Trinity Sunday Isaiah 6:1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-17
God is not lonely.
I think sometimes we might feel that way. Or at least, we feel lonely and suppose to ourselves that God must be like us, and that means God must be lonely.
Our loneliness has driven us to great and extraordinary achievements. Out of desperation we devote ourselves to all kinds of achievements: to business or building, collecting or competing, to learn, to love, to change, to move. Out of our loneliness may decide to stay where we were brought up or to remain in a job. I know for me it is my fear of loneliness which steered me toward the life I now live with an open door where others are always welcome in my home. It is the fear of losing those who I have come to love that drives me to conduct myself in a way which they will find commendable. I want so desperately to be loved and accepted. I do not want to be alone and so with great diligence I pursue friendships, work, community events, and yes even the spiritual life. In one corner of my soul is the voice which drives me way from sin for no other reason than to sin is to be cut off from those who love me. In a different time, that very same desire to feel embraced by others led me to excuse pernicious sin for the very same reason.
I think if I were not captivated by God, there is no limit to what I would do to find acceptance. Somewhere in the soul marred by fallenness is the unquenchable thirst for others. The drive to flee from loneliness seems to be a basic component of our being. Perhaps this is why so often we meet people who are living far short of what they could become – not because they are despicable or have something wrong with them, but rather because as human beings they would prefer to sustain community – any community – over the risk of losing it.
But God is not lonely.
Isaiah hears his calling in the year that King Uzziah dies. Uzziah, also called Azariah in the Old Testament, was 16 when he began to reign and did well. His story is recorded in 2 Chron. 26. He sat under the instruction of the Prophet Zechariah and this led to great prosperity, with Judah regaining the strength and wealth it had in the time of Solomon. This wise king made Jerusalem strong, fortifying the walls and towers and so for 52 years – two generations or more – the people of God lived in peace, when in their past all they had known was danger and war. Uzziah became proud, as I suppose many do when they have lived a life filled with success, and decides that he doesn’t need the Priests to pray for him any more – he goes into the presence of God himself to offer incense. He is confronted by the Priests who tell him
“It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord, but for the priests, the sons of Aaron, who are consecrated to burn incense. Go out of the sanctuary, for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the Lord God.”
But he would not give up. He took the censar, and at this moment God strikes him with leprosy and suddenly he realises what he had done, and the the Priests rush him out of the Temple before anything worse happens to him. His affliction meant that never again could he go into God’s house, because he thought in his pride that he had the right to bless God, as if Uzziah had something worth giving to God from all his wealth and strength.
Uzziah lives as an exile in his own city, alone cut off and separated from his people. His sin had cut him off from his people, he had rejected the ministry of the Priests who wanted only to pray for him and care for him, and so he must die alone.
In that very year, Isaiah meets God in the Temple. The Prophet is face to face with the one who had touched the king, and the king had left with a curse. The king had thought that he was important enough, significant enough, that God would be pleased to see him. But when Isaiah sees the Lord, God does not address him immediately. God was not waiting for Isaiah to show up, but rather Isaiah walks into a room filled with majesty and splendour, joy and singing.
God is not lonely, after all, and so we have not one but three persons in this throne-room, who are content to rejoice one-another with singing “Holy Holy Holy is the Lord of hosts”. Upon seeing this, Isaiah understands the sin which caused the king to be struck – God is in no need of anything we can bring because God is not lonely. He lacks nothing, but rather in his house there is always singing and praise. God had no need of Uzziah’s offering, for in his court there is always an offering of praise and love.
Woe is me, Isaiah cries. Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips. We thought we worshipped because God had a need for our praises. We thought we offered the incense because with our best efforts, with our devotion, God would be roused from his loneliness to come and help us.
But Isaiah is the lonely one here, walking into a place of abundant love and praise, everlasting fellowship in the Heavenly place. And in this place there is a burning altar with incense, of which the Temple is a reflection, not the true form, and from this altar a coal is brought to Isaiah. It is from God’s abundance in his divine fellowship that we receive mercy. Uzziah once held a coal up to God believing he might bring God something he needed, but the truth was it was Uzziah who needed the coal, and the burning coal God is pleased to give us, the burning coal which cleanses Isaiah of his sin.
Isaiah is alone in the presence of a God who is an abundant fellowship of love, and it is this fellowship of love which welcomes him in. The Seraphim who sings the praises of God swoops down to the Prophet who knew he didn’t belong in the holy place, and the Seraphim who sings God’s praise made him worthy and welcome in this fellowship.
God is not lonely, but from his love he asks “who shall go” and minister to my people. Isaiah, welcomed into the love God has amongst himself, finds that ‘woe is me’ has become ‘here I am’. Isaiah is sent then with a message no one wants to hear, a message of judgement that will set him as an enemy of the king and of the nation, but the Prophet knows that he belongs not to these people who will ask him to sacrifice everything he believes to be accepted and loved. Rather he belongs to a heavenly fellowship which in the abundance of love has drawn him in. Isaiah leaves the Temple of the Lord alone for a life alone in many ways.
But Isaiah is not lonely. He knows the God who is not lonely.
The Lord Jesus Christ is begotten of the Father’s love. Saint John tells us that the Word of God, the full expression of God’s self, is perfectly spoken into our created world and becomes a person, Jesus of Nazareth. From the abundance of God, in whom there is no lack of love, for God is three persons who love one-another, Jesus Christ comes to liberate this creation from its bondage to sin and death. As the heavenly being came to Isaiah to welcome him into the Divine Presence, so Jesus comes to this world to make us welcome and worthy in such a Presence.
Jesus meets a curious teacher of the faith, Nicodemus, late at night. Nicodemus, unlike Isaiah, has not got the benefit of seeing God in his throne room where he is surrounded by praise and so he does not immediately prostrate himself before Jesus but rather seeing him as an equal, as a man like him, he asks a question: We have seen what you do, so you must be from God… but who are you?
See Nicodemus thinks he has invited Jesus in for a conversation. Jesus has not come for a dialogue. Jesus knows he is sent from the Father on a mission to bring all of creation back into the divine relationship of love for which it was made. It is the Kingdom of God with which Jesus is concerned and he knows that somewhere deep in the corners of his soul, so is Nicodemus. Knowing from whom he is sent and why he is here, Jesus can speak directly to Nicodemus’ deepest longing. See hidden in his statement is a yearning – a desperate hope that someone will come for him and he betrays this hope in his question – We know that only people who have come from God can do what you can do… Are you here to teach us something, or are you here to do something more? Can you show us where you have come from? Can you tell us what it is like? Can you help us make this world be a bit more like the place from which you have come? We have been alone for so long, and we are so lost, can you teach us how to hope again?
How might Jesus have responded to Nicodemus? “You are right. I have been sent by God and here are all the things God wants you to do”.
If God were lonely, perhaps this would be what Jesus said. A lonely God looks out resentfully and fearfully upon this strange and broken creation and dictates his orders. At least if these people do as I say, then we have some kind of relationship, and my loneliness is sated. Perhaps this is what Nicodemus wanted – someone to tell him what to do, someone to give him a reason to believe his life has meaning and that his faith is not worthless.
But Jesus, upon hearing Nicodemus state that he knows Jesus is somehow different from anyone else he has ever met, does not withhold but proclaims boldly that he has a way out of this state of isolation.
You can see the Kingdom of God. Yes, you, Nicodemus, you can. You know that I have come from somewhere else, and I am here not because you invited me, but because I am overjoyed to lead you back to the place from which I have come.
You must be born again, he tells Nicodemus. To which he asks, how?
With the same certainty with which Jesus said “Truly truly you must be born again”, he proclaims “Truly truly, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God”. God is not a reluctant host or a selfish healer, extracting from his creation every possible drop of sweat and blood before he will let us near to him. No, just as God is pleased to send Jesus to show us the way to the Kingdom, he is pleased to bring us himself into this kingdom by his own Spirit. In this conversation with Nicodemus we hear Jesus offer far more than he could ever have hoped to receive.
Nicodemus is offered a place in God’s kingdom, and God himself will make Nicodemus worthy and welcome in his presence.
Be born water and the Spirit, Jesus says, and you will come into the fellowship from which I have come.
It is strange that Jesus should mention baptism in this otherwise supernatural event. It is even more strange when we read a few verse later that Jesus did not baptise anyone himself, he had his disciples do it. If Jesus was really concerned to fulfil his mission in restoring people to God, welcoming them into the threefold presence which he enjoyed, why wouldn’t he be the one to baptise them?
Jesus is sent from the Father from a wondrous and coequal relationship of love and prefect trust. For Christ it is this self-giving, self-emptying trust which constitutes his very being, and so how could he change his nature to become something else, some kind of self-interested hero of the world who demands silent obedience. And so from the very beginning of his ministry he has given over to his disciples the work which he has been sent to do. Such a trust in human beings is not a risk for God, the God who lacks nothing at all but rather sends his only begotten Son to give to us all that we have lacked, squandered, and forgotten. And so this word to Nicodemus, that he must be born of water and Spirit is not only an invitation to a spiritual Kingdom of Heaven, but also an invitation into the Kingdom of Heaven as it exists on earth, in the company of Jesus’ friends through baptism. Baptism is not simply a sign of faith, but rather it is a moment where heaven and earth are joined, where God’s abundance is poured through into our arid and dead land. And the Lord Jesus Christ, begotten of the Father’s love, entrusts this ministry to human hands.
Jesus sits late at night with Nicodemus not to have a conversation, but to tell him that he is welcome in God’s kingdom, and that God will make him ready to enter it. The cross comes as no surprise to Jesus, and he knows that he must be ‘lifted up’ to die, yet Jesus who knows the abundance of God’s love which he shares amongst himself is pleased to offer his life to liberate human beings from the guilt of their sins.
God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, from the love they have between one-another, are pleased to bring us poor lonely creatures into the joyful song which is sung in the Divine Presence.
It is so very human to think that we must earn our way out of the loneliness of our finite existence. We give ourselves to romance and learning, work or child-rearing, to chains of command or elected office, to industry and making, to art and performing and to myriad other pursuits to assuage our fear. Yet Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Father has sent him to atone for sin and to make us children of God by the ministry of Baptism indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Nicodemus, despite the unclear ending of this discussion, is one of the few who has the courage to minister to Christ’s body after he is killed. I suppose he might have been a better Christian than I, who with the benefit of living after the day of Pentecost and in a place where God is known and worshipped widely, still find myself so unbelieving of the fellowship I now have with God. I hear the Gospel message and think that I’m somehow going to pay Jesus back for his sacrifice, as if I ever could. And so when I cannot the terror of that gnawing loneliness returns, presenting me with the equally evil choices of justifying myself to others and myself with piety and perfection, or else abandoning myself to my passions to at least gain some kind of comfort for a moment.
Yet the welcome I have into God’s threefold community is not a future hope. Paul teaches us that we are not slaves or debtors, exchanging one kind of bondage for another. We do not cast off bondage to our old lives to receive the chains of an arbitrary religious system, with the eventual hope of making it out of life on the right side of Eternity, or else getting by without being caught doing anything too bad, hidden under a veneer of perfection, gritting our teeth. No, Paul knows that if we are filled with the Spirit of God we will easily lay aside these old temptations and ways of dealing with our loneliness, and in so doing we will begin to discover the truth of what God has done for us. As we listen and live closer to God, the more we will know that we are not slaves, but rather children of God.
Beginning with the Annunciation to Mary that she would conceive and give birth to the Son of God through to the Day of Pentecost, God has unveiled himself to his creation. And that perfect fellowship of love could not keep to itself, but that Divine Love in Three Persons could do nothing other than reach into our lonely world to bring us thin and brittle beings into the rich feast of smells and songs which is his Divine Being. God has disclosed his full self to us, and bears with us as we open our full selves to him. He will not hurry us as if he is waiting for us to be perfect, but rather he makes us all that we need to be to dwell in his everlasting Kingdom.
On this feast of the Holy Trinity we celebrate that God has not withheld himself, and we pray as with every time we gather to worship him, that we will be rid of the sin and shame which makes us withhold ourselves from him. Our God in Three Persons: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, is not a best-guess using inadequate picture-language to describe something unreachable. But rather when we name God rightly as Father, Son, and Spirit, we are telling the true story of how all creation, including ourselves, will be saved.
Because unlike us, God is not lonely, and from his love he has purposed to bring us into his joy.