Sermon: Big Ideas (Holy Trinity, 2012)

Preached 6/3/2012 – Holy Trinity

In 2011, VeggieTales co-creator and former owner of Big Idea Productions, Paul Vischer was interviewed by World Magazine.

Through the VeggieTales, Viescher was pursuing his BigIdea dream. The once popular childrens characters were bringing in millions of dollars for his company. But in 2003, the company that at the time defined Christian Children’s Entertainment went bankrupt. Vischer lost his Big Idea as well as any creative control over Bob, Larry and the rest of the boisterous veggies.

In the wake of it, he realized something. He says:

I looked back at the previous 10 years and realized I had spent 10 years trying to convince kids to behave Christianly without actually teaching them Christianity. And that was a pretty serious conviction. You can say, “Hey kids, be more forgiving because the Bible says so,” or “Hey kids, be more kind because the Bible says so!” But that isn’t Christianity, it’s morality.

Paul Vischer’s comments reminded me in a haunting way about something I read by Jim Bakker. You remember Jim Bakker – the wildly successful TV Evangelist of the 1980’s who with his wife, Tammy Fae had a flourishing ministry. Before all the allegations of wrong-doing surfaced, I watched him semi-regularly when I was growing up. Fortunately for me and my faith, my parents brought me if not frequently, at least regularly to a good church. And on those Sunday mornings that we attended, I heard true Gospel preaching of repentance and faith. And for at least an hour every few weeks, I was like a teabag in water. I was made to steep in Scripture and the teachings of the Bible through the readings – not taking a verse here or there out of context, but given liberal doses of Scripture. I had that word placed into my mouth in the form of spoken responses and hymns I learned the creeds and the liturgy so that my faith wasn’t merely a title I applied to myself – it became part of me.

As a result, when I listened to Jim Bakker, I sensed that what he taught just didn’t seem right somehow. Oh, it gave me a lot of hope and warm fuzzies deep down inside, but it was always a little “off”. It wouldn’t be until much later that I would be equipped to explain what was wrong in his preaching – but even at a young age, I knew that their words somehow didn’t ring true.

Today Jim Bakker has renounced his false teachings of the past. In prison, he was devastated to find out that He had unwittingly, but truly, deceived many with his false teaching.

In his autobiography, “I Was Wrong,” in a chapter sharing that title, Bakker writes:

I may not always have been so blatant about it, but I often preached a prosperity message at Heritage USA and on our PTL television programs. But when I began to study the Scriptures in depth while in prison, something I am embarassed and ashamed to admit that I rarely took time to do during the hectic years of constant building and ministering at PTL, I was very distressed at what I discovered. I realized that for years I helped propagate an impostor, not a true gospel, but another gospel – a gospel that stated “God wants you to be rich!” Christians should have the best because we are children of God, “King’s Kids,” as I often put it. And shouldn’t the King’s kids have the best this world had to offer?

The more I studied the Bible, however, I had to admit that the prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of Scripture. My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray. I was appalled that I could have been so wrong, and I was deeply grateful that God had not struck me dead as a false prophet!

Although at first glance it may not appear so, Vischer and Bakker are testimonies to the mercy and grace of our God. Though the process was painful and difficult for them both personally, God was able to get their attention. God brought them to repentance so they would not face the eternal consequences of their bad theology. In the mean time, they will have to live with the knowledge that their choices and actions – the errors of their teaching – have overthrown the faith of some,

We can see here real world examples of our Gospel lesson a few weeks ago when Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, . .” Jim Bakker’s PTL and Paul Vischer’s VeggieTales, though they were done in Christ’s Name, were carried away because they could not bear fruit. By their own admission, they did not convey the Word of Truth – they held a different Gospel – they did not preach Christ and the central truths of the faith. We can be grateful that the Lord dealt mercifully with them and gave them the ability to see the error of their ways, but the deed is done.

A little leaven leavens the lump, says Jesus. And St. Paul says that the idle babble of false teachers “will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.” We can see that this has happened in America – where over the last 30 years or so, the Christian faith has been completely redefined.

In the interview with Paul Vischer, He describes what passes for Christianity in America this way:

We’re drinking a cocktail that’s a mix of the Protestant work ethic, the American dream, and the gospel. And we’ve intertwined them so completely that we can’t tell them apart anymore. Our gospel has become a gospel of following your dreams and being good so God will make all your dreams come true. It’s the Oprah god.

I should mention as an aside that Oprah has more than once renounced her Christian faith in public when her TV show was airing. So if we’re learning about Oprah’s so called “god” we aren’t learning about the God of the Bible – the One God who has revealed Himself as a Trinity of Three divine persons – the Father who sent the Son to redeem the world and then poured out His Holy Spirit so that we might believe and trust in the salvation He has accomplished – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

St. Paul, in the second letter to Timothy tells the young pastor, “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me.” (2 Timothy 1:13) St. Paul goes on to tell of two teachers who did not follow the pattern of sound words – and as a consequence shipwrecked not only their own faith, but through their false teaching had upset the faith of others through confusion.

It’s important to point out that neither Vischer nor Bakker actually DENIED the central tenets of Christianity. They simply side-stepped them. They ran out ahead – or beyond – the primary teachings of Scripture. Though they didn’t renounce them, they also didn’t teach them. Instead they spoke of things that scratched itching ears. Bakker preached a different hope than the eternal joys of heaven that shall be ours because of what Jesus has accomplished for us on the cross. Instead, He preached that our salvation in Jesus means health, wealth and prosperity here and now – even though Jesus preached about the persecution and loss believers will face. Vischer, through the lips of his hyper-helium-voiced veggies preached that Christianity was all about being good people here and now – all the while ignoring our need for God’s grace and mercy. Setting aside that God loves us by redeeming us in Christ. Leaving out how in Christ we are forgiven for all those times when we haven’t lived up to what we have learned applied to our life today. God has a lot more to say in His book than He wants you to be good.

Neither of them denied the Trinity or the Cross of Christ, they just treated these things as unimportant. Instead, they babbled meaninglessly about the things we covet and desire – wealth, happiness, success, high self-esteem – and how good we are or can become on our own – without Jesus and without the gift of God’s Holy Spirit working in us to will and do what is right.

Vischer’s success redefined Christianity in the minds of children and young parents alike – after all, if you are firmly convinced at what the Tomato and Cucumber say – that, “God made you special and He loves you very much” there is no reason to be born again from above, even if Jesus says it is necessary. In fact, through those seemingly innocuous words spoken by salad vegetables, any mention of sin and guilt seems completely out of place. And faith in Christ becomes useless and pointless. Ah, the subleties of the devils wiles.

Likewise, Jim Bakker’s success helped to spawn a whole generation of TV evangelists and preachers – public speakers – and others who peddle a completely different Gospel from the one taught by Holy Scripture. I can’t deny that some of what people like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and others say is true – even the demons cried out and testified to Jesus – calling Him the Holy One of God.

While it is true that God made each of us special – and Scripture is clear, he does love us very much. But He doesn’t love us by telling us how to be good people or promising us health, wealth and prosperity. He loved us by sending His Holy Son into the world to die because we are sinners. He pours out that love into our hearts through His Holy Spirit in the Water and the Word so that we may believe in the work of Christ and be saved from our ignorance and our foolishness. His love bought us back – redeemed us from our disobedience and rebellion. But that’s not what the perky pickle meant – and it’s not something you commonly hear from many so-called Christian preachers.

Vischer and Bakker could have avoided much heartache and pain by heeding St. Paul’s words. The Veggie Tale franchise no doubt would not have grown as popular if it had stuck to the scriptures, it may still even have gone bankrupt – but its founder would not be carrying such a burden of guilt and shame. Whether or not his ministry grew, and whether or not he was able to avoid the temptations that come with success and wealth, Bakker could have avoided the pain and guilt he continues to experience knowing that his false teaching has led people astray.

Instead, Vischer and Bakker went beyond these basic teachings.

It was just such a circumstance that caused St. John to write the words we heard a couple of weeks ago:
Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God; whoever continues in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work.

Likewise, St. Paul warned the young pastor Timothy urging Him to, “Follow the pattern of the sound words you have heard from me in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 2:13)

We can see here that the Apostolic teaching sets the standard for what is to be preached. It isn’t a free-for-all. “Follow the pattern of the sound words,” says Paul. It is admonitions like these that led the church very, very early in her history, to the develop creeds and confessions.

No true creed claims to define the faith – they shouldn’t be read and understood to set down dogma that must be believed. Rather, they are a summary of Scripture – a testimony to what God in Holy Scripture has said is true. The creeds merely speak what Scripture speaks using different words – they summarize and consolidate the teachings handed down by Jesus through the Apostles.

Such is the case with the creed we spoke earlier today. Now, I will be one of the first to admit – the teaching of the Holy Trinity is not something we can understand. I’m a bit partial to the old wording which instead of the word “infinite” uses the word “incomprehensible.” —– “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.” and “there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.” And to a large extent, that about sums it up.

The truths of the Kingdom of God are not things that we can verify or test with our finite experience. Jesus, Himself, says as much when He says in our Gospel lesson, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” Without the rebirth brought to us by the Holy Spirit, it is impossible that we can believe the truth revealed to us by God. The only choice we have is to reject them. And we will reject them, unless God brings us to faith and convinces us they are true.

We don’t care to admit it, but we are very much like Nicodemus. Though our culture and even the culture of Generic Christianity in America claim we have an absolute capacity to know and understand all truth – when we really consider it, we realize that we cannot fully understand even earthly things – just look at how good science is at predicting the weather. The wind blows where it may and you hear its sound – but you don’t know where it’s going or where it comes from, Jesus says. If we have such a difficult time understanding even earthly things, we certainly should not expect to comprehend the divine realities. But that doesn’t mean we cannot claim them to be true. To drive my car, I don’t need to understand the inner workings of the internal combustion engine. I simply need to know that I put gas in this end, turn the key, put it in gear, and step on the accelerator.

But even if we cannot comprehend how God can be One God and yet Three persons but not three separate Gods, that doesn’t mean it isn’t so. The fact is, Scripture teaches this very truth:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!” also “I am THE GOD of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” not “We are the gods of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Christians are NOT tri-theists. We do not believe in three Gods. Yet, Scripture also teaches that this one God exists as three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus teach us that the Triune God works together as a team to bring salvation to us. It is as though each member of the Trinity takes the lead role in a given part of our salvation. Then the other members of the Trinity support the lead in all He does.

We speak of God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth. This means that God the Father takes the lead in creating all things including the human race. At the same time the Holy Spirit inspired John the Apostle to speak of Jesus and write, [John 1:3] “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” From these words we learn that the Son of God had a role in the creative process. And of course, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in Genesis.

We speak of God the Son as the redeemer. This means that God the Son takes the lead in the work of redemption. At the same time, today’s Gospel tells us, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So we see that it is God the Father who gives God the Son to be our savior.
We speak of God the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier. This means that the Holy Spirit is the one who makes us holy in the sight of God. He does this by delivering forgiveness and working faith in us by means of the Gospel. At the same time, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to tell us that His Gospel dealt with [Acts 1:1] all that Jesus began to do and teach. These words teach us that Jesus continued to do and teach even after He ascended into heaven.

So although the word “Trinity” doesn’t exist in Holy Scripture, the teaching of the Trinity is clearly found there. And that highlights the true purpose and value of creeds and confessions of faith. They show the contours of the truths taught in Scripture. The creeds are like a quick-start guide to the faith or we might say they serve as a “cliffs notes” version of the Scriptures.

They are also a Readers Digest version of the great debates in Christian history because the creeds contain the things that someone, sometime, has misunderstood or gotten wrong and led others astray from the faith by teaching contrary to Scripture. In reality, there are no new heresies or false teachings – just warmed-over arguments from the past. Therefore, the creeds show us the boundaries between truth and falsehood. They paint bright lines so that we can quickly judge whether or not what is being said lines up with Scripture.

This doesn’t mean that the creeds themselves can’t be misunderstood.

For example, because of changes in word usage over time, some may hear, “whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith” and wonder if they accidentally walked into a Roman Catholic Church. That’s because today we readily associate the word “catholic” with a specific denomination. In actuality, the word “catholic” simply means “universal” – it’s as we confessed in the Apostle’s Creed during Mackenzie’s baptism – “I believe in one, holy, christian and apostolic Church”. When we say the “catholic faith” we aren’t talking about the church at Rome, but those things held to be true by all true believers of all time.

Likewise, when at the end of the Athanasian Creed, we confess that “those who have done good will enter into eternal life,” some may think we’re confessing “works righteousness” or that it is on the basis of our works not faith alone that we inherit eternal life. But when we understand that it is only those who have faith and the Holy Spirit who can do good works – we see it is not the good works that save – rather faith brings both salvation and good works with it. This is what Jesus meant when He said, “make the tree good and its fruit will be good.” By the work of the Holy Spirit – we are reborn – just as Jesus taught Nicodemus in our Gospel lesson – and just as Mackenzie was earlier. Through water and the Word we are made new – given a new heart and renewed in our mind so that we actually desire to do good and selflessly love our neighbor. It’s not a matter of moral training or conditioning (not that discipline and work are bad, but they are not enough).

There are other things in the creed like that – and both the Athanasian Creed and the Nicene Creed have a significant history which helps explain why they say what they say (if anyone is interested, we can talk about that during Bible Study after service).

Paul Vischer and Jim Bakker could have saved themselves a lot of heartache and trouble by following the pattern of sound words handed down through the creeds. They would have been able to keep the important things at the top of the list and they would not have so easily been led astray. That serves as a warning and encouragement to us too – we should not let these treasures fall into disuse or allow ourselves to forget what they say. Because it would be impossible for everyone to be a complete expert on the Holy Scriptures, the Creeds serve as a tool to help make sure we all keep things in their proper place.

And because they simply recite the central teachings of Holy Scripture – the Creeds help us to embed the truth of God in our heart and our mind. They teach us to treasure everything God has laid down for us.
Most especially the truth that God the Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world to be born of the virgin Mary in order to redeem us from sin and death by dying in our place and then rising again from the dead and ascending into heaven — and that the Father and the Son have sent forth the Holy Spirit to work faith in us to believe in our loving and gracious God – preserving and sustaining us to the end – so that we may receive the crown of life freely given to us through faith in Christ.

On that day, we will rejoice in the throne-room of God – seeing God not in a vision like Isaiah, but we shall see Him face to face in all His glory and splendor. And we will join with all the company of heaven praising God and giving Him glory because then we WILL know from our experience that He has accomplished everything for our salvation.
To this end, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and keep your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. AMEN.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *