The year that this was probably written was around 742 BCE (dated by the death of King Uzziah). King Uzziah, also known as Azariah, had ruled for about 45 years and then when he contracted leprosy, it was necessary to appoint a regent to rule in his place. Essentially, the kingdom was in chaos. The air is full of uncertainty. Assyria is expanding its borders and so the northern kingdom, Israel, is trying to coerce Judah into a military alliance against the Assyrian threat. In the midst of this, the prophet Isaiah has a vision of God enthroned in a heavenly court. The vocation of the heavenly court is to continuously sing praises to God. The prophet sees only the hem of God’s robe. (Because remember, it was believed that if one actually saw God, it would mean death.)
God is surrounded by seraphs, part of the heavenly court, hovering over God, guarding. One pair of wings cover their faces in the awesome presence of God (so they won’t see God) and a second pair cover their genitals (feet is a euphemism, since it was wrong to speak of genitalia). This is a sign of commitment to purity. Isaiah feels inadequate in God’s presence. He feels unclean, unfit to stand before God, yet he sees God. But he is made clean by one of the seraphs. This is the technical language of the rite of forgiveness of the temple, symbolized by refinement through fire. Isaiah accepts his calling as prophet to Judah. He has been forgiven and has seen God.
The vision is one of grandeur that lies outside the scope of what we see and know, outside the boundaries of normal human experience. It is believing in the unbelievable. Isaiah is brought to the ultimate realization that he is lacking in the face of this magnificence. He has “unclean lips” and his life is lacking. And yet, he offers himself, presents himself for the cleansing by God that he now sees that he needs. He knows that he cannot do it himself.
And so the nation enters a transition from a time of power and prosperity to one of desolation. But Isaiah knows that God is carrying the people through this time. Once again, one must empty oneself to see and truly experience God. It is his call to ministry. But it was a call that Isaiah could not hear without some preparation. And yet, he goes willingly, almost as if he could not do anything but. But this is not a call to preach comfort and joy. Remember, it is a time of desolation and destruction. Isaiah, then, is called to preach words that will finally convince the people to listen, to turn from the destructive path that they are on. These are people that think they are living out the will of God but who are actually far from that. It is time to hear a different tune.
What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their pathway plainer. In fact, it will actually be more confusing and less certain. It will, instead, be a journey of faith, rather than certainty. (In fact, just a few verses after the ones we read, Isaiah’s “here am I’ turns into “How long, O Lord?”) But maybe God’s wisdom is to choose those who continually question themselves and their mission so that they will look to God for direction. In a commentary on this passage, Dr. John Holbert says:
By all means, call your people to follow the Lord, bid them give their lives for God’s service. It is what we do! But to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations. What we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness.
Another hymn rises to mind: “The Voice of God is Calling,” John Haynes Holmes’ 1913 poem. “From ease and plenty save us,” begins the fourth verse, and it ends, “Speak, and behold! we answer; command and we obey!”1 By all means, respond to the call of God. But be careful to know that the call is never easy, never simple to grasp, never designed for ready comfort and success. Just ask Isaiah. (From “Preaching This Week”, by Dr. John Holbert, 06/07/2009, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/7/2009&tab=1, accessed 30 May, 2012.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What parallels do you see with today?
- What do you think Isaiah really saw in this God-experience?
- What images of God does this bring about for you?
- What calling do you think God has for us in this time?
NEW TESTAMENT: Romans 8: 12-17
Put very simply, Paul is contrasting two ways of living—the way that we are tempted to live in this world and the way that God calls us to live. He plays with notions of slavery and freedom—slavery to the perils of this world or freedom in God through Christ. Slavery meant fear. Slavery meant having no rights of inheritance. Slavery means no hope. In this first century Roman world, unwanted children were frequently sold into slavery. (And, sadly, that practice still exists today in our world.) Freedom, then, means to belong to a family and to have the rights to an inheritance. We have been adopted by Christ and will share in the inheritance that God provides. When we realize we need God, then we also realize that we are children of God.
But this also means that we share in suffering with Christ as well. Faith is not always a perfectly-paved road, as we know. But this, too, is part of God’s promise of the renewal of all of Creation. It is a hope that we cannot see on our own but are rather empowered to see through the Spirit of God. Here, there’s more to being a Christian than just knowing the right stuff and doing the right things. To be Christian, you must open yourself up and invite God’s Spirit to enter your life. That is the way that you will be glorified through Christ in God. That is the way that you truly become a child of God.
Life is not about things going well or about figuring it all out; life is about hope. That’s what moves us beyond where we are. Slavery and fear move us backwards or leaves us standing here glued to our own inventions. But freedom and hope propels us forward. We all hope for a happy ending. It is the stuff that makes great fairy tales. We all look for that vision that God holds. But hope is not just some futuristic condition. Our hope for today manifests in our belief that God is here, pulling us or prodding us or dragging us out of the mire in which we sometimes find ourselves. It’s happened before. It’s called resurrection. Maybe that’s Paul’s whole point. Hope is illumined by both hope itself and a perception of hopelessness. And a life of faith is one that is lived both actively working for change and patiently waiting for the change to emerge. Hope is about balancing both persistence and patience.
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What does the “adoption” language mean to you?
- What images of God does this bring about for you?
- How do you depict hope?
- What do hope and patience have to do with each other?
GOSPEL: John 3: 1-17
Nicodemus was having trouble getting it, even though he was a leader of the Jews. The passage says that he came to Jesus by night, as if he was trying to hide the fact that he was having trouble understanding it all from the rest of the community. So Nicodemus came looking for answers. He wanted Jesus to get rid of all the doubts that Nicodemus had. He wanted Jesus to make it all perfectly clear for him so that he could go on imparting that knowledge to the rest of the community. Part of the problem may have been semantics. After all, he did believe what Jesus had done, what Jesus had told him. He knew that Jesus had done numerous miracles. He had seen it with his own eyes. So he knew that Jesus was good, he knew that Jesus was worthy as a teacher. And yet, Jesus seemed to talk in circles. He preached that one had to be born from above. But how can one be born unless he or she re-enters the mother’s womb? He preached that one must be born in the Spirit, and yet admitted that the place from which the Spirit blew was unknown and unknowable. How can this be? And he preached that one must believe. Nicodemus believed what Jesus said. What was Jesus talking about, then?
When you read this, you do sense that Nicodemus must have been a good teacher. He was astute and knew what questions to ask. He was diligent as he studied and explored to get to the truth. But how could he believe this circular reasoning that Jesus was espousing? Part of the problem, it seemed, was that Nicodemus and Jesus had completely different understandings of what “believe” was. Nicodemus had, after all, accepted Jesus’ propositions. He had probably even taught it. But Jesus was not asking for people to believe what he did or believe what he said. There is a difference between believing Christ and believing IN Christ. Believing IN means that you enter into relationship, that you trust with everything that you are, with everything that is your life. It is much more visceral than Nicodemus was really read to accept. Nicodemus wanted to understand it within the intellectual understanding of God that he had. But Jesus was telling him that there was a different way. Jesus was inviting, indeed almost daring, Nicodemus to believe in this new way, to turn his life, his doubts, his heart, and even his very learned mind over to God.
“How can this be?” Those are Nicodemus’ last words in this passage, which sort of makes him a patron saint for all of us who from time to time get stuck at the foot of the mountain, weighed down by our own understandings of who God is, without the faintest idea of how to begin to ascend. But there’s Jesus. “Watch me. Put your hand here. Now your foot. Don’t think about it so hard. Just do as I do. Believe in me. And follow me….this way!
My Take on the Trinity:
In the beginning was God. God created everything that was and everything that is and laid out a vision for what it would become. But we didn’t really get it. So God tried and tried again to explain it. God sent us Abraham and Moses and Judges and Kings and Prophets. But we still didn’t get it. God wove a vision of what Creation was meant to be and what we were meant to be as God’s children through poetry and songs and beautiful writings of wisdom. But we still didn’t get it.
“So,” God thought, “there is only one thing left to do. I’ll show you. I’ll show you the way to who I am and who I desire you to be. I will walk with you.” So God came, Emmanuel, God-with-us, and was born just like we were with controversy and labor pains and all those very human conceptions of what life is. Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, was the Incarnation of a universal truth, a universal path, the embodiment of the way to God and the vision that God holds for all of Creation. But we still didn’t get it. We fought and we argued and we held on to our own human-contrived understandings of who God is. And it didn’t make sense to us. This image of God did not fit into our carefully-constructed boxes. And so, as we humans have done so many times before and so many times since, we destroyed that which got in the way of our understanding. There…it was finished…we could go back to the way it was before.
But God loves us too much to allow us to lose our way. And so God promised to be with us forever. Because now you have seen me; now you know what it is I intended; now you know the way. And so I will always be with you, always inside of you, always surrounding you, always ahead of you, and always behind you. There will always be a part of me in you. Come, follow me, this way.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who set out to discover the meaning of life. She read and studied but she just didn’t get it. So she set off to search for it. She went to South America. She went to India. And everywhere she went, she heard the same thing. They didn’t know but they had heard of a man who did, a man deep in the Himalayas in a tiny little hut perched on the side of a mountain. So she traveled and traveled and then climbed and climbed to reach his door. She knocked. When the door opened, she hastily said, “I have come halfway around the world to ask you one question: What IS the meaning of life?” “Come in,” the man responded, “and have some tea.” “No,” she replied, “I didn’t come for tea. I came for an answer. What IS the meaning of life?”
“We shall have tea,” the old man said, so she gave up and came inside. While he was brewing the tea she caught her breath and began telling him about all the books she had read, all the people she had met, all the places she had been. The old man listened (which was just as well, since his visitor did not leave any room for him to reply), and as she talked he placed a fragile tea cup in her hand. Then he began to pour the tea. She was so busy talking that she did not notice when the tea cup was full, so the old man just kept pouring until the tea ran over the sides of the cup and spilled to the floor in a steaming waterfall. “What are you doing?!” she yelled when the tea burned her hand. “It’s full, can’t you see that? Stop! There’s no more room!” “Just so,” the old man said to her. “You come here wanting something from me, but what am I to do? There is no more room in your cup. Come back when it is empty and then we will talk.”
You see, God cannot be defined in our terms. We have to somehow let those go. God is God—still immeasurable, unprovable, unsearchable, and unknowable. But for those of us who believe…God is also Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, our Source, our Savior, and our Sustenance of life. And as we come closer to knowing God, closer to approaching the center that is God, we are more and more aware of the vastness and limitlessness that is God. God cannot be defined in human terms; it is we who must redefine ourselves in “God” terms, to place ourselves within that Trinity. The Trinity calls us to a new spirituality, a new humanity, and a new community. The Trinity calls us to become a part of this unlimited God. But we are not alone; God is always present leading us on the journey and when we get a little lost, God will be there to show us, “Come, this way….”
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does “believing” mean to you?
- What does the Trinity mean for you and how does it depict God for you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything. I remembered something Father Tom had told me–that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.” (Ann Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions. (Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926))
To know God is to know one cannot speak adequately about God; it is to know the impossibility of describing God in any compete way; it is to know that every theological statement falls short…We must speak, but not to capture God, not to master God…we speak in response to our having been spoken to. (Thomas Langford)
If you want to understand the body of Christ,
listen to the apostle telling the faithful,
“You though, are the body of Christ and its members.”
So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members,
it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed
on the Lord’s table;
What you receive is the mystery that means you.
It is to what you are that you reply “Amen”
And by so replying you express your assent.
What you hear is “the Body of Christ”
And you answer, “Amen.”
So be a member of the body of Christ in order to make that
“Amen” true. (St. Augustine)