Two-thousand years before the birth of Jesus, three mysterious strangers appeared beneath the oak trees at a place called Mamre, where a husband and wife and their party were staying. They had come from a spot in what we know today as Iraq, Ur.
Practicing the hospitality that was part of their faith in the God they had come to know and worship, the couple--Abraham and Sarah--welcomed the threesome to their dwelling and fed them a feast. Over the course of their visit, the three made a promise that in one year, Sarah, an old woman, would give birth to the son promised to them by God. They come to realize that they are in the presence of God.
Later, the three strangers engage in a private conversation. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? [they ask] Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” [Genesis 18:17-19]
Was God talking to Himself?
Yes, said Saint Augustine, a 4th century Christian scholar and founder of the Augustinian order of monks of which Martin Luther would be a member four millennia after Abraham and Sarah welcomed the Lord--Yahweh, I AM. In that conversation among the three leaving Abraham, God was talking to Himself, Augustine believed.
If so, it’s not the first time the Bible records God doing that.
In Genesis 1:26, we’re told that God spoke to Himself: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness...”
These Bible passages give us early hints at what Jesus later made explicit in the Great Commission, that there is one God in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
It’s part of the mystery of God’s identity and being, but the Trinity--a term never used in the Bible, but which we use to describe what God has revealed about Himself--is more than just an odd theological concept. God’s triune nature is essential to Who He is and appreciating it, whether we’re ever able to fully understand it, can deepen our relationship with God.
From the oaks at Mamre, fast forward two thousand years to our Gospel lesson. Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s teaching. He’s met a lot of opposition. Among those opposing Him, we’re told, are those who had believed in Him, but are now getting turned off by the implications of what it means to be His disciples. They’re so upset with Jesus that they ask Him if they aren’t right in saying that Jesus has a demon [John 8:48].
Jesus then ushers them (and us) into the mysterious realm of the Holy Trinity. “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”
Jesus is pointing to the Father Who judges sin, as He judged the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah shortly after the incident at Mamre. Jesus seeks to bring the Father glory, not Himself, just as the Father seeks glory for Jesus, not Himself.
This is the nature of the love that exists within the Trinity, self-giving love that doesn’t seek for itself, the self-sufficient love that didn’t need to create the universe or the human race in God’s image, but chose to do so out of pure, giving love.
It was this same love, Jesus said, that brought Him to the world. "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son..."
If you really honored God, Jesus is telling His fellow Jews, you would see the love of God embodied in Me and you would honor Me too.
But the crowd is scandalized. “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?” Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
You can almost picture the pious crowd paralyzed with anger at Jesus. Who did He think that He was?
But if the crowd had known their Father God as well as they claimed to know Him, had they known His Word, they would have known exactly Who Jesus was (and is).
And they would have remembered what the three strangers--identified in our English translations of our Bibles as L-O-R-D, all four letters capitalized, translating Yahweh--I AM, the name God would reveal to be His own to Moses--had said that day by the oaks of Mamre.
Yahweh had said: “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him.” [Genesis 18:18]
It was through Jesus that God’s promise to Abraham that Abraham and all people who trust in Yahweh would be made righteous and would become a great eternal nation, the kingdom of God.
Through God the Son made flesh, all who turn from sin and believe, are members of God’s new creation.
Abraham, Jesus says, had heard this promise and if Abraham had been standing in the temple that day, he would have been filled with joy. Abraham would have said exactly the same thing of Jesus that another old man of faith, Simeon, said of Jesus on the day the infant Jesus was brought to be circumcised in this same temple: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” [Luke 2:29-32] Abraham, Jesus says, would rejoice in seeing Him!
But the crowd of skeptics in John 8 aren't thinking as Jesus says Abraham would think at all. Verse 57: “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
Jesus’ response isn’t grammatical. But it is definitive.
Yes, Jesus is saying, I know exactly what Abraham thought. Not only am I older than Abraham, I made Abraham. I gave life to everything that breathes and moves. “Before Abraham was born, Yahweh, I AM!”
Now, this is such a stunning claim that if it isn’t true--if Jesus isn’t, as we sing at Christmas, God in flesh appearing, if He isn’t the second person of the triune God--then He is, in C.S. Lewis’ famous formulation either a liar, guilty of one of the most horrible hoaxes in history; a madman--on the order, Lewis says, of a man who claims to be a poached egg; or precisely who He claims to be.
As Lewis writes: “You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus didn’t intend for the crowd in the temple to see Him as a great teacher or a magnetic leader who might give them what they wanted. (The kind of patronizing nonsense non-Christians and people who claim to be Christians say about Jesus a lot.) All Jesus wanted them (and us) to see is the love of God poured out through Him.
It’s to help them see that He provokes a confrontation with them. It’s why He provokes a confrontation with us in every burning word of Scripture.
Is Jesus God in the flesh? Is He the incarnation of the God that Abraham saw back at the oaks of Mamre?
If He is, then why would any of us mess around with living lives that are displeasing to Him, that break faith with our Creator and our Redeemer, that dehumanize us, that fail to love God or neighbor? Why would we take His name in vain? Why would we commit adultery? Why would we murder, physically or through the poison of gossip? Why would we take ourselves and our own thinking so seriously and fail to honor God as God or fail to honor the thinking of the One Who made us and redeemed us? Why do we worry instead of trusting in Him? (I'm learning to ask myself questions like these every time I sin or contemplate sinning more.)
On hearing Jesus’ claim to be God, verse 59 says: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”
As I reflect on this passage, I wonder, did the crowd want to stone Jesus because they thought He was dishonoring-- blaspheming-- God? Or did they want to stone Him because, in light of His credibility, they knew that He was God enfleshed and saw their chance to take advantage of His weakness, His voluntary acceptance of the limits of humanity?
“This is the heir,” the tenants in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s gospel say of the son who stands for Jesus in the story. “Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.”
Going all the way back to the garden, humanity has been looking for a way to declare our independence of our Maker, to “be like God.”
It was for this reason that the world would later crucify Jesus. Get rid of God and the lunatics can run the asylum!
“But,” as Peter says in the Pentecost sermon, a part of which makes up our second lesson today, “God raised [Jesus] from the dead.” And it’s here that we see the practical implications of this strange doctrine of the Trinity.
It was out of love that God the Father sent God the Son.
It was this same love that caused the Father to bring Jesus back to life. Not love for Himself, but from love for the Son and love for all who believe in Him--you and me--that the Father raised the Son to new life and through Him, raises us to new life.
Without God’s triune nature, we could not be saved.
Nor could we know or believe in this God, because it’s God the Holy Spirit, the comforter sent to call us to faith, who makes it possible for us to believe and to have life in Jesus’ name.
If you remember nothing else about the Trinity, remember this:
It’s from the love that God has known within Himself for all eternity that He loves you and makes you His own.Amen
The Trinity is how God loves. It's also how He loves us. Three times over, He loves us, and we are eternally the richer for it!
[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, May 22, 2016.]
[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]