In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 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!”
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
What is God like? How do we know God? How should we think about God? What does God want from us?
We will look at two stories of people who had those questions, and through them, we will be able to ask our own.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Isaiah to have that vision? Seraphs, fiery angelic beings, are flying, calling out to each other and answering. The temple fills with smoke. The whole building is shaking. And he gets a glimpse of God, so immense that the hem of his kingly robe fills the entire temple. He thinks he is certainly doomed. We hear him say,
“Woe is me! I am lost”
What did he think about God that made him believe that he would die in his presence? What did he think about himself?
The angelic beings are calling out to each other,
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Another way to say it would be to say,
“Utterly, utterly utterly Transcendently God-like is God: who fills the whole world with gloriously blinding divinity!”
That description fits exactly the God that Isaiah believes in. But Isaiah is not an angelic being; he is a finite creature, a mortal man, flesh and blood. Even worse, he knows himself as a sinful human being. He is utterly unfit on both counts to be in God’s presence. He believes he is doomed!
Was he wrong? Well, what happened next?
He was not instantly consumed like a pine needle in a flame. Rather an angel flew to him with a live, red-hot coal from the altar fire, touched his sin-stained lips, and in that act of purging and cleansing, pronounced his guilt forgiven, saying
“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Yes, Isaiah had been wrong about God – not in what he understood, but in what was left out of his understanding. Yes, God is utterly, transcendently God-like and glorious. And also merciful; willing to forgive.
He should have known better than to think that God would kill him just for being in his presence. After all, when Moses was in God’s presence, what did he
hear God say? He heard God describe himself – his true character; his essential nature, saying, as he passed by:
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” (Ex. 34:6)
What about us? Lots of people believe that God’s orientation to the world and to us is basically hostile. They believe that God is powerful and demanding, like a Prussian father, whose word is law, and who never smiles. They think God to enjoys punishing sinners. The first thing they think of when they think of God is hell, as though God created the world and its people just to watch them suffer.
That is not what Isaiah experienced when faced with the thrice-holy God. He experienced a God whose goal was to cleanse, purge, purify, and forgive.
What about Nicodemus? He comes to Jesus at night, with only a shadowy understanding of Jesus’ identity. He has seen some of Jesus’ “signs” which has led him to a conclusion:
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
What does Nicodemus think about God and what he wants? He’s a Jewish leader. He knows Torah, the Old Testament backwards and forwards. He understands that God is One. He knows that God made a covenant with Abraham, and that he is included in that covenant. He knows the Law of Moses, the commandments.
Nicodemus apparently believes that God is able to be active in the world, even to do miraculous signs through special people like Jesus as he had done through the prophets. That would mean that God is not entirely hostile to the world and the people he made. But how far does he go in his direct personal involvement with the world?
As a good Pharisee, Nicodemus focuses his thoughts about God on God’s expectations, his commandments. For him, it is not as though God never smiles, it’s just that he believes he reserves his smiles for the deserving.
But Nicodemus needs a new vision of God. He needs to go back to square one and start over. He needs to be born again into a new perspective. He is missing the essential fact. God does not start with commandments, God starts with love.
What does God do when he looks at a world full of sinful, commandment-breaking people? Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ perspective, saying,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
What about us?
When you think about God, thinking about you, what do you think? Is God sitting there waiting for you to mess up so he can punish you? Or is God merely waiting for you to finally “get it together” so he can begin to love you? Both are simply incorrect.
God takes the initiative. He isn’t waiting for anything. God’s desire is not for our condemnation; he doesn’t want anyone to perish. God’s desire is for us to be saved. Saved from what? – from himself? That would absurd. God wants us to know life; life as he created it to be lived. Life lived with him, in his presence, and in kingdom where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
So God looked at us sinful, commandment-breaking, selfish, vengeful, spiteful humans and said (in effect) – “they need my Son to show them who I am and what I want. I love them too much to let them flail along in the dark any more; I’m sending Jesus to them.”
How should we think of God? God the Father, sending Jesus, the Son into our world, empowering him by the Spirit: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the holy Trinity.
The Love Dance (“perichoresis”)
One theologian from the 7th century (John of Damascus) thought we should picture God as a trinity of three dancers, holding hands, dancing together in harmonious joyful freedom. They dance a love dance – the Father loves the Son who loves him back. They both love the Spirit who loves the Father and the Son. Round and round the love dance goes, eternally. (see Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine, rev. ed. 1994, p. 91, ff.)
This dancing trinity pictures God, not as a single, isolated individual, but as an eternal community of persons. God, by nature, is inter-personal, social. God’s love is not megalomania self-love, but always other-directed love. In fact, love is God’s essential characteristic. God is love.
Love cares. Love acts. Love sends the Son to be the way, the truth and the life for sinful finite humans so that they can live as he created them to live.
But he will not leave them as he finds them. Or should we say, he will not leave us as he finds us. We, like Nicodemus, need to change our distorted, score-keeper concepts of God. We need to let that old view die and be born in to an entirely new understanding that begins where God begins: with Love.
What God wants from us
Then we will see that he wants from us exactly what he wanted from Isaiah and exactly what he wanted from Jesus. He wants to send us in to the world that he loves, to go to the people he loves, and to love them.
Isaiah heard it first hand.
“I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And he immediately responded,
“I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Jesus said, a bit later in the Gospel of John,
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” – John 20:21
Who is God? God is love! What does he want from us? Love. Love for God, of course, but love for the world that God loves. Love for the people that God loves.
There are no exceptions here. There is no one outside the reach of God’s love, no one whom he does not want to love through us.
How are we to live as Trinitarian Christians? As love-dancers. Where should we begin the dance? Wherever it is needed the most. That’s what Jesus did. That is what we are here to do.