Isaiah 6:1-8 & John 3:1-17
Bold Enough to Tell the Truth
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
There’s a song we sing or say at every Eucharist. It’s called the Sanctus from the first word of the Latin version. Here’s how it goes:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
The origins of the Sanctus go back to Isaiah’s vision in the temple when the Lord calls him to be a prophet. We heard the story of Isaiah’s call in today’s first reading.
Let’s look at it now in greater depth.
While call stories in the Bible are usually set in everyday places, Isaiah’s call occurs in the nation’s central shrine.
When does it happen? “In the year that King Uzziah died.” The death of the monarch brings insecurity to the land and its people. There has been this death. Will there be no life?
Isaiah sees another king seated on a throne, the Lord God of Israel who cannot die. He is a vast figure, with the hem of his robe filling the emptiness of the temple.
The courtiers of this king are glorious angels known as seraphs. As they fly about their monarch, even they shield themselves with their wings from the divine glory, calling out to one another in amazement:
“Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of Armies!
the whole earth is full of his glory” (6:3).
Their thundering voices shake the building like an earthquake, and clouds of incense veil the scene.
This vision leaves Isaiah awestruck and deeply aware of his own sin and the sin of the people. He cries out as a doomed man, fearing that the Lord’s glory will destroy him.
A seraph plummets right at him, holding with tongs a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice, and sears Isaiah’s lips.
This is no punishment. It is purification on the way to commissioning. The seraph declares Isaiah now free from sin.
But it is the Lord’s voice which is heard next. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (6:8).
Plunging into a future he cannot begin to imagine, Isaiah answers; he begs. “Here I am. Send me!” (6:8).
That is where the story ends in our Sunday cycle.
But let us look now at what follows in the biblical text. (Isaiah 6:9-13.) The Lord tells Isaiah to go and speak to the people, the people of the Lord, yet indicates that the prophet’s message will not be readily received: it will meet with incomprehension and resistance. The Lord holds out
only the slightest sign of hope by speaking briefly of a ravaged stump that produces a green shoot.
We hear about Isaiah and his call here on Trinity Sunday when we celebrate the mystery of the one and only God as three co-equal persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our story as the Church in this time and place and Isaiah’s story may be too close for comfort, even if close enough to make us holy.
Isaiah has his temple experience.
We as Church have our experience of the Trinity. The mystery leaves us awestruck; try out best, we cannot finally domesticate it. The Trinity sets us free from sin, sets us free for life now and for ever.
As Isaiah is summoned into service as a prophet, so we as Church are called into ministry that does not make us popular, but does reveal the glory of the Lord throughout all the earth.
Isaiah sees that glory in the year that King Uzziah died, a time when land and people are beset by insecurity.
We also live in the year that King Uzziah died, for insecurity besets our land and our people. Consider just these three factors:
• An economic system that increasingly fails to serve the majority but makes a tiny fraction even wealthier.
• Environmental degradation that damages air and water and soil in ways we may not be able to reverse.
• A vacuous political culture that discourages servant leadership and so often turns its back on the common good.
Yes, we live in the year that King Uzziah died, for our land and our people are beset by insecurity. We are damaging ourselves in a way no external enemy ever could.
Social renewal is grounded in spiritual vision. If spiritual vision is false or fanatical, the social results will be disastrous. But if spiritual vision is healthy, then social renewal will take place.
At the heart of Christian spiritual vision is the Holy Trinity. Here I am not referring to doctrine about God, but the reality of God. And while doctrine has an essential place, what grabs at our hearts is not so much that, but the sheer reality and praiseworthiness of God.
What warms up doctrine, what makes it hot, is doxology, songs of praise. Here we proclaim a God worthy of our praise, a God who overflows with mercy and justice. As we declare in today’s proper preface, “we celebrate the one and equal glory of you, O Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
What happens, however, with the Trinity once we leave the sanctuary for the street? How do we link our faith in the Triune God with our insecure and suffering society?
The Trinity, the one and only God, offers the supreme, life-enhancing model for human society and the earth community.
Again, the Trinity, the one and only God, offers the supreme, life-enhancing model for human society and the earth community.
The one God is three persons of equal dignity. The three are distinct. None is isolated from others. None is absorbed by others. What distinguishes each is relationship with the others.
The three divine persons participate in a graceful circle dance with one another, a joyous dance without end. Through our creation, redemption, and sanctification, we are invited into the circle to join this dance, and thus enjoy the awesome hospitality and graciousness of God.
The Holy Trinity is dangerous, transforming lives and societies. Our God is a consuming fire.
The doctrine of the Trinity, a verbal snapshot of the Holy One, is also dangerous because of its implications: economic and environmental and political implications that threaten and overthrow the forces of death, implications that honor the God of life.
Praise of the Trinity is obedience to truth; it destabilizes every idolatry and every injustice.
As the Church we are a prophetic people. We are commissioned for the precarious task of helping persons, families, communities, institutions, and nations come to manifest more completely Trinitarian life, a life that blesses all people and all creation.
Easter and Pentecost tell us that the victory has been won already. The Trinity will not be defeated. However, it is possible even for Christians to live in a way that is clueless and fail to let the Triune light shine through our lives.
Today’s Gospel, taken from John, recalls a conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Jesus is an upstart young rabbi just in from the countryside, Nicodemus a key religious leader in Jerusalem. He sneaks out one night to talk with Jesus, and Jesus blows his heart open by a demand that this old man be born again. Does Nicodemus get it, or does he not?
The story in John, chapter three, leaves this question unanswered. As with Isaiah’s call, we can beyond the lectionary text, in this case to the places where Nicodemus appears later in John’s Gospel.
In chapter seven, he reminds other religious leaders that like anyone, Jesus deserves a fair hearing. They reject this assertion (John 7:45-52).
Nicodemus appears again once Jesus is dead as he joins Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body and placing it in the tomb. By bringing a large amount of spices for the burial preparations, Nicodemus demonstrates generosity and his respect for Jesus. (John 19:38-42)
So then, Nicodemus makes an appeal to fairness, and at considerable expense, he buries the dead, a work of mercy. Yet he represents what happens when we get stuck.
Nicodemus is a decent man, yet decency is not enough. His world, like ours, must hear time and again that a society short on mercy is an offense against God and religion is false unless it struggles for justice.
The Nicodemus story in John ends before the resurrection. Our story as Church depends on the resurrection. We have no reason to stay stuck. We can proclaim the Trinity and bring its light to bear on every corner of the world.
We can advocate a politics and an economics and an environmentalism that reflect the unity of the Trinity in love.
We can go public with our prophecy, trusting that while our fears are big, God is even bigger.
Now is the year that King Uzziah died.
A seraph plummets right at us to cleanse our lips with love’s fire and make us people bold enough to tell the truth.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2015 Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.