Texts: Isaiah 6.1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8.12-17; John 3.1-17
When we choose to give ourselves to God in baptism, thus calling on Christ to come and live with us by the companionship of the Holy Spirit, we also choose to cede, or put aside, our right to do whatever we would like. When we choose to live God’s way, we also choose to die to our own way. In the language of John’s gospel, at baptism we are re-born ‘from above’. We cease to live according to the many wills associated with our first birth, whether those of self or society. We start to live according to the unfathomable will of the Spirit, who has mid-wived us into a broad new land, a land in which the only thing that matters is the utterly extravagant love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit—a love so broad and deep that it spills out into the world of human beings, inviting them to love and be loved as the Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father. At baptism, according to John, we are caught up in the wild and excessive love that is the divine will of the Spirit, a will and a way that cannot be domesticated. ‘Like a wind that comes and goes according to a hidden purpose, so it is with everyone born of the Spirit’, says John. When we are baptised, we vow ourselves to a God who might take us in directions entirely opposite to the ones we had planned ourselves.
Take Isaiah, for example. It is likely that Isaiah was originally a priest or a Levite, a male member of that tribe of Hebrews who were given no land in Israel but set aside, instead, to serve Yahweh in the worship of the temple. The Levite, even more than other Israelites, could expect that life would unfold according to a particular plan or pattern. In early childhood he would begin to learn his father’s trade. At his father’s workplace, the temple in Jerusalem, he would learn how to keep the altar fires burning, how to slaughter beasts for religious sacrifice, how to lead the temple rituals and shepherd the people in their religious observances. He would also learn the law of Moses by heart, and take his turn preparing meals for the other temple servants. At the moment he was born, this was the life prepared for Isaiah, a life of service in the temple of Yahweh.
But one day, while he is going about his duties (perhaps he is polishing the silverware or some other rather humble task), Isaiah is suddenly caught up in an extraordinary vision. He sees Yahweh himself, awesome and kingly, a presence which fills the whole temple. Isaiah immediately falls into a fearful panic, for he knows the stories of Moses very well. He knows that Yahweh does not show himself to sinful mortals, for they cannot bear the purity and truth of his holy gaze. ‘Woe is me!’ he calls out. ‘I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live amongst a people of unclean lips’. This is another way of saying, ‘I honour the Lord with what I say, but not with what I do. My people and I are liars.’ Isaiah was right, of course, for if one reads the rest of the book that bears this story, you will discover that the Jewish nation was in pretty bad shape at the time. On the one hand, the Jewish people made quite a show of going to the temple to worship, and of keeping the many feast days and festivals that marked the history of their liberation by God from Egypt. But the moment worship was over, the nobles, the politicians and the landowners would go back to what they did with most of the time, that is, increase their wealth by stealing small farms on the edge of their existing lands, squeezing their workers for more production at less cost, and bribing the bureaucracy so that their plans and schemes could go ahead with a minimum of interference from the law. As a Levite, it is more than likely that Isaiah himself was caught up in all this bribery and corruption. For the Levites doubled as a kind of civil service for the aristocracy. They handled the affairs of state, as well as the apparatus of the temple.
So at the moment he has the vision, Isaiah knows that he is done for. For in the searing light of God’s glorious presence, the shadows hidden in darkness come to light as well. Isaiah knows that there is little point in hiding what he is, or what his people are. Covenant-breakers. Liars. Cheats. Exploiters of the weak. Yet, God has not come to do away with Isaiah, or even to chastise him. Why chastise a person who is already aware of their darkness? No, God has come to change the course of Isaiah’s life. Taking a burning coal from the altar where sacrifices for sin would have been made day after day, a seraph, one of God’s servants, touches it to Isaiah’s lips and says: ‘Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’. In other words, 'I know jolly well that you are a liar and a hypocrite. But you are forgiven. From now on your lies have been burned away. From now on, your lips will speak only the truth.’ For what happens then is this: that Isaiah the Levite, whose life had been pretty cosy and predictable up until now, is suddenly called to become a prophet, a man whose speaks the truth to kings and priests and businessmen, and cops a fair bit of flack for his trouble. ‘Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?’ says the Lord. And Isaiah, who can hardly believe that he is still alive, responds in the classical manner of prophets from time immemorial: ‘Here I am; send me!’
Now, in the Christian grammar of baptism, it is not only special people like prophets who are called to live and speak the truth. It is all of us, all who are born by water and the Spirit into the realm of God’s love. For at our baptism, we encounter a God who knows jolly well who we are—sinners who betray God, others and self every day of the year. Yet God is not particularly worried about who we are at that moment. In baptism, certainly, we are forgiven our sins; they are washed away just like dirt from a grubby child. Yet God has more in mind than the miracle of forgiveness. God also wants to change our lives, from the inside out, to give us a new vocation in life, a new purpose. Like Isaiah the prophet, who was called to speak the truth whether it is fashionable to do so or not, every baptised Christian is also called to live a new life, a life determined not by what we want, but by what God wants.
The difference between life with God, and life without God, is simply this, you see: that life without God leads to death; but life with God leads to yet more life. That is why the apostle Paul calls Christians people of the Spirit. ‘Spirit’ can also mean ‘breath’, the very breath that animates our bodies and make us alive. In that sense, all who live are spiritual beings. Yet, in Christian perspective, one can be alive and breathing, and yet destined to run out of breath because one is not plugged in to the true source of life and breathing, the Spirit of God, the very Spirit who not only animated the daily doings of Jesus of Nazareth, and also raised his dead body into the radically new life of resurrection. What God wants to do for us, then, is exactly what God did for Jesus. God wants to fill us so full of the life of his Spirit, that there is little left in us of all that is dying or dead. God wants to catch our lives up into the life and energy that is the extraordinary love between the Father and the Son. God wants us to let go of everything that holds us back from the giving and receiving of divine love. God wants us to receive this love, the love that is the Spirit, and make it real in the world through what we do and what we say.
You will remember that I spoke, a couple of weeks ago, about what the love of God looks like in practise. I spoke about God’s love as a three-fold movement of solidarity with the weak, hospitality toward the stranger, and the costly giving away of one’s life that another soul may grow and flourish. What I also implied at that time, I will say more explicitly this morning. That the one who loves others in this manner, is also loved in this manner by God. The power that makes it possible for us to love others in this way is the very power that loves us in this way. This means that, for Christians, there can be no fear that we shall somehow be depleted or used up by our loving. Not if we are also believe that we are loved by God, and especially by God as he is embodied in both the rituals and relationships of the Christian community. For the Spirit who comes to dwell with us is the Spirit of life itself, life that is always enough and never runs out. That means that no matter where this Spirit take us, or whom the Spirit puts in our path, there shall always be life and love enough to go around. As long, that is, as we are willing to live the life of the Spirit, and not simply the lives that we might choose for ourselves.
I conclude with this. If you are baptised, you belong to God, and the Spirit of God has come to dwell with you. You have given yourself into the hands of God, and God is absorbing you into the life and love that circulates, like the energies of a dance, between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But God is not a bully. The power of love is a power that can be refused. If you resist God, he with plead with you, and argue, and remonstrate forever. But God will never make you do what you do not want to do. That is why the promises of baptism need to be renewed day after day. Each day, when you get out of bed, God promises Godself to you once more: to love and to cherish you, to lead you into the freedom of the children of God. But that cannot happen without your say-so. The humility of God is such that God requires our agreement to move forward, a promising that responds to God’s own promising with faith and trust and obedience. My prayer on this Trinity Sunday is that God may give us grace to so surrender our lives, that the life of God may come to flourish in our hearts and in our world.