First preached on June 19th, 2011
What do horses look like when they gallop? For centuries, no one knew the answer to this question. A galloping horse moves too fast for the human eye. For centuries, people who looked at horses, and people who painted horses, argued about whether a galloping horse ever had all four of its hooves off the ground at the same time. People who argued that a horse did have all four hooves off the ground at the same time usually believed that this happened when the horse’s front legs were extended forward and the horse’s back legs were extended backwards. One famous painter, Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, even had a special railroad built in his private park. He would sit on the railroad car and it would move forward at the same pace as a horse galloping beside it, and he would sketch furiously, trying to see the movement of the horse’s legs and sketch them correctly. He couldn’t do it. No one could. The human eye is simply not good enough.
But then, in 1872, the former governor of California, a man named Leland Stanford, hired a photographer to attempt to answer the question once and for all. The photographer’s name was Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge set-up a line of camera’s that had trip wires attached to them. As a horse galloped past the line of cameras, it would trip the wires, and the cameras would take a picture. The series of photos, when put together, showed what a horse looks like in motion. These images proved that a horse’s hooves do all leave the ground at the same time when it’s galloping. Just not in a way that anyone expected. The horse is off the ground when all four legs are bent inwards. Muybridge’s photos were taken in 1877, and until then no one knew what a galloping horse really looked like.
In the same way, no one really knows what God looks likes. As the writer Evelyn Underhill points out, if our eyes aren’t even good enough to see and make sense of a galloping horse, they’re certainly not good enough to see and make sense of God. To illustrate this, I have made The Amazing Underhill Trinity Sunday Zoetrope for your enjoyment. If you hold it in front of your eye and look through the slit, and then spin it, you can see the horse running on the inside. On the outside are images that are meant to represent the trinity. Trinity Sunday is when we celebrate the Trinity, most often known as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. But the most important thing to know about the Trinity is that the Trinity is God in Three Persons – one God who manifests in this world in three different ways. On The Amazing Underhill Trinity Sunday Zoetrope I’ve chosen to illustrate this with water images and fire images. We all know that snow, clouds, and oceans are all just water in different states. And we can think of a candle flame, a lightning bolt, and the sun itself as fire manifesting itself in different states. They are all essentially the same thing, but we use different words for their different states. In the same way, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all the same God. We just use different words to describe our different experiences of God.
None of our descriptions will ever be perfect. When we talk about God, we use imperfect descriptions, because no description could ever encompass the totality of who God is. The Bible gives us some clues of what God might look like, but only clues. We’re never told exactly.
Let’s start with God the Father. In the Book of Genesis, we are told that Adam and Eve hear “the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” God is walking, so we assume that God has legs. But that’s all we can assume. God’s appearance isn’t described, just the sound. God is known to hearing, not to sight. But in Exodus, God does become known to Moses by sight. “There the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush.” A flame of fire. Here, God doesn’t have legs, so we lose the surety of our first description. In 1 Kings, God appears to Elijah in this way: “Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but theLord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but theLord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” So God isn’t in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire. God isn’t even in sound. The Bible doesn’t give us any one way of perceiving God the Father with our senses. We’re given many different ways. The descriptions are imperfect, because our senses our imperfect.
But we are given a clue about what God looks like. Human beings, we are told, were created in the image of God. So God looks like us, right? Well, certainly, God the Son, Jesus Christ Himself, looks like us. God became human for our sake. But what did Jesus look like? No one really knows that, either. There weren’t cameras around that could capture the image of a horse galloping until 1872. There sure weren’t cameras around that could capture the image of Christ two millennia earlier. Christians have been arguing about what Jesus looked like for ages. St. John of Damascus said that he “resembled his mother and was slightly stooping, with beautiful eyes, red hair which was long and curly, and he had a pale olive complexion and long fingers.” But Clement of Alexandria said that Jesus “had no comeliness or beauty, and was insignificant in appearance, inferior to the beauty of men.” Even though Jesus was human, our images of him are imperfect as well.
Oddly enough, the Holy Spirit, the most abstract person of the Trinity, has the most concrete imagery. A flame represents the Holy Spirit. So does a dove. But Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as “the spirit of truth…that will lead you into all truth.” So the Holy Spirit is a way of being wise. You never really see the Holy Spirit, but you know the Holy Spirit when you’re acting in a way that is in keeping with God’s will for you. Easy, perhaps, to understand and to know. Hard to draw, unless you’re using an obvious symbol like a flame or a dove.
Like a galloping horse, God moves too fast for us to capture. The image of God is always just beyond our perceptions. So, if when we talk about the Trinity, God in Three Persons, we seem to be talking about something that’s hard to understand, it’s because we’re willing to admit that God is hard to understand. Since we can’t describe God exactly, we have to use symbols and metaphors. But we’re used to doing that. If you saw a valentine, you’d know what it means. The human heart isn’t really shaped like a valentine, but we all know that a valentine means love. God isn’t really shaped like candle flame, lightning, or the sun, but maybe these images will do for today. Maybe ocean, cloud and snow will do. Maybe other images will do. Atmosphere, wind, and breath, perhaps.
We are left looking for God in the world, knowing that our perceptions will be imperfect, but knowing that we gain something by looking – a deeper perception of the things we can see and know – a real perception of the movements of the horse.