Posted by: owizblog | May 31, 2015

Interrogated by the Mystery: Trinity Sunday Sermon 31 May 2015, UCB

Isaiah 6:1-6

John 3:1-8

1

J B Philips, the popular postwar New Testament translator, once put it very well: “If you can picture God, your God is too small.” And he wrote a book with that title: “Your God is too small.” There’s something crucial there.

Let me put it another way: many of us Ministers have a huge problem with Christmas. It’s to do with a certain elderly gentleman in a red suit. Because any Minister worth her or his salt will spend all year proclaiming the mystery of the God who is beyond the capacity of thought to encompass or speak of, the mystery of being-itself, the transcendent ground of being, the God who is incomparably, unimaginably greater than any picture of a touchy old man with a beard who lives in the sky, and doles out or withholds rewards depending how he feels about you.

flamin Santa

And then, along comes Santa.

He sees you when you’re sleeping
he knows when you’re awake
he knows if you’ve been bad or good
so be good for goodness sake…

..and just in case you miss the connection –

he’s making a list
and checking it twice
he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice..

We can laugh – and I hope we do – and, by the way, it’s probably obvious why I can’t easily preach a sermon like this in December!

Isiaih Cherub 2

But Trinity Sunday is the perfect day for it, because Trinity Sunday is the celebration of the great Christian insight into the nature of God, the completion of the picture of God which begins with the wanderings of an Aramean semi-nomad called Abraham, and leads through the story of Israel, and the Gospel of Jesus, to Pentecost, which was last week.

I said “completion” – but that isn’t right. Because although Trinity Sunday marks the point at which we have the full language of the shared, ancient faith of the Church, it concludes nothing. Karl Barth says that God, in Christ, is revealed as mystery.

And as I’ve said repeatedly from this pulpit, the Jesus of John’s Gospel promises us the Spirit that will lead us into all truth. After it tells us of Pentecost, the Book of Acts goes on to relate how the young Church is led into newer, and stranger territory by the Spirit, and becomes more and more radically inclusive – and it’s good to see that our own age is a continuation of that radical inclusion, as the Church finds the Spirit operating beyond what she used to think were the frontiers of faith.

It begins to dawn on us, eventually, that faith doesn’t need to work with frontiers and boundaries, because God isn’t constrained by them. God as the unlimited, the unconstrained, the unfathomably mysterious – yet the mystery we know, paradoxically, in the Christ who, so far from being the embodiment of human ideas of might, and pomp, and authority, is crucified at the town dump, and buried in a borrowed grave. If we don’t grasp that, we can’t grasp how the Gospel of the Resurrection turns the world upside down.

And surely, through all this, we have to be able to grasp that the Christian understanding of God is vastly more complicated than, and utterly different to, a grumpy and capricious old man in the sky.

You would think…

And yet…

He sees you when you’re sleeping
he knows when you’re awake
he knows if you’ve been bad or good
so be good for goodness sake!

2

There is childlike trust in God, childlike faith in God as love, the incomprehensible mystery of love. But there is also such a thing as a childish faith in God, a faith that’s terrified of growing up. That’s exactly the kind of thing that J B Phillips’ caution applies to: “Your God is too small…” The biggest, angriest, scariest picture of God that we could come up with, the strictest, most righteous and holy Old Man In The Sky, and we would still not be in the same universe of talk as the core Christian language of God as Mystery – of God as Trinity.

Chagall's vision of Isaiah

Let’s approach the Mystery, as, historically, God’s people had to, and as this morning’s readings invite us to, through the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah, in the temple, at the end of the eighth century BC, a man who knows the place, the holy place, where he is walking, and knows it intimately. Isaiah, you see, has connections with the royal family, the House of David. The palace is next door to the temple, and Hebrew has the same words for both palace and temple: hechal, ultimately from the Sumerian e-gal, “big house.” He’s long familiar with this deeply holy place, with its rituals, going back two and a half centuries to King Solomon who built it. But here he is in the courtyard, and suddenly, what’s familiar becomes deeply unfamiliar, deeply strange, profoundly mysterious.

I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

3

Isaiah doesn’t see an old man with a white beard. He sees “the corner of God’s robe” – the edge of the Mystery. And that’s overwhelming. What sort of experience this was, we can’t tell, beyond that it was, indeed, overwhelming. The ancient patterns of faith and belief take over and frame it for Isaiah, seraphim with six wings, the primordial chant “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord…” The very chant that next week will announce the mystery of Communion for us…

What we’ll see then – what we see now – is just what’s there to be seen. What he sees in that temple courtyard is beyond describing, because it’s properly beyond seeing, and we can’t gauge Isaiah’s experience.

But look what happens next. Look at Isaiah’s response. He’s overcome with questions about himself, questions he’s made to ask as he stands before the mystery of God:

Who am I? Who have I been? What must happen now?

He is appalled:

‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’

If we were still entertaining the childish, infantile picture of an angry old man in the sky, that’s where it would all stop. If we believed what many people say they believe – and they believe that this is the Christian faith – we would be overcome with anguish at our own worthlessness, and horribleness, and we would despair.

Isiaiah certainly despairs. Being confronted with the truth of God confronts him also with the truth about himself, and about his complicity with the compromises of life all around him, the compromised nature of the society he lives in, and a great deal of it is desperately uncomfortable.

But this isn’t a story about divine disapproval. This isn’t a story about us having been naughty, and not nice. This is a story about the movement from the Mystery into the reality of the world, about the way in which to stand before the Mystery is to confront the truth about who we are, and about who we have become – but it’s also to encounter something else.

4

One of the words that’s often bandied about when we speak of the Christian faith, is the word “personal.” A “personal faith”, “personal responsibility”, a “personal response to Christ” – a “personal” God. That last one is different to the others. Think again of Isaiah in that courtyard. Suddenly, things that have been long familiar to him become strange, and awe-inspiring. He feels things , understands things – he himself, he, personally – that he hadn’t understood in this way before. The holiness of the place, and the holiness of the Mystery that fills it to overflowing, evoke in him a personal response – and a sense of personal responsibility. He comes alive to truths about himself that he can’t shirk or deny. He accepts this truth personally, becomes personally aware and takes personal responsibility. That’s a personal response, and a response grounded in a personal faith.

It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, o Lord/ Standin’ in the need of prayer…

But the reduction of God to a person like him, to a human being with go-faster stripes – that doesn’t happen. The reduction of the mystery to a grumpy, bearded old man – that doesn’t happen.

Instead, Isaiah stands before the Mystery as the man he is, and something else happens. And he can only express his experience in the language of tradition, even though it’s obvious that this is the old things of tradition come alive in a new and unprecedented way for him:

Seraph and Isaiah

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’

It isn’t about the shortcomings, the inadequacies, the missings of the mark. It isn’t about the sin. These are the things that get between us and God, because they get between us and the way we should be, the people we should be. The people God intended – and intends – us to be… That’s how they get between us and God.

And suddenly, it’s as though Isaiah is eavesdropping on a meeting, listening in to a session of some heavenly council.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’

And a new question is added to the ones he was already asking.

Who am I? Who have I been? Who must I now be?

And a new response – a highly personal response – is forthcoming.

“Here I am. Send me…”

This is far more than “Be good for goodnes’ sake…” This is a call, a commissioning, to seek God’s will, to do God’s work – to make the Mystery the very meaning of real life in the real world.

Let’s think about that as we sing our next hymn:

[Break. Hymn CH4 188: Though hidden Love of God, whose height,/ Whose depth unfathomed, no one knows..]

5

Something has drawn Nicodemus to Jesus. He’s confused, uncertain – and he comes by night, and a detail like that is never without meaning in John’s Gospel.

Crijn Hendricksz Nicodemus

It’s literal night, maybe, but even more importantly, it’s figurative night too. There is something here that draws him, and he’s tentative, wanting to survey the ground – and yes, he’s polite, too!

‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’

But Jesus isn’t doing small-talk tonight. “You must, he says, be born…” and the word he uses here, in the Greek of John’s Gospel, can mean either “from above” or “again” or “anew” and it can be meant, and taken, as all of that, in any combination or emphasis, all at the same time. “You must be born again” is far too simple a rendering.

I think I’ve told you before of the slow train which stopped at a small station outside Cambridge where it wasn’t supposed to stop. A man jumped on, and the guard bore down on him shouting “You can’t get on here! Get off!” Unfortunately for the guard, the man was a philosophy professor. “Why can’t I get on?” he asked. “Because this train doesn’t stop at this station!” “Well, in that case,” said the professor, “I can’t be on it, can I?” and sat down to continue the journey that, on the guard’s logic shouldn’t be happening.

Nicodemus thinks just like the guard.

‘How can someone be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!’

Actually, he’s grasped the point. Jesus is confronting him with the impossible possibility. As the great German New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann explains, in perhaps the greatest Biblical commentary of the twentieth century, to end in God, our life, our being, must begin in God. How is that possible?

And what confronts Nicodemus is that possibility. Because that possibility is what confronts Nicodemus in Jesus.

And that’s what confronts us in Jesus, too. Confronts us in the specifics of our living, in the twenty-first century, on Bute…

6

Christianity is an enormously diverse faith. But all of Christian faith, from the most radical and exploratory and bold, to the most conservative and cautious, is held together by the conviction that, in Jesus, we are confronted by what is ultimate. That, for us, we encounter the meaning of meaning itself, in him, because in him we encounter the meaning of our own being. In the trust Christ evokes. In the summons to follow him, to live as Jesus shows us. To go beyond where we are comfortable, to step out of what’s routine, and weel-kent, and familiar – because in him we are confronted by the Mystery, and nothing is familiar and taken-for-granted any more.

Everything comes to life in ways we never imagined. And we see ourselves in a new light – and yes, in the truth we encounter about ourselves there, we find things that horrify us about ourselves. But we also find that we have been grasped by the God who calls us out of the past and into the future, out of the compromises of life, and of our society, and the world around us, and fills us with God’s own dissatisfaction with these things.

We must be born from the beginning again. We must be born from above with the life God gives. And that’s exactly what confronts us in Christ. And our ideas, our tiny, too-small ideas about God are swept away, because now the actuality calls us and confronts us and challenges us to go, and to follow, and to say “Here I am, send me…”


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