Monday, June 11, 2012

Big God

June 3rd, 2012                             “Big God”                          Rev. Heather Jepsen

John 3:1-10 and Isaiah 6:1-13                   

          Did you know that today is a liturgical holiday?  That’s right; it’s Trinity Sunday.  Now it certainly isn’t as much fun as Christmas, and it would be a lot harder for us all to wear trinity outfits like we wore red last Sunday for Pentecost.  But, today is Trinity Sunday; it’s something to talk about, something to celebrate, or at least something different to think about before we go back to exciting “ordinary time” next week.

I find myself intrigued by this morning’s first reading from the book of Isaiah.  This is one of those strange passages that I think we sometimes wish wasn’t in the Bible.  It’s one of those crazy vision type stories where we read about six winged seraphs, giant thrones, and rooms filled with smoke.  Not something that I easily identify with; but in many ways I think that’s the point.  Scripture passages like this serve to remind us that often the God we choose to worship is too small.  The God we choose to worship is nothing like the big God that is really out there.

          Frankly I think we are satisfied with letting our God be too small.  We like to have a God that we completely understand, a God we totally know.  We like to imagine our benevolent father in heaven as an old man sitting on a golden chair.  This Gandalf look alike is excessively friendly, not scary or strange, and he only wants the best for us and would never lead us to harm.  This reading from Isaiah makes it very clear that God is not Gandalf.

          Now this is the famous call of Isaiah.  Isaiah is a priest and enters the holy temple only to be blown away by the very real and very frightening presence of God.  He sees God sitting on a giant throne, wearing a giant robe which fills the whole room.  God is attended by Seraphs which are totally other worldly Old Testament creatures.  Seraphs are not angels so we aren’t talking about cute little cherubs here.  Instead, we are talking about six winged creatures that shine like fire or are on fire, I don’t know.  Their name seraph is derived from the Hebrew word to burn.  These creatures cover their eyes with two wings so they don’t look directly at God, they cover their genitals (that’s what feet means) with two wings for modesty, and of course with the other two wings they fly.  Now, to me this reads more like one of those comic book graphic novels than the Bible.

          Isaiah sees all this and thinks, woe is me, definitely not the place for a mortal to be.  Hearing his cry, one of these fiery creatures comes over and burns his mouth with a hot coal, cleansing him from sin.  Again, this reads like something out of a science fiction novel instead of our beloved holy text.  Isaiah overhears God asking for a messenger and since he is newly cleansed of sin he eagerly cries, “Here am I; send me!”

          Now most readers end here, it is where the lectionary officially cuts off for the day, but if we keep going our picture of God grows even stranger.  When we read on, we find that Isaiah has just signed himself up for a doomed mission.  He is to preach a word that the people will not understand; a word that will dull their minds, and shut their eyes and ears.  He is to speak this word until the cities of the people lie in waste, and everyone is sent far away.  Not the kind of voyage I would volunteer for.

          This picture of God in Isaiah is strange and frightening.  God is not benevolent but is sending disaster upon the people.  God does not care for whether or not Isaiah is comfortable with the task God has assigned him.  God is not personal; rather God is simply a voice upon a giant throne in a room filled with smoke.  And God is not at all like the God we like to think of and imagine.  Frankly, the God of Isaiah 6 is a God I often chose not to think about and I would wager many of you agree with me.

          Now my job as a preacher is to find meaning in this text for our lives today.  I don’t think many of us are about to have a run in with a six winged seraph or get a hot coal in the mouth, so there has to be something else.  I think this passage helps us to remember that God is so much bigger, so much stranger, and so much more mysterious then we like to let God be.

           Now, cue the Trinity.  Trinity Sunday is the one day a year the church sets aside to think about the Trinity in worship.  The Trinity is one of those concepts that is a bit mysterious for most people.  Yeah, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost but the thought process ends there for most of us.  And that makes sense, because the Trinity is a complex theological idea that not even theologians agree on.  It’s not something you’re going to read about in the Bible because the concept of the Trinity is not really in the Bible.  And frankly, you’re as likely to get a hot coal in the mouth as you are to have a direct encounter with the whole Trinity in this lifetime. 

          But, the doctrine of the Trinity does serve its purpose; only if it’s to help us better understand God, by saying we can’t understand God.  The fact that we really can’t explain the Trinity reminds us that we really can’t explain God.  We need to be reminded that our ideas about God are never 100% right and that we can never 100% know who God is.  In fact, the God of six winged beasts is as real as the God who wept at the tomb of Lazarus; it’s just that one of these images is a lot easier for us to identify with.

          The truth is that while we can know a bit about God, most of God is a mystery.  Most of God is not like us, and is not something that we could ever understand.   God is profoundly holy, profoundly untouchable, and profoundly other.  God is strange and foreign to us because we are not holy, and we are not God.  I think sometimes we forget that.  It’s much easier for us if God is all about Jesus the good shepherd rather than hot coals and voices in smoky rooms.

          Today’s first reading, from the gospel of John, is another great encounter with our big God.  Nicodemus the Pharisee has come by the cover of darkness to seek out Jesus.  He comes seeking answers, but seems to leave with nothing but questions.  Nicodemus is a religious leader, a religious authority, someone who ought to have a pretty good idea about who God is.  Jesus will blow his mind.

          Part of the misunderstanding between Jesus and Nicodemus has to do with the Greek word anothen which can mean both “again” and “from above”.  Jesus starts talking about being born from above and Nicodemus is talking about being born again.  In fact, Nicodemus gets so stuck in his limited understanding that he’s trying to imagine literally crawling back into his mother’s womb.  Then Jesus starts talking about being born in water and the Spirit, and just like in that room of smoke in the reading from Isaiah, things are starting to get hazy and make less sense.

          Jesus starts teaching Nicodemus that the Spirit is like a wind which blows where it will.  This wind of the Spirit illustrates that God is big, God is mysterious, God can’t be explained, and God can’t be controlled.  The Pharisees had a strict idea, a small idea, about who God was.  And their idea of God certainly didn’t include Jesus or this mysterious wind that was blowing around.  Poor Nicodemus is so confused that all he can say is “How can these things be?” before he wanders off back into the darkness.     

          I love Nicodemus, because like him I think we are often confused seekers.  Sometimes questions aren’t welcome in churches and so we come in the cover of darkness, trying to seek out the true nature of God.  Jesus meets us in our wanderings, but we cannot count on him to give us simple answers.  In fact, like Nicodemus and Isaiah, our encounters with God are more likely to leave us with questions than anything else.  And you know what, I think that’s a good thing.  The moment we have all the answers, is the moment we stop growing in our faith.

Now I am a firm believer that our God is a big God, a Trinitarian God, a mysterious three in one event.  Our God is not small at all, some old Gandalf in a pointy hat.  Rather, our God is a really big God, our God encompasses everything.  Our God is in the mundane from a handshake and hug with a friend and our God is in the mighty from the earthquake to the waterfall.  Our God is a God of mysterious creatures, and a God of simple people.  Our God is totally unknowable, and totally relatable.  Our God is with us all the time, and half way around the world.

          On this Trinity Sunday, I want to encourage you to open your minds and hearts to make space for a big God; a God who is not what you think or expect or even want.  A mysterious strange God who calls you on missions you may not choose, and sends you to places you might not want to go.  A God who goes on and on about the water and the spirit and this strange new birth from above.  A God who perhaps leaves you with more questions than answers.   

As you leave this worship space today and head back out into the world, I want to invite you to think about Isaiah as he partook of the burning coal and then eagerly went wherever God sent him.  I want to invite you to think of Nicodemus as he wandered off in darkness with more questions than answers.  I want to invite you to expand your mind and consider God in a new way.  This Trinity Sunday, I want to invite you to make space in your world for a big God, and leave your small God at home.  Amen.

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