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By: The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, JD
Perhaps the text from Isaiah is not the preacher’s first choice for Trinity Sunday for the obvious reason that Jesus had yet to make an appearance at the time of writing and would not for quite some time. Having all three “persons” of the Trinity would seem to be a prerequisite if the focus is on this particular designated doctrine. It almost feels like organizers of the lectionary knew they had to include a pericope from the Hebrew Bible, saw Isaiah’s thrice repeated, “Holy, holy, holy” in verse three, and called it close enough to include on this liturgical Sunday!
To be fair, none of the suggested lectionary texts in the Hebrew Bible or New Testament lay out an explicit explanation of the doctrine, in no small measure because the word “Trinity” itself does not appear in Scripture. The reality is that opting to read from one of the gospels or epistles is no guarantee of making Trinity Sunday any easier.
It is at this point that some preachers bail on talking about the Trinity at all (No? Just me?). But I suggest that the Isaiah text is a microcosm of our attempts to speak about experiences of God and the very real feeling of God’s presence in our lives. This was, after all, the purpose of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place, for like other doctrine, “it is not the development of purely intellectual considerations but is also an attempt to express the faith the church experiences in worship.” In other words, when considering doctrine in the most generous light, its purpose is to deepen our spirituality and life of faith beyond a “just the facts, ma’am” approach.
Isaiah’s experience of God, the vision that we read about beginning in chapter 6, is one of those attempts at expressing faith. Some experiences of God were so clear and intense that the prophets try to share them in ways that the reader is invited to see and feel it, too. The prophet Isaiah manages to capture the unimaginable expansiveness and power of God using all of his senses. Whatever happened to Isaiah was a holistic event, felt spiritually and physically. We read of experiences like this from other prophets, including Jeremiah 15:16, where Jeremiah says he “found” and “ate” God’s words, and they became a “joy and delight of my heart.”
Walking line-by-line through Isaiah 6:1-8, we are repeatedly invited to connect with God using all of our senses and holy imagination. While some of the imagery is more easily modernized than others, it is clear that Isaiah is attempting to make real to others his experience of God.
Isaiah’s descriptions remind us of those moments in our own lives when God’s presence is larger-than-life: God’s presence is so large, just the hem of the Lord’s robe fills the temple. Some experiences of the sacred and the holy are so all-encompassing that it can feel like we are only seeing a few strands of the tapestry.
Unfamiliar and strange creatures are part of Isaiah’s vision. Unexpected embodiments of God happen all the time, from the someone panhandling on a street corner to an artistic teenager to elements of nature. Instead of responding with mistrust, cynicism, or trying to rationalize, it may be that we just need to receive the experience with awe and wonder.
The prophet tells us that the scene was a bit hazy, for “the house filled with smoke.” Even if we have never been in a house filled with smoke, most of us have looked through the not-quite-invisible waves that drift in the air after blowing out a candle and noticed how it changes what is seen and unseen. There are some experiences of God and the Christian life that are not yet clear in their meaning to us yet. We may see the path forward as a fuzzy outline, as if obscured by smoke, but we can choose to trust that the Spirit is letting us see just enough that it still requires faith to take the next step.
Even if we struggle to identify with what might seem like over-the-top descriptions in Isaiah, we can use these passages to focus in on experiences of God that are more relatable—concrete, grounded, dirt-under-our-fingernails experiences of God. To circle back to the Trinity, the text with its grand descriptions may actually prompt us to think about the embodiment of God in Jesus as a person who experienced hunger, thirst, grief, and joy—all of which we can relate to.
On this Trinity Sunday, preachers can invite the congregation to think about experiencing God as a holistic event, just like the prophets in the Hebrew Bible did. Our ancestors of faith have always made a sacred effort to express our faith, and Isaiah is just one more example of this work. How might we add to this effort?
 Justo L. Gonzalez. Essential Theological Terms (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2005), pg. 175.
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