Once upon a time[i], there were several blind people living in a village. One day, a trader from far away came to the village, carrying his goods on an elephant. The villagers were excited to see this new animal and soon all the talk around the village was about the elephant.
Finally, the group of blind people could stand it no longer. “Take us to this elephant and let us touch it. We want to know what an elephant is like too!”
So they were guided to the elephant. Each person reached out to touch the elephant.
The first touched a leg and exclaimed, “The elephant is like a pillar.”
The second touched the tail and said, “No, the elephant is like a rope.”
The third had her hand on the trunk, “A rope? Are you crazy! It’s more like a tree branch!”
The fourth, hand on the ear, countered, “No, it’s like a hand fan.”
The fifth had both hands stretched out across the elephant’s belly, “It seems more like a wall to me.”
They began to argue, each claiming that their experience of the elephant was the correct one. Finally, the village elder shouted over their voices, “Enough! You want to know what an elephant is like? Well, each of you is right! You each only touched a small piece of the elephant – put all your experiences together and you have an idea of what the elephant is really like.”
What is God like?
The Psalmist talks about a God of might and power, majesty and glory – voice thundering over waters, breaking cedars of Lebanon, flashing forth flames of fire, causing the wilderness to shake, oaks to swirl and strips forest bare.
This is a God whose voice wreaks havoc.
This is a God whose word stills chaos and brings creation into being.
Isaiah also encounters a grand and majestic God – high and lifted up, so big that the hem of God’s robe fills all the temple all glory and might, the seraphim covering their faces in from the sight of God too bright to bear, screaming “Holy” in the terror and joy of being in God’s presence and in pain of knowing their own unworthiness.
Isaiah, a mere mortal, doesn’t stand a chance here. He immediately realized his peril – this is a place where mortals cannot live. He has looked upon God and by all rights should be dead by now. After all, Moses was given just a glimpse of God’s back and his hair went white![ii] Isaiah cries out.
And God hears him. God cleanses him from his sin – sending an angel with a live coal to cleanse Isaiah’s lips. Then God sends Isaiah to carry God’s word to the children of Israel.
This is a God who cares for those God created.
This is a God who forgives.
This is a God who calls humans to be a part of bringing God’s word to those who need to hear it.
This is a God who sends.
Nicodemus encounters God in a very different way. Instead of glory and light, he meets God in a dark courtyard. Instead of an imposing figure so big that the hem of his robe overflows from the temple, there is a simple man. Instead of angels singing, there are rough fishermen hanging out just out of earshot. This is an encounter with God who will be high and lifted up, not in glory, but on a cross.
Nicodemus doesn’t dream he’s standing in the presence of God. As far as he’s concerned, he’s here to have a nice chat with a visiting rabbi, to talk about some of the intriguing things this new rabbi is doing and teaching.
It’s a confusing talk. Jesus tells Nicodemus that only those who are born from above/again can see the kingdom of God.
What could that mean? Did Jesus say he had to be born from above? Maybe Jesus said born again? The word used there, ‘anothen,’ can mean both “from above” and “again.” How can you be born from above? But how could you be born again? It’s impossible to physically be born again.
Jesus corrects his confusion: “You have to be born from above, born of water and the Spirit to enter the kingdom of God. This is not a second physical birth. This is being born spiritually, born to a new relationship with God. It’s as silly to ask how God does this as it is to think that you can tell where the wind is from and where it goes and control it. This is something beyond you, something of God.”
Nicodemus is stunned. “How can these things be?” The implications are staggering. Born of water and Spirit, born into citizenship of heaven!
Jesus goes on: “Listen to the one who has descended from heaven, and will be lifted up to be salvation for all: This is how God loves the world: The Son was sent to the world, not to judge but to save everyone who bonds with and trusts in the Son.”
This is a God who loves deeply all of creation, even those who have turned their backs on God.
This is a God who loves in action, sending God’s Son to the world.
This is a God who does not judge and condemn, but acts to save and heal.
This is a God who became a part of creation, became human in order to gathers all the world back into God’s arms.
Paul also encounters God high and lifted up – a light shines from heaven and God in the form of Jesus speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus[iii], a light so dazzling that Paul became blind. Paul thought long and hard about his encounter. He saw the implication that Nicodemus missed – that if we are born from above, of water and Spirit, then God has adopted us as children. Not only that, we are heirs with Christ – God has lifted us up to be in relationship with him, to be with us in our suffering and our joys.
This is a God who brings us back into relationship.
This is a God who loves us as the Father loves the Son.
This is a God who generously gives us the same inheritance as the Son.
The whole Bible is full of stories of people who have encountered God and excitedly proclaimed their experience:
This is a God who walked in the Garden with Adam.
This is a God who went on a journey with Abraham.
This is a God who rescued Israel from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness with them.
This is a God who cried over Israel’s disobedience and yearned for their repentance.
This is a God who reached out to the prodigal children of Israel with prophets to proclaim both God’s judgment and God’s grace.
This is a God who came down to us and became one of us.
This is a God who sent the Son to save –not condemn or judge – the world.
This is a God who died as one of us and rose again, making it possible for us to rise again too.
This is a God who adopts us as children and heirs.
This is a God who…. (fill in the story of your encounter with God)
This is Trinity.
"The Trinity is our way of telling the story of how God is at work in the world through Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit."[iv]
[i][i] I heard this story as a child, and don’t remember where I first heard it.
[ii] Exodus 33:18-34:1
[iii] Acts 9:1-8
[iv] Quote taken from conversation thread on the Trinity from the ELCA clergy Facebook page, particularly from Clint Schnekloth’s original post and Chris Repp’s reply.