Sunday, June 3, 2012

God, Both Near and Far

Sermon for Trinity Sunday, based on Isaiah 6:1-8
June 3, 2012

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a preacher of limited understanding, and I live among a people of limited understanding; yet today is Trinity Sunday and I must preach!

Most Sundays in the church year commemorate something in Jesus’ life (like his birth or resurrection), or something in the life of the church (like Pentecost or Saint’s Days). Trinity Sunday is very different, for it is based on a doctrine. And this doctrine, while central to our faith, is more complicated than our limited understanding can fully grasp. 

When we think of God - many people focus in on the transcendent qualities of God. Transcendent is a fancy way of saying that God is independent and removed from the universe, that God is outside of the world. God is described as being all-knowing, and all-powerful.

Our Old Testament lesson today from Isaiah really brings to mind the transcendence of God. Isaiah is completely overwhelmed by his experience of God. God is so vast and enormous that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. There are mysterious beings called seraphs that are speaking about God’s holiness. And smoke fills the room, adding a further element of mystery and distance. Isaiah exclaims: "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!" (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah is very aware of the fact that God is holy and he is not, that God is mighty and he is small. Isaiah is afraid.

We don’t like to be afraid, but in this circumstance fear is a very reasonable reaction. One of the definitions of fear is a "profound reverence and awe especially toward God" (Merriam Webster). This is what Isaiah is experiencing when he exclaims “Woe is me!” Isaiah sees the vastness and power of God and realizes how simple and small and unclean he is in comparison.

It is very hard to understand how small we are in the vastness of time and space, let alone compared to the vastness of the power of God.

I’m sure many of you have heard of Douglas Adam’s multivolume Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In this series there is a form of punishment called the Total Perspective Vortex, which is thought to be the cruelest form of punishment possible. Intelligent, sentient beings are placed into the Total Perspective Vortex and are shown the vastness of time and space in its entirety, with a tiny arrow that indicates “you are here.” (The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Ballantine, 1981, p.70). That is definitely one way of putting things into perspective!

Fortunately for Isaiah and for us, God does not leave us in a place of isolation and impurity. The seraph with the live coal symbolizes God’s power to purify and make whole. God could have left Isaiah in a state of despair, but God chose to transform Isaiah into a person who is capable of volunteering himself to be sent and used by God. 

God is distant and present, impersonal and personal, outside of the world and in the world.

Although we cannot fully comprehend the nature of God, there are some things that we can say about God. Today I would like to focus on how God is both transcendent and imminent.

This brings me to the immanence of God. Remember transcendence means that God is outside of the world and remote, immanence means that God is somehow manifested in the world and present. Jesus and the Holy Spirit are often considered ways in which God is imminent in the world.

In Philippians 2:6–8, Paul writes that Jesus “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

This is an expression of how God the Son became human in the person of Jesus Christ. God, who was outside of the world, became a being inside the world.

The Holy Spirit is also an imminent expression of God, as the Spirit is the part of God that resides within us.  Last week was Pentecost, and the focus of my sermon was discussing how the Holy Spirit enables communication between us and God. This is possible because the Holy Spirit is present with us, bridging the gap between us and God.

Our closing hymn today is one about the Trinity. It is “Gracious Spirit, give your servants” which is # 782 in Wonder, Love, and Praise. This hymn was written by Carl P. Daw, Jr. for the Consecration of the Rt. Rev. Andrew D. Smith as Bishop Suffragan in the Diocese of Connecticut, in 1996. It is a very interesting hymn for an ordination, because rather than pray for the Bishop-Elect the hymn prays for the whole Church. It also reverses the usual order in talking about the Trinity – instead of starting with God the Father, and ending with God the Holy Spirit the hymn begins with the Holy Spirit and ends with God the Father.  Instead of using the traditional names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the hymn names them as Gracious Spirit, Word made flesh, and Loving God.

The hymn remarks on the Gracious Spirit’s power to bring people joy, hope, and peace and asks “Through us bring your balm of gladness to the wounded and oppressed; help us claim and show God's favor as a people called and blessed.” The hymn doesn’t just pray for the Spirit’s blessing on us, but for us to be enabled to bring the Spirit’s blessing to those in need.

Verse 2 says that the Word made flesh became human like us and asks “let your courage and compassion shape and guide our ministries; as our Savior and our Shepherd, lead us to the truth that frees.” We ask Jesus to lead us to the truth, and to shape and guide our ministries in the world.

In the third verse, Loving God is praised for creating the universe and making life. The hymn asks that “when we feel confused and fruitless, dawn upon our restless night; give us faith's imagination, hope's renewing, love's delight.” We pray that God will bring light to us when things seem dark, and to give us the power of faith, hope and love.

The last verse asks the Triune God that “through us may the world behold you, find your love, your truth, your light.” This whole hymn is connecting the power of God with our mission in the world. In a way, we are the immanent aspect of God as we are the ones who represent God in the world. Through our words and deeds the world may know God’s love and power.

This is quite a responsibility – to represent God in the world. We cannot do it perfectly, after-all, we are merely human beings. But God empowers us to be able to do God’s mission in the world. It is our choice whether or not we want to do this. Remember Isaiah? He heard God asking "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" and Isaiah answered, "Here am I; send me!" Isaiah was able to volunteer after God purified Isaiah and made him whole. As we are, we are small and unworthy – but God transforms us into people who are capable.

God might have created the universe and so be outside of it, but God has acted in the world through Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and finally also through us human beings. Today we pray for healing and wholeness, so that when God asks “Whom shall I send” we are all capable of answering “Here am I; send me!”