You might have noticed that we have two rather substantial passages today, with the call of Isaiah and Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Also in the John passage is one of the most familiar and quoted verses of the Bible, one many can say by heart, one that is plastered on billboards and sung in anthems – "For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." Both of these passages point us to heavenly things.
The call to the prophet Isaiah does not come at the first of the book, as most call stories do. It comes in the sixth chapter. Isaiah’s visions of God’s judgment of the people have already been pronounced in vivid language – "Trample my courts no more; bringing incense is futile; incense is an abomination to me. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken" is the message Isaiah brings from God (1:12-13, 19-20). And this is just a small taste of what the first five chapters of Isaiah bear to the people. Then comes this call story. Scholar Walter Brueggemann thinks the call comes at this point because it is not just a personal call story, it is a corporate call story, with Isaiah representing all of God’s people. In the call story, Isaiah expresses his unworthiness (He is lost and in despair, his lips are unclean.), and is cleansed with fire. He confesses his unworthiness and is restored, just as we confess our unworthiness and are restored with the Assurance of Pardon each Sunday morning.
In fact, scholars think this whole passage is an outline of right worship. The passage starts with an exalted picture of God, sitting on a throne, surrounded by angelic attendants singing a doxology of praise to God. God’s robe is so big that it fills the whole temple. This is an impressive image of an impressive God. Our worship starts with praise and adoration to God.
Before the majesty of this God, Isaiah confessed his unworthiness. We confess our weaknesses, both corporately and individually in silence in our worship service.
In a very dramatic way, one that perhaps reflects cultic practices in ancient Israel – with a live coal applied to the lips – those sins were purged. Maybe you should be thankful we do not give you burning coals to purge your sinfulness! We simply pronounce what Christ has given us, the gracious assurance of God’s pardon. (Maybe we will never see the Pardon of Assurance the same again!)
Next came the voice of God, the Word proclaimed, with a question, and in response, Isaiah (or the people) said "Here I am; send me." In worship, we hear the Word read and proclaimed, and we respond, with offerings, with communion, with ordinations and installations, and blessings and commissionings. So the movement of worship goes, as it does in this passage, from beholding the glory of God, to the awareness of our own inadequacy before God and God’s cleansing of those weaknesses, to the proclamation of God’s Word, and then to our response to the Word. We are sent out in mission to the world, and the verses that follow this passage, ones we did not read, tell how hard the mission can be. Isaiah is told that, even though he will bear God’s message, the people may not hear or see or comprehend.
The lectionary ties this call story with the story of Nicodemus going to see Jesus. Nicodemus was a learned man, and a Jewish leader, well respected. We are not told why he came to Jesus by night, but most have assumed he did so to avoid being seen in the company of someone not an official and influential leader of his faith. Yet Nicodemus saw something in Jesus that drew him to risk going to see him. He respected him as a rabbi, a teacher, he said, and recognized his authority from God by the signs Jesus had done. To this point in the Gospel of John, we have been told that Jesus turned water to wine at a wedding and cleansed the temple of money-changers, and that he performed unspecified "signs" during the Passover festival in Jerusalem. Nicodemus had either seen or heard of these signs. But Jesus did not accommodate Nicodemus by performing a tangible sign. Instead Jesus began talking about being "born from above." The Greek word, anothem, actually has a dual meaning. It means "to be born anew" and "to be born from above." There is no English word that will fulfill this meaning, so translators usually choose one or the other. Nicodemus seemed to be a man who thought in concrete ways, as he could not comprehend how a grown man could be born of the mother’s womb again.
Frederick Buechner, the best comedic biblical scholar I have read, has a bit of fun with Nicodemus’ response:
"Just how were you supposed to pull a thing like that off?" he asks. "How especially were you supposed to pull it off if you were pushing 65? How did you get born again when it was a challenge just to get out of bed in the morning? He even got saracastic," says Buechner. "Could one ‘enter a second time into the mother’s womb?’ he asked, when it was all one could do to enter a taxi without the driver’s coming around to give him a shove from behind?" (Buechner quoted in Taylor, p. 20).
Nicodemus, like the people to whom Isaiah was called, could not comprehend. Though a well educated man, Nicodemus could not go beyond his own knowledge to grasp this new concept that Jesus was offering. There may have been some cultural influence in the way, as Jews were generally Jewish from birth. They did not have to do anything to become part of the Jewish faith. Jesus proposed a new birth, into a new faith. As a leader of the Jewish people, Nicodemus could not grasp this.
Jesus further muddied the waters, so to speak, by talking next about entering the Kingdom of God only by being born of "water and the Spirit." Again, if he was a concrete thinker, Nicodemus might have supposed Jesus was talking about the breaking of a mother’s water near the time of birth. But we, as Christians, know that Jesus could also have been referring to the Christian sign of birth in Christ – baptism. Even if Nicodemus understood that Jesus meant he had to be publically baptized to be a part of this new faith, this Jewish leader who came under cover of night was probably not willing to make such a bold and risky move. And so Nicodemus could not understand what Jesus was saying. Even Jesus was a bit exasperated with such a wise man not being able to comprehend.
The passage then switches to a monologue which, again, contains some of the most beloved words in the New Testament. The monologue may not seem to totally follow the previous conversation. But Jesus defines for us John’s concept of the Kingdom of God. John uses this term only twice, much less than the other gospels. From above, from God, come earthly actions that show us how much God loves us. Jesus came from God, from heaven, to earth, to show us God’s love. Jesus ascended back to heaven, to God. Jesus did not come into the world to conquer or to bring vengeance to those who have oppressed God’s people. Jesus did not even come to tell the people how badly they were behaving, as Isaiah was called to do (although Jesus did do a bit of that at times). Jesus came, says John, to show us how very much God loves us. God was willing for Jesus to die in order to show us God’s love. God was able to show us a power greater than life or death in raising Jesus from the dead. And all we have to do is to believe, to trust this God who is powerful, but not oppressive, who is loving beyond our comprehension. In Jesus, says the gospel, light came into the world. But people still love the darkness. In other words, we have a choice to believe or not to believe. And therein comes the judgment, in the choices we make. Do we choose life, new life in Christ, or do we choose sin and death? Can we see only concretely, like Nicodemus and the people to whom Isaiah was called, or can we see possibilities? Can we dream dreams and see visions of a better world, one where kindness and love and true justice rule?
We choose to come to church and to church activities. We choose to come to the table spread before us, which is a sign of all these heavenly things of which we have been talking today. We choose to study the Bible together, to minister to our neighbors in need. No one forces us to do these things. When we come to this table, we choose new life, we choose to be born anew and from above. We choose to accept and to share the Kingdom of God as something heavenly in this place and in our world – not far away and waiting for us in some distant future, in a different time and place and world, but here and now on earth, and in and around us. As we prepare our hearts and minds to come to the Lord’s Table, may we choose those heavenly things that Jesus so lovingly offers us. Amen.