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The First Sunday after Pentecost - Trinity Sunday
June 3, 2012
The Gospel: John 3:1-17
Sermon: "To Infinity and Beyond"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." Nicodemus said to him, "How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
"Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just 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.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
"Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him."
To Infinity and Beyond
A woman wrote to Reader’s Digest recently. She wrote about how the mind will erroneously “fill in the blanks” when it hears something it doesn’t understand. She told of taking a young girl from India to church with her. It was the 11-year-old’s first exposure to Christian worship. When they returned home, the girl had a question. “What I don’t understand,” she said, “is why isn’t the West Coast included?” When the woman asked what the girl meant, she said, “You know, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and Whole East Coast.’”
I can see why she was confused. There are some parts to our faith that are difficult to understand or explain. One of these is the doctrine of the Trinity.
If you find it a bit difficult to explain or understand yourself, you’re in good company. St. Augustine, one of the most astute thinkers the Church has ever produced, was walking along the seashore one day grappling with the whole idea of the Trinity; Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. He seemed to hear a voice telling him to pick up one of the large sea shells there by the shore. He picked one up. Then the voice said, “Now pour the whole ocean into the shell.” And he said, “Lord, I can’t do that.” Then the thought hit him that, of course, he couldn’t. In the same way, how could his finite mind ever hold and understand the full mystery of the eternal, infinite, triune God?
This morning is Trinity Sunday, and congregations of many brands, stripes, and denominations around the world will be grappling with that mystery; the Triune nature of God. In a good many of those congregations there will be sung, “Holy, holy, holy…God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” Our Gospel lesson from the third chapter of the Gospel according to John this morning has Jesus, the Son, speaking of the Father, and the Spirit, and himself. This passage, of course, contains John 3:16, which many of us have memorized. At the end we are told that Nicodemus doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying about himself. In fact, he’s drawing such a blank that Jesus seems to exclaim, “What don’t you understand?”
As difficult as it is to understand, as difficult as it is to explain, we treasure this mystery of God. We treasure it, because it stands at the heart of what we believe about God in Jesus Christ. So, let’s look for a few moments at what it says about God. It says, first, that God is beyond the categories by which we classify reality. As J.B. Phillips, the Bible translator, put it so well, our God is too small. We limit God. Look around us. Truly the heavens are telling the glory of God. And the glory that they describe is breathtaking.
In the year 150 B.C.E. there lived a man named Hipparchus who said that there were exactly 1, 026 stars in the universe. Fifteen hundred years later, Galileo, using the newly invented telescope, looked into the sky and saw many times that number. Today we know that there are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy alone. And our galaxy is just one out of billions upon billions of galaxies in our universe.
How big is the universe? In 1987, an astronomer observed with his naked eye the explosion of a distant supernova; a blast so powerful that it released as much energy in one second as our sun will release in ten billion years. The truly startling fact is that this supernova exploded 170,000 years ago. It took that long for the light generated by that faraway event, traveling almost six trillion miles a year, to reach us.
This week, Newsweek magazine, ran its cover story on the vastness of space. It seems that the evidence is mounting that the only workable explanation for why our universe is expanding as it is, is that it is interacting with a potentially infinite number of other universes. It kind of lends credence to Buzz Lightyear’s slogan, in the Toy Story movies, “To infinity and beyond.” It’s a line meant to get us chuckling, and yet, there appears to be a beyond infinity. Can you imagine the magnitude of a God who is bigger than all that? Is your God big enough?
While we’re on this, can you imagine a God for whom time does not exist? We talk about “forever.” People will joke, “Forever is a long time.” That’s not it at all. For God, there is no time. What is created exists within what Einstein called the time-space box. But God is not contained by it. For God, our tomorrows and yesterdays are all present tense. Everything is now! Can you grasp that? Eternity is timeless. For those of us who feel harried by the clock, Heaven is really going to be “heaven.”
In Los Angeles, there is a fossil museum beside the famous La Brea Tar Pits. At the entrance of the museum is a painting of a ribbon, eighty-five feet long. It represents five billion years of the Earth’s history. One inch equals five million years. Do you know how much space on that ribbon belongs to the history of the human race, from our earliest ancestors to the astronauts? Just a little over a quarter inch. As one person has asked, “What was God doing the other eighty-four feet eleven and three quarter inches?”
Time is a dimension by which we measure things, not God. Too many of us have a God who is too small. But God is beyond our imagining. When we say, “God in three persons,” a mystery that defies human experience and even the syntax and logic of human language, we are affirming that God is beyond the categories by which we humans classify reality.
Even more amazing, though is something else this mystery of the Trinity tells us. It says that the God who is beyond our understanding visited this planet in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This is the heart of the Christian message. We are not Deists. We do not believe that God set the world in motion and then walked off and left it. We believe that God has visited our world in the life of a humble carpenter.
Notice that I did not say in the guise of a humble carpenter. I said in the life of this carpenter. Jesus was not God masquerading as a man. No, God emptied God’s own self and became fully human when Christ was born in the manger of Bethlehem. He cried real tears, and sweat and bled real blood. He was a real human. Yet God was in Him, as Paul puts it, “reconciling the world to himself.”
This too, is beyond our comprehension; that the God of infinite universes would become one of us and take up our weaknesses. Then again, God is God. God defies all the categories with which we are familiar. That is what the Triune nature of God is saying to us. God is bigger than all our categories. Yet this infinite God loves this infinitesimal Earth, you and me, so much as to walk among us, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, and blood of our blood.
There’s one thing more the mystery of Trinity tells us; it tells us that this same God who created, and in Christ suffered and died, this same God, is present to everyone one of us right here and now. That is what we mean by the work of the Holy Spirit, whom we celebrated last Sunday. God is present; God is our comforter, our savior, our sustainer and our friend. God is here now!
There’s a story going around in some circles right now about a conversation between President Obama and Beebe Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. In one of their more cordial moments, Netanyahu noted three phones on the President’s desk in the Oval Office. “What are all those phones for exactly, he asked.” The President replied that one went straight to Capitol Hill, to keep an eye on developments there. The Red one, of course, still went straight to Russia; a holdover from the Cold War days. The third, the President explained, was the Presidential direct line to God.
“Really!?!” responded Netanyahu, “So what does a call like that cost you?” “One million dollars!” the President replied. “But it’s worth every penny!” he said.
A few days later, The President was on the phone to Netanyahu who was back in Jerusalem. The Prime Minister at some point said, “By the way, I also have three phones on my office desk.” “Really!” Obama responded. “So what do yours go to?” “Well,” he said, “The first one goes to the Knesset. The second is a hot line to Egypt. And the third one is my direct line to God.” “Wow,” said the President, “so what does it cost you to make that call to God?” Said Netanyahu, “Just ten cents. It’s a local call.”
The Triune nature of God says that this same God of infinite universes, who emptied himself and walked the dusty roads of Galilee, is a local call. God is here. When we can’t go on, God is our sustainer. When we are heart-broken, God is our encourager. When we have wandered far from the path of righteousness, God is our Savior. Everything we need, we find in him. God in three persons! Blessed Trinity!