Every year I teach about the Holy Trinity in catechesis. Every year I preach about the Holy Trinity on this Sunday – the Feast of the Holy Trinity. And every year I am struck by the irony of the fact that I am charged to preach and teach about something I don’t understand and can’t explain.
Now in one sense, you could make the case that this happens all of the time. There are many examples in this world where people fix and install things, or teach about things that they really can’t explain. Most likely when the satellite t.v. installer and repair man goes to a house, he can’t really explain how everything works. Sure he has a general knowledge, but it’s unlikely that he is able to explain how things work at a deep technical level. He has a level of knowledge and understanding that is sufficient for what he needs to do – but that doesn’t mean that he really understands everything. So for example, if you wanted to know how the navigation works so that the satellite was placed and stays in the correct position in orbit, he’s probably not going to be able to answer that question.
Yet while he might not be able, there is someone out there who can explain it. It’s not that the matter can’t be explained. It’s just that there may be a limited number of people who have sufficient knowledge and background in order to be able to explain it. So, find the right person and you will be able to get someone who understands all of the details – someone who knows how it works.
That’s not the case when it comes to the Holy Trinity. I can’t understand or explain how the Holy Trinity can be three and one at the same time. Yet the truth is that no one else can either. You can go and find the most brilliant theologian with years of study, research and writing under his belt, and he won’t be able to understand and explain the Holy Trinity.
In our text for this morning, the apostle Paul exclaims wonder at how unfathomable God and his judgments are. On this Feast of the Holy Trinity we recognize the fact that though we can’t explain God’s triune nature, we can describe it. And more important for us is the fact that we only have the ability to describe it because of the way God has acted dramatically in the incarnation of the Son of God in order to save us.
In our text this morning the apostle Paul exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” In chapters nine to eleven, the apostle has been wrestling with the question of Israel and the fact that so many of her descendants, the Jews, have not believed in Christ. Paul has talked about the mystery of God’s election and the manner in which Israel and the Gentiles fit into God’s plan.
Then, when he has strained human understanding as far as he can, he makes the statement in our text. He simply stops his discussion and acknowledges the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. God’s wisdom and knowledge are simply too deep for human beings to plumb the depths of them. It is not possible to understand what God chooses to do because his judgments are unsearchable and his ways are inscrutable.
If this is true of God’s judgments and the ways in which God does things, how much more it is true of God himself. Our ability to understand or even describe God’s being – what God is like – faces the greatest of limitations. We are talking about the One who is eternal, omnipresent and omniscient. God is the One who is like no other and all that we have in order to think and talk about him are our experiences in this world.
Now, there can be something appealing about this state of affairs for sinful human beings. It can be very convenient to leave God “out there.” For if God is so far removed from us and so unknowable, then we are free to define God on our own terms. And when this happens, you know what God ends us looking like? He ends up being a projection of our own thoughts, desires and wishes. Rather than humanity being created in the image of God, we create God in our own image.
Because really, we want to be in charge. We don’t want God telling us that he is the Lord of our life. We don’t want to hear that everything we have is because of him – that we are just stewards who manage his gifts for a time. We don’t want to be told to love and care for other people because we’d much rather focus upon ourselves. We don’t want God telling how to use our bodies – how to use sex – because we’d rather do what we want, with whom we want, when we want.
That was the decision that our first parents, Adam and Eve made. They rejected their status as creatures in the desire to become more than they were; in the desire to be like God. By that rejection they sinned and brought sin upon us all – sin that we have willingly embraced ever since. Yet in spite of how appealing being in charge may seem, it is a violation of the basic ordering of creation. When the creature starts acting like the Creator, everything gets messed up. And human beings have borne the consequences of it ever since. It has produced pain, and suffering and death. Created for fellowship with God we have found ourselves cut off from God and so unable to live in peace and wholeness.
But the good news of the Gospel is that God didn’t leave us there. He didn’t leave us to ourselves. Instead he came to us – he became one of us. And when he did this something else happened. We learned more about who God is; about what God is like.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul tells us, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” God sent forth his Son to redeem those who were under the curse of the Law. Because we want to be in charge we violate the way God has ordered things – we violate what God’s eternal law commands and forbids. And therefore we stood under the law’s curse – we were headed towards God’s eternal wrath.
Yet as Paul says, God sent forth his Son. God was not content to allow us to receive the just judgment for our sin. Instead God sent forth his Son as the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God sent his Son into the flesh as Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he came up out of the water after being baptized by John, God the Father spoke saying, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. Jesus went to the cross and there he received the curse of the law in our place. He received the judgment against sin that we deserved. He died in our place.
And then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead through the work of the Holy Spirit. He raised the One who is the second Adam. He raised him as the first fruits of the resurrection that has already begun in Jesus. Ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father. And on the day of Pentecost that we celebrated last Sunday, he poured forth his Holy Spirit on the Church – an action that marked the arrival of the last days.
This is the Gospel – the good news of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ in order to give us forgiveness and eternal life. Yet stop for a moment and consider what we learn about God in the saving action I just described. The Old Testament is absolutely clear that there is only one, true God. In Deuteronomy we learn, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The Old Testament mocks every other so called god that the nations worship.
Yet in the Gospel we learn that God the Father sent forth God the Son to be incarnate by God the Holy Spirit. We learn that God the Father spoke at God the Son’s baptism as he was anointed by God the Spirit. We learn that God the Father sent God the Son to die on the cross and to be raised from the dead by God the Spirit. We learn that God the Son has ascended to the right hand of God the Father and has poured forth God the Spirit. And to top it all off, after his resurrection, Jesus Christ instituted Holy Baptism with the command that the Church is to baptize “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Because of God’s saving action in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, we have learned more about who God is – about what God is like. We now know that the one God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we will confess after this sermon in the Athanasian Creed, we now know that the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet there is only one God. We now know that the One God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Because of what God has done in Christ we are now able to describe this reality about God. We are able to say what God has revealed in his word about himself. Now this doesn’t mean that we can explain how God is three and one at the same time. It doesn’t mean that we understand how this is possible; how it works.
When we ponder the mystery of the Holy Trinity, we are in fact dealing with what is for us a mystery. In our text Paul reaches the limits of his ability to understand how God works and he exclaims, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” As we ponder the Holy Trinity, we are forced to arrive at a similar conclusion. In faith we are forced to throw up our hands and confess that God is God and we are not.
But we do so, aware that we only know about the mystery of Holy Trinity because God has acted in Jesus Christ to save us. Our knowledge of the Trinity bears witness to God’s love for us. And this love changes everything. John wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.”
God’s loving action in Christ has revealed God’s triune nature to us. And because we have received this love, we now share it with others in what we say and do. As John went on to say, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.