The Feast of the Holy Trinity, The First Sunday after Pentecost, 27 May 2018

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29 or Canticle 13, Benedicitus es, Domine
Romans 8:12-17
St. John 3:1-17

Background: Majesty and Mystery

Alan Jones, former Dean of Grace Cathedral, in San Francisco, in his wonderful book on Anglican Orthodoxy, sets a tone that I think we need to adopt as we approach Trinity Sunday, and as we think about the complexity of Trinitarian thought. He writes,

“Orthodoxy invites reverence before mystery and the ability to hold the paradox of knowing and not-knowing at the same time in silence and in adoration. Orthodoxy opens horizons. It invites us to a banquet. It does not imprison us in a fortress.”[1]

There are several things in this quote that I think help the average person sitting in the pew on this Sunday and ruminating over the notion of the Holy Trinity. I even think that it might help the preacher who will have to push beyond her own musings and actually say something about the Trinity – something that will lift up the idea in a parishioner’s mind and allow them to “see” God. I especially like his notion of “knowing and not-knowing”, a condition that encompasses all of us as we approach the Holy Trinity. He adds to that spectrum a similar one, known to the prophets as well, “time in silence and in adoration.” Our worry on this Sunday is one of desiring to understand the impossible. The readings for this day are laced with wonder and praise, and also with question and mystery. To answer it all is beside the point. To sit or kneel in wonder is spot on. So, with Isaiah, the Psalmist, the Three Young Men, Paul, and the Romans, and Nicodemus in his dilemma, we are positioned, as Paul would say, somewhere between suffering and glory. Nicodemus was brave in asking his questions, and Jesus was grand in his adding to the mystery. 

A final quote from Alan, may aid us in our study of these readings, 

“Anglican orthodoxy begins and ends in prayer, in silence before the mystery. It is not anti-intellectual but insists on the joining of intellect with emotion, of praying, as the Eastern tradition has it, with the mind in the heart.”[2]

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

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!”

Following an accounting of the desperate situation in which Israel finds itself in the first five chapters of the book, the first of the Isaiahs takes a moment to see the God who has called him not only into faith but into ministry as well. He sees God in holiness before he discovers what he must do in the face of the dire circumstances in which he finds himself. It is a good directive for us as well, to look in God’s direction and to discover God’s holiness and majesty. The temptation is to view the scene as a static depiction of God and God’s minions, but we must set that aside. The seraphim in attendance are called to go out with a message. Here the message is one of glory and majesty, but they will also be sent out to proclaim God’s will in difficult times. How appropriate is that for us?

It is not only the angels, ultimately, who are sent out with the message it is Isaiah as well. He with them cries out “Holy, holy, holy,” but then there is more, and like most of the prophets he fears that he is not up to the demands of the job. So, his tongue is touched, his guilt and forgiven, and his sin is no more. This is all so that he can answer the last question, “Who will go for us?” It is not just Isaiah’s question, but ours as well. This Sunday is given us not only to ponder the mystery of how we describe God, but also to ponder what we must do to proclaim the message, and answer with Isaiah, “send me!”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. If God should call you would you feel unworthy of the call? Why?
  2. What gifts would you need to be God’s messenger?
  3. How can the Church give you these gifts?

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!"
10    The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; *
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
11    The Lord shall give strength to his people; *
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

For those who are interested, Robert Alter’s introduction to this psalm[3]and its proposed dependence on Canaanite and other near-eastern literary tradition provides a helpful context to the multiplicity of images evoked in this Psalm. The repeated phrase “Ascribe to the Lord” is a pattern seen in the oldest poems of Hebrew literature (see especially the Song of Deborah).  Examples of incremental repetition (see “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters…upon the might waters) are seen throughout the psalm. 

It is not just the words that may have been appropriated here, but mythic images as well, which give us a vision of God best seen in the creation narratives of Genesis. “The Lord’s voice is over the waters”, recalls for us the ancient story of the ordering of chaos. The nature that surrounds Israel is called up to witness to the glory of YHWH. The trees of Lebanon or Northern Israel, indeed the opposite – the wilderness – is called upon for its witness as well. All of these elements are objects of God’s on-going creative hand. Alter suggests that “temple” ought to be translated as “palace”, thus seeing a cosmic setting above the earth below. The cry of the people, however, seems to call for a setting in the Temple, where they would have experienced God’s glory. 

Again, the ancient creation myth is cited, “The Lord sits enthroned above the flood.”It is Israel’s God who divides the water from the land, who sits above the forces of nature. Compare the role of Jesus when he is caught with the disciples in the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The psalm closes as it began, with the giving of a gift. Here the gift is from God, a gift and blessing of peace.

Breaking open Psalm 29:
  1. How is this image different from your image of God?
  2. How is it the same?
  3. What might you add?


Canticle 13: A Song of Praise   Benedictus es, Domine

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 non-canonical text is found in verses following Daniel 3:23. It is the third of three portions in the so-called “Song of Azariah” – a song of praise in light of their deliverance from the fire that was to have killed them. It is used in Orthodox, Roman, Anglican and Lutheran liturgies, largely in the offices. The text is not found in the Aramaic or Hebrew texts of the Book of Daniel, but is found in Greek Syriac, and Latin translations of that book. The structure of the text follows models in the psalms where incremental repetition is used to great effect. The song is an explosion of praise to the God who has delivered the Three Young Men.

Breaking open Canticle 13::
  1. For what do you need to praise God?
  2. From what have you been saved by God?
  3. Who was instrumental in that salvation?

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17

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.

Here Paul leads us through contrasts of Spirit and of flesh. Setting aside the criticism of those who think Paul uses the notion of “flesh” only in a negative manner, we need to see it as an outlook or attitude that is bounded by the self to the exclusion of wider concerns. This is an attitude that sees only self and not the things of the Spirit, to which Paul calls us. He sees it as a distinction between life and death, and calls upon his readers to opt for life. And why should they? “You have received a spirit of adoption.” It is that spirit that allows us to call God Abba. Just as God is community, so are we as well.

Breaking open Romans:
  1. How are you fleshy?
  2. How are you spiritual?
  3. How are you adopted into God’s family?

The Gospel: 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.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus makes four visits to Jerusalem, all of them to participate in Jewish festivals. With this account of Nicodemus, we have the first of these visits, on the occasion of the Passover. The pericope is hopeful in its approach. Jesus is approached by a Pharisee – a sign of dialogue and thoughtful conversation on the stuff of Jesus’ ministry. It is a dialogue of contrasts, however, with Jesus’ focus on the spiritual and Nicodemus’ insistence on looking at mechanics and logistics. There is some significance to the time of the conversation,“he came to Jesus by night.” Our current worldview and experience would see this as a signal that this was a secretive and covert meeting. The real meaning and symbol here is that Nicodemus comes after sundown, at the beginning of a new day!  Jesus will lead him from misunderstand what Jesus has to say, into understanding and wisdom. 

Nicodemus does not start from ground zero, for he already has experience with and understanding of Jesus. But there is more, and that is the stuff of difficulty for Nicodemus. It is about origins. Jesus wants us to be born from above, born again. Nicodemus can only perceive that in mechanistic terms, not in spiritual terms. Mere life is not enough – there needs to see a vision of being born in and related to God. Paul’s commentary in Romans (see Second Lesson) moves in this direction. What is the witness that has been made in the Scriptures? Jesus gives the example of the serpent raised up in the wilderness for healing and deliverance, and then gives the famous passage that comments on his being the gift God gives the world for the purpose of salvation. It is the gift of water and of the Spirit – a baptismal understanding. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Is Nicodemus in the night or at the beginning of a new day?
  2. What is there of the night in this story?
  3. What is there of the new day in this story?

Goal:                   To sit in the silence of a quiet mind and to worship God in holiness.

Malady:              Our propensity to “understand”.

1.      To know our relationship to God in Baptism
2.      To know our relationship to God in the community of human beings.
3.      To know God in our praise and wonder
4.      To know God in the gifts of Eucharist and Forgiveness
5.      To share God with those who are caught in wondering

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 © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Jones, A. (2006), Common Prayer on Common Ground: A Vision of Anglican Orthodoxy, Church Publishing Inc., New York, Kindle Edition, page 8.
[2]     Ibid, page 9
[3]     Alter, R. (2007) The GBook of Psalmas: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, location 2732.


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