When I was a teenager, I went to quite a few dances. It was so easy going to dances back in the 60s. All you had to do was stand up and kind of move a little bit. Do you remember? I danced all the classics. I thought I was a pro. I danced the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Hokey Pokey—all those dances that many of you danced, too, except you don’t want to admit it or remember it right now.
Then I got to college and got married, and one day, shortly after we had gotten married, a group at the university put on a ball—not just a dance—a ball. We got an invitation, and my new bride said we were going. So, I said, “Wonderful, we’ll go to the ball.”
On the morning of the ball, she set out her best dress, and I got out my coat and tie so we’d be ready for the evening…but as I was getting ready to go off to class, she said, “Steve, you do know how to dance, don’t you?”
I said, “Let me tell you about the Mashed Potato!”
She said, “No, you do know how really to dance don’t you?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “That’s what I thought.”
So she told me to come home early that afternoon, and when I got back to the apartment she had pushed the furniture up against the walls. We then spent the next two hours with her teaching me some steps: the waltz and some other dances so I would know at least something.
We got all dressed up and went to the campus that evening. They had cleared the floor of the arena, and there were all these beautiful young women and men, and they actually were touching each other, moving with such symmetry, with such rhythm, grace and beauty that I was stunned. I just stood there looking when we first walked in, with my jaw dropped open in surprise. Then I was so glad I had learned at least a little bit—and was going to be able to enter the dance.
Today, I’d like to think with you about what C.S. Lewis called “a kind of dance,”1 the dance in the heart of God: the dance at the heart of the universe, the great dance to which each one of us is invited in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Wasn’t it interesting to hear the words of Jesus in John 17:1-5? It was the last night before He went to the cross, and with His disciples listening, He’s praying. Part of it we understand. “Father,” Jesus says, “You have given Me authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom You have given Me.” We get that. Jesus has authority to save. Have you ever stopped and really thought about the other things Jesus was saying in this passage? All those glorifies?
“Father…glorify Your Son so the Son may glorify You…I glorified You on earth by finishing the work You gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory that I had in Your presence before the world existed.”
Say what? Right at this point, modern readers usually tune out and tend to read these as flowery, poetic words that sound beautiful, but which we aren’t really supposed to understand. However, it was right at this point that the early Christians said Jesus was trying to teach His disciples something very important that we all need to understand, something that became known as the doctrine of the Trinity.
Friends, for the next couple of minutes I want to talk some theology with you. I’m going to look at some pretty deep ideas with you, and then we’re going to get very practical about how they apply. However, for just a few moments I want to ask you to stay with me as we discuss some seemingly abstract insights, because they are crucially important. People are dying all over the earth in defense of these ideas, and too many modern Christians are weaker than we think when it comes to the marketplace of ideas and the interaction of world religions because we never have understood these ideas.
The early Christians believed that in Jesus Christ they experienced the heart of God. They had heard Jesus’ teaching, seen Him crucified, poured out in love for them, and then seen Him physically resurrected. To try to help others understand what it means to talk about the heart of God accurately and completely, the early church lifted up the idea of the Trinity: one God in three Persons. They did not mean three separate gods. We use person to mean “a separate individual,” but that’s not what they meant—not three separate gods and yet also not a god who is simply a unity in and of Himself.
Now, why would they lift up the Trinity: one God in three Persons?
Well, in the first place, because that was how they experienced God. They experienced God the Creator. They experienced God the Son. They were absolutely convinced Jesus was God, not just a good man, not just a great teacher. He was all those, but He was qualitatively more than that. They experienced God the Spirit, God working through them on this earth as they lived in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In addition, they assumed God probably is more complicated than we are. I think there is a certain humility involved in the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of us here are more complicated than an amoeba. If we’re more complicated than an amoeba, it’s probably accurate to guess God is more complicated than we are. So, just because something about God blows our mental circuits doesn’t mean we’re way out in left field.
They had experienced God in three ways, and they understood in humility that God is vast and subsequently more complicated than we are. They listened as Jesus spoke. They did not write His words off as pretty poetry but actually tried to understand what He was saying.
If you’ve not done this, go home this evening and read John 16 and 17. Turn off the television. Read it slowly to yourself and think about it. Don’t think of these two chapters as just pretty words. Think of Jesus, God in the flesh, trying to explain something to His followers that was very difficult, but that He thought important enough at least to try to give them a feel for a very large truth. He said, in effect, “The Son glorifies the Father. The Father glorifies the Son. The Spirit glorifies them both, and they both glorify the Spirit. All of this has been going on since before time began.”
Now, glorify means “to extol, to honor, to serve, to pour yourself out, to give yourself for something or someone.” When I glorify you, it means I seek your ultimate happiness and sacrifice my own. I care not about myself. I am focusing on you. I am reaching out to you. Think of that picture: the Father reaching out to the Son and the Spirit, the Son and the Spirit reaching out to the Father, all of them reaching out to the others. What happens? You almost begin to get the feel of a dance, don’t you?
What happens when three people are reaching out to each other, each one seeking the others’ benefit, each one seeking to lift up the others, each one circling around and caring for the others? You begin to get the sense of a dance, a three-way dance of the three Persons of God. In fact, when the early church tried to describe this, the people called it perichoresis from which we get the word choreography.
The early Christians wanted to say that when you think about God—and we all think about God, including people who don’t believe in God think about God—when you think about God, don’t visualize God just sitting there as a unity with nothing going on inside. Think, rather, of a glorious dance of love, joy and self-giving grace, a movement and energy in the very heart of God from which has come all creation and to which He would invite us through the Lord Jesus Christ.
That was the idea of the Trinity. You see it throughout Jesus’ teaching. For example, in Matthew 28:19, how does He give the Great Commission? “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” You also see the Trinity implicit elsewhere in the Bible. Look at the very beginning in Genesis 1:1-3. How does the Bible start? With God. What happens? The Spirit moves over the face of the deep. How does God create? He speaks, and through His Word, creates. Another term for Jesus, the Son of God, is the Word of God.
The more you look, the more pervasive you discover the idea of the Trinity to be in our faith, but at this point you may be sitting there thinking, “Come on, Steve. I’m tired of this. This is so hard to explain. Why do we want to think about it?” You need to think about this because, as Dr. Tim Keller2 has pointed out, the way you visualize God in and of Himself actually impacts for better or worse the way you act, the way you think about other things, and who you are as a person.
Let me show you what I mean. Visualize God apart from creation. You are sitting in a room, and you’ve got to come up with adjectives. How would you describe God before the universe was created? Most people use words such as all-powerful, all-knowing, majestic, sovereign, righteous. We use words referring to size, power and holiness.
Yet what was the number-one thing Christians saw? Love. They saw Jesus poured out for us on the cross. Power? You bet—power over death itself, over everything—but power without love is brutal, cold and distant. What they saw in Christ was not only power, but a depth of love on the cross that they never got over and never wanted to get over, a love they believed was showing them the very heart of God. The problem is that when you think of God in and of Himself as a unity, you tend not to think of love, because love only makes sense if there is another to be loved. Yet if God is a unity, then apart from creation, love has no intrinsic part in His makeup, because before creation there was nothing to be loved.
In fact, people instinctively understand this and will talk about God creating us in order to cure His own loneliness. Have you heard people say, “God created the world so He would have something to love?” That’s a bunch of hooey as far as I’m concerned. God created us because He was deficient? No!
The early Christians gave us a better way of thinking about it. They said love is the very essence of God, and they could say this with confidence because Jesus had helped them understand the way the Father, Son and Spirit had been pouring themselves out in love since before time began. So, when you think of God, don’t think of somebody sitting over there static, still and powerful, but with no use for the power. Think instead of a giant, glorious movement, energy, dance and fountain of love shared among the Father, Son and Spirit. Can you understand all that that means? No, but you’ll be closer to the truth than if you think of God as some static, powerful thing; because power is important, but power alone does not save.
The Trinity…as you think about it, it has significant implications. In the first place, as we have seen, it changes the way you think about God. That’s important.
We all know there’s an enormous conversation going on between our Muslim friends and Christianity. It’s happening all over the world, and there is much conflict. Many people will talk about these disagreements, but most miss the deep disagreement that exists between Islam and Christianity, namely over the nature of God. That disagreement is central.3
For example, there are many points of contact and agreement between our faiths. If you are a Muslim and you say the Islamic Rosary, as you go through the 99 beads, you will recite the 99 beautiful names for God. Christians can affirm almost every one of those names. If you are a proper Muslim, there is one name you never can use for God, and that is the one name Jesus told us to use first: father. If you are a proper Muslim, you reject the Trinity, and you reject the divinity of Jesus. The God you have been taught to worship is strong, honored, just and distant; the word Father implies such intimacy and personal interaction as to be blasphemous. This is why, when Bilquis Sheikh, a Pakistani woman born of nobility, became a Christian and wrote of her spiritual journey, she titled the book I Dared to Call Him Father.4
Now, my purpose is not to criticize our Muslim friends. We have Muslims who watch us on television on Sunday morning. My purpose is to be clear with them, with you, and with everyone who can hear my voice that the idea of a personal God was not something a group of people in first century Palestine just sat around in a circle and decided to come up with. It came from a personal experience with the atoning death of Jesus Christ who actually was raised from the tomb so He might come back and, in effect, say, “As you have seen Me, you have seen God.”
Understanding that, when you think of God, you are to think of One so passionately in love with you that He would stretch His hands out on a cross and die for you. You are to think of One who would be so personally and intimately in love with you and involved in your life that He would be as a Father with a child, as a Savior with a sinner, as a Spirit filling your heart.
If you hear nothing else I say this morning, please remember that if you will give that God half a chance, He will bring His love in an intimate and personal way into your life with transforming and saving grace as you are willing to stand strong and accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior.
The Trinity…with this concept we begin to get a better sense of God. When you think about it, with that sense of who God is in His heart, we also begin to get a better sense of heaven, don’t we?
I mean, as you begin to think of the heart of God being filled with a glorious dance which has existed for all eternity and will exist to all eternity, then just think: When you die and leave this earth and go to eternity, where do you think you are going to be? In the dance, right? Doesn’t that tell you something about heaven?
Both of my daughters are outstanding dancers. They feel so sorry for their mother because she is, also…but she is married to me. They especially love to dance to 1940s swing music. For all of you in the greatest generation, my daughters would say that title for your generation is accurate. You fought the greatest war, you built the greatest nation, and you had the greatest music. They love 1940s swing, and they have helped me understand some things about dancing, at least in terms of that style.
The job of the woman is to be very attentive to the direction of the man, to try to intuit every motion, every move of his hand, every sense of his feet, so she can follow his direction. The job of the man is to make the woman look wonderful and give her the time of her life. It is the glory of the woman to be so led by the man that they become a seamless whole. It is the glory of the man to guide her so perfectly that she is the star of the show and everybody marvels at how beautiful she is. The glory of each is the success of the other.
It begins to sounds heavenly, doesn’t it? All right, not if you’re dancing with me; but if you really know what you’re doing, it can sound heavenly.
Do you remember when Jesus told His followers to wash each other’s feet? What do you think He was talking about? I think He was talking about giving glory to the other. Isn’t heaven going to be a place where we are caught up in an enormous, glorious dance that has been going on since before time began—a dance in which the Father, Son and Spirit gather us in, millions of us, each one of us being lifted higher and higher because of all the people lifting us and each one of us stooping lower and lower to lift them up, all of us together growing higher and becoming more marvelous than we ever could have imagined, because glory shared is multiplied? This may not make economic sense, but it makes spiritual sense.
The Trinity…with Him we understand a bit more clearly our God. We understand a bit more clearly our future in heaven. As you think about it, we also understand a bit more clearly how we are to spend our time on this earth, because what it means to leave this earth and go into eternity is to join the great and glorious dance, so at some point on this earth we need to learn a few steps. Right? We need to learn a few steps if we’re going to become the kind of people who actually can enter the dance awaiting us.
That’s what I was thinking when we got to that ball back in college. I said, “Oh my goodness. I am so glad Karin insisted that I learn a few steps.” I submit to you, sisters and brothers, that much of what the Bible has to teach us is ultimately about becoming the kind of people who can enter the dance waiting on the other side of death, which will be the beginning of our true lives. To do that, it always helps to remember the dance God has in mind has much less to do with the movement of our feet than the attitude of our hearts.
Bishop Earl Hunt told a story once I never have forgotten. It was about a physician who told of a transforming experience he had when he was a young doctor just starting his career. He was going to check on a patient who lived in a rather rundown apartment community. He pulled the car up to the curb and got out to go up the apartment. A little boy was there bouncing a ball on the sidewalk, and the little boy said, “Man, that’s a nice car, Sir. Where did you get that car?”
The doctor stumbled a bit in answering, because his brother, who was older than him, owned a car dealership. They had worked out a deal in which the doctor would take care of the brother and his family for free, and the brother on a regular basis would give the doctor a car. It worked for both of them.
So the doctor started to try to explain and said, “Well, my brother gave me this car…” but before he could go on, the little boy said, “Your brother gave you that car?” “Yes, you see, we have this arrangement…” The little boy said again, “Your brother gave you that car?” “Yes,” and before the doctor could say anymore, the little boy said, “Would you wait right here?” Then before the doctor could answer, the little boy went tearing off around the corner.
The doctor didn’t have much time. He didn’t really want to wait, but there went the little boy, and the doctor didn’t know what to do. He kept looking at his watch, and after a few minutes the boy came back around the corner. He was pulling a wagon and in the wagon was another little boy, smaller than him, clearly younger than him. The little boy in the wagon had legs withered from the waist down.
The older boy came pulling that wagon around with the younger boy in it, sitting there with his withered legs. The older boy came pulling that little boy right up next to the car and said, “Joey! Do you see that car, that shiny nice car? His brother gave him that car! Joey, I promise you that when we get older, that’s the kind of brother I’m going to be for you.”
In telling the story the doctor got very quiet for a moment and then he said, “Years have passed since that happened, but I believe God has used that experience to keep me in His will and in His love. Because every time I have a decision to make with my practice, my family, my friends or with anything, I keep saying, ‘God, that little boy pulling the wagon, that’s the kind of brother I want to be!’”
Friends, there is a dance that’s been going on since before time began, and the only ones who ultimately know the proper steps have the proper hearts. Let me ask: What kind of sister or brother do you want to be?
1 C.S. Lewis, “The Good Infection,” Mere Christianity (San Francisc Harper Collins, 2001)
2 Tim Keller, Chapter 14, The Reason for God (N.Y., N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2008)
3 Timothy George, Chapter 4, Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammed? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)
4 Bilamis Sheikh, I Dared to Call Him Father (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 1978)