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These Three

nicodemusJohn 3: 1-17
Isaiah 6:1-9a
Introduction to the reading

This will be a familiar story to many of you – the Pharisee Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night to question him, to make up his mind about him. When John’s gospel was written down, toward the end of the first century, rabbinic Judaism was beginning to emerge. That is, the emphasis shifted from worship and sacrifice in the temple (as in the Old Testament) to teaching in the synagogue; this passage reflects that rabbinic style of discussion and debate over religious concerns.

Also, it was a time of conflict between those Jews who believed in Jesus as God’s Messiah and those who did not. Nicodemus, it seems, was on the fence about that. Jesus tries to teach him about his connection to God the Father and about his coming death and resurrection, but it is not clear that Nicodemus understands.
The passage ends with two of the most familiar and beloved verses in Scripture.

Sermon
People will often ask me about the two round stained glass windows in our building, one here in the sanctuary, up in the balcony, the other in Fellowship Hall. There’s a picture of that one in your bulletin today. The question is usually, “Why do you have a Star of David in a church?”

I can’t answer that question actually. In all the histories I’ve read, there’s nothing said about those windows, although I have noticed that the one in the balcony is there in some of the earliest pictures of the outside of the church. Folks who have been around a long time don’t seem to know the history either.

Indeed, the two intersecting triangles do look like the Star of David. But, I tell these questioners, the equilateral triangle is an ancient symbol of the Trinity (the tri-unity of God) - Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The two triangles, overlapping as they do, illustrate something more as well: no matter how you look at it, it is the same from every angle; there’s no flat side or pointy side.

The windows themselves are circular; thus, the triangles are placed within that circle. The circle shape is also symbolic – of God’s eternal love. And if you should want to think of the intersecting triangles as the Star of David, well that has a meaning too: that God is God in every age of faith and belief.

In church tradition, today is known as Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon the first disciples in the rush of a powerful wind and with tongues of fire. The Trinity is now complete, these three – God the Father, Creator; God the Son, Redeemer; God the Holy Spirit, Sustainer. But in fact, the Trinity has never been incomplete, even before the birth of Jesus.

There is no “doctrine of The Trinity”, per se, in Scripture. In Matthew, Jesus does direct the disciples to baptize in the name of Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And Paul, at the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, offers a three-fold benediction: The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Except for those two explicit verses, however, we have to listen to Scripture and when we do, we come to realize that the God of both the Old Testament and the New is always the triune God.

So… we come to the lectionary readings for today.

First, the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah. Very dramatic, almost other-worldly, God sitting on a throne, high and lofty, winged angels in attendance. Like verses from the Book of Revelation. Clearly, the glory and majesty due to the Creator of the universe is evident here.

Isaiah is a mere human being, unworthy of being in the presence of the Almighty. But, one seraph touches his lips with a burning coal and thus cleanses Isaiah from any human sinfulness. Then Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord (the same holy voice, breath, wind, Spirit that began creation): “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!” And [the Lord] said, “Go and say to this people...” Cleansed by the burning coal, Isaiah may now himself speak for God.

Isaiah, of course, pre-dates Jesus. And yet, part of the symbolic meaning of Jesus is that God speaks to us through the human being. The Holy Spirit can speak through us as the Holy Spirit did through the prophet Isaiah; and it is not our own doing.

And then the story of Nicodemus, a scenario in some ways not unlike Isaiah’s own state of wonder and bewilderment.

Out of the darkness of night, the domain of ignorance, misunderstanding and fear, Nicodemus comes to Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. “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.” So, Nicodemus recognizes the presence of God in the person of Jesus. What he doesn’t see, though, that it is really Jesus who has come to him, because Jesus - God in the flesh - has come to all humanity in order to save us from the sinfulness that the dark night represents. Theologian Tom Long puts it this way: “Moving politely toward Jesus with an inquiry, Nicodemus alarmingly finds Jesus moving toward him to rescue him, to transform him, to save him.” (Long 20)

Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of the Holy Spirit and of God the Creator. The Message translation: “Unless a person submits to this original creation – the ‘wind hovering over the water’ creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism entering a new life – it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.”

Not unsurprisingly, Nicodemus doesn’t grasp what Jesus is telling him. Jesus is using symbolic, spiritual language and Nicodemus is looking at plain, literal meanings. Isaiah’s understanding of his calling is clear and immediate. But it will be a while yet for Nicodemus – and maybe for some of us – to discern the mysterious and awesome presence and movement of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives.

But here is the essence of the message of Trinity Sunday. Just like our stained glass windows, the triune God is the same through time no matter what historical angle you come from. These three: Stability, balance, continuity.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

As we struggle with the questions of the meaning of life; what happens to us and why; what we are doing here, the eternal love of God surrounds us. The last two verses of today’s reading express it all:

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.”
Amen and amen.

Long, Thomas. “Living the Word”. Christian Century. 8 May 2018: 20.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
May 27, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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