Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to capture or imagine the awe and terror of Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne of the Lord. The hem of God’s robe fills the temple; now that’s a big robe!
Seraphim are there, hovering and shouting (though we often think of angels “singing,” the text never really says that they sing.)
The house is shaking and there’s smoke everywhere — much more dramatic than our sanctuaries on most Sundays, I’d say.
The cumulative effect is that Isaiah comes quite undone. “Woe is me,” is the best hymn of praise that he can squawk out. Something about truly seeing God as holy reminds us deeply and painfully that we are not.
And, yet — the call of God comes: “Who will go for us?” Since there’s nobody else present, Isaiah steps us with one of his most famous lines: “Here am I (gulp); send me.”
The old evangelist used to say, “When it comes to the call of God, it’s not your ability God is interested in. It’s your availability!” I kind of like that, even if it makes me nervous!
The psalm text offers accompaniment and counterpoint to Isaiah’s grand vision of God.The emphasis is on the commanding, calling “voice of the LORD.”
This voice is not for the faint of heart, yet it is a source of both strength and peace.
Our readings in Romans 8 continue, opening doors to yet more aspects of the limitless, ever-present Spirit of God.
- The Spirit leads and guides
- The Spirit “puts to death” our fleshly inclinations
- The Spirit does not lead us to fear
- The Spirit allows us to cry out to God, as a young child to a loving, trustworthy father
- The Spirit assures us that we are, indeed, children of God
We have encountered portions of this reading already through the church year; there is much of note in this third chapter of John’s gospel. On Trinity Sunday, however, perhaps the center of the text is found in v. 8:
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
One of the most difficult illusions for we human beings to give up is that of control over our lives. Experience teaches us that there are really very few things that are within our capacity to control.
Certainly, we do not control the Spirit of God — anymore than we can control the wind. (As I write these words, we are entering the “hurricane season” in Florida with a tropical storm just off the coast. If you’ve ever survived a hurricane or similar natural disaster, you realize just how little control you have!)
That image helps me connect to Isaiah’s experience in our first reading. His experience of God was somewhat out of control, to the point of being terrifying. Much like the roaring of hurricane-force winds and the sound of trees splitting or being ripped up by their roots.
May we not forget the power we are dealing with when we blithely mention the presence of the Spirit, pronouncing the Spirit’s blessings on the lives of those to whom we preach and with whom we minister.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
When my parents were still living, I used to call home about once a week. It was a “News from Lake Woebegone” sort of phone call – though in my case it was the “News from Slate Mountain.”
I got an update on the latest spat at the church and how the weather and the crops were doing and finally the obituaries, which were always a bit confusing because I never really knew who was being talked about – neither who was dead nor who was mourning.
Daddy would say, “Well, I don’t reckon you heard about William McCorkle dying?” While I was smart enough not to point out to my father that a 75 year old man dying in Slate Mountain, North Carolina was unlikely to be big news in Atlanta; I was not smart enough to refrain from admitting that I did not know who William McCorkle was. “Sure you do,” he would protest, “He was your Great Aunt Vesta’s first boy by her second husband, Old Man Willard McCorkle. She married him after your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton died.” Me: “I still have no clue Daddy.” My father: “He ran that little store up on Highway 52, almost into Virginia.” Me: “Oh yeah, I remember him. He would sell beer to me when I was still underage and in high school.” Daddy, “Well, he wasn’t a real Chilton, but anyway – he died. Funeral’s at the Holiness Church on Tuesday.”
The thing that always fascinated me about these conversations is that while abstract, technical connections were important to Daddy – “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first marriage,” – they meant nothing to me. But, whenever he could identify an activity, something the person did,
I would often remember who they were.
Identity and activity are closely intertwined. When trying to describe someone else, after we say they are tall or short; fat or thin; young or old; blonde, brunette, gray, or bald; what do we have left to say? We most often shift to talking about something they do: how they dress, how they talk, what they like to eat, the books they read, the hobbies they pursue, stories about funny things that happened while you were with them. All of this is about activity, about doing.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. Traditionally, Lutherans use the Athanasian Creed on this day. It’s on page 54 of the Lutheran Book of worship. And on page 55. It’s really long. And it has lines in it like this: “Uncreated is the Father; uncreated is the Son, uncreated is the Spirit. The Father is infinite, the Son is infinite, the Holy Spirit is infinite. Eternal is the Father, eternal is the Son, eternal is the Spirit; And yet there are not three eternal beings, but one who is eternal; there are not three uncreated and unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited.” and so forth and so on for two long pages. This, to my ears, sounds a lot like “Your Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle before he died and she married your Great Uncle Grover Cleveland Chilton.”
All the abstractions about both God and William McCorkle may be true and technically accurate, but for most of us, they are not particularly revealing or relevant to the way we live out our faith. What is important to most of us about the Trinity is the way it helps us understand and participate in the activity of God in the world. Who God is and what God does in the world is revealed to us in the Living, active Word of Scripture and the way we learn there about how God acts to save the world and us.
The three basic cycles of revelation in the Bible are 1) – God as Creator and Parent, Provider and Liberator told to us in the Creation, Exodus and Promised Land stories. 2) – God as Redeemer shown to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. And 3) – God as Sanctifier, the one who makes us holy, bursting upon in the stories in Acts as the church grows upward and outward. We traditionally talk about these using the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
But, both in the scripture and in our lives, it is not so easy to separate things. Genesis Chapter One talks about the Spirit of God moving on the waters and John’s Gospel in its first chapter makes a case for Jesus as the Christ as the Word of God that speaks creation into being. Our text from Romans intertwines all three aspects in its exploration of what it means for us to be adopted as Children of God. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, told to us in John 3, talks about the Kingdom of God and being born of the Spirit and the Son of Man being lifted up – more mixing and matching of the activities of God in the world and in our lives.
Whatever else it may be, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is important to us as a short-hand way to remember the “many and various ways” God has revealed God’s self in the past, and as a guide to the possible ways God will continue to reveal the Divine Presence in the present and future.
The trinity reminds us that our God is an active god, not content to sit back and see what happens. Our God is a god who has been and will continue to be engaged in the lives and goings on of the world and God’s many beloved children.
The trinity reminds us of our calling to be actively engaged in carrying out God’s will and way, mission and ministry in the world. We are invited to jump into the work of creation, caring for and bettering the earth, which God made and then placed into our hands for safe-keeping. We are invited to carry on with the task of redemption; taking Christ’s message of love and forgiveness, grace and renewal, to all people in all places. We are invited to live life in the Spirit, being ever more attentive to the intimate presence of God in our lives; praying, meditating, and living out the fruits of love born through our interior communion with God.
Because, as important as it is to know who “Great Aunt Vesta’s boy by her first husband Old Man Willard McCorkle” was; it’s much more important to know how to treat him when you meet him on down the road.
Amen and Amen.