A Reading from the Book of 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!”
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.
A Reading from the Letter of Paul to the 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.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (3:1-17)
Now 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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Many years ago, it occurred to me that the common idea of education, as the accumulation of answers, is terribly inadequate. There are far too many people who think that they have life figured out, who, in reality, don’t have a clue. Instead, I realized that our learning, our real education, actually takes place, at least ideally, in two phases.
Phase 1 consists in accumulating answers. It begins even before we are born and reaches its high point somewhere in early to mid-adolescence. At that point, we have all the answers, clear and simple (although, as H.L. Mencken pointed out “There is always an easy solution to every human problem, neat, plausible, and wrong.”).
Phase 2, again at least ideally, begins somewhere around that point in life. Phase 2 is the stage in life where we begin to focus on and begin to understand the questions. And when we recognize how little we know and understand, and when we grow to become comfortable living with the questions – it is then that we are engaged is our real education.
Now I used the adverb “ideally” because some people, unfortunately, never reach that stage in life. They continue to pretend as though they already have the answers to life’s most important questions, including questions about God. They insist that the way that they were taught to think about God when they were children is the complete and absolute truth. They reduce God to something they are able to understand and explain, preferably in a statement short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. In doing so, they ignore a core teaching of Augustine of Hippo who, 1500 years ago, stated simply, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus”: “If you understand it, it’s not God.”
Today, we enter in a special way into the mystery who is God as we celebrate Trinity Sunday. The early Christians struggled for centuries to try to come up with some sort of statement about the relationship between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit upon which at least most of them could agree. We know that statement as the Nicene Creed, formulated in the fourth century by two different councils of the church. And yet, the reality of God, by its very nature, is beyond any set of words or thoughts that we can ever formulate.
Ultimately, we cannot understand God. All we can do is to worship God.
The psalms, which have long been called “The Prayer Book of the Church,” describe and reflect on God’s relationship with the human race and the rest of creation. But, most of all, they simply address God in worship. Sometimes that worship is one of lament and protest. Often, it is one of thanksgiving and praise.
That ancient Jewish approach to God, as reflected throughout our Old Testament, does not focus on philosophical statements about the inner nature of God. Instead, it focuses on God as we and all the rest of creation exist in relationship with God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote about that relationship and the centrality of worship in this way: “God may be of no concern to man, but man is of much concern to God. The only way to discover this is the ultimate way, the way of worship. For worship is a way of living, a way of seeing the world in the light of God. To worship is to rise to a higher level of existence, to see the world from the point of view of God. In worship we discover that the ultimate way is not to have a symbol but to be a symbol, to stand for the divine. The ultimate way is to sanctify thoughts, to sanctify time, to consecrate words, to hallow deeds.”
This is what we do in worship. We enter consciously into the presence of God, allowing God to sanctify our thoughts, the time of our lives, our words, and our deeds. We allow them all to be taken up into God. Or, more accurately, we allow ourselves to experience the fact that all of them are already taken up into God, for that is where we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28): in the gracious and loving God of all creation.
Worship is an acknowledgement of what I have called “Phase 2” of our education. It does not provide answers as much as it invites us in and enables us to live in the questions. As much as we might want to understand God and the ways of God, worship recognizes that it is only by accepting and embracing and entrusting ourselves to the God whom we do not understand that we can come fully to experience ourselves enveloped in the presence and in the life of God.
People throughout history have used countless names and descriptive expressions to identify the one whom we call “God” and to express their perception of their relationship to God. Some have addressed themselves to the “Lord of Hosts Who is seated upon the Cherubim”: that seems to be the formal name by which God was known in the days of the first Jewish temple. Others have prayed to the one whom they have called the “Eternal Father,” to the “Source of All Being,” to “Adonai,” to “the Lord,” to “Allah the Merciful,” to the “Ground of All Being,” or to the “Encompassing Spirit in Which All that Is Is.”
In today’s first reading, Isaiah, ministering in the ancient temple, enters into the ultimate mystery who is God, never understanding, but willingly committing his life to the divine presence. And, in our gospel reading, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, stating at first what “we know.” But he leaves with his assurance stripped away, muttering only a question: “How can these things be?” He didn’t realize it at the time, but he had just made great progress on his way toward God. Jesus’ words had made him put aside what he thought he knew, a sure and certain answer; but, in doing so, he had begun to ask the real questions.
That journey would lead him later to challenge his fellow Jewish leaders when they thought that they had the answers and were ready to condemn Jesus. And it later reached a critical point when he stepped out of the darkness to join Joseph of Arimathea in asking for and burying the body of the one who had raised the critical questions in them.
As Sir John Templeton has noted, “If we become increasingly humble about how little we know, we may be more eager to search.” And in that searching, we might just find that God is both the Ultimate Question and the Ultimate Answer.