I was once visiting a church with an artist. I had taken her there to see the stained-glass windows. But, right now, we were standing in front of the altar. She was not a believer and, therefore, was not familiar with our traditional symbols. Carved into the marble face of the altar was the traditional symbol of the Trinity. Three circles, overlapping one another, held together by a triangle. Each was traced in gold. The triangle was in the center, grounding the symbol, and the circles extended beyond it.
For a Christian, this symbol was easy to read. Three persons in one God and one God in three persons. The circles represented the persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and the triangle represented one God.
For this artist, however, the mysteries of the Trinity were not something she was seeing. Instead, she said to me, “I like that symbol.” “The Trinity?” I said. “Whatever,” she answered. “I’m talking about the combination of the hard and the soft.” I looked closer. “The curved lines of the circles and the points of the triangle,” she said. “The circles are soft and easy to experience but then the hard edges of the triangle come and interrupt you, making you reconsider what you are seeing.”
While my friend had no idea what the Trinity means, I think her description can be helpful. Encountering one God in three persons and three persons in one God can often involve this interplay between the hard and the soft, the pointed and the smooth, the difficult and the easy.
Consider our gospel reading this morning. Nicodemus, a teacher of the law, comes to Jesus at night. He has heard and seen the ministry of Jesus and believes He is a “teacher come from God” (verse 3). Yet, in this late-night conversation, Jesus takes Nicodemus into the hard and the soft, the pointed and the smooth, the difficult and the easy, the limits of his understanding and the beginning of God’s grace.
In this conversation, Nicodemus encounters a hard truth about himself. As a teacher of Israel, he does not understand everything (verse 10). The ways of God bringing life “from above” are a mystery to him. Although he has taught the stories of Israel, although he has read how Ezekiel called the Spirit of God to come from the four corners of the earth and bring the bones of Israel to life, he still does not understand. He is limited in his understanding and Jesus presses into that limitation, bringing Nicodemus to the hard truth that there is an end to his understanding.
At the end of his understanding, however, is the beginning of life. It is life which comes as a gift, life which flows from the mystery of God.
Although God’s ways are hard and beyond our understanding, they proceed from grace. The hard ways of God reveal the softness of His heart. God’s grace enters into that which is painful, that which is difficult, and brings about life. God is painfully creative.
Although God’s ways are hard and beyond our understanding, they proceed from grace.
God the Father sees the world He has created; Fallen, Rebellious, Broken, Riddled with death. God the Father, however, will not abandon His creation. Instead, He sends His Son into the world to bring life, new life. Life from above, born by the power of the Holy Spirit, that all people might be saved through Him.
This way of life, however, is not easy. Like the bronze serpent in the wilderness, Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. He will experience divine punishment. Painfully bearing the sin of all, Jesus will powerfully bring God’s grace to all. Yes, He will be lifted up on the cross and die. But He will also be lifted up from the tomb and rise. He will then be lifted up to the heavens and ascend, and be seated at the right hand of God, the Father, from where He will send forth His Spirit, through water and the Word, to bring life. We are baptized in the name of God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Three in One, One in Three, graciously joined in a mystery.
Trinity Sunday is a day we confess the mystery of our faith. It is a mystery that saves. The ways of God are beyond our understanding but at the heart of this mystery is a love that saves. Some mysteries are puzzles to be solved. Others are questions to be answered. This mystery, however, is a love to be experienced.
I remember once as a child digging up a seed that had been planted. I was inquisitive and wanted to figure out how this seed became a plant. I ended up with pieces of dirt and a small sprout in my hands. This adventure brought me no closer to understanding the mystery of life. Now, as an adult, I plant seeds and trust in their growth.
There are some mysteries I do not understand but that does not mean I cannot experience the blessing of their life. In some ways, the Trinity is like that mystery. Deep within the heart of God, one God in three persons and three persons in one God, is the gift of life. It is a life which is abundant, gracious, freely given, able to take our painful limitations, able to enter into our sin and our suffering, able even to grasp the limits of death itself, and break through with salvation, that, “Whoever believes in Jesus Christ should not perish but have everlasting life.” Today, we rejoice in that mystery.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching John 3:1-17.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach John 3:1-17.