Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17
Our scriptures this morning are the story of two call stories. Isaiah’s call story is a classic one. Even if you have never heard it read or read it yourself, it may be somewhat familiar because it’s actually where we get our order of worship from— this ancient story from thousands of years ago. It starts with praise— there’s an acknowledgment of God’s presence and the angels sing Holy, Holy, Holy; it moves into repentance and confession; then Isaiah is forgiven and reconciled to God; and it concludes with him responding to God’s glory saying, “Here am I; send me!” If ever there was a formula both for worship and for a call story, this is it. And yet what do we see here? Not great leadership qualities; not overwhelming confidence; not independence. What we see in Isaiah’s experience of God is that he feels completely humbled; he recognizes the ways he needs to repent or turn around from what he has been doing; he is curious, even as he is perhaps terrified, by God’s glory, and he is ready to respond. Even as he is grossed out by the seraphim and cherubim— these weird winged snakes and lions— he is in awe of this mysterious and wild God. There is no tame God in this picture, but rather a wild God who inspires awe and humility and praise.
The story in the Gospel of John is, in some ways, vastly different, and yet not so much. Some people wouldn’t even say it is a call story, but I see very much that Nicodemus is being called by God. Nicodemus is a scholar; a Pharisee; an intellect of religious law. Anyone in his day would say that he has all of the answers; that he is the most righteous; that he is closer to God than the average person on the street. And yet something has poked at his conscience. Something about the way Jesus teaches and speaks and shares the good news of God’s love does all of the same things that winged snakes and lions did for Isaiah. Nicodemus is humbled by Jesus’ teaching; Nicodemus comes asking questions and curious about what Jesus knows and experiences that is so different from what he knows and experiences about God. Nicodemus recognizes that there may be things he doesn’t understand and needs to repent in the ways he lives his life. He is in awe of this mysterious and wild God that Jesus talks about— a Spirit that blows where it chooses and is not contained by laws and rules.
How often have we tamed God into something of our own imagination? How often have we used the idea of God to put forth our own ideals or ideas? In both of these stories the main characters— Isaiah and Nicodemus and even Jesus— end up being called into ministries that make them question everything they ever believed and knew to be true. Following this wild and loving God turned their world upside down.
Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School, recently wrote a book called, Everything Happens for a Reason: and Other Lies I’ve Loved. The book is a memoir of sorts about her own journey as a 35 year old, just getting started in her profession, in her marriage, in her life as a parent of a baby boy, and receiving the news that she has stage 4 colon cancer. She had studied the prosperity gospel for her doctorate. The prosperity gospel is the strand of Christianity that proclaims if you just believe you will be successful, God will make you successful and if you don’t have what you want than you must not be faithful enough. So she knew the ends and outs of that kind of belief system; but it wasn’t until she got colon cancer at such a young age, that she realized that at a base level, she really believed at least a little bit in the prosperity gospel, and that most of us do. Work hard, keep our heads down, do our best, and somehow God will make things work out. Right? Until they don’t. And then who do we blame? Kate realized that so much of what she had been calling faith, wasn’t faith at all. And even though she very much still proclaims belief and lives her life as a follower of Christ, she will tell you that she doesn’t know anymore what faith is; because her diagnosis and living from treatment to treatment every two months, has changed how she understands God, how she understands herself and her call to ministry, and how she sees the world around her.
Following this wild and loving God, did not lead Kate to the story she wants her life to be. And yet through her book and her blog and her classes, she is an amazing witness to the world about what it means to live in God’s love each and every day.
I imagine Nicodemus had similar feelings. He had worked his whole life to be what he was— to be an intellect and a righteous man— and now Jesus was telling him that it wasn’t necessarily about following all of those rules— not that the rules were bad, but that this living God of flesh and blood and Spirit altogether was WAY beyond what Nicodemus had ever imagined. Doubts? Questions? Concerns about what to believe or what it means? Nicodemus had them all— and he was the one who thought he had the answers! Perhaps that’s why Jesus often chose to hangout with those who didn’t think they had it all together— people who knew they were a mess; people who never thought they had any answers at all— because those people were hungry to know the living God; they didn’t already have God boxed up on a shelf in their study.
One of my favorite images of following this wild and loving God, comes from Annie Dillard. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, she writes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
The living God that we worship is drawing us out to places we may never be able to return. God is calling each one of us, just as God called Isaiah and Nicodemus.
So if you’ve come today with doubts; if you’ve come with questions; if you’ve come wondering if you even fit in around here, you’re in the right place. Because it is so often when we come with humility, when we come with awe; when we come knowing that we have some things to confess, when we come to be forgiven, that God can speak into our brokenness and vulnerability and create something new.
We worship a God of love— a God who loves Nicodemus, who loves Isaiah, who loves Jesus— who loves you and loves me. But that does not mean that this God is tame. Since when is love tame? Love is fierce and loyal and ruthless and spontaneous and fun and joy-filled; but love is not tame!
God called Isaiah to say a lot of things to say to the Israelite people that they didn’t want to hear, but that caused them to change their lives. And although we don’t get a direct sense that Nicodemus responds to Jesus that night, we do know that despite what all of his Pharisee friends would’ve been saying after Jesus’ death, that it is Nicodemus who carries Jesus’ body to the tomb— in faithfulness, in devotion.
Life may not be what you had planned— you may be in more of a mess than you thought possible; but God is still calling you, leading you, guiding you through the Holy Spirit. God will not leave you alone. Together: those of us who are sure of our faith and those of us who will never be sure; those of us with answers and those of us with questions; those of us who know how we’re called, and those of us just trying to figure it out— God is working through us all as we seek to live as the body of Christ in this world.