[Picture: Nicodemus Visiting Jesus By Night, by Henry Ossawa Tanner]

Pastor James Hopkins preached the following sermon on Trinity Sunday. Click here for the Bible texts for the Feast of the Holy Trinity.


On the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we, the Church confess that 1 + 1 +1 = 1. That kind of math won’t get you very far at Harvard or MIT. It probably won’t even get you through Kindergarten. It just doesn’t seem to add up.

And so to make the equation a bit more elegant, or at least a bit more clear, we annually recite the Athanasian Creed – in all its length and with all its force.

And when we confess the Holy Trinity in that Creed, which is not nearly as tame or broken-in as the others, it might seem as if the Church is simply telling you to shut off your mind and deal with it, and to sacrifice your God-given reason and senses on the altar of faith. More on that later.

We start today with the prophet, Isaiah, when he is called by God to serve Him. And as we hear his account, we see what happens when fallen man with his fallen reason meets God face to face.

When the angels declare the Triune God to be Holy, Holy, Holy, as you soon will, Isaiah is not excited. He is afraid, and more than afraid. Isaiah is certain that death is upon him.

Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, 

and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, 

for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of Hosts. [Isaiah 6:5]

Here’s the problem: when mankind fell into sin, his reason became severely limited. Ingenuity and inventiveness, creativity and conscience, and every aspect of intelligence, these bright lights of our God-given reason, became darkened.

As creatures who depend on reason, the darkness of our minds spread to our eyes and to our lips, and made them unclean, too. So Isaiah is not only afraid to be in God’s presence because of his sin, but also because he has come face to face with the sublime Majesty. This tremendous Mystery, from which even the angels must shield their eyes, is too much for Isaiah and his limited reason to grasp.

If only there was someone who could understand God as He is, then he wouldn’t have to be afraid. Then we could stand in God’s presence.

This person would have to be smart, but really more than smart. This person would have to be clever and talented. And if even Isaiah is afraid, this person would have to be remarkably pious to boot.

So if ever there was a good candidate for someone who could truly know God, and teach all of God’s people to know Him, too, Nicodemus was it.

He has an Ivy League education; and a list of credentials a mile long; but he is not just another big brain. Nicodemus is also religiously devoted to Scripture and prayer. That’s why he is known to be the teacher of Israel.

So he’s embarrassed that Jesus teaches him things beyond his understanding. That’s why he goes to visit Him at night. In fact, that’s why I like the bulletin cover that John picked out. Jesus’ face isn’t clear. Nicodemus can’t yet see Jesus for who He truly is.

So maybe Nicodemus isn’t the best candidate. But, come to think of it, I’m in a room right now that is full of potential. I see people with lots of advanced degrees, who are devoted to God’s Word, and who would be happy to explain to Nicodemus where wind comes from.

It turns out, however, that we don’t make the cut either. For all our collective brainpower, we still don’t have a way to perfectly describe the Trinity. We can see it all over Scripture, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From Genesis to Revelation, God’s Word teaches this, and if you want me to do that Bible Study, I will. But be warned now: that knowledge will still not satisfy you on its own.

What Isaiah needed before anything else was to be forgiven; and so the angel pressed the coal from the altar of incense to his lips, purifying them with the proclamation that his sins were atoned for, paid for.

What Nicodemus needed was the very same. Nicodemus needed to see Jesus the same way that the people of Israel saw that old bronze serpent in the wilderness, and to know that the Snake on the cross was the cure for the snakes on the ground.

And now, today, all of you have those gifts, too. Like Nicodemus, you have a Jesus who has enlightened you, who has moved you from darkness to light.

It’s important to remember that this is not the last we see of him. It’s only John, chapter 3. By John 7, Nicodemus is heard defending Jesus; and by John 19, Nicodemus is seen burying Jesus.

All that is possible because on the cross, where Jesus atones for every one of your sins, Jesus completely redeems you – all of you: your eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses.

All of that has been poured out on you in the waters of Holy Baptism, where the Holy Spirit called, gathered, and enlightened you. And in that God has made you more and not less.

You can say that 1 + 1 +1 = 3 on your SATs, and then you can go home knowing that confessing the Holy Trinity does not deny that, but instead transcends it and completes it.

As a Christian, your reason is always subject to God’s Word; but that does not mean that it is turned off or derided. How would God then make use of it?

How then could Paul in his letter to the Church in Rome, which you just heard, how could he marvel and praise the unsearchable and inscrutable ways of God?

You are called to use your God-given reason and senses, to tend to them, to steward them as gifts, and to ponder the things of God. That includes His salvation, won for you on the cross. It includes His essence, particularly today that He is Triune: Three Persons, One God. And that He is holy, holy, holy, as some angels have said.

It includes also the mysteries of His creation. With your redeemed reason you can joyfully contemplate: a universe so boundless that it could only reflect a God who is infinite; or a human genome so complex, it could only be imagined by the God who shares in our humanity.

Regardless of whether you track the stars, or map our DNA, or make beautiful music, you can all share now in the joy and Truth made known to Isaiah, to Nicodemus, and to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

I know you don’t completely understand it the way you understand so much else. And on this side of heaven you never will. But that doesn’t worry me a bit. Because at the end of the Creed last week, I clearly heard you say, “Amen.”


First Lutheran Church Sermon Archive

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