This morning we are beginning a new season of worship for the summer. Bob and I are going to be loosely using the lectionary to guide our preaching. I say loosely, because I believe next week Pastor Bob is going to go off the lectionary as he returns from Kenya. While this is not going to be a series, as we have been doing for the past several years, there is a flow to the lectionary.
The lectionary is a three-year cycle of texts for every Sunday. Each Sunday has assigned an Old Testament lesson, a Psalm, a Gospel reading, and another New Testament lesson that is not from the Gospels (called the Epistle lesson). The lectionary walks us through most of the canon of scripture, emphasizing a different gospel each year. We are currently in year B where most of the Gospel lessons will be from Mark. Year A is predominately Matthew and year C, Luke. John is interspersed throughout all three years.
The lectionary also follows the church calendar. The year begins in Advent and Christmas as we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world. A couple weeks later, we celebrate the season of Epiphany, beginning with the arrival of the wise men. The next week read about Jesus’ baptism, and then several weeks later Epiphany ends with Jesus’ transfiguration – when he took Peter, James, and John up on a mountain and they saw him changed before them. The next Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. So we go from celebrating Jesus high and lifted up one Sunday, to beginning the season of remembering his suffering and death the next. Lent ends with Easter, the great celebration of resurrection. Forty days after Easter we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, then ten days after that we celebrate Pentecost, as we did last Sunday. Pentecost is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the church.
So far this year we have spent from Advent through Ascension Sunday celebrating the life of Jesus – his birth, baptism, transfiguration, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. The following Sunday we celebrated the Holy Spirit, and so today we will set aside a day to remember that we know God in three ways – God the Father, God as the Son Jesus Christ, and God’s abiding presence in the Holy Spirit.
Next Sunday we begin the Season After Pentecost, sometimes called Ordinary Time where we follow the stories of Jesus’ ministry. Ordinary Time takes right up to Advent again in late November.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let us focus on today, Trinity Sunday. It is very tempting on Trinity Sunday to go into a didactic discourse of how the church came upon the doctrine of the Trinity – a word that never appears in the Bible. I could talk about the Trinitarian language in the Bible like how Jesus commissions the disciples saying, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); or I could try to explain the concept, as I have done with confirmation classes throughout my career, as “God-math” -one whole God the Father + one whole God in Jesus + one whole God in the Holy Spirit = one whole God. That certainly clears the whole thing up, doesn’t it?
Suffice it to say this for this morning: The Trinity means the God we know in Jesus, is the same God we know today through the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the same God we encounter in the Old Testament. They cannot be separated from one another, but are instead three ways we experience our one, awesome God – who was, who is, and who is to come.
This morning I want to instead focus on the texts the lectionary gives us this morning.
Isaiah and Nicodemus
In addition to walking us through the life and ministry of Jesus, one of the other things I like about the lectionary is that it gets us into the Old Testament, giving us opportunity to encounter God in all of Scripture. At times this also causes us to look at two stories side-by-side, and when we do new insight comes forth, as happened for me this week.
As I read the stories of God’s appearance to Isaiah in the Temple and Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus, I began to see parallels I want to share with you this morning. Both of these religious leaders, have encounters with one of the persons of the Trinity.
Isaiah is in the Temple one day performing the duties of a priest when he experiences the overwhelming presence of God. I love how Isaiah describes the size of God – “the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
There was this sense in the ancient Hebrew faith that the presence of God resided in the “Holy of Holies,” a small room in the heart of the Temple where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. Isaiah’s vision of God expands that greatly. His vision is of a God so big that not only does he not fit in the Holy of Holies, he doesn’t even fit in the Temple – what had to be one of the biggest buildings the people had ever seen. Just the hem of his robe fills the whole thing.
Nicodemus, whom John describes as a Pharisee and a “leader of the Jews” also comes before God, for him in the person of Jesus. Nicodemus though is not overcome with the his presence. Instead, Nicodemus comes at night to meet with Jesus. The text seems to hint at the fact that Nicodemus came to Jesus because he sees God working in Jesus and wants to know more about it. But he comes at night because he isn’t quite ready to allow Jesus – God standing right in front of him – to change his perception of who God is.
While Isaiah’s prior understandings of God are is blown out of the water by his vision, Nicodemus guards his image of God, coming to meet Jesus at night.
Both Isaiah and Nicodemus are moved by being in the presence of the Holy God, but their reactions to that phenomenon differ.
Isaiah immediately recognizes two things: God’s holiness and his unworthiness. He reports the seraphs around God are calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” That triple holy is a rhetorical device to emphasize the holiness of God.
When I think of that, my mind goes to the scene in one of my favorite Christmas movies, A Christmas Story where the boys are standing around the flagpole daring Flick to touch the frozen flagpole with his tongue. The voiceover narrates the encounter informing us of the intricacies of such a negotiation – how they move from a dare which is serious, to a double-dare which ups the ante significantly, to the coup de grace, as he calls it, the triple-dog-dare. With which, of course, Flick is obliged to comply or accept the consequences of being known as one who did not have the courage to. The triple-dog-dare far above just an ordinary dare.
In a sense, this is what the seraphs are saying – God isn’t just holy, and he isn’t just holy, holy. God is triple holy – “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.”
As Isaiah recognizes the holiness of God, he immediately begins to look at himself. He sees his brokenness and immediately confesses, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah senses just how often he has not been the person that God created him to be, and begins to confess his sin – “I am a man of unclean lips.”
Nicodemus, on the other hand, comes before the holy Jesus and gives a guarded recognition of Jesus’ holiness. “Rabbi,” he starts off well, acknowledging Jesus as a religious teacher even putting himself below him, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” In essence he is saying, I see something going on with you, and he seems to be asking what that is.
Jesus answers, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Jesus is saying, if you want to know more, draw closer to God, you must be born from above, or as the word can also be translated and how Nicodemus seems to have heard it, born again.
Nicodemus is not ready to take that step, so instead of seeing his brokenness and confessing where he has fallen short, Nicodemus counters Jesus. His question could be genuine, but instead it sounds like he is poking fun at what Jesus has just said. He replies, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Isaiah has his world turned upside down as he recognizes the holiness of God and his own unworthiness. Nicodemus instead defends what he has always believed about God and his status in the religious structure. He is certainly not ready to let go and allow himself to be changed by God.
Finally both men are given an invitation. Isaiah hears God saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (another Trinitarian clue in the Bible). Nicodemus hears Jesus say, “You must be born from above.” Isaiah in his brokenness cries out, “Here am I; send me.” Nicodemus defends a little more and then disappears from the story, until we hear of him again at the end of John’s Gospel. Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea care for Jesus’ body after the crucifixion.
Isaiah becomes a prophet; Nicodemus remains on the periphery, a footnote.
That’s awfully disappointing, isn’t it? Nicodemus is the very first person to hear these words Martin Luther called “the gospel in a nutshell;” he has them delivered by Jesus in their entirety, rather than just a reference on a bed sheet held up by a guy in a rainbow wig before a field goal is kicked at an NFL game. This verse that has become for many the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, was rejected by Nicodemus even though Jesus himself is the one to deliver it to him. Jesus says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” and Nicodemus walks away. How can that be?
I think part of our shock is that we have heard that verse so often, we have domesticated it.
As many of you know, I am a motorcycle rider. When the weather is warm, I spend more time on my motorcycle than in the car. I commute on it. I go to the hospital on it. I get to meetings on two wheels.
What you may not know is that a couple of years ago I had a “close call” as riders say. I was thoroughly enjoying my ride up 105 during rush hour on my way to a rehearsal at the church when suddenly traffic stopped. I had to hit the brakes hard, causing my motorcycle to skid. I eventually “dropped the bike” in the middle of 105. I was not seriously hurt, just a few pulled ribcage muscles, and a bruised ego.
I was reading in one of my magazines this week about how “those of us who have been on two for many years have developed attitudes and behaviors that we are not even aware of” (Condon 39). That was certainly what happened to me that day. I was in rush hour traffic and instead of paying attention to the cars in front of me, I was looking at construction on the side of the road. When I looked back, everything had stopped. I got comfortable with my inherently dangerous hobby.
I think the same is true with John 3:16. We have become so comfortable with it that it has lost all of its power. So we wonder how Nicodemus could walk away from something so simple. All he had to do was believe and his life would have been changed. But that is exactly the problem. We have domesticated the word believe.
When we hear the word believe, we typically think it means “to assert something as true which cannot be proven.” For example, we say, “I believe what you are saying is true.” That is not how Nicodemus would have heard it. Scholars tell us that prior to about 1600, the word believe always had a person as its object (Borg 117). In other words, it was not facts that we believed, it was people.
So when Jesus says “everyone who believes in him will not perish,” he is not saying that we need to believe something about him. Rather he is saying that we are to center our lives around him. That’s the whole idea behind being born from above or being born again. It is not just about thinking something. It is about a complete reorientation of our lives around the person of Jesus.
One of my seminary professors, Tom Long, recently published a sermon where he puts it so well:
What Jesus told Nicodemus was shocking…shocking to Nicodemus and maybe shocking to us, too. Jesus said, “Nicodemus, you don’t need God in your life…. You don’t need God to come into your life. That’s backwards. You need to come into in God’s life. God doesn’t come into your life. It works the other way. God offers us God’s own life as a gift and beckons us to enter it. You need to be in the life of God. In fact, Nicodemus, you need to be born all over again, this time born into God’s life.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” said Nicodemus. “I don’t know how to be born all over again into the life of God.”
And Jesus said, “I know you don’t know. Well, there is good news for you, Nicodemus. The life of God is not far away from you. The life of God has come near to you. Indeed, the life of God is sitting right next to you, speaking to you now.” (Long).
So often we, like Nicodemus, get the whole thing backwards. We don’t need God to come into our lives. We need to come into God’s life. I know that sounds like semantics, but I promise you it is so much more than that.
Isaiah got it and responded to God’s call. Nicodemus missed it and walked away from Jesus’ call to him.
What’s the difference
What’s the difference? The difference is night and day.
During his encounter with God Isaiah’s eyes are wide open. Not only does he see God, but Isaiah sees himself. He is “a man of unclean lips, [living] among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” When he makes that confession, one of the seraphs comes with a coal. Touching his lips with the coal the seraph says, “your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah is forgiven.
Isaiah is aware of the barrier between him in his smallness and brokenness, and the huge, triple-holy God. He confesses the barrier and God removes it. Simple as that.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, comes at night. His is not seeing clearly in the dark of night. So presented with the opportunity for forgiveness and a new life, Nicodemus defends the barrier between him and Jesus and walks away.
Jesus picks up on this and uses the image of night to explain. After the verses we read, Jesus says this referring to Nicodemus:
the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:19-21).
Nicodemus is holding onto his darkness, refusing to give up the darkness for the light.
Like Nicodemus, so many of us want God to come into our lives. We want to add God to what we already do. We want him to bless who we already are, what we already do, how we already behave. We want to get closer to God, but we refuse to leave the dark for the light. We hold onto the barriers that separate us from God.
Standing in God’s presence, Isaiah recognized that he was a man of unclean lips standing before the completely clean, triple-holy God. He confessed his brokenness and God immediately sent a seraph with a coal to forgive him of his sin. Nicodemus couldn’t do that. He held on.
We just finished our series on the Seven Deadly Sins. We had some fun with that, but I know I also got in touch with some things in my life that are wrong – greed, gluttony, lust, sloth, anger, envy, and pride. I hope you got in touch with what is within you too.
May you and I confess our shortcomings to God, so that he can remove the barriers between us and him. May we come into life with God, rather than simply asking God into the life we already have.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who [enters into his life] may not perish but may have eternal life.”
Borg, Marcus J. Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power – and How They Can Be Restored. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Kindle edition.
Condon, Ken. “What Happened?” Motorcycle Consumer News June 2012: 38-40. Print.
Long, Thomas G. “The Start of the Trail.” Day 1. Day 1. Web. 02 June 2012. <http://day1.org/3823-the_start_of_the_trail>.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.