who believe in Him will not perish but have eternal life, the life of the kingdom. Here is the Son, gift given by the Father, revealed by the Spirit, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Here’s the altar. The sacrifice. The high priest. The temple. The atoning blood. The gift of life. All in the man hanging upon the tree.
Today the burning coal that is the body and blood of the Son of God will be taken from off the altar of the cross at Jesus’ command in order to touch your lips so that your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. All the life that is in His death touches you; His body, now resurrected and glorified and forever beyond the grave, the pledge of eternal life, touches your lips.
And you realize that we live from these unseen realities, from the invisible world that truly is, and how little becomes the world that we can see, and how great the world that is beyond our sight now. A world that will appear in all its glory when Christ appears at the last day, and we with Him.
The Feast of the Holy Trinity is the feast of what cannot be seen with flesh born of flesh eyes, but what can only be revealed through spirit born of Spirit eyes in Baptism. The God who is hymned forever as the holy, holy, holy One, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, reaching to us in Jesus a gift of life that we might see the love that God has for us and so seeing, join in the joy of what cannot be seen in this age, orienting our lives toward the invisible one who for love of us once took on flesh and blood. And so, forgiven, cleansed, restored, we join the Seraphim in what is real life, singing: To Christ our Lamb be glory with His unoriginate Father and the all-holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages! Amen.