Two thousand years before the birth of Jesus, three strangers appeared beneath the oak trees at a place called Mamre, where a husband and wife and their party were staying. The couple--Abraham and Sarah– who left their homeland to go to a place God promised He would reveal to them on their way, welcomed the three strangers, then fed them a feast.
During their visit, the three strangers revealed that within a year’s time, Sarah, an old woman, would give birth to the son promised to them by God years earlier.
Abraham and Sarah realize that they are in the presence of God, although they certainly couldn’t understand the divine math by which the God Who stood before them could be one God, yet simultaneously, three Persons.
Later, the three strangers engage in a private conversation. “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?...” [Genesis 18:17]
Was God talking to Himself?
Yes, most assuredly.
And it’s not the first time the Bible records God doing that. In Genesis 1:26, we’re told that God said to Himself: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness...”
These Bible passages give us hints at what Jesus later made explicit in the Great Commission, when He commanded His Church to baptize all peoples in the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
God’s three-in-one nature is part of the mystery of God’s identity and being, but the Trinity--a term never used in the Bible that we use to describe what God has revealed about Himself--is more than just an odd theological idea. God’s triune nature is essential to Who He is.
In today’s Gospel lesson, John 8:48-59, which recounts an incident that occurred two thousand years after Abraham’s and Sarah’s time, Jesus is in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s teaching and He meets opposition. The opponents are those who had believed in Him, now turned off by the challenge of discipleship. (This isn’t the last time that believers will be turned off by the challenge of discipleship.)
They accuse Jesus of having 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,” says 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 us to the Father Who judges sin. It’s the Father, Jesus says, Who seeks glory for Jesus, not Him.
This shows us the nature of the love that exists within the Trinity: self-giving love that doesn’t seek for itself, 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 a superabundance of pure, giving love. It was this same love, Jesus says elsewhere, that brought Him to the world: "For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son..."
If you really honored God, Jesus tells His now-disbelieving fellow Jews, you would see that I am God and you would honor Me too. 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.”
This pious crowd is paralyzed with rage at Jesus. Who did He think He was? They should know the answer to that question by now. They should remember 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--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, the Messiah King of Abraham’s descendants (and of the world), 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, came to be. Had they truly known God, they should have recognized Him when He appeared among them in Jesus Christ!
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. 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 is telling them, 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!” Jesus tells them.
Jesus didn’t intend for the crowd in the temple (or us) to see Him as a great teacher or a magnetic leader who might give them what they wanted. Jesus wants us to see that He is the loving God of the universe in human flesh, Who bears our sin and death on the cross and is raised by the Father to bring an end to human slavery to sin and death to all who trust in Him.
It’s to help the people who are rejecting Him in our lesson to see Who He is that Jesus provokes a confrontation with them. It’s why He provokes a confrontation with us in every word of Scripture.
Do we believe that Jesus is God in the flesh?
Do we believe that He is the incarnation of the God that Abraham saw back at the oaks of Mamre?
If He is God–and I believe He is, then why would any of us mess around with living lives of unrepentant sin, that break faith with our Creator and our Redeemer, that dehumanize us, that fail to love God or neighbor?
Why would we put our ultimate trust in the things or people of the world that are going to die and who only have life by the power of God and His Word?
Why would we insist on our right to take God’s name in vain?
Or justify our adultery?
Why would we make excuses for murder or gossip?
Why would we want to take ourselves and our own desires more seriously than we do the will of the One Who made us and brought salvation to us on the cross?
Why would we choose to worry rather than trust in Him?
Why would we acquiesce to a sin-sick world that tells us, “Love is love” when we know that what the world calls love isn’t love if it doesn’t please God?
It was for our sins, all of our sins and every one of our sins, along with our sinful nature, that Jesus died for you and me and came to set us free, covering us with His forgiving grace, and putting us at liberty to live as human beings are meant to live, as children of God, assuring us that as we turn to Him each day in repentance and faith, we are covered with His forgiveness and made new.
On hearing Jesus’ claim to be God, the crowd reacts. Verse 59 says: “At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”
Let’s be clear here.
The crowd didn’t want to stone Jesus because they thought He was dishonoring-- blaspheming-- God. They wanted to stone Him because they knew that He was God enfleshed and saw their chance to take advantage of His voluntary acceptance of the limits of humanity.
In their murderous rage, you see a preview of how on the first Good Friday, the whole world, Jew and Gentile, would cheer to see Jesus executed on a cross.
“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 love for the Son and love for the world for Who Jesus died and rose.
Without God’s triune nature then, we could not know that "God is love."
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 in love by God to call us to faith, who creates faith in Jesus within us.
It’s from the love that God has always known within Himself--the love that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have for each other--that He loves you and makes you His own through Christ.
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! Amen