Trying to Pin Down the Experience of God
A sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 & Romans 8:12-17 by Nathan Nettleton, 18th June 2000
You cant define or dictate how people will experience God, even within the service of worship.
Today, being our church anniversary, is one of those occasions that give us cause to remember and give thanks for those who have gone before us and passed on the flame of faith to us. Today is also the day in the church year known as Trinity Sunday, and I think it would be fair to say that of all the understandings that our forebears have passed down to us, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most quirky and one of the most difficult. Difficult that is, if youre trying to explain it. And explaining it is what preachers seem to have traditionally felt obliged to try and do on Trinity Sunday, and Ive done that myself before, but now Im wondering if there is really much point. ... in explaining it, that is. Maybe the Trinity the understanding that our one God is in fact a union of three persons usually designated as Father, Son and Holy Spirit maybe the Trinity is not so much something you need to get your head around as something you experience in your relationship with God. And maybe if you really experience it then the explanation will seem rather unnecessary, a bit like trying to explain why you fell in love. And on the other hand, if you dont experience it, then explanations will probably be nothing but hot air.
One of the reasons that the doctrine of the Trinity emerged is because human experience of God is so diverse. So diverse that it seemed that all these different experiences couldnt all relate to the one God. There must be more than one of God. That is by no means the only reason for the doctrine or the full extent of its meaning, but if the Trinity is first and foremost about the way we experience God then its not a bad place to start. What is the experience of God like? When people encounter God, what happens?
The scripture readings we have heard read tonight illustrate something of the spectrum of diverse answers to those questions. In the first reading we heard the prophet Isaiah telling of his vision of the Lord, during which he found himself commissioned to be a prophet. It is an awesome, even terrifying, vision. God, seated on an enormous high throne, dwarfs everything on earth. God is surrounded by Seraphim, bizarre and wondrous creatures who call out constantly in the words of worship, declaring God to be Holy! Holy! Holy! And how does this vision affect Isaiah? Well, he immediately assumes that hes cactus. His numbers up. He feels like hes experiencing a nuclear explosion from its epicentre - an exhilarating experience but one that you know is going to be your last. Why does he feel like that? Well, the vision makes Isaiah horribly conscious of his own sinfulness and he is suddenly confronted with such awesome holiness that he assumes that it can only burn him up like a feather in a furnace. And in his vision the refining fire is indeed brought to him, in the form of a coal from the altar, but instead of consuming him he is refined by it, cleansed of his sinfulness and commissioned to be Gods messenger.
The extract we heard from Pauls letter to the Romans gave us an example from the other end of the spectrum of experience of God. Paul speaks of us being adopted as beloved children into Gods family. He compares our experience of God to a toddler running eagerly to its parents yelling Daddy! Mummy! This Daddy cry is interesting, because although Paul writes in Greek, he brings in a Hebrew word here, the word Abba which Jesus used of God. I never quite understood how radical that was until I was standing in a bank queue one day and I saw a little kid, maybe about four years old, running up to a big Jewish grandfather yelling Abba! Abba! This verse in Romans 8 was illustrated before my very eyes. Paul is saying that with God we can be just like that little kid - excited and joyous and totally confident that we will be gathered up in big warm loving arms and hear the words, I love you, my child.
So who was right, Isaiah or Paul? Which experience of God is the more real, the more true to who God is? Maybe its both. Maybe you cant pin the experience of God down and predict how God is going to be encountered at any given time. And maybe we see the same thing in the way people encountered Jesus. You see the central Christian teaching about Jesus is not just that hes one of the three in the Trinity, but that Jesus is the fullest revelation of God we are ever going to have on this planet. If youve seen me, Jesus said, youve seen the Father. Its not that we read Jesus according to some pre-existing idea of what God is like, it is that we work out what God is like on the basis of what we have seen in Jesus. And isnt it the case that we see an Isaiah to Paul type range of responses to Jesus?
The first time Simon Peter met Jesus he reacted pretty much the same as Isaiah. He fell to his knees and said, Get away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man! He felt like he was naked and way too close to the fire, and like if he didnt get some distance he just might not survive the experience. And yet, on the other hand, there was a woman who apparently had every reason to feel herself a sinner, who when she first encountered Jesus she walked into the middle of a respectable dinner party and fell down crying and began massaging his feet. Neither Isaiah nor Simon Peter felt inspired to offer a foot massage when they encountered the Holy One. Sounds to me like this woman would have related much more to Pauls image of big loving arms that you could hide in and know you were safe.
You see, our experience of God is not only determined by who God is, but by who we are and to how we react in Gods presence. Were all so different. I know that sometimes when Ive been talking with Clare about her experiences of God I almost feel jealous. Her experience seems so much more intimate than mine. I feel like God leads her by the hand and me with a stick. But then as many of you have found out, if youre trying to get me to go somewhere that I wasnt already going to go, it takes a bloody big stick. So the differences in our experiences are not that one of us is right and one wrong, or that were dealing with different Gods; its just that Clares not nearly as belligerent and pig-headed as me.
In our gospel reading, Jesus described the Spirit as being as unpredictable and uncontrollable as the wind. You cant pin the experience of the Spirit down or measure it against someone elses and declare it to be better or worse. Thats one of the reasons we have the sermon of silence in our worship. Different people will experience even the structured parts of our liturgy differently, but in the silence we remove virtually all the controls and prompts. In that space, two people sitting right next to each other can be having vastly different experiences of God. Isaiah, or Paul, or something in between. One can be experiencing God as a comforting fire, another as a needling reminder, another as a desert, an aching loneliness, or still another as just the uncomfortable wish to be able to pray. And those vastly different experiences come with us as we come to the table and shape the way we encounter God there. Some of us come skipping joyfully, eager to receive the goodies that Daddy God wants to share with them. Others come staggering on bended knee, awe struck by the magnitude of what is about to be put into their hands. Others will come uncertainly, vaguely hungering for God but not sure how to express it. And no one is more right that the others. All are responding to God out of the integrity of their own experience and all faithful responses are pathways into a deeper and wider experience of God.
I dont much care what you make of the various theories or explanations of the Trinity. The Trinity is not a puzzle to be solved, but a relationship to be lived. And as our forebears would tell us and as all of you who have encountered God more than once know, there is far too much of God to be contained in any one theory or any one experience.