May 27, 2018, —Tim Almquist
Today I want to focus on both our passages from Isaiah and the Gospel of John and discuss how these texts communicate what it means to “See the Kingdom of God.” I realize this idea of sight and a visual interaction is a metaphor that both breaks down and may not work for all of us. So when we use the word see, I’d like us to think more broadly about noticing, recognizing and encountering God.
To see the kingdom will be terrifying:
The calling of Isaiah is a strange story as are many stories within the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Isaiah’s vision of the Lord found in chapter 6, vv. 1-8, which is one of the two passages we will focus on this morning, is a prime example of a story with bizarre and mysterious imagery and I want us to approach this text this morning with a posture of confusion.
I remember during my prophetic writings class in college, my professor asked us to sketch on a piece of paper, as best we could, this very passage from Isaiah 6. If I remember right no one in the classroom was truly successful except for me. The exercise in of itself demonstrated the point that this passage is just frankly difficult to understand.
We have this throne in which the Lord is seated, the hem of the Lord’s robe filling the temple, door frame shaking while unspecified voices are calling and the whole temple fills with smoke! I can’t help but wonder if what I’m actually reading is not the Old Testament but Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? The obscurity and terror of this passage is the first point I’d like us to focus on. Not only is it haunting imagery for us to read and interpret, but also the characters within the narrative themselves seem to elicit a demeanour of fear. The six winged creatures also translated as Seraphim are described to have enough wings not only to fly, but to cover their faces and feet. The
concealing of their feet in the Lord’s presence, as one OT commentator I referenced suggests, is a euphemism for hiding their private parts as sex is often associated with shame in the Old Testament.¹ Isaiah, too demonstrates a level of fear as the powerful presence of the Lord prompts the soon to be prophet to confess his guilt as a “man of
unclean lips” (v. 5).
To see God’s kingdom will involve a level of fear and that is the first step in our faithful envisioning. Now I’d like to transition to our second idea, of which we will spend the most time on this morning.
To see the kingdom is not to comprehend the kingdom:
Isaiah’s perspective in the account is a multi-sensory experience. Initially Isaiah mentions seeing the Lord, but what is described more so than the Lord’s self is the effects of the Lord’s presence. The edge of his robe filling the temple, the smoke, and shaking doorframe all describe the presence of the Lord, not the the Lord’s self, which makes this scene what theologians call a theophany. We don’t get a detailed description of the essence of the Lord, only the reactive expression of the Lord’s presence. The 13th century Eastern Orthodox theologian Gregory of Palamus called this theologicaldistinction “God’s energies” vs. “God’s essence.”
One metaphor that helps me illustrate this essence and energy relationship is the ocean. Imagine yourself at your favorite beach, standing at the shore. You feel the sand and the cool tide washing over your ankles. You hear the crashing of waves, you smell the salt in the air. Maybe the water is warm enough to dive into and you anticipate each wave as it comes your direction. If it crashes over your head you feel the weight of its force pushing you down and quickly remember the ocean is wild and dangerous, but you are still able to experience the wonder and joy of it. The ocean is incomprehensible. From your perspective down at Santa Monica you cannot see its entirety, and you squint at the horizon unable to see beyond, but you have accepted that limitation and so you play at the water’s edge. You have not comprehended the essence of the Ocean, but that does not keep you from experiencing the ocean’s energies.
Two weeks ago, my wife Emma and I spent a couple days at Sequoia National Park. While I walked in between the 2,000 year old sequoia trees and strained my neck looking up at their tall and wide trunks I found it difficult from my vantage point to see the entirety of each tree, and I was only able to focus on one section of the at a time. While I was physically incapable of comprehending the fullness of these icons of creation I could move among their roots and marvel at their beauty, still encountering their glory.
Another way in which I’m wanting us to acknowledge and welcome the incomprehensible nature of the kingdom of God is by looking at our other text for this morning found in the New Testament in the Gospel of John. The story of Nicodemus is a classic example of the incomprehensible essence of God. The Pharisee, the religious leader meets Jesus in the night, in the darkness where he acknowledges Jesus as Rabbi and admits that he is convinced of Christ’s identity by saying: “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” (v. 2 NRSV). Yet Nicodemus, who has a good feeling about this Jesus is having trouble comprehending as he should! We may be tempted to patronize Nicodemus with our interpretation of the text, assuming that if it were us meeting Jesus in the night, we surely would not take Jesus’ words literally. “Unless someone is born anew, it’s not possible to see God’s Kingdom” (v. 3 CEB). To “see the kingdom,” takes a transformation of sorts, of which Nicodemus believes to be a literal second birth. “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb a second time and be born, isn’t it?” (v. 4 CEB). And Jesus does not reply to Nicodemus’ confusion with a clear yes or no or by saying with God anything is possible, rather, Jesus replies by saying for anyone to be “born anew” or “born again” they must be born of both water and spirit. The incarnation of Christ demonstrates this mystery of water and spirit, what we might describe as earthly and divine and Jesus is saying you have to be born of both water and spirit, or else you cannot see! You will not see the Kingdom, nor will you have life that is everlasting, life that is truly sustainable.
But this, I confess doesn’t really make anything clearer does it? Just like mystery of the Trinity, which is the relationship and doctrine of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in which the church calendar commemorates today as Trinity Sunday, here we have this mystery of being born again of both water and spirit. And to be completely honest with you all today, as I stand up behind this pulpit I do not truly know what it all means. Christians have developed symbolic formulas throughout the life of the Church that signify a kind of rebirth and many of us have heard cliché evangelical language surrounding this idea of being born again, being born anew and unfortunately the ambiguity of this teaching has, I think, been hijacked by a simplistic worldview. If you pray the sinner’s’ prayer, for example, or read the Bible or something specific like it, you are in fact born again.
But Jesus doesn’t get specific in this passage. Instead, Jesus maintains his incomprehensibility as he goes from doing theology to reciting poetry, something many of us can only do in the face of uncertainty. Jesus says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v. 8 NRSV) Notice in the CEB translation we read from our bulletin insert it simply says “God’s Spirit blows wherever it wishes,” but the use of the wind is I think a better translation. In fact, in both Hebrew and Greek the word for wind and spirit are for the most part interchangeable. Ruah in Hebrew and Pneuma in the Greek, both meaning wind and spirit. Jesus uses the mystery of the wind to demonstrate his message, not in order to clarify the content for Nicodemus, but to assure Nicodemus of the incomprehensible nature of being born of both water and spirit. It’s as if Jesus is saying you do not need to know where it comes from or where it is going to know that it is there. Trust that you are feeling it, that you are hearing it, that you are sensing and “Seeing” the Kingdom already. That experience of the presence of God in its unending mystery is not predicated on your knowledge of its beginning or ending. Like the giant Sequoia trees I walked through, my experience of their splendor was not withheld by my inability to see their entirety. We can either let that truth continue to terrify us or perhaps we can let it set us free from our need to see and know it all.
What do we see:
The third part of our theological reflection this morning is where I’d like us to think about what it is we actually see when we see God’s Kingdom. We’ve noted how seeing the Lord can and will be terrifying. Like Isaiah’s vision of the Lord in the temple our encounters with God can often be frightening. The ground and doorways may shake and the room may fill with smoke. We may not choose to approach God because we too like the prophet have “unclean lips.” We have also considered the religious leader Nicodemus and his own attempts to process the unending mystery of God’s message of rebirth and new life. Lastly I want us to focus on the content of our sight, the object of our vision.
We may be deceived by the current vision in front of us and to be faithful we have to continuously ask ourselves if what we are seeing is truly the Kingdom of God. Sometimes we need to get our eyes checked or update our prescription, or perhaps we may need to remove the lenses we are wearing altogether in order to truly encounter the heart of God. But maybe our inability to see is not always the real problem. Maybe it’s not that we do or do not see, that we do or do not notice or cannot encounter but also perhaps our problem at times can be what we have allowed ourselves to see. Is what we have noticed around us the true vision of the Kingdom that is sustainable and peaceful? Or is it a vision that inflicts violence and exploitation? Do we see and follow a vision of the Kingdom that is available for all people or is it a kingdom of scapegoating? Earlier we sang the song Peace in the Valley, which reflects on the prophet Isaiah’s true vision of the Peaceable Kingdom of God.²
God intends to disrupt the vision in Isaiah’s time with a holy vision of the true King. Upon Isaiah’s eager readiness to respond faithfully to the Lord’s calling, the Lord gives the prophet a message for God’s people. Following verse 8, the Lord says, “Keep listening but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand. Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears and shut their eyes so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (vv. 9-10 NRSV). It appears that God intends to inflict a kind of divine confusion upon God’s people in order that they are unable to comprehend. We have been talking about the incomprehensibility of God, but I wonder if this lack of comprehending following Isaiah’s vision is a different kind of disruption. Perhaps the people have been following the wrong vision, and looking upon the wrong god and so they are left to their own devices, desensitized by their false vision of the Kingdom.³
Another point I want to make before I conclude this morning, that lies at the heart of what I think it means to see God’s kingdom and to encounter God’s glory is that we are often, like Isaiah, expecting something we don’t get. We could read the apocalyptical account of Isaiah’s vision and come to the belief that God’s Kingdom is somewhere else far off from the here and now uninvolved with the present tense. As we long to see and yearn for the fullness of God’s presence, we may become afraid and begin to think that God is distantly unavailable to us and too much for us to handle. There is an extent to which that conclusion is true, but the deeper truth is that while we are looking upward or off into the distant horizon in search of God, there’s this song that fills the air: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” (Isa. 6: 3 CEB). In his book Silence and Beauty, Japanese painter and artist Makoto Fujimura speaks of the paradox of this hymn of praise by saying:
“When the prophet Isaiah declares ‘Holy Holy Holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’ the prophet is calling beyond the dichotomy we create of heaven versus earth; he speaks of the presence of the divine in every inch of the earth. Our failure is not that we chose earth over heaven: it is that we fail to see the divine in the earth, already active and working, pouring forth grace and spilling glory into our lives.”4
Jesus also calls beyond this dichotomy of heaven versus earth by saying to Nicodemus, “If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” (Jn. 3:12 CEB). In other words it is as if Jesus would like Nicodemus to take a step back and notice that God’s kingdom is right in front of him. The beauty of the incarnation and relationship of the Trinity is that in some way or another, heaven and earth are inextricably linked.
Finally I want us to take notice of the unexpected truth that God’s Kingdom is available for everybody. God so loved the world!5 The unmeasurable quality of that truth may be difficult for us to comprehend as well, whether we doubt God’s love for someone else or perhaps, for ourselves. But the salvation message, which we may in many ways not know what to do with, is a message in which the vision of heaven is wrapped up in the glory of earth. God calls us ultimately to partake in this dynamic in how we care for one another and remind the world of God’s unending love for all people.
When I was in college I spent a semester studying abroad in Australia. Towards the end of my three and a half months there I began to reflect on my journey and also to anticipate coming home. I was ready to see friends and family again but I also knew I was coming home to some big life questions. Graduation was approaching, I was unsure what I was doing after college and Emma and I, who were dating at the time had been considering getting engaged. In some ways I was hoping my trip abroad would bring answers to these questions and I would go home ready for the future. But while I finished the last weeks of my time in Australia I had trouble sleeping, I became anxious and felt alone in my wrestling with the unknown. While I was abroad I had grown very close with my host family. My host dad, who was a professional counselor named Richard, became a kind of spiritual dad for me connecting in many ways with where I was at in life. So in my stress and anxiety one day I asked him if after dinner we could go for a drive. He seemed to know in the tone of my voice what I needed. We drove upinto the hills surrounding the city of Brisbane and pulled over to a clearing overlooking the city lights. I voiced my anxiety and the questions within me and explained the confusing dreams I was having. He listened and welcomed my distress while also acknowledging that in my young adult age I would be okay and didn’t need to figure out my entire life right away. I was trying to comprehend everything I could not and I was terrified. I was trying to see the fullness of everything I could not and it filled me with fear. Richard didn’t give me any simplistic answers to take away my anxiety. That night, however, while we sat there in his car looking into the night sky, I felt loved and I could finally see after all I was not alone. While we sat there Richard read me a poem, written by an Australian cartoonist and poet named Michael Leunig and it reminds us of the realities of both fear and love in our lives. I believe it can remind us that as we try and “See the Kingdom of God,” and encounter the present glory that is filling the earth, perhaps God is closer than we realize.
Poem by Michael Leunig:
There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
Image: The Prophet Isaiah, Chagall, 1968
¹ See Isaiah 1-12 from The Old Testament Library by Otto Kaiser (p. 76)
² Peace in the Valley by Thomas A. Dorsey (See Isaiah 11:6-9)
³ In his book The Prophets Abraham J. Heschel notes the insensitivity of Israel from vv. 9-10 vy saying: “The haunting words which reached Isaiah seem not only to contain the intention to inflict insensitivity, but also to declare that the people already are afflicted by a lack of sensitivity. The punishment of spiritual deprivation will be but an intensification or an extension of what they themselves had done to their own souls” ( The Prophets , p. 114).
4Silence and Beauty by Makoto Fujimura (p. 89)
5See John 3:16