Friday, June 23, 2006

Sermon for Trinity Sunday (11 June 2006)

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

In a year of national crisis for Israel, at the death of King Uzziah, the prophet Isaiah was given a transforming vision of the majesty of the Triune God. It was a dazzling vision of splendour too great for any human eye to really take in, but in those weak and faltering symbols which we call words, he tried to describe what he saw. The Lord sat on his throne high and lifted up in regal majesty, angels flew and sang the praises of God. The Lord was so holy that even the angels, whom you would have thought were used to being in God’s presence, even those pure and heavenly beings, covered their eyes as they sang his praises.

The whole place shook as they sang, the structural soundness of heaven itself was threatened as the very doorposts and thresholds shook in the presence of God. Here was no tame or domesticated god, like the gods of the nations, who could be housed in little shrines or carried around in the pocket and set up at a makeshift altar of prayer along the wayside. This was the Lord high and exalted, and there is no God like him. He reigns in majesty. No wonder Isaiah trembled in fear. "Woe to me!" [he] 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."

Isaiah was keenly aware of his own personal sin and also of the corporate sin of his people. As an Israelite he knew that no man or woman could look upon the Lord and live. As Reginald Heber’s hymn states, “the eye of sinful man your glory may not see.” Isaiah felt for sure that he was a goner. In searching for a cultural parallel to this I thought of the phenomenon of alien abduction. Many people claim to have been abducted by aliens from other planets, subjected to all kinds of examinations and experiments and then returned to the earth carrying the psychological, if not the physical, scars of their terrifying experience. Now, I am not saying that these experiences are real, but let me just ask you to imagine yourself into such an experience. You are going along in your usual workaday routine perhaps travelling somewhere and suddenly you are struck by a flash of blinding light. The earth shakes as a strange craft emitting eerie noises descends upon you and an alien creature the like of which your imagination could never have begun to conceive reaches out to you and it is clear that it means to take you as its captive. I’m not talking about a cute little cuddly ET either, but one mean alien monster with who knows what murderous intention on its mind. Now tell me you wouldn’t be scared out of your wits.

Something like this must have been Isaiah’s experience. He didn’t just sit back and enjoy a vision of God in the way that we might sit back and meditatively reflect on an icon or a Rembrandt portrait of Christ, or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. No, this was a vision which scared the living daylight out of him and in the light of which he could only cry, “Woe to me! 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.”

As an Israelite, Isaiah well knew the law that no one could expect to look upon the Lord and live. The light of God was so brilliant that no mortal could endure the sight of it. While we were in New Zealand recently we visited the glow-worm caves in the Bay of Islands. Our guide took us into the bowels of the earth and told us of how the glow worms emit their light so that at night unsuspecting insects fly into the cave attracted by the light never to return. Glow worms are arachnids (like spiders) which means they spin webs to trap their victims. Once the bug has flown toward the light it is caught in the web and the glow worm can then feast on it. This has gone on for who knows how many hundreds of thousands of years and the bugs never wake up to what’s going on, much to the benefit of the glow worm population. Isaiah was like a moth to a flame, trapped in a web from which there could be no return expecting to be devoured on the spot by the awesome majesty of the Triune God.

When Isaiah refers to the unclean lips of himself and his people the lips are serving as a symbol for the whole of the sinful human nature. In chapter 1 of his prophecy, verses 4-6, he had bemoaned the universal nature of sin’s power. “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness - only wounds and welts and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil.” (Isaiah 1:4-6)

Perhaps it is significant that Isaiah chooses the lips as a symbol for the sinful human nature, for as a prophet it was with his lips that he was supposed to serve God and with his lips that he had failed God. What do we do when we discover that our best attributes, the God given talents with which we have been blessed instead of being used to bless our neighbours and glorify God have been used instead for sin, have been twisted by our own selfish desires and motives? What do we do when we realise that all around us are in the same situation? That we are sinners and that we dwell among sinners? What can we do except what Isaiah did? Call out “Woe to me! I am ruined!”

Where is the Gospel this Trinity Sunday? Where is the good news in Isaiah? Well, here it comes in verses 6 and 7. "Then one of the seraphs 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.” The Father’s majestic glory might hide from us his grace and compassion but the Son has come to make atonement for our sins and to open up a way back to God. He came as the friend of sinners. We don’t just worship a God “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” We worship the Son who said, “I am the light of the world” - not a light against the world that consumes all in its path - but a light for the world, which shines a light on the pathway back to God.

Isaiah got the opposite of what he was expecting to get. He thought for sure that fire was going to come out from the altar and consume him on the spot leaving just a smudge where the great prophet once had stood! Instead the fire that he thought would consume him, took away his guilt and atoned for his sins. He got exactly the opposite of what he was expecting. Self righteous people, especially the religious sort, get the same - the exact opposite of what they expect. Some people spend their lives congratulating themselves for having avoided the more socially unacceptable, cruder, forms of sin, and for doing so much good for their neighbours in supporting worthy causes of various sorts. They really feel that God should count himself lucky to have them on his side. After all they bring so many talents and resources into the church for God to use. They fully expect a hearty pat on the back when they stand before the Lord to give an account for their lives. How shocked some will be when they hear instead the words, “Depart from me; I never knew you”! "And these shall go away," said Jesus, "into the fire prepared for them. " Yes, fire consumes but it also purifies. It depends very much on the timing of the application! Jesus said he would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Here a hot coal is removed from the altar and placed on Isaiah’s lips, the organ of the faculty of speech which he saw as the location of his problem was touched and purified, reminding us that in whatever areas we may have sinned, God’s purifying work can reach them and transform them through the atoning work of Christ.

The Triune God reigns in majesty; he cannot be seen through the eye of sinful humanity. But it is this same God who atones for sin, and who calls us into his service. Not only does Isaiah find that his guilt is removed and his sin atoned for, he is also given useful work to do for God, as we read in verse 8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"

During the recent Wesleyan Convention in New Zealand, I attended a seminar on discerning God’s call to ministry. The facilitator asked four individuals who were now ordained ministers to share with the group their own testimony. She also asked us to see if there were any common elements shared in each person’s individual story. One thing I noted was that each felt inadequate and unqualified when God first called them. God had to keep working on them until almost against their wills they entered the ministry knowing that only in this way could they follow God’s call on their lives. And aren’t you glad that it is that way? Otherwise the ranks of the church’s leadership would be filled with self confident blustering, arrogant people who feel fully equipped for all that life and ministry might throw in their direction! (As it is we only have a few such people in the ministry.)

The Father’s majestic glory is seen in the Son who opens up a way through his shed blood for us to be purified from our sin. But if we are going to serve God acceptably we are going to need the Holy Spirit - the life of God himself who enables us to accomplish the work he gives each of us to do. If we are going to be able to say ‘Here am I; send me” we are going to need more than morality, more than religion, more than idealism. We will need the life of God himself imparted to us as an indwelling , personal presence. And this is what we have in the Person of the Holy Spirit. The Father sends the Son, the Son dies and rises again to provide forgiveness, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son to empower us to live the Christian life. You see, the Trinity is not just some philosophical speculation. The Trinity is God, and there is no Gospel, no good news, unless God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As the theologian Robert Jenson has said, the Trinity is not a theological puzzle but the key that unlocks all the other theological puzzles. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, now is, and will be forever, world without end. Amen!

No comments:


Share |