The Geography of God

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

It has been said that you can divide people into two groups: those who watch a movie without talking or texting and those who like to think everyone else will want to comment or text while the movie going.  I am proud to say that I am in that first group, the right group, but unfortunately that commitment to silence is not fully shared by Kerry and my daughters.

I am following in the footsteps of my dad, who also believed in avoiding distractions so he could fully enter the movie.  But there was one time where he entered the movie a little too deeply.  One time he was a new engineer in Schenectady, New York, when he went with four co-workers to see a movie in a local movie theater.  In the movie, there was a murder, and the leading man, totally innocent, entered the room, saw the murder room and the gun lying beside the victim, and without thinking rushed over to the body…and you can guess what happens next.  But befre our hero could pick up the gun, my dad helpfully yelled out in the theater, “Don’t pick it up!”  His friends quickly scattered, and he watched the rest of the movie alone.

I bring up that memory, because when it comes to dealing with the Trinity, that is, when it comes to describing the nature of God, one of my favorite preaching professors also calls out, “Don’t pick it up!”  Trying to explain in a sermon the Trinity, that is, that God is at once three persons and yet one God, “is a really, really bad idea,” David Lose writes.  Doctrines may be appropriate for classroom discussions, he explains, but in sermons and in worship, we do not come here for doctrine, or to explain God.  We come here to experience God.  Lose then says, “here’s my rule-of-thumb regarding the Trinity: people who say they understand it aren’t to be trusted.  I mean, well, the Trinity is, quite frankly, more than just a little beyond our comprehension and understanding.”[1]

Today, I am going to pick up the Trinity, but I am going to do it very, very gingerly.  The Trinity is a mystery, and a mystery we will never ultimately solve, but the Trinity is also at the very center of our faith.  We believe that when we speak of the Creator or Father, Jesus Christ or son, and the Holy Spirit, we are speaking of the same God.  They have been united always.  “In the beginning, the Word was with God,” as we learn in John 1.  And, the wind, or Spiri, brings creation into being in Genesis 1.  To see or hear one is to see or hear them all.

That said, we must also say this: the word, “Trinity,” never appears in the Bible.  Instead, that was the word given by the early church to its experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity is how the church tried to make sense of passages such as Isaiah 6, where God refers to “us,” and Romans 8, where Paul refers to “God,” “Father,” “Christ,” and “Spirit.”

So, I want to pick up the Trinity very carefully today, but I do so not to explain a scholarly doctrine.  Instead, I want to explore these passages in Isaiah and Romans and see how they relate to our experience of God, specifically in the area of prayer.  What I would like to do today is explore what one person has called “the geography of God.”[2]

First, God is above us.

Isaiah 6 describes a vision that was strange for Isaiah then, but which sounds even stranger now, nearly 28 centuries later.  At the beginning of chapter 6, Isaiah stands at the entrance of the sacred precincts of the Temple, the inner room where the Ark was kept.  For Jews then, the Temple was understood to be the axis where the heavens met the earth, and this holiest of holy spaces at the center was sometimes thought to be the site of God’s throne.  What Isaiah sees in his vision is the hem of God’s robe, the very bottom of a God who stretches infinitely into the heavens.  God is surrounded by “seraphs,” the “seraphim” we sang about in our opening hymn.  They are six-winged royal attendants surrounding the throne.  In Isaiah’s vision, he can hear them singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”

The very Temple is shaking and smoke abounds.  Isaiah’s response to all of this is an exclamation of awe and dismay: “Woe is me!  I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

What Isaiah 6 declares is that God is above and beyond us.  God is holy, which means that God is wholly other and that God’s ways are not our ways.  Our words to describe or explain God will always fall short.  Our images and analogies for God will never be complete or perfect.

In the face of God’s holiness, Isaiah’s response of humility is entirely appropriate.  Indeed, how can Isaiah respond in any other way?  Before God’s blinding goodness, we cannot help but feel that we are unworthy, because we are so aware of how far short we fall of God’s goodness, wisdom, and love that we are created to reflect.  Praying to such a holy God reminds us that God is not our magical genie, there to give us what we wish for and act according to our agenda and schedule.  God is not here to do our will.  Rather, we are here instead to do God’s will.

But let’s be honest: praying to such a holy God can be intimidating, even terrifying.  Such a God can seem aloof and distant.  Prayer can then seem like the fire extinguisher locked behind glass, or the 911 call, to be used only in the case of true emergencies.  Who can feel very loved or close to the God of Isaiah 6?  The only way to get near to such a God, it would appear, is to climb a ladder from earth to heaven, a very, very long and scary ladder.

Yet in this understanding of the holiness and awesomeness of God, there is also good news and consolation for our souls.  In the face of all of the formidable forces of sin, greed, and evil in the world, we need a holy and powerful God who is greater than any force or power for evil.  We need a God who can deliver true justice and true peace.  When we pray for our lives, or the lives of others, to be held in the hands of God, we need those hands to be awesome and powerful, hands that will not let us go, no matter what might come our way.

God is a holy God, beyond our knowing.  Far, far above us.

To say that God is above us, however, is to speak of only one dimension.  God is also beside us.

This is where the God of the Trinity, the God of the Bible, often departs from popular images and conceptions of God.  As Michael Lindvall writes, the god that many people carry around in their heads is “a remote, uninvolved, and unknowable Deity.  [In contrast,] the story of God in the Bible is of a Being passionate and tireless in pursuit of a relationship” with humanity.[3]  We get a glimpse of that pursuit in Isaiah 6.  Instead of striking Isaiah dead on the spot, or banishing him, because of his sin and lack of purity, God sends a seraph with a coal to cleanse Isaiah, to make him worthy to stand in God’s presence.  And then, God gives Isaiah a divine mission.

This gesture is a foreshadowing of what will later be revealed in Jesus Christ.  In Christ, God moves towards us, comes beside us.  In Christ, we see most fully and completely God’s passionate and tireless pursuit of a relationship with us.  The Word becomes flesh in Christ so that we can better understand God and God’s love for us.  On the cross, we see the cost God is willing to pay, the lengths that God will go for our sake.  And in the resurrection, we see that God has crossed every distance and overcome every obstacle that stands in the way and separates us from God and God’s love.  Indeed, as Paul proclaims in the astonishing words of Romans 8, we are not merely servants in the household of God.  Through Christ, we have been adopted.  We are children of God, siblings of Jesus Christ, heirs of God as Christ is God’s heir.  We can be confident of God’s love for us.

Sometimes, when it comes to prayer, we can feel like we are little children tugging on our parents’ clothes to get their attention.  But when we pray to the God we encounter beside us in Jesus Christ, we find that God is always already paying attention to us.  Indeed, God delights in us and is as eager as any parent welcoming a child home from college is to be in conversation with us.

God loves us.  We do not have to leave our world to find God; we don’t have to climb up an impossibly long ladder to reach God.  Instead, in Jesus Christ, God has already jumped down into our world.  So, when we pray for our days in the morning, or when we pray about a difficult meeting or relationship, we can pray with the assurance that Christ, will be at our side to help us.  We never have to carry our burdens alone.

God is above us and God is beside us.  Those are two dimensions of God’s being – but even two dimensions are not enough to convey the geography of God.  For Romans 8 also declares this: God is within us.

The Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, works within us, bearing witness that we are the children of God, Paul writes to the Romans.  The Spirit gives us a power from within, the very same power that raised Christ form the dead.  Think about that, as was said last week, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is within us.

That is amazing enough, but Paul does not end there.  Instead, he goes on to say this about the Holy Spirit: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know hot to pray as we ought, but that very Sirit intercedes with sights too deep for words.”

God knows us from the inside out.  There is no reason not to be honest in our prayers.  Relationships thrive on honesty, but there is always a limit to how much honesty another human being can absorb from us.  But with God, there is no limit.  There is no need to sugarcoat what we are anxious about; there is no need to hide what we are truly feeling, or what we have done.  God can take it all, even our deepest fears or greatest anger.  Because whatever we want to put in words is no surprise to God.

What’s even better, what God knows is not limited to what we can put into words.  God also knows that which is to deep for words, that which we may not yet consciously realize.  This is what it means to say that the Spirit of God intercedes for us.

We often think of prayer as the conversation we initiate.  But Paul says here is that prayer is something that God initiates.  As one writer on prayer puts it, “in prayer, we are never ‘getting a conversation going’ with God.  We are continuing a conversation which God has already begun.”[4]

The question then is not whether God is paying attention to us.  God is always paying attention to us because that is the way God is.  No, the question is: are we paying attention to God?  Prayer is speaking – but prayer is also listening – listening to God through the words of Scripture, through the words of others, through the words of creation, and sometimes, through the thoughts, fears, desires, and dreams that bubble up form the deepest depths of our heart.  That is God’s Spirit at work.

One time someone asked me, “When you pray, who do you pray to?  Do you pray to the Father, or Jesus, or the Holy Spirit?”  I answered “yes!” 

Sometimes we become aware of the holiness of God far beyond us in power and glory and light.  Sometimes we draw near to the one walking or sitting beside us.  Sometimes, we center on the movement within us, as light, or breath, or fire, or wind – all ways the Scriptures speak of the presence of God’s Spirit.  It all depends.  These three dimensions are not separate or distinct, but are fused as one.  It is only our finite awareness that separates and distinguishes them.

Above, beside, within – we are surrounded by a God who can never be controlled or explained by us.  There is always a mystery and holiness of God that demands our humility.  Above, beside, within – we are also surrounded by a God who is always reaching out to us in love, because God’s most fervent desire is to love and be in relationship with us.  We worship and pray to a three-dimensional God.  Look at God through only one dimension, and we miss out on something important.  Look for God in only one place, and we may be blinded to how God is working in our lives for good.

Yet even three dimensions are not enough to express the wonder, love, and grace of the triune God who picks us up and holds us carefully.

But for now, this side of heaven, three dimensions will have to do.


[1] David Lose, “Divine Relationship,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post+1617.

[2] Michael Lindvall, The Christian Life: A Geography of God (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2001), 45.

[3] Lindvall, 46.

[4] Martin L. Smith, The Word is Very Near You (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1989), 18.