It is written in several places in the New Testament, in the Gospel and Letters of John, that no one has ever seen God.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, one awkward fact about these passages is that there are several episodes in the Old Testament where human beings do apparently see God. The patriarch Jacob, for example, in the book of Genesis, after wrestling by a river with a mysterious stranger says the next morning that he has seen God face-to-face.
In today’s Old Testament lesson we have another encounter where a man apparently sees God and lives to tell the tale. But what does Isaiah see?
“I saw the Lord,” wrote Isaiah, “sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”
This vision is one of majesty, of awe, even of sheer terror.
A German theologian named Rudolf Otto, in a book called The Idea of the Holy, coined a phrase to communicate what is meant by the word “holy,” a phrase usually given in Latin: mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that is both terrifying and fascinating.
The feeling of being repelled, horrified, by something while also being curious about it, even fascinated by it, is perhaps a common one. Traffic slows around the scene of an accident, even if the road is clear, as passersby crane their necks to see what happened. People line up to watch horror movies; books about murders — true crime, mystery novels — are bestsellers. Perhaps what each of these things have in common is the spectacle of death — something that is on the one hand completely alien to human life but on the other hand a common factor in every human life. We instinctively fear death and try to avoid it, and we have few resources for understanding it in the ways we would like to understand it, and meanwhile we all know that each of us must undergo death one day.
And God, the source and author of life, is likewise completely outside of everyday human experience and completely beyond human understanding while being a common factor in each human life. The word “holy” has a fundamental meaning of “set apart.” That which is holy is not to be used for common, ordinary things. God, the Holy One, is apart from our everyday experience, beyond our comprehension, outside of the categories we use in our thinking. God is a mystery; a terrifying mystery; a fascinating mystery.
If God is so beyond our human experience, so outside of our categories of understanding, how is it possible to know God at all?
We know God because God makes himself known to us. God is known to us as one God in three persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God exists as the all-powerful creator, beyond all human comprehension; God exists as Christ, God’s word, spoken at the creation, present to God’s people Israel in Torah and Temple, made flesh in Jesus, embodied here in this community and in the bread and cup we share; God exists as Spirit, the wind that blows the embers of faith into flame, the indwelling presence that makes us holy.
Now when I say that we know God as Father, Son, and Spirit, do not misunderstand me: these are not merely three modes of self-revelation, not three different “faces.” God exists in three persons; and yet these three are one.
The theologian Robert Jenson described the origins of trinitarian doctrine in this way: Christians, from the very beginning, found it impossible to speak of any one person of the Trinity for very long without speaking of the other two. To speak of God the Father, it becomes necessary to speak of Christ who makes God known and of the Spirit who creates faith and empowers God’s people. To speak of God the Son, it becomes necessary to speak of the one Jesus prayed to and called Father and of the Spirit that rested upon Jesus. To speak of God the Spirit, it becomes necessary to speak of the Almighty God from whom the Spirit proceeds and of the Word of God to whom the Spirit testifies. So it was that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus of the Spirit who gives new birth and in almost the same breath spoke of the God who loved the world and the Son who was given for the life of the world. God stood apart from the created world–uncreated, independent, holy. But God’s very self implies, contains, and provides the possibility, the inevitability even, of reunion between Creator and creature, between the holy God and the sinful world.
Abraham Lincoln, in a brief speech at the dedication of a cemetery for Union war dead at the battlefield of Gettysburg, took advantage of a unique feature of the English language. We may speak of three “strata,” three layers, of English vocabulary. There are the words that the original Germanic-speaking Anglo-Saxons spoke; the French words that came in with the Normans in the eleventh century; and the Latin words imported in the early modern phase of the language, the time of Francis Bacon and of Shakespeare. So we have a word from the Latin, “population,” which we use when discussing statistics — the population of Clinton, Maryland was 35,970 in 2010. We have a word from the French, “people,” a little closer to the heart, for more general situations — I’ve enjoyed meeting people here in Clinton when I’m out at Starbucks or McDonalds. And we have a word, “folks,” which we use to speak of those who are especially dear to us: the folks at Hope Lutheran Church. Now, listen to what Lincoln said:
“We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate” — that word is from the Latin — “we cannot consecrate” — that word is from the French — “we cannot hallow” — that word is from the old Anglo-Saxon — “we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”
And so it is with God and us. We pray that God’s name may be hallowed, that the name of God may be made holy, but God is by nature holy; God hallows God’s own name. We will sing in a moment and proclaim that we bind unto ourselves the name of the Triune God: I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity. It is fitting and proper that we should dedicate ourselves to God, but truly, it is not we who bind God’s name to ourselves, but God who binds God’s own self to us in baptism. God is holy; it deserves repetition, for emphasis: holy, holy, holy, as the seraphim cried in Isaiah’s vision, as we ourselves will sing in a little while, to proclaim the God who is here for us in bread and wine. It is God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons, who is holy and who makes us holy.
Thanks be to God!