Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Majestic and Merciful
Isa. 6:1-8; Rom. 8:15-16[1]
Most of us aren’t much on protocol and etiquette these days.  But in certain circles, they are essential and strictly enforced.  We found out a bit about that when the President and First Lady visited the Queen a few years ago.  Apparently, the First Lady “bent” the royal protocol by responding in kind when the Queen put her arm around Mrs. Obama’s back![2]  According to protocol, no one is allowed to touch the Queen!  That’s only one of many protocols that apply to the Queen.  You only speak to the Queen when you’re spoken to.  If you’re dining with the Queen, you don’t start eating until she does, and when she’s finished, so are you!  You only shake her hand if she offers it to you , and then you make it light and quick.  And you absolutely never, ever turn your back to the Queen.
To some extent, our lesson from Isaiah puts us in a level of protocol that goes way beyond whether you can speak to the Queen or not.  To understand Isaiah’s experience in the temple, it might be helpful to remember that there was an elaborate ritual by which only the High Priest could enter the most holy place, the place where the Israelites believed God’s presence dwelled.  Even though there were several exceptions, like Isaiah, they believed that no one could see God and live.[3]  They took it so seriously, that the High Priest had bells on the edge of his robes so the others could hear him moving around when he entered the most holy place.  If the bells stopped, they could know that something had gone wrong. 
That may put into perspective something of what Isaiah experienced in his encounter with God in our lesson for today.  In fact, it would seem that Isaiah had a full-fledged vision of God, complete with smoke and angels and the temple foundations shaking!  Isaiah’s experience of God was so awe-inspiring that he feared for his life!  He experienced God as majestic and awesome.  He experienced God as overwhelming and all-powerful.  I think it’s a good thing for us to be reminded of this aspect of God’s character.  God is the one who made all the universes, who created the earth in all its beautiful variety, who planned the life cycle in its wondrous complexity.  God is the one who is majestic beyond our ability to imagine or even comprehend.
But our lesson from Romans presents us with a different side of God.  The Apostle Paul talks about the Spirit of God living in each of us.   And he says that the Spirit of God is there to assure us that we are God’s beloved children.  And so he says, like beloved children, when we cry out to God, we cry, “Abba, Father.”  It is the address of a beloved child to a loving parent.  It is the language of family intimacy.[4]  This is the side of God who is as close to us as the very air we breathe.  This is the side of God who welcomes us like a doting father or a loving mother.  God is the one who is merciful to everyone in every way.
It’s no coincidence that these two passages describing seeming opposite sides of God’s character are brought together on Trinity Sunday.  It’s our understanding of God as “trinity” that brings all this together.[5]  As one of my favorite Scriptures puts it, “thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isa 57:15).[6] God is at the same time the one who is far beyond our ability to conceive or imagine and  also the one who is so intimate that we can approach God like a doting father or a loving mother.  God is both majestic and merciful.
The question is, what do we do when we encounter this God who is majestic and merciful?  I don’t know that we have to fear for our lives like Isaiah did, but the majestic aspect of God’s character should make us feel a little bit exposed, at least somewhat uncomfortable.  When we encounter the God who made all universes, who created the world and all it’s beauty, who planned the life cycle in its wondrous complexity, it would seem that the only proper response is humility.  I think we recognize that before this majestic God all our illusions about controlling our own lives are just that: illusions!  I think that’s at least part of what humility means in response to the majestic God.
And when we encounter the merciful God who is as close to us as the very air we breathe, who welcomes us like a doting father or a loving mother, it would seem that the only proper response is honesty.  As Isaiah did, when we find ourselves before this merciful God we too ought to be transparent about who we are and who we aren’t.  In the presence of the God who loves us unconditionally and irrevocably, there’s no reason to hide anything. 
When we encounter the God who is majestic and merciful, what matters is not speaking when spoken to, or how we eat or shake hands, but rather humility and honesty.  When we can have the courage to respond in this way, we find ourselves connected to the source of all life, all love, and all joy.  And we find ourselves somehow more connected to ourselves, and to everything and everyone around us.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/3/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Murray Wardrop, “Michelle Obama Hugs the Queen,” The Telegraph April 2, 2009; accessed at Michelle-Obama-hugs-the-Queen.html.
[3] Exod. 33:20; cf. also Gen. 32:30; Judg. 6:22.
[4] Cf. N. T. Wright, “The Letter to the Romans,” New Interpreters Bible X:593, says this reflects the sense that “God was known in an intimate familial relationship for which this term [“Abba”], used by adults as well as children but still tender and personal, was entirely appropriate.” Cf. also Robert Jewett, Romans, 499; and James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 453-54, 461. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I.2:241–242, where he says that the Spirit is “the One who attests the kindness revealed in the only-begotten Son of God, of Him who wills that we too should call Him Father.”
[5] Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 139.
[6] Cf. Christopher Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:493, says of this passage, “In one fell swoop the righteous learn that God is both [just and healing] in equal measure: as high and lofty as divine holiness demands, and as low and accessible as human nature requires (57:15).”

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