God has no Footprints
How do you know where animals have been? Follow their tracks. How do you know where people are? Follow their footprints. How do you know where God has been or is? Don't follow His footprints because He has none. Psalm 77 says, "Your road went through the sea. Your path went through raging water, but Your footprints could not be seen." Romans 11 says God's judgments are "unsearchable" and that His ways are "unfathomable" and "past finding out."
But we try, don't we? We think we can find, follow, fathom the true God by following His footprints. The problem is that the "God" you can track down is not the true God. We confess in the Athanasian Creed that the True God is incomprehensible: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible," we say. Any God we're able to comprehend or track down is not the Holy Trinity.
That means the footprints we think God leaves in nature only lead to the wrong God. Think of the footprints we've seen lately. Tornadoes, fires, and drought leaving paths of death and destruction in their wakes. Follow them and to what sort of God do they lead? What kind of God stirs up such a mess? Look at the drought here, the flooding there, the unseasonable cold there and the record heat here. To what sort of God do such footsteps lead?
The true God leaves no footprints, so footprints you do see in nature or world events lead to the wrong God. If you think God's footprints can be seen in school shootings and public bombing, in Korea issuing nuclear threats, or in political scandals, then what does this say about the God who made them?
The conundrum is either the footprints on the scenes of these crimes are not God's, and therefore, He is not all powerful. Or they are God's, and He is a murderous, war mongering, immoral God. The apparent footprints of God in world events lead you either to a weak god (who is really no God) or an evil one. This was Luther's conclusion in Bondage of the Will: "God so governs this corporeal world in external things, that, according to human reason and judgment, you must be compelled to say, either that there is no God, or that God is unjust" (387).
I see the apparent footprints of God just like you do. I see what look to be His footsteps in nature and in world events. And I see them in my own emotions too. A loving God would do this or would not do that I say in my heart. I see a fair God as walking off in that direction not this direction. My emotions will only let God be God if He walks in a certain direction, at a certain pace, neither stepping so harshly as to offend my love nor stepping so stupidly as to offend my reason. But this "God" who leaves such clear footprints in my heart is not the true God but a god of my own making.
Friend, whenever you attempt to follow the footprints of God that you see in nature, in world events, or in your feelings, they are always heading to the same place. To God in His essence, to God in His majesty, to the God who is a consuming fire, to the God who dwells in unapproachable light, to the God that no man has seen at any time or can ever see.
You don't want to meet this God. This is the God surrounded by 6 winged heavenly beings who must use two of their wings to cover their face because even they can't stand God in His essence. This is the God the Old Testament people lived in fear of seeing face to face. This is the God that even Moses, the "friend of God" with whom God spoke as a man speaks to his friend, was only allowed to see the back side because he couldn't bear to see the front.
The footprints of God that you pick up in nature, in world events, in your heart will only lead you toward the essence of God. And we humans who don't even understand the essence of our own nature have no chance of understanding the essence of God. Our total inability to comprehend God in His essence will lead us to wrong conclusions about God. "God," concludes Luther, "must therefore be left to Himself in His own majesty, for in this regard we have nothing to do with Him, nor has He willed that we have anything to do with Him" (AE, 33, 139).
God doesn't will us to have anything to do with Him in His essence or in the workings of His majesty in the world. God nowhere reveals why one town is leveled and another is spared, how come these kids are killed while those standing next to them are not; God nowhere reveals what His purposes are in allowing nuclear weapons to proliferate and sexual immorality to profit. Therefore, as Luther said, "God's glory must be shown in making sport of our judgment" (LW, 49, 144)
The true God leaves no footprints in the world which you can trace to Him. He has, however, made Himself known to us by revelation; Dt. 29 says, "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the revealed things belong to us." Yes, the true God makes Himself known not by footprints in nature, world events, or in our hearts but by revelation, by His Word to us.
Trinity Sunday is a festival of this revelation. Had God not first revealed Himself to be Father, Son, and Spirit do you think we could have made up such an incomprehensible Being? And don't think that when we say things like God is Triune, or Holy Trinity we are claiming that we understand this. Far from it. Augustine said about the doctrine that God is 3 in 1, "Human language labors from its absolutely great poverty" (Schmid, Doctrinal Theology, 146). Luther says of the Christian confession that the Son is begotten not made, "[Begotten] is the kind of word which cannot be understood or comprehended by human reason" (LW, 12, 52).
We confess God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost not because we understand the Trinity or it makes sense to us, but because this is the revelation He Himself has given to us. Likewise, we confess God is Sacramental. He wills to wrap Himself in ordinary visible things that men can easily despise. He clothes Himself in Words of Absolution which sound no different than any other spoken words. He wraps Himself in the plain waters of Baptism. He covers Himself in the bread and wine of Communion. The uncreated, majestic, glorious God willingly covers Himself in weak, created things. Things that we humans can touch, see, hear, taste, and even smell.
Only in these will you find the true God. He is not found in train-sounding tornadoes but in the small voice of the Absolution forgiving your sins. He is not found in the powerful diplomacy between countries across oceans, but in the 3 handfuls of water put on your head in the name of the Triune God. He is not found in my strong emotions about Him be they faith, love, or hope, but in the bread and wine on our altar.
Here are the footprints of the True God. These simple things that are regarded as weak, plain, human are the vehicle, the mark, the paths of the true God. And don't be turned away by the low opinion of men toward these things. As Luther said, "Whatever the divine majesty has instituted must needs be despised of by men" (Babylonian Captivity, 256).
God has revealed Himself as Triune, as Sacramental, and as Suffering. This blows away the wisdom of men. Man's wisdom thinks that the true God would make others suffer or be known more for His sage wisdom than for His suffering. Voltaire, the 18th century French philosopher, built a church near his mansion, and placed a life sized statue of Christ in it. However, Christ wasn't portrayed as crucified but as a wise sage. The fact that the true God suffers can't be reached by following the apparent footprints of God in the world. We can't arrive at this unless God reveals it to us.
God suffered with the grumbling, the immorality, and the idolatry of the Old Testament church. God suffered with a church that would not get rid of her high places or the cult prostitutes in the Temple. God incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ, suffered His mother butting in on His ministry, His disciples commanding Him what to do, and His apostles not understanding His mission even after 3 years of His teaching.
These are the real footprints of God - His suffering. That's what Luther concluded saying that the person who believes visible things are the footprints of God does not deserve to be called a theologian. "He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross" (Heidelberg Disputation, #20). Who could ever look at suffering and the cross and say, "God is at work there?" Only that person who has been captured by God's revelation of Himself rather than by human reason.
There's more. The True God is not only revealed as suffering with sinners but as suffering for sinners. And here is the Gospel that no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard, neither has it ever entered into the thought of a man: The Creator bears the sins of the creature, the holy the sins of the unholy. God saves the ungodly. A Friend who saves enemies. Who would have, who could have thought this up? The apparent footprints of God in the world would never, lead you here, would they?
God suffered for sinners bearing their griefs, carrying their sorrows on a cross. With the whips that broke His skin our skin has been cleansed. All we like sheep had gone astray, but God struck the Good Shepherd rather than the sheep. Although we were dead in our trespasses and sins already, the Father killed His only Son for our sakes. No wonder we sing in amazement, "O wondrous Love what hast Thou done?"
The footprints of God are found only in Scripture, and they lead us to a God who is Triune, Sacramental, and Suffering. Certainly this is not a God we can get our head, heart, or arms around, but He is the only One able and willing to take us up in His arms and save us. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Holy Trinity (20130526)