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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville
God in Three Persons
Dr. Todd B. Jones
June 3, 2012
 

Isaiah 6:1-8
John 3:1-17

 

Today in our house we are locked-in on the Royal Flotilla, on the celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Sixtieth Anniversary as Queen. There are events that are so large and so public that to mention them at all speaks volumes. If you lived in America in the nineteenth century, the death of Abraham Lincoln was one such event. Lincoln died in April of 1865 on Good Friday, no less. And if you had mentioned the death of Lincoln, every American, both North and South, would have known of it. It is almost fifty years ago now, but for America's older generations, the death of John Kennedy and the dramatic events surrounding it remain vividly implanted in our minds. No one who remembers those days needs to be reminded that John Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. They will never forget! September 11 is another day and event that will always live in the public memory of this country and its people. No one needs to say September 11, 2001. We know, and will never forget.

Isaiah said, years later, recounting the vision that led to his call to be a prophet, "In the year that King Uzziah died…." Apparently, there was no reason to say when that was, for every one of his audience would have known. Uzziah reigned for fifty-two years as the King of Judah, and II Kings said of his early years, "Uzziah did what was right in the sight of the Lord." It is a rare king of Israel or of Judah who receives such praise from the writers of the Old Testament. So when Uzziah died, in 742 b.c., it was a time of great national crisis, rife with fear and uncertainty, when Isaiah entered the Temple to worship and encountered the living God.

This is one of the great call texts of the whole Bible, and it tells us, as most of these passages do, more about God than it does about us. Isaiah has a vision of the living God that forever transformed his life and the life of his people, for he was called to speak a word of judgment to his nation, a word that came to him from the Lord.

John Calvin loved this passage, and returned to Isaiah's call often to speak of God's majesty and transcendence, the Trinity, divine and human power, and the mystery of divine election or calling. There is far more in this powerful text than this sorry preacher will ever get out of it. But I have always found that to wade into such deep waters can deepen us. So let's dive in and swim!

First, please note how Isaiah describes the God he encounters. "…I saw the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and His train filled the temple." Other translations say, "and the hem of His robe filled the temple." There is nothing small or contained or manageable about this God. This God Isaiah sees is large, too large to be contained or held by any earthly temple or cathedral. I remember standing in St. Peter's in the Vatican and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul a few summers ago. They are both large and majestic, so beautiful that they put tears in my eyes. They speak of transcendence and holiness. But as grand as they are, God is grander still.

One of the principles of gothic architecture was that there be no place within a church were you could see everything at once. There are always spaces, recesses, rooms and ceilings that go beyond the limit of your vision. Good architecture grew out of good theology. God is great, and to encounter this sovereign Lord is to be filled with awe and wonder, with "the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom."

The Doctrine of the Trinity that we note today in worship by no means explains or captures God. God is too ineffable, too mysterious, too full of majesty to be fully understood or grasped by finite beings. And the Doctrine of the Trinity is the Church's way of saying just this. God is thick with mystery, God is full of majesty, God is large and complex, always beyond our comprehending. The Trinity is the Church's best attempt to explain who we have understood God to be, on the basis of what scripture tells us. But it never pretended to tell us everything of this awesome, majestic God that there is to know.

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, "What is God?" I always wished it had asked, "Who is God?" but it does not, and I think now with good reason. God is personal, but God can never be reduced to anything human or earthly. God is God, and God alone. "What is God?" asks question 4. "God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth." In other words, God is great, grand and large beyond our grasping.

According to the seraphim who sing, God is holy. "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory." We sang it this morning: "Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee."

God is holy, Isaiah learned, and we are not. To see the holiness of God is to cry with Isaiah, "Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips…." To encounter the Living God is to be humbled, and that is why we do well to worship God as often as we possibly can. Nothing is uglier than human pride, arrogance and self-deception, and humility becomes us as nothing else ever does.

Yet note God's response to Isaiah's confession of his own sinfulness and unworthiness. God draws near to Isaiah. In his encounter, one of the seraphim flew down from the throne with a coal to touch his lips, to purge his sin, to make him clean, to take away his sin. Calvin noted that this was the movement of God in the Incarnation, where God came down from heaven, down to earth to touch us, to purge us of our sin, to forgive us and to take our guilt away. God is holy, yes. But God is also personal. Jonathan Edwards' whole theology moved into a new key when he realized one day that God is infinitely personal. John would say that, "God is love." This is the great truth carried to us by God the Son, who is sent by His heavenly Father to be God incarnate, God who gives His life in love to take away our guilt.

God is holy and transcendent, but that is not all that God is. God is also imminent, near and close at hand, alongside us, even "one of us." And God is involved in human history. "In the year that King Uzziah died," in the year that Jesus died, in the year that Abraham Lincoln died, in the year that John Kennedy died, in this very year of our Lord, 2012, God is involved in history, God is engaged in our lives. That is the meaning and the hope of the Incarnation. God entered our world as a helpless, vulnerable baby in Bethlehem so we would know that God, the holy God, is also a God who promises to be God-with-us, and never, ever will be God apart from us.

Finally, on this Trinity Sunday, and in this season of Pentecost, please note that God helps us find our voice, and leads us to hear and heed His call. The reason the Bible tells us of the call of Abraham, and the call of Moses, and the call of Jeremiah, and the call of Ezekiel, and the call of Paul, and the call of Mary, and of course, the call of Isaiah, is so we will get the message that those whom God creates, God calls. Luther called it "the priesthood of all believers." By the power of the Holy Spirit, God calls us to serve Him, to live our lives to the glory of God. God calls us all in baptism.

I did not come to First Presbyterian Church, Nashville ten years ago to be your pastor just because I wanted to. I came because I honestly believed that God was calling me to serve the Lord in this time and place. The point of sharing this is not about me, but about us all. I pray to God that you know what it is to wrestle with God's call and claim upon your life as well. God comes to us in the most personal of ways and means, and by the mystery of the Holy Spirit's power and peace, God speaks to us. God calls. God takes away our guilt, forgives us our sin when we honestly confess it, and God gives us our voice.

Isaiah heard the word of the Lord in his own call. "Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?" And he responded, "Here am I Lord, send me!"

May we, in our place and time, listen for the call of God upon us, the God who calls us by name in our baptisms to be His children. No God could be any more personal than this One God in three persons.

"Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?" "Here am I, Lord, send me." Are you listening?

Amen.

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