Trinity Sunday, rcl yr b, 2021
ISAIAH 6:1-8; PSALM 29; ROMANS 8:12-17; JOHN 3:1-17
Woe is me! I am lost
There are a number of undoings, or threats of undoing, in our readings for today. First: Isaiah is undone. In his vision of God on his throne in the temple—with God’s heavenly attendants, the six-winged seraphs, singing of God’s glory and calling out “holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”—these voices shook the temple, and “the house filled with smoke.” Isaiah discovers himself to be an earthly intruder in a place where he does not belong.
And at this vision of the terrifying, unmasked glory of God, Isaiah is almost completely undone. “[I]n the presence of Yahweh’s holiness,” as Walter Brueggemann describes it, Isaiah “has a fresh sense of himself, his inadequacy, his lack of qualification to be in the holy presence.”
Isaiah himself says, of this his presence before the Lord in his majesty: “‘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!’” Calvin puts it simply: Isaiah is “reduced to nothing.” Isaiah, before the majesty of the Lord, is undone.
But this isn’t the only undoing we witness today. Second, Paul, in Romans, describes another kind of undoing: the death of life in the flesh. “[I]f you live according to the flesh, you will die,” writes Paul. There is an undoing of our very lives, for Paul, when we set our minds on the wrong things: “fleshly” things in Paul’s words, the sorts of things that pass away, things that do not last, things other than the heavenly things that give us the fulness of life.
And if we were to read a little further in Romans, we would read of a third kind of undoing: the undoing of creation, a creation that “was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.” Creation itself is “in bondage to decay,” a creation in the process of disintegration—and all by the will of God, according to Paul.
This undoing of creation itself, according to the will of the Lord of Creation, is on display in dramatic fashion in the Psalm. Psalm 29 begins with a warning to the lesser gods of the world. The Lord God of Israel has dues, according to the Psalmist: glory is due the Lord. Worship the Lord of Israel, you tiny gods, you petty lords, and give credit where credit is due. The Lord God is a God of true glory, real strength; worship this Lord in the beauty of holiness.
Sure, this God of glory and strength is the one who speaks creation into being; but this God of glory and strength can equally speak the words of chaos, and of the undoing of order. “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders […] The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. 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 that does, can equally be a voice that undoes. The Lord that creates is also the Lord of the thundering storm, the Lord that breaks apart the trees of the forest, the Lord that destroys by fire. So listen up, you petty little lords, you tiny gods: God can undo you, just like he can undo the world he has made.
All of these undoings—of Isaiah before the throne of God, realizing his inadequacy; the spiritual undoing that comes with setting minds on the wrong sorts of things; the undoing of creation itself; these undoings, and threats of undoing, reach from the personal to the cosmic.
Some of it the undoing we bring upon ourselves—this seems to be what Paul is getting at when he speaks of living according to the flesh. We really shouldn’t read this as a judgment against material things; God made the world, and God made it good. Food is good, as is the security of shelter, as is the intimacy we share with those we love. These aren’t “fleshly” and leading to death simply because they are earthly. If it is in the world, it is upheld by God in God’s ongoing act of creation; anything that is, is, because it is God’s.
But when we act otherwise, it is deathly; and when good things, made and upheld by God, become the sorts of things we set our minds on above all else, and apart from God’s good ordering, life is distorted and disordered, and it leads to our undoing. When enough isn’t enough, when we’ve lost sight of food and wealth and security and intimacy as things that aren’t ends in themselves, but are all hooked into God through their created being, they undo us, they undo community, they can even undo the natural world.
And of course we see this in our lives sometimes, or in the lives of our loved ones. Inappropriate attachments, even to things that are good, are destructive to us as persons. Inappropriate attachments to things are often destructive to relationships and communities. Inappropriate attachments to things can even be destructive to the created world—how else can we describe the climate crisis than we are in, but as a cosmic consequence, the undoing of creation, that arises out of greed and pride and selfishness?
And so the climate crisis is a spiritual problem—of not knowing when enough is enough, of seeking goods to perverse degree, unmoored from community life and from their natural place in God’s good order.
There is good news, though—and I’ll begin with John’s Gospel. The undoing described in John’s Gospel is another kind of spiritual undoing, described there as being “born from above.” John’s Gospel describes a fresh start in the world, a conversion to God’s ways that feels a lot like being reborn and starting again.
Paul speaks similarly of what can happen after our undoing. “[I]f you live according to the flesh, you will die,” says Paul, setting your mind on earthly things without understanding their heavenly purpose leads to death. But that death is not permanent, nor is it the end, because even if you are spiritually dead, this can be reversed. We can be reborn, remade: the undoing itself can be undone. “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body,” says Paul, “you will live.”
And this undoing of our undoing, this being born again and being remade after being unmade, is what Isaiah experiences. He is most certainly undone in the face of the glory of God, but his undoing is undone by what God does for him. Through the seraph his lips are touched with a live and burning coal, and Isaiah is made clean. “[Y]our guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out,” says the seraph. And Isaiah is remade as the prophet of God, sent to speak God’s word to Israel.
And while we may not all be prophets of God, this remaking, this undoing of our undoing, is a promise made to us, too. As we recognise, in the face of the glory of God, that we too are hardly worthy of such glory; that glory is due to the Lord God of Israel through our own confession to God of our sin and fault; God remakes us by his forgiveness. And our undoing leads to being raised up by God, our guilt departed and our sins blotted out. We are remade by God, and set free for God’s purpose.
And there is hope yet, too, even for the undoing of the natural world. Paul seems to think that the subjection of creation to decay and death is God’s own work—that even this is in the hands of God. With the Psalmist, even the destructive forces unleashed in the world are understood to be God’s work, chastening the small gods and petty lords of the earth—and perhaps we should be just as chastened in our pride, in the falsehood of our own apparent mastery over creation. Seeing that the storm and the fire and the flood, the forces of undoing, are God’s to release, and sent to bring us to humility and repentance.
God help us if God’s power over us, and over the natural world, would lead us to throw up our hands and give up, leaving it all to God to sort out; what kind of a relationship is that with the maker of all things? This is not the message of Isaiah, of the Psalm, or Romans, or of John: the good news is that despite our inadequacies, and our sin: we are forgiven, our sins are blotted out, we can be born again from above, and the world itself is reconciled in Christ.
We are already blessed with repentance, conversion, and the renewal of life; and with that, blessed with the undoing of our undoing, blessed with our own remaking and the remaking of the world itself, all for God’s sake, for our sake, and for the sake of the world God loves.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons