I think it’s fair to say that the majority of believers are most intimate with God in times of crisis, difficulty or pain. When we feel small, anxious or physically ill and unable to deal with life’s struggles, we find faith and communication with God at its most intense. Certainly, when we are faced with challenges, the frequency and the intensity of our prayers increases. When the nation or world is facing a crisis, when people are mourning the loss of a loved, they have a tendency to turn to God. There will always be those who do not believe in a higher power, do not believe in the existence of our creator God, but I think it is fair enough to say that most people, deep down, whether they are really passionate believers or not, will turn to God in times of need.
Of course, the outcomes of their prayers might influence how they feel about God. If, for example, the crisis that they have faced is being resolved well and easily, God is seen in a positive light. If, however, it is not a desirable outcome or there have been difficulties and anomalies, God is often seen in a negative light. It seems that our attitude, understanding and our relationship with God is predicated almost solely on how we feel at any given moment, and our emotions drive the way that we talk and feel about God.
I want us to think differently this morning. Not that you cannot or should not turn to God in times of crisis, not that prayer is not a valuable gift that God has given us. On the contrary, it is a wonderful gift! But my question is this: What is God like and what is God doing when we are not conscious of him, when we are not understanding or appreciating the power of God? So much revolves around our emotions, thoughts and agenda as well as our issues that we sometimes forget that God is God even when we are not looking. God is still active and involved in life even when we are not engaged with him. So what does this God look like when we are not aware?
Today’s passage from the Book of Romans is helpful. It is a short passage at the beginning of Chapter 5, and yet in it there are true nuggets of gold that give us an insight, a clue as it were, into the very nature of God: a God who is involved, a God who is engaged. For the Apostle Paul, this is the language that he uses to describe God’s engagement with the world. In this very simple passage, references to God’s grace, to the work of Jesus Christ, and to the love and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit are all condensed in five verses.
I think it is fair to say, and it has to be stated quite clearly, that there is not in this text or indeed in any text in the Bible a clear formula for the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was developed by the Church to describe what is implicit within the Bible, and at times explicit within the Bible. A passage like this lends itself to a real understanding of God as Trinity. How do we unpack this sense of God as Trinity? What sort of technical language do we need to understand it? Isn’t it a bit beyond us? Is it not irrelevant to our daily lives and experience? Why would the Trinity matter so much? Why would I waste so much of my time having edited a book on the Trinity? Why is it important? Why has it been central to the Church’s teaching for seventeen hundred years and even longer? Why is it part of the way that we talk about God?
In technical terms, there are two ways we talk about God. One of them is known as the “immanent Trinity” this means how God relates to self, how the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit relate to one another, their inner life, the life of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That is something that we have no access to. We only have access to what is known as the “economic Trinity” and this simply means how God acts in the world; how people have recorded the deeds and the actions of God; how they have seen in the person of Jesus Christ the work and the person of God; how they have experienced the power of God’s Spirit; how they look at the majesty and the awesomeness of God. These are the ways we talk about God. This is the way we understand God.
This morning I want to provide a caveat – as they note in some television programs and movies, saying: “No animals were hurt in the making of this movie.” I hope that no new heresies are introduced in the preaching of this sermon on the doctrine of the Trinity, because it is always dangerous when you start talking about the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s my caveat! I hope that in no way God is hurt by what I am going to say! I am going to look at what Paul said, it is so wonderful and glorious that on this beautiful weekend it needs to be repeated, because what we have here is three images, three senses of the persons of the Trinity.
The first, I would describe as God above us. This, I think is the popular way that people would define God. God who is above us, God who is greater than us, and God who is majestic and all-powerful. I think it is fair to say that the three great world monotheistic (that believe in one God) religions, all see God in that sense – the awesomeness, the glory, the power, the majesty of God. Jesus introduces us to another conception of this when he calls this God in Aramaic Abba or Father. This is the way Jesus describes God the Father as Father. The language that The New Testament uses is “Father” a God who oversees all. It is not meant to turn God into a man in the sky, as one cynical and atheist minister likes to refer to God. There is no sense of that happening in the Bible at all! Some sort of father-figure sitting on a throne is myth and legend! No, the conception of God that we find in the Scripture is of a God who is mighty, great, and powerful.
Let me give you some examples from Proverbs 8, which talks about the relationship between this awesome God and wisdom:
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago, I was set up at the first, before the beginning of the earth. Where there were no depths, I brought forth. Where there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth. Before he made the earth with its fields or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there. When he drew a circle on the face of the deep. When he made the skies above. When he established the fountains of the deep. When he assigned to the sea its limit so that the waters might not transgress his command. When he marked out the fountains of the earth, then I was beside him, like a workman-master man, I was daily his delight, rejoicing before his ways the mighty power of God.
There you go! This is the awesome, mighty, majestic power of the Creator of the Universe. This is the awesome God! The psalmist put it even more beautifully, but notice now there is a tinge of this awesome God almost reaching down to the creation. From Psalm 139, one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit, or whither should I flee from my presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou are there. If I make my bed in hell, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Let only darkness cover me and the light above me be night” even the darkness is not dark to thee: the night is bright as the day, for darkness is of light with thee.
The psalmist conveys that there is nowhere we can go where this awesome, mighty, majestic God does not exist. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I go, Oh God, from the grandeur and the power?
There is also a sense that this mighty God, this awesome God, is to be feared. Proverbs wrote: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Notice the language here. In all of these, taken from The Old Testament, there is this sense of glory and majesty, power and creation. This is an awesome God! But it is also an awesome God that at times we feel we cannot come into God’s presence. Even the language that we use in hymns about the majesty of God, and God the Father, is the language of ineffability. We call God “immortal”, “invisible”, “only wise”. We call God above all the things that we might know and understand. This is the God who is above us. I think there are many people, who when they struggle with whether or not they believe in God struggle with this notion of a deity that is so far above them, so detached and mighty and awesome in grandeur that they really don’t see any connection. Just once in a while when they are desperate they will turn to the Creator and ask, “Please help me.” But they have no deep down connection with this God, because it is an incomplete notion of God.
The New Testament talks about God above us, as God is, but also God for us and God with us, and this is the reference to God’s son, Jesus Christ. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “He who has seen me has seen the Father. No one knows the Father but the Son. I am the one who will introduce you. I am the one who will bring the Father to you and you to the Father.” This is the language of The New Testament. All the way through The New Testament, in all the Gospels, this sort of intimate relationship exists between the Father and the Son is a loving relationship. It is a relationship where the Son turns to the Father and says, “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to go into the wilderness and be tempted. I don’t want to take this cup of suffering before the Cross. I don’t want to do these things.” Then, at other times, he says that it is only through the power of the Father that he is able to do things that he does. It is in the name of his Father that he heals. He calls on the name of the Father to help him when he is helping others.
There is this intimate bond in the relationship. That is why the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says “In all things, Christ is the centre.” He is centre between ourselves and God. He is the centre of God’s engagement and involvement in the world. What transformed the Apostle Paul, and what made the Book of Romans so powerful is that Paul discovered, having been someone who believes in the awesomeness and the majesty and the grace of God, that it is this Jesus who introduces us to the grace of God. Prosagoge is the word in Greek for “introduction” meaning an introduction in two forms.
The first is that if you are introducing someone to someone who is royalty. I can confess that there is only one time in my life that I have ever met a member of the royal family in person. I don’t know how you would feel at a moment like that, but let me tell you, I was a bumbling, gas-filled source of nerves with absolutely nothing wise to say and completely inarticulate. I just stood there frozen. It was horrendous! A moment I will never forget! But the host realized that most of the guests were as nervous as I was, and he proved to be a sort of interlocutor. The host introduced the member of the royal family to us in the nicest possible way to make us feel comfortable, to introduce subjects that we might be able to talk about and to understand, and the person in the royal family was equally as gracious, because I am sure they encountered these bumbling, gasping inarticulate people all the time. They made it bearable, and in the end – beautiful! This is how we are with God, the Father.
In a sense, Jesus is the host. Jesus brings us into the presence of God. When we ourselves are unworthy, incapable, or lack words to say, with all our sins and warts and flaws, how do we meet up with this gracious God? How does this gracious God meet us? Through his Son.
The second means an introduction to a harbour or a safe place, like someone who is a sailor bringing a big ship into harbour safely. Jesus brings the world safely into the Father’s presence. Notice the language that Paul uses in the beginning of all of this: “We have peace with God through Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” We come to a safe harbour.
How do we know what this awesome God is like? How do we connect with this awesome God of the universe who made the heavens and the earth? We do it through the Son, who has come for us, to us, and has become one with us. This is at the heart of the way that we talk about God. You notice it is intimate, personal, ethical, caring, loving, rewarding, enlightening, renewing, and it is saving.
It is incomplete, I think, to talk about the awesome God without talking about the Spirit. God is not only above us; God is not only for us; but this is the key takeaway: God is beside us and within us. Notice the language that Paul uses to describe the power of the Holy Spirit. He says God “pours out the Spirit into us that we might know the love of God.” The literal word that is used throughout the Gospels to describe the Spirit is paraclete, one who comes alongside you, lives within you, and is intimately involved with you. You see, at those times in our lives when are not conscious of God, or that we have a crisis and don’t turn to God, or when we have moments of triumph and joy, we are not always aware that God is the source of it. The Spirit is still at work. I love a small piece of poetry that I read by Maltbie Babcock entitled No Distant Lord.
No distant Lord have I,
Loving afar to be;
Made flesh for me, He cannot rest
Until He rests in me.
Brother in joy and pain,
Bone of my bone was He;
More intimate and closer still—
He dwells Himself in me.
Think about it. The enormity of the God of the Universe, the Creator actually does live in us, animate us, moves us, renews us, and empowers us. The Lord of the Universe comes to us. Even when we are not conscious of the Spirit’s presence, the Spirit is at work.
There are, however, moments in our lives when perhaps the awareness of the Spirit becomes more acute than others. Moments when the Spirit’s presence confirms that the Son and the Father loves us, and we are a part of them. I had something like that this week, actually. I was in Ottawa for the National Prayer Breakfast. I go to most years, and they are always good, if a little perfunctory. There is always a speaker who says something nice and some prayers that are lovely and some hymns, but more than anything else it is a time for members of the Christian community to unite with one another in prayer and in praise. We pray for our leaders, some of whom are there, and for the first time in the history of the Prayer Breakfast that I know of, the sitting Prime Minister attended and read from the Book of Romans. What was interesting about that day, and what deeply moved my spirit, was the Speaker. I often think, “Oh, here we go! Ho, hum, another speaker – just like me!” – predictable, going to say something good about God, going to make us all feel better and then feel worse and then feel better again! Right? Not this time around!
This time around, he was standing next to the Prime Minister, who had a really bad day the day before! And then read from the Book of Romans – “If at all possible be at peace with all people”– is not a moment you forget! The Speaker was Jonathan Aitken. I was on the edge of my seat, because Jonathan Aitken is the former British Member of Parliament who has great connections with Canada. His family is Canadian, and his godfather was Lester B. Pearson – not a bad godfather to have! He became a British Member of Parliament and got caught up in something so terrible that he was actually incarcerated for perjury. His life spiralled downwards, one of those classic stories of people who are in power who just lose the plot, and he said, and this is quite remarkable, “You know, it is actually not from our greatest strengths that we learn things; it is in our moments of greatest weakness and error that we learn things.” He said that it was only in a prison where he really learned what God is like.
He talked about sharing a cell with an Irish pickpocket called Paddy, and how Paddy had a rather different lifestyle than he had grown up with. He said that he really felt that he had gone to the very depths when he was there, sort of like Psalm 139 – “Where can I go from your Spirit?” He felt he was far from God’s Spirit. But Aitken said, “You know, it was in that place and in that moment and in that time that God came to me.” He thought God had been distant from him, and all he wanted was for God to come to him. So he began praying, and I invited Paddy to pray. Paddy didn’t like that. He couldn’t understand how it would do any good, so he just sat aside. Some of Paddy’s friends came, and they started to pray in the cell. He said that one day he was so overwhelmed that this rough group of people, these people who you would think God had abandoned, all started praying, and they prayed from the depths of their souls. They didn’t pray to get early parole; they just prayed that they would be changed people. He continued that sometimes it is when we make our big mistakes that we really learn how incredibly kind and gracious the Lord is.
I sat amongst extremely religious people: ambassadors and Christian hockey players and politicians, chartered accountants – and me! We could barely look at one another, because the truth of what was said was just so overwhelming. For those people who have their doubts and struggle with whether or not God is there, who think that God is only high above us, when we think that God is separate from us, when we think that God is no longer involved, it is then that the Holy Spirit breaks in and reminds us that the One who redeemed this world through the Son, is the same Spirit who is engaged in our lives. If anyone tells you that the doctrine of the Trinity is some cold, hard doctrinaire formula that you can’t believe, tell them to read Romans Five, because there we see God, who is glorious; Jesus, who introduces us to Him; and the Spirit of love, who lives within us. Then, we say, “Glory to God in the Highest!” for this God has come to us! Hallelujah! Amen.