Text: Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 1:1-11 Theme: We worship three divine persons who are one in love and purpose, word + work.
One evening Ruth and I visited a mother who was single and overworked. At one point I sensed she might appreciate some one-to-one time with Ruth. So I offered to put her seven year-old son to bed and say his prayers with him.
Little did I expect the string of questions Joshua would ask! If God sends angels to watch over me, how come I never see one peeking in my window? Then: If God is everywhere, will I bump him when I comb through my hair? So I tried my best to explain that angels and God who are beyond our sight or touch.
But he wasn't done with me yet!! If Jesus prays to God, and Jesus is God, does that mean he is talking to himself? I was dealing with quite the little theologian! With one question, Joshua got at the heart of the puzzling doctrine of the Trinity. We claim to believe there is one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
What does this mean exactly? Is God a single divine being so versatile that he can play three different roles at once? I recall a kid’s sermon comparing God to H2O: changing from water to ice or steam.
In the third century a theologian named Sabellius held this view of God. He thought God was one person who takes on different forms: Father, Son and Spirit. The classic term for this is modalism: one person taking on different modes of being.
However, after biblical reflection, the church rejected this idea. Modalism was deemed a heresy- as a denial of three distinct, divine persons. So, you better be careful how you explain the Trinity, even in a children’s message!
I’ve also heard the Trinity compared to an apple. One apple with skin, meat and core. All three contain the essence of apple: the apple nature. That’s helpful: as all three divine persons share the same divine essence or nature. But the analogy has a major flaw: an apple isn’t a person; it definitely isn’t three persons.
God in three persons. Mostly what I've heard from preachers + teachers is: it’s a mystery. You can’t understand it. You just have to accept it. But that doesn't help me answer little Joshua. If Jesus prays to God, and Jesus is God, does that mean he is talking to himself? Perhaps preachers have been vague, because the church's teaching has often been vague. Take the Heidelberg Catechism. Question 25 gets right to the heart of the things: Since there is but one God, why do you speak of three? Answer: Because that is how God has revealed himself in his Word.
Well yes; but that doesn't help much! We know the Bible reveals God in three persons. But we want to make sense of it. How do we think about God? How do we speak to him? Many thoughtful people have listened to fuzzy responses and concluded it’s nonsense. Either God is one or he is three. You can't have it both ways.
Most of you have heard of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They broke away from the church precisely over the doctrine of the Trinity. The claim that God is one and three at the same time didn’t make sense to them. They concluded that there is only one divine person: Jehovah.
So where does that leave Jesus? They solved that by claiming Jesus is not divine. Rather he is a unique, high capacity creature with the power to save us from our sins. And the Holy Spirit? Merely a power, a force that flows from God- not a person. In other words, they have rejected the historic Christian teaching of the Trinity.
One true God; three distinct persons. Six simple words. Yet full of nuance and riches.
So, let's try to sort this out. The doctrine of the Trinity is actually rooted in Jesus’ life. Before Christ, believers thought that the one true God meant one divine person.
But gradually the followers of Jesus came to see that he is not just another prophet. The disciples were astonished by Jesus' miracles, by the authority of his teaching, by his forgiveness of sins, by the impact of his life and death and resurrection. They feel led to worship him. And whom do you worship? God alone. So, now we have two divine persons: the Father who sent his Son.
To make things even more mind-boggling, Jesus didn't stop with himself + the Father. He also speaks of the Holy Spirit- the Comforter- whom he will send. Then at Pentecost this Spirit arrives. And Peter preaches about the Spirit + Jesus + God. Matthew then recalls some of Jesus’ final words to them: Go + make disciples, baptizing them into the name of the Father, Son + Holy Spirit.
So now there are not just two, but three divine persons to reckon with. This was clearly a whole new way of thinking about God. Eventually it led to the church's historic confession: God in three persons. So, what is the answer to Joshua's question? Well, it wasn't that Jesus was doing something strange, like talking to himself. No, Jesus was talking to God the Father, who is another divine person. The truth is: the three persons of the Trinity talk to each other.
The opening of Mark's gospel gives us a glimpse of that. Verse 2: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way. Well, who is talking to whom? It turns out to be God the Father talking to Jesus- somewhere back in eternity- about sending John the Baptist to prepare the way for Jesus. From all eternity the three talk; enjoy perfect fellowship; and make plans together.
A bit later in Mark 1 we find all three in action together- vs 10: when Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove and he heard the Father's voice say: You are my Son, whom I love. Three divine persons- who each think and feel and speak and choose and act.
Perhaps by now you are thinking: Wait a minute! That sounds a lot like three gods! What about Deuteronomy 6:4: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. What about the other half of the church's confession- that there is one true God?
You know what? I’ve noticed that when pushed about the Trinity, in our minds the one usually trumps the three. We don’t really think there are actually three distinct persons. You see that in Joshua’s question. Why did he wonder if Jesus was talking to himself? He wasn’t thinking of three persons who each think and feel and talk to each other.
I believe there is a key to better understand the Trinity. The key is the word one. Before Deuteronomy 6 refers to God as one, Genesis 2 refers to a man + wife as one. A man will…be united to his wife, and they will become one- one flesh. Do a husband and wife merge into one person with four eyes, four arms and four legs? Of course not. To become one in marriage means unity: physical and relational unity.
So too, in saying that God is one, it seems Deuteronomy 6 is proclaiming God's unity. Remember, Deuteronomy is set against the background of pagan beliefs: of many different gods who did their own thing and often worked at cross purposes. Think of the mythical Greek deities who often competed and quarreled and clashed.
In contrast, the Father, Son and Spirit are one: unified in all they think and say and do.
Jesus himself reinforces this interpretation. In John 10 he says: I + the Father are one. Well, one what? One person? No. Jesus clearly relates to his Father as another person. When Jesus says I and the Father are one he is referring to their intimate unity. They have one word. Jesus spoke the words of the Father. They have one will. Jesus freely obeys the will of the Father. They have one work. Jesus does nothing but what the Father sent him to do. And they are one in having the same divine nature: eternal, almighty, loving and just.
Jesus reinforces this understanding of oneness in his prayer for his disciples in John 17. Father, protect them… so that they may be one as we are one. That they may be one. Well, how are Christians one? Are we absorbed into one communal blob? Definitely not. But we are one church, one body, one spiritual building, one in unity. The church- one body, many members- reflects the Trinity: one God, three persons.
So there you have it. The Bible’s teaching is no vague mystery- or sheer nonsense. God’s Word reveals there are three divine persons- living in perfect unity or oneness.
In closing, let me highlight three practical implications of this teaching. First, we can relate to each of the three divine persons individually. I think because the Father, Son and Spirit all have the same divine nature and work, it’s easy to confuse them. Sort of like we might get identical triplets confused.
But they are distinct. For example, God the Father had the primary hand in creation. God the Father is head over Christ. God the Father sent Jesus into the world. Jesus is the only one who became human + died for us- not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who was poured out at Pentecost and causes our spiritual birth. Get to know the distinct work of each divine person. Pray to them with that awareness.
Second: the perfect fellowship between the Father, Son and Spirit is a model for us. In God we have a model not of isolation and self-centeredness, but of community. To be designed in God's image is to find purpose + fulfillment in Christian community. This is why participation and commitment to a specific church is so important.
Third, the most powerful witness to the world is not some great evangelism program. The most effective witness is God’s people reflecting the loving unity of the Trinity. Diverse people living and serving together with one love, one spirit, one purpose. Faith Church- in its lovely diversity and loving unity- can embody that beautifully. That kind of loving community will have great appeal to a watching world.
That night when I tucked Joshua into bed, I didn’t have the time to explain all this. But I do think he understood Jesus' prayer to the Father was not babbling to himself. I hope you will know the Father, Son + Spirit more clearly, relate to each more personally,
Text: Galatians 5:25; Acts 8:26-39 Theme: The Spirit is full of energy + action; we are called to keep in step with the Spirit.
After his junior year at Trinity Christian College my son took on a big challenge. Paul attended a ten-week Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. They got up at 5:00am. They took long hikes with heavy backpacks. They navigated obstacle courses. They learned hand-to-hand combat techniques. That’s why I’m afraid of Paul when he gets rambunctious with me.
And a drill sergeant had them learn how to march in step. Marching in step has always been a big deal in the military. It shows you are listening. It shows you are following orders. It shows unity of force. At his graduation it was impressive to see them march in step on the parade grounds.
On Pentecost God poured out his Holy Spirit. Immediately the Spirit sparked all kinds of action: the apostles speak in other languages; thousands come to believe in Jesus; miraculous signs and wonders are performed. No wonder the Apostle Paul urges the Galatians: Keep in step with the Spirit. To keep in step with the Spirit, we have to be on their toes.
Acts 8 provides a prime example of keeping in step with the Spirit. In this passage I’ll highlight various insights into the Spirit’s activity. Together it provides a beginning theology of the Holy Spirit.
Vs. 26: An angel of the Lord said to Philip… We don’t know anything about this angel or how it spoke to Philip. But we do know Philip; he was one of seven Spirit-filled men chosen to serve as a deacon.
Now the Lord has an assignment for Philip: Go south to the road- the desert road- that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. This major road headed south- then cut west to the Mediterranean Sea + the city of Gaza.
Go south to the road- the desert road… That’s all Philip gets from the angel. No explanation about why. No clue to what the Spirit has in mind. Just a cryptic command.
So, here’s a first insight to keep in step with the Spirit: God by his Spirit gives directives. Maybe it’s to go somewhere. Or to send a note of encouragement. Or to write a check. You may not always know why. But you can expect the Spirit to direct you. So let me ask: are you alert to the Spirit’s leading? Are you keeping in step with the Spirit? Now, Philip may have had plenty of reasons to dismiss this message. Hey, that desert road is mighty hot. Or: as one of the seven deacons I’m way too busy. Or the capper: Maybe that angel’s message was just a figment of my imagination. When we receive a prompting from the Spirit, it may be easy to ignore it- or dismiss it.
But Philip does no such thing. Vs. 27 simply says: So he started out. The Lord sends. Philip obeys. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. And notice: that first step of obedience opened up the amazing ministry that followed. So here’s a second insight: keeping in step with the Spirit takes that first step.
Three years ago I served in Gallup, NM: on the edge of the Navajo reservation. Soon after arriving I visited a Navajo young man, who was gravely sick. Later he died. The cause: scirrosis of the liver- caused by a lifetime of drinking In the middle of that great loss I got to know his mom and his sister, Twyla Whitehair. And I got a little sense of their community: fifteen miles away in Iyanbito.
Soon after, I believe the Spirit gave me a prompting. Here’s how it went: Iyanbito is just far enough away that it’s not always easy to get to Gallup for worship. Some people there didn’t have reliable transportation to make it in. What if we started a Bible study group right there? It might be just what people need!
So, I took a first step: I shared my idea with Twyla + her husband. Right away it was: Yes! So we held a small group at their house. We studied John’s gospel + prayed for each other. For some it was life changing. Starting that group all hinged on taking that first step.
Let me ask: Is the Spirit prompting you to take some action, to head down a particular road? Like Philip, will you simply trust God and obey? Will you keep in step with the Spirit?
Vs. 27: So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the… queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.
Clearly the Spirit had been at work in this man’s heart and mind for some time. Somehow he’d developed a hunger for God; somehow he heard the Jews knew about God. He was so interested that he traveled all the way to Jerusalem to worship God.
And his visit comes right after Jesus’ death + resurrection and outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Now on the way home the Ethiopian is reading from a precious scroll of their scripture. Here’s a 3rd insight on keeping in step with the Spirit: he goes before us to prepare the way. Now vs 29: The Spirit told Philip: Go to that chariot and stay near it. Fascinating! Stay near. Hang out by that chariot. We might call this the ministry of presence.
Rev. Jim Kok led the pastoral care department at the Crystal Cathedral in its heyday. From his experience he wrote a book titled: 90% of Helping is Just Showing Up. He saw that often opportunities arise simply by being there. Being present. Being available. That’s how it started with Philip + the Ethiopian. Stay near that chariot. That’s a fourth insight for keeping in step with the Spirit: the ministry of presence.
You know, we have so many things that keep us off on our own. Television is a big one. Now our smart phones can keep us preoccupied even when we are with other people. Today the average church member attends far fewer church activities than forty years ago.
But building Christian community takes time. Building community takes staying near. When you are near you get to know people. You’re available to listen. You pick up on needs. That won’t happen if you’re not around.
The world needs the ministry of presence. At home. In our neighborhoods. At church. When you think of it, that’s exactly what Jesus did: he made his dwelling among us. So let me ask: do you make space to be present with others- to keep in step with the Spirit?
Vs. 30: Then Philip ran up to the chariot + heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. Philip gets near. And immediately he spots an opportunity. The Spirit is leading.
Philip poses a good question: Do you understand what you’re reading?” The official is honest: not really. How can I, unless someone explains it to me? So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Take about an opportunity!
You know: my Bible study in Iyanbito was great. But a Bible study in a chariot: that’s cool! Here’s a fifth insight for keeping in step with the Spirit: if you see an opportunity, go for it.
But there’s more: of all things this important official is reading from Isaiah 53. Isaiah 53: the Bible’s clearest prophecy of Jesus’ death to take away our sins. Was the Spirit orchestrating this encounter? You bet. Vs. 35: Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
So, here we come to a sixth insight: the Spirit of God works through the Word of God. And because the Spirit works through the Word, we need teachers of the Word. You might suppose that with the outpouring of the Spirit we instantly understand things. Not so! The Ethiopian official still needed a teacher; he needed Philip to explain the gospel. So do we. That’s why Romans 12 says the Spirit has gifted some to be teachers. Let me ask: do you make time to hear God’s Word taught- through good preaching, through good books, through a solid Bible study group- to keep in step with the Spirit? And if you have the knowledge and ability to teach, are you doing so?
Finally vs 36:As they traveled along... they came to some water+the eunuch said: Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized? And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
The official believed in Jesus and was baptized. Imagine the thrill for him and Philip! Now Philip knew why the angel told him: Go south to the road- the desert road. Now Philip got a bigger appreciation of keeping in step with the Spirit.
Here’s one final insight: the Spirit can be surprising. In John 3 Jesus tells Nicodemus: The wind blows wherever it pleases. The Spirit is like the wind. Often the Spirit blows in unexpected directions.
Think of this: in Jerusalem there were many Jews born into God’s covenant family. They studied the scripture on their father’s lap. They lived near the temple. But when Jesus came, many didn’t believe in him. They closed their hearts to him.
And here is an Ethiopian man who was not a part of God’s covenant people; who had no background in scripture; who grew up far from the temple. But when Philip explained Jesus, the lamb of God who takes away our sins, he believed. The Spirit blows wherever he wills. Like Philip, let’s go wherever the Spirit is leading.
Brothers and sisters, we live in light of Pentecost. You know, sometimes people think the Christian faith is little more than what we believe. To be a Christian is to have certain convictions: expressed in the Apostle’s Creed or the HC.
But the Christian life is way more than that! Jesus has sent us the gift of his Spirit. The Spirit sparks all kinds of action. The Spirit will direct us and send us. The big question is: like Philip are you keeping in step? Each moment, each hour, each day are you keeping in step with the Spirit?
When you do, it may be inconvenient; it may push you out of your comfort zone. But it will also be quite the adventure!! When you do, you’ll get in on all kinds of kingdom action!!
Text: Luke 24:50-53; Ephesians 2:1-7 Theme: When Jesus ascended, God seated us with him in the heavenly realms.
Where you sit matters. I’ll give two examples from my childhood. Mary was one of my classmates at Sheboygan Christian School. She was the smartest in our class. She was the best piano player. I liked her.
But in my school back then the boys hung out with boys and the girls hung out with girls. And I was timid. I certainly didn’t want to get teased.
So, I looked to school activities that provided natural interaction. For example, I was a starting guard on our basketball team; she was a cheerleader. There were the seating assignments teachers gave. I always hoped to sit near Mary.
Where you sit matters. Here’s a second story. Back in 1970, McDonald’s sponsored a competition called: Run-Throw-Bunt-Hit. I don’t recall how many kids entered the Sheboygan competition. In any case, I won.
Next came the state competition. It was actually held at the Milwaukee Brewers’ stadium. I wasn’t as big and strong as some winners from other cities. But I practiced. In the competition I laid down three nearly perfect bunts- right down the third base line. Those bunts piled up so many points that I won! I was the Wisconsin champion!
Get this: the main prize was an all-expenses paid trip with my dad to the World Series! We flew from Chicago to Cincinnati where the Big Red Machine took on the Orioles. We were hosted there by home run king, Frank Howard, and all-star pitcher, Jim Kaat.
When my family went to a Brewers game, we always got cheap tickets in the upper deck. But I got to sit with Frank Howard + Jim Kaat in box seats at the World Series! Awesome!
Where you sit matters. People in Jesus’ day were keenly aware of that. Matthew 20 records the time when the mother of James and John asked Jesus a favor: Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom. These were seats of highest honor + power!
Where you sit matters. The Apostle Paul certainly knew that. In Ephesians 2 he highlights the great things God has done for us in Christ. Then vs 6: God raised us up with Christ + seated us with him in the heavenly realms. God’s people get prime spots in the heavenly realms- right there with Jesus! Seated with God in the heavenly realms. But, how should we understand that? After all, when we look around we don’t see God. Physically we haven’t gone to heaven. We’re are still here on planet earth. Clearly Paul refers to a spiritual reality.
When we recite the Apostle’s Creed we say: On the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. These three events are referred to as the resurrection, the ascension and the session.
Here in Ephesians 2 Paul refers to all three events. But notice: Paul isn’t talking about Jesus here! He’s talking about us! God made us alive; God raised us up; God seated us with him in the heavenly realms.
Have any of you done any mountain climbing? When mountain climbers scale a steep peak, they attach themselves to each other by rope. Being attached makes it more likely they’ll make it safely to the top. Well, by faith we’re connected to Christ: attached to him. And we end up seated with him in a spot loftier then Mt. Everest- in the heavenly realms.
And here’s something really amazing. Notice the tense of the verbs. It’s not: he will seat us. It’s not a future tense. It’s not something God will do in the life to come. No, it’s past tense. God made us alive; God raised us up; God seated us with him. It’s already happened! By faith in Christ we’re seated with God in the heavens- right now!
Now, this all sounds grand. But what does it mean exactly? What are the practical implications for us, here and now?
Let me highlight three benefits of being seated with God in the heavenly realms. First: being seated with God means we’re close to him. We are close to him.
After graduation from college, I volunteered to work at a church in the S. F. Bay Area. I’d never been there before. When I stepped off the train it was to meet virtual strangers. I enjoyed a great year of ministry, but I did feel lonely at times. I missed home + friends.
But at the same time I really felt God’s nearness to me. I felt God’s presence in some of the incredible beauty of northern California. In my Bible reading I was regularly impressed with God’s love and presence with me. I felt God’s nearness in the Christian brothers and sisters there.
So, physically I had moved 2,000 miles. But spiritually I hadn’t moved an inch. I was still seated with Christ in the heavenly realms. I was close to God; he was close to me. So, let this truth soak in! Fix it in your mind! Does God sometimes seem remote? Remember: in Christ God has seated you with him. Do you sometimes wonder if he hears your prayers? Remember, in Christ God has seated you right next to him; he certainly hears you. Do you ever feel very alone? You’re not: you are still seated with God right beside you.
Where you sit matters. Here’s a second practical benefit. We enjoy a position of favor. You know, it’s one thing for a teacher to assign a seat near a girl you like. But it’s much better if that girl invites you to sit by her- as a sign of her favor. Being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms means we enjoy his favor.
You know, we all have a certain self-image. Our self-image is shaped by many things: our height/weight or family or personality or education or job or friendships or nationality. In a sin-broken world, lots of us struggle with a low self-image. Sometimes we aren’t sure if others really like us. We fear we aren’t fully loved. To be cherished- to be held in honor and favor is something we all long for.
Here’s the gospel- the good news: your self-image should be shaped by this truth. In Christ I am seated with God himself! I have a position of divine favor and glory. God’s favor means more than any other opinion- any day.
So let this truth soak in! Fix it in your mind! Do you feel too insignificant for God’s favor? Remember: God has seated you with him. Do you wonder if God could love someone so flawed? God has seated you with him. Do you worry that some stupid actions have forfeited the favor of God? Not so: in Christ God has seated you with him. You are in a position of divine favor.
Where you sit matters. Third, being seated with God means we share in his mission. We share in his mission- just like the disciples shared in Jesus’ mission.
Suppose you were tapped to serve on the cabinet of the next president of the United States. What an honor! You’re part of the team. You sit at his/her table and plan strategy. And you work hard- to carry out the president’s directives to serve our country.
In the same way, being seated with God means we share his mission. We are part of God’s team. We get to be part of the most exciting enterprise on the planet.
You know, some people lack a sense of purpose in life. They drift along. They aren’t really headed anywhere. Days just come and go. They watch TV. They get bored. Some end up doing stupid stuff for kicks. Little sense of purpose. But people who sit with God in the heavenly realms know they are part of his mission. We’re on his team. We know our life matters. What we do has eternal significance. We get in on the action: loving our neighbor, seeking justice, showing mercy to the poor, healing the sick, visiting prisoners, aiding refugees, serving in God’s church + kingdom.
Let this truth soak in! Fix it in your mind! Do you wonder about the ultimate purpose in your life? Remember: God has seated us with him in the heavenly realms- to carry out his mission.
Where you sit matters. It matters in school, especially if you like a girl in your class. It matters at a baseball stadium, especially in the World Series. And it matters with God.
And here’s our sure and certain hope. One day our position won’t be only spiritual. One day Jesus will come back for his own; God’s people will be raised to new life. And we will see the Father and his Son face to face. We’ll have the thrill of being seated with them- body and soul, for all eternity.
Jesus died. He rose again. And he ascended into heaven. In Christ God has already seated us with him in the heavenly realms. It’s awesome! And that makes all the difference right now.
Let’s never forget it. Let’s make the most of it. Let’s live up to our position in Christ.