The Feast of the Holy Trinity, 31 May 2015
Psalm 29, or Canticle 2 or 13
St. John 3:1-17
Background: Luther’s Sanctus
The first reading for this day takes me back to my days as Vicar (Intern) at The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Saint Luke in Chicago during the early seventies. There was a parochial school there and on Wednesdays, there was a Eucharistic celebration for the students, faculty and staff. Often times we would sing Luther’s Sanctus from Deutsche Messe, the hymn Isaiah Mighty Seer in Days of Old. The text for the hymn is drawn from Isaiah 6, and it was marvelous to hear 300 treble voices trilling, “holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth, behold his glory filleth all the earth.” And indeed it was so, given from the mouths of these children. The hymn does not appear in Episcopal hymnal; else I would have been tempted to use it on this Sunday.
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!"
These verses begin the so-called Testimony of Isaiah, a testimony that goes on for some length, lasting until chapter 9:7. In it we hear of his call and his thoughts and visions that accompany the divine commissioning. There is a temptation in this reading to get lost in the glory of the vision, but the later verses quickly correct this as they focus on Isaiah’s humanity. That the vision is dated speaks to Isaiah’s desire to speak to the reality and authenticity of his call by God. The scene is from the Temple, and various aspects of the cultus of the Temple are recalled here. Was this the product of his own interior vision, or was this Isaiah intimately acquainted with the Temple? We are not certain. What is more compelling however is how the life of the Temple intersects with his call as a human being. His complaint about unclean lips is quickly met by the angel with the burning coal from the altar. Does it purify only, or does it add Isaiah to its sacrificial victims – does the sanctity of Isaiah’s life serve to be a testimony to the people. Since he then becomes a “sent one”, an Apostle of the First Covenant. What is remarkable is that God does not send Isaiah directly, but that he volunteers, “Here I am, send me!”
Breaking open Isaiah:
- Have you ever been awed by God’s presence? Where and when?
- Have you ever been brought low by your humanity? Where and when?
- Has an angel touched your tongue with a living coal?
Psalm 29 Afferte Domino
Ascribe to the LORD, you gods, *
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his Name; *
worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
The voice of the LORD is upon the waters;
the God of glory thunders; *
the LORD is upon the mighty waters.
The voice of the LORD is a powerful voice; *
the voice of the LORD is a voice of splendor.
The voice of the LORD breaks the cedar trees; *
the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon;
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, *
and Mount Hermon like a young wild ox.
The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire;
the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; *
the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe *
and strips the forests bare.
And in the temple of the LORD *
all are crying, "Glory!"
The LORD sits enthroned above the flood; *
the LORD sits enthroned as King for evermore.
The LORD shall give strength to his people; *
the LORD shall give his people the blessing of peace.
Psalm 29 is an excellent example of how other cultures influenced writers in the Hebrew Scriptures. This particular psalm has so many allusions that some scholars have thought it to be a direct borrowing from Canaanite literature. Others disagree and feel that the psalmist wrote, cognizant of models and phraseology evident in other cultures. We are aware of, given the content of the first verse, an understanding of YHWH as the chief among all the gods of the Levant, “ascribe to YHWH, you gods.” The Hebrew is better rendered as “O sons of God”; designated as the heavenly court that surrounds the throne of YHWH.
What follows are exhibits of God’s power: God’s voice over the waters (God’s triumph over chaos), God’s voice breaking the cedars of Lebanon (the North) and the wilderness of Kadesh (the South). The glory that the people cry could either be in the Temple, but more likely is seen as shouts of joy in God’s celestial palace, lending a more cosmic tone to the psalm. Again, God is pictured as “enthroned above the flood”, another reference to YHWH’s victory over chaos. It is this strong Lord that gives the people strength and peace.
Breaking open Psalm 29:
- Where have you known God’s glory?
- How did it change your life?
- Have you shared that vision with others?
A Song of Praise Benedictus es, Domine
Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34
Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.
This song, used as a canticle in the liturgical churches, follow after Daniel 3:23, but for context you might want to look at Daniel 1:6-7. It is sung in the morning offices of the Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. There is no extant Hebrew or Aramaic text of the song, although there are witnesses to it in Greek, Syriac, and Latin sources. Some scholars see a late origination of the song, perhaps the 14th Century. It models the praise of and cosmic context of Psalm 22.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Fresh from the celebrations of Pentecost, Paul would now teach us about what it is like to live in the Spirit. Here he makes some necessary distinctions between the flesh (sarx in Greek) and the spirit (pneuma). Although he uses such a “fleshy” term, it is not actual flesh that he is talking about but rather an attitude about life – an attachment to the world and its ways. To this Paul contrasts life in the Spirit. The witness of the Spirit is that we are more than flesh – that we are indeed children of God. He uses other terms of connection: heirs, and joint heirs. We are included in the family of Christ in God. It is quite the distinction.
Breaking open Romans:
- What is your attitude about the world in which you live?
- Where do you see or feel the Spirit there?
- How connected to God do you feel?
St. John 3:1-17
There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 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." Jesus answered him, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above." 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?" Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born from above.' 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." Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
"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. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"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."
Again we are caught up in a dilemma – an understanding about the material and the spiritual. In the previous chapter of John, we see Jesus caught in the midst of several misunderstandings: his saying about the destruction of the temple (his body), the demand for a sign from the Jews, and Jesus’ doubt about the true intent of those who, “began to believe in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.” The pericope ends with an odd verse, “But Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” - enter Nicodemus.
Nicodemus comes with a questioning heart, and perhaps we give him short shrift for this. Others will approach Jesus with the same sense of doubt and question, and it is to these that Jesus urges a new beginning – a new life, if you will. That Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus speech here only gives John the opportunity to expand on what Jesus meant. It becomes a speech of contrasts: seen and unseen, believed and not believed, ascension and descension, that from above and that of this world. Soon we are no longer concerned about Nicodemus. It is almost as if the camera dollys in to focus on the face of Jesus, and to pick up his words. We are all Nicodemus, and perhaps Nicodemus is a representation of those who want to believe, but are caught up in their questions, and wonderment. The final sentence, given the image of all these questing souls, is really quite poignant, “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.”
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What misunderstandings do you have about Jesus?
- Have you been born again? How?
- How do you focus on the life of Jesus?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller