bits and pieces of the whole

This is a sermon I delivered on Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015, at Palmyra Presbyterian Church in Palmyra, NE.
You will find a link to hear it preached here.

The scriptural basis for this message is: Isaiah 6:1-8 and John 3:1-17.

Vacation Bible School season is upon us and my mind is constantly swirling with thoughts of the Creation story in Genesis since I wrote a resource for a local church based around this theme for their VBS this year. I keep thinking about how when God speaks, things happen. Everything that God made was intentional, with purpose, and was considered “good.” I’d like to think that our translation of the word “good” just doesn’t quite suffice the way that God felt when sitting back on Day 7 and relishing what was created. I’d like to think that the reaction was more like, “That’s AWESOME!” Can’t you just picture God sitting back, with feet propped up on the ottoman, and feeling a pride that would make just about any person’s chest burst open? Can’t you imagine God was so giddy with excitement over Creation that God started a dance party right in the living room with Jesus and the Holy Spirit?

As I’ve lived in the midst of these three scriptures this past week: Genesis 1, Isaiah 6, and John 3, I’ve lived into the reality of the Trinity. On Day Six of creation, God made male and female, giving us the charge to be fruitful and multiply and giving us the command to be caretakers of all that God had created through out the days before our creation. Most importantly, however, when God created humanity, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” according to verse 26. Let us create. God intentionally involved the other members of the Trinity in our creation – God spoke, Christ was our bodily model and the Holy Spirit filled us with the breath of life. Even from the very beginning, the first chapter of our scriptures, God’s mystery is revealed to us through the Trinity. So, there’s your dance party: God, Jesus and the Spirit have the music turned up, their feet moving and they are reveling in the beauty of all that has been made in THEIR image.

Nicodemus is an interesting character. Nicodemus was a leader of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, and his spiritual life hinged on avoiding condemnation if at all possible. Scripture tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, or by the cover of darkness, for the purpose of asking questions. Nicodemus is a man who understands the bits, and he can grasp the pieces, but he can’t really picture the whole, much less understand it. When he greets Jesus, he calls him Rabbi, which lets Christ (and us) know that he recognizes who is Jesus. That’s a start. He understood that Jesus was important, that Jesus must come from God. Nicodemus, a highly spiritual man, comes to God to start asking questions of faith and does so in darkness with the hopes that he won’t be recognized. However, God knows us and Jesus knew Nicodemus by the questions he asked. Once Jesus began describing life and birth and renewal, Nicodemus was lost. He didn’t understand the double meanings of Christ’s words. He wasn’t familiar with all of the faith customs despite being a teacher of Israel, and he most certainly wasn’t able to grasp the heavenly things about which Christ was speaking. Nicodemus was limited, but he wanted to learn. He feared he’d be noticed so he came in hiding. He could understand parts but not the whole. And yet, he still came to God, asked the questions and displayed a faith that makes some of us stop and question our own. Do we have the courage to come to God and admit that we don’t understand?

If there’s one topic that will stump even the most prolific pastor or the most influential teacher, it’s the Trinity. So, given that Nicodemus couldn’t understand it when Christ was speaking in double entendres, and given that we probably ourselves can’t accurately articulate the natures of the Trinity, we shouldn’t shame Nicodemus too terribly. Verse 12 says: “If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” When one is going through seminary and the process of ordination, one always sweats the examinations on the floor of Presbytery or before committees for fear that “the question” might be asked of them. “The question” has many wrong answers because they are all so limited in our human capacity of understanding, and yet we still ask “the question” of others. I think we ask because we deeply desire the knowledge and correct verbiage to fully grasp it’s meaning, knowing that we individually don’t possess accurate adjectives. What is “the question,” you ask? … How do you understand The Trinity? The easiest answer is “God as three in one,” but even that doesn’t fully define the natures of God. So, we settle for “the great mystery of faith” being our answer. Because, friends, that’s exactly what it is: it’s not of earth, it’s of heaven – it’s a Great Mystery of Faith. Can you blame Nicodemus for his misunderstandings?

Pslam 139 has always been one of my favorite pieces of scripture. I share it with parents who are sending their babies off to college as a gentle reminder that God is there, too – with them and with their student. God is ever-present. If you read through Psalm 139, you will arrive at verse 6, which I think accurately describes our attempts, and Nicodemus’ attempt to understand God: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is so high that I cannot attain it.” Rest in that for a moment – such knowledge is too wonderful – we cannot attain it. We cannot attain it. We will not attain it. Y’all! No matter what we do, no matter how much we study scripture or theology, no matter how high we rise in the ranks of our faith traditions, we will not be able to attain the knowledge of God! And you know what, that’s perfectly okay.

God knows this about us. God created us in the image of all three natures of God knowing that while we are good and beautiful, we are not complete. We, our individual selves, each one of us are not complete…because we are just one small piece of something so much greater than ourselves. We were made by an artist, given the shape of the son – the artist in flesh, and given life through the Spirit that flows freely from that artist into and around each and every creature designed. The great mystery of faith made us to be the bits and pieces of the whole. Each of us is designed with gifts that bless others. Each of us is designed with faults and failures that require us to rely upon blessings from our neighbors. None of us can thrive alone. Nicodemus shows us that none of us can grasp the fullness of God or God’s intentions, either. And it’s all okay because God said we were “very good” and commanded us to be caretakers of creation, and then God rested in the pleasure of their work.

Looking at John 3, we first encounter the Trinity in verse 5: “5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.’” The further we read the more it becomes clear to us: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save it, but only those born of the Spirit have eyes to see and ears to hear these heavenly things. All three pieces are critical if we are to see the light and then testify to it. Nicodemus struggles to see the light, coming in darkness, living in darkness and doubt and confusion. Thankfully, God holds nothing back.

Presbyterian Outlook Editor, Rev. Jill Duffield explains this text accordingly:

This complete kenosis is certainly evident in the exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus. Jesus starts with talk of new birth – birth from above – and when Nicodemus can’t wrap his head around that Jesus says, “Well, think of it this way, you can hear the wind, see the effects of it, even if you can’t see it and you certainly can’t control it, you know it is real.” Being born of water and the Spirit is like that. Jesus keeps on, making the connection to the story of Moses and the serpent – surely a story with which a Pharisee would be familiar! However, Jesus is setting up the story with something even greater in mind: If that lifted up serpent saved, how much more will the Son of Man? But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He moves to the why of it all, that verse that has been called the gospel in miniature, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” This is a life or death matter and God will stop at nothing to save the world. The Triune God, distinct, but not divided, refuses to leave us in the dark, even if we show up in the middle of the night, confused and questioning.[1]

The Triune God refuses to leave us in the dark. Amen! Praise God. Isaiah, like Nicodemus, realizes before God that he is unqualified and inadequate for what has been presented him. In Isaiah’s calling, we see a man who recognizes the holiness of God, the perfection of God and the light of the truth of God, and immediately doubts his calling because of the reality of his uncleanliness. Verse 5 syas: “5And I said: ‘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!’” Then we see that he is offered a cleansing and a chance to separate his calling from the doubts his feels. When God speaks to him, he readily accepts. Similarly, Nicodemus hears Jesus speak about light overpowering darkness and, although we don’t know what happens to Nicodemus from the John text, we can assume that he claims his new knowledge and departs from his doubts and fears. When the light is presented to these two, it overpowers the dark and they become more free.

         The God who created us is a God who lives in relationship with Gods-self and therefore desires to relentlessly pursue relationships with each of us individually. This God sees the whole picture and invites us to step from the darkness of doubt, inadequacy, ignorance, fear, and confusion to realize our perfection as pieces – bits and pieces of the whole that God is still actively creating. We have to be willing to bravely approach the throne of grace, however. We must say what we feel that we lack so that the artist can paint light into our darkness. We must live through our confusion so that the Spirit can help us testify to the truth. In Faith Speaking Understanding, Kevin Vanhoozer writes, “Scripture is filled with examples of persons either accepting or blocking these divine offers. The most striking example is perhaps Mary’s response to the ‘offer’ of bearing the Son of God: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38) — in other words, yes!”[2]

         Dag Hammarskjold is by our standards a man of great achievement. He was the Prime Minister of Sweden, he served on the Board of the Nobel Foundation (the people that award the Nobel Peace Prize), and he was the Swedish ambassador to the United Nations, among many other things. Hammarskjold is also a man who lived many years of his life in the dark, a darkness that led to more than three years of intense darkness and many additional years without the light, giving him a life of silent anguish and turmoil. In a memoir writing of his time without light, he shared about his darkness and said, “at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”[3] He later spoke about how God used the darkness to prepare him for the light, in saying, “For all that has been – Thanks! For all that shall be – Yes!”[4]

         We are not going to understand the great mystery of faith, but we have a God who loves us too much to leave us languishing in the dark. When Nicodemus approached Christ we saw the mercy of God in Christ’s explanation where shame could have been a more appropriate response to a religious leader. When Isaiah failed to see himself worthy of a calling from God, the Spirit flew to him through the seraphs and cleansed him, helping him to claim his calling. When you were created, God rejoiced. When you walk through doubt, the Spirit meets you, and when we all fall short of the glory of God, Grace wins out through the life, death and resurrection of Christ. God is relentless – God wants you and me to live into our creation. Claim the perfection, let go of the darkness that overshadows, and live into our creation as bits and pieces. We may not always see the whole, but God does. And God delights in what we can and will all be when we accept that we are pieces, parts, and bits of something so much greater and more majestic. Friends, God wants us to step from dark into light and say “yes!” or “here am I, Lord.”

Thanks be to God for the Great Mystery of Faith. To God be the glory, in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit. Today and forever more. Amen.

[1] Rev. Jill Duffield, Trinity Sunday – May 31, 2015. Presbyterian Outlook online:
[2] Kevin Vanhoozer, (“Faith Speaking Understanding,” page 193).
[3] Richard Foster, ed., The Life With God Bible, Harper Bibles, NY 2005, pg. 161.
[4] Ibid.

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