If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe,
if I tell you of heavenly things?
(St. John iii. 11,12)
Our lections or readings for Trinity Sunday emerge logically out of last Sunday’s Feast of the Pentecost. There we learned that when we love Jesus Christ first and foremost in our hearts, we are best suited and prepared to welcome the Holy Spirit into our lives. And today that same Holy Spirit now enables us to move progressively into a spiritual life that comes to the vision of God, the apprehension of His power, and the transformation of life that vision and worship bring to the worshipful believer. What we shall come to see, I hope, is that God the Holy Trinity –the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, welcomes us into His life through vision and action, through wisdom and new birth.
So we begin with Isaiah who is blessed and sanctified with a vision of God that the ancient Jews determined was impossible. Of course Isaiah did not see God face to face, but he claimed to have seen enough of Him, though veiled by the wings of the seraphim. Seraphim are the angels of God’s love, and so man’s vision of God, in Isaiah, is curtained, cloaked, and concealed by the Love which does not yet allow man to see God face to face. But Isaiah does say, I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne (Is. vi. 1), and so we may conclude that he saw the delineation and figure of God, a first vision or glimpse of an unfolding revelation that begins with the Jews and finds ultimate fulfillment much later in Jesus Christ.
But what is important for our purposes here is that the vision stirs and moves angels and then the prophet to song and prayer. Isaiah perceives first that the all-powerful nature of God evokes a song of praise and adoration from the angels. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. (Ibid, 3,4)
The angels are struck with the glory of the Lord which fills them not only with the intensity of His immediate presence, but with a force that embraces both heaven and earth. The angels’ worshipful address is thrice repeated –Holy, Holy, Holy, and some Old Testament hints of God as Trinity begin to be consciously apprehended and ascertained by the prophet. In the face of it all, Isaiah is struck down; he is altered and unhinged. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. (Ibid, 5)
Isaiah’s vision reduces him to self-conscious nothingness, into the realm of his own meaninglessness and powerlessness in relation to God. He is, to put it bluntly, completely humbled out of any notion that he is fit, suited, or worthy to be in the presence of this vision. And yet precisely because he confesses that he is undone, God will be far from done or finished with him. Isaiah’s life, in fact, is just about to begin.
Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: and he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged. (Ibid, 6,7) The seraph carries the burning fire of God’s forgiveness to the prophet. But beyond forgiveness, the Divine desire calls and sends the prophet in the wisdom and power of God out into the world. Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? The Isaiah responds, Here am I; send me. The vision of God brings the prophet to his own spiritual death and entry into a new life, through the gift of prophecy which is given from above.
We said that Isaiah did not see the face of God, but the Apostles did. Jesus Christ tells us that, [no] man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. (St. John vi. 46) St. John says more: The only-begotten Son -He has declared, interpreted, or revealed the Father.(St. John i. 18) And later Jesus promises His followers that the time cometh…that I shall show you plainly of the Father. (Ibid, xvi. 25)
Jesus promises to carry His followers into such a vision of God as will incorporate them into the life of the Trinity itself. Jesus tells St. Philip that he that hath seen me, hath seen the Father, (St. John xiv. 9) and that if a man loves me, [and] keeps my words, both the Father and the Son shall be seen and known when they make their abode or pitch their tent (Ibid, 23) in that man’s soul.
But of course new birth or new life is possible only if and when a man dies to the world, the flesh, the devil, and himself. God forbid that [he] should glory save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to [him], and [he] to the world. (Gal. vi. 14) Then he must desire to enter into Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost.
Another way of putting it is illustrated in Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel. Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he believed that [Jesus] was a teacher come from God…because no man could do the miracles he did unless God were with Him? (Ibid, 2). Jesus responds: Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. (Ibid, 3) Nicodemus does not understand. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? (Ibid, 4) Nicodemus has just finished saying that Jesus must have come from God, and that God must be with Him if He was able to perform miracles. So Jesus tries to show Him that what He brings to the sick world is the medicine from heaven that will generate new life in those who follow Him.
Jesus responds a second time. Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.(Ibid, 5) The Baptism of repentance into death with water is prefigured in Isaiah and fulfilled in the John the Baptist. That will be combined with the Baptism into new life through the Holy Spirit. What is born by natural birth is a thing of nature; what is born by spiritual birth is a thing of spirit. (Ibid, 6) The natural man, Adam, must die in order that the spiritual man, Christ, may be made alive. (1 Cor. xv. 22) We receive physical or natural sight by being born; we receive spiritual sight only by being reborn. (St. TA: Comm. Joh. iii)
Jesus tells Nicodemus not to marvel at this. Nature itself conceals and hides a spiritual mystery. Have you ever tried to trace the wind back to its origin? Have you ever tried to follow it to its end? This is impossible, even for modern scientists. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (Ibid, 8) The invisible God brings new birth and life to all of creation. The invisible God moves and defines all things. The invisible God through Jesus effects miracles that heal and cure, bringing another kind of new life to man. The invisible God is seen the works of the Holy Spirit, who desires through all of this to bring to men new spiritual birth which comes down from above and which opens man’s spiritual eyes to a vision of the invisible God.
Nicodemus, being a master of Israel, should know that the outward and visible effects of nature already reveal the life of God’s Spirit. Will he then search out whence this Spirit comes and where it intends that he should go? Jesus ends his talk with Nicodemus by reminding him that He has come down from heaven not to establish his kingdom through a new state of things, like miracles, but to offer a benefit that can be obtained and discovered only through a new state of spirit that will see the Father and find new life in His kingdom.
Nicodemus is called to follow Isaiah into the One Baptism for the remission of sins, found only in the death of Jesus Christ. And we too are called into this death. No doubt, this is the most demanding requirement that leads to new birth and new life. The longer we live the harder it is to die to ourselves spiritually if we haven’t commenced the work.
Nicodemus had asked, how can a man be born when he is old? And the answer is: When he is old and tired enough of his natural life so that he can die to everything that the new life of Christ can be born in him. So then what was beyond his spiritual reach, far above all his wildest expectations, is born within his soul, yields new understanding, and visits him with the comforts of heaven’s consolations. And then with the birth of Christ in his soul through the Holy Spirit, he sees the Father and begins to approach his spiritual destiny.
With the Apostle John –an old man by the time he recorded his vision of Revelation, we read in this morning’s Epistle, [he] looks, and behold, a door is opened in heaven into new life. A voice is heard which says, Come up hither, and I will show you things which must be hereafter. (Rev. iv. 1) The vision is the reward of those who begin to see as newborn babes in Christ, desiring and craving the soul’s pure milk that will nurture us unto salvation, having tasted the goodness of the Lord. (1 St. Peter ii. 2)
The vision is one of final union and communion with God the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. And no longer do the seraphim of Isaiah shield God from the vision of the seer. The old man John has been made new, and so can we, as God is seen openly, face to face, as the redeemed man finds his home at last in God, who rests not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.Amen.