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Introduction To The Scripture For Trinity Sunday - Year B
Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION  TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Trinity Sunday (B)

     
ISAIAH 6:1-8        These few verses describe the call of Isaiah to his
ministry of speaking for God to Israel during a critical period of its
history in the late 8th century BC. Amid the smoke from the sacrifice on
the altar in the temple, Isaiah has a vision of God praised by heavenly
creatures. One of the heavenly beings touches his lips with a live coal
symbolizing his freedom from sin and h is right to speak. Isaiah hears the
voice of God calling for someone to speak for God to God's sinful people;
and he responds. 
 
PSALM 29.           Although beginning with praise to God, the emphasis in
this psalm is on the voice of God as if heard in the violence of a
thunderstorm.
                                              
ROMANS 8:12-17.     Paul claims that having the Spirit of the risen Christ
is the key to Christian discipleship. The Spirit enables us to live as the
people of God rather than as slaves to the value system of the world around
us.
                                              
JOHN 3:1-17.        Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, learns from Jesus how
the Spirit makes us new spiritual persons through faith in the crucified
and risen Christ. This comes about because God loves the world so much that
God sent Jesus into the world to save us with this faith.
     
This majestic passage is one of many in the New Testament witnessing to
what subsequently became the doctrine of the Trinity defining God as
revealed in three Persons. It describes the ministry Jesus in his own time
and the work of the Holy Spirit as God forever at work in the world. 
     
Some people look at verse 16 as the secret for obtaining eternal life
beyond death. In this passage, however, John makes the point that God is as
much concerned about how we live in this life now as with what happens to
us afterward. As the subsequent verses 18 to 21 explain, God's judgment
occurs and eternal life begins when we come to believe who Jesus is and
what his coming into the world really means. 

************

ISAIAH 6:1-8.       These few verses describe the call of Isaiah to his
ministry of speaking for God to Israel during a critical period of its
history in the late 8th century BCE. Dr. R.B.Y. Scott, my professor of OT
at McGill University, Montreal, later of Princeton University, wrote an
exceptional exegesis of this passage in *The Interpreter's Bible* (vol. 6,
204ff) which is well worth reading in full. Scott describes Isaiah's
experience as an ecstatic vision, "one of the outstanding passages of the
Bible which justify a doctrine of revelation in and through recorded
spiritual experience....We can participate imaginatively in Isaiah's vision
and feel the same pang of conscience in the presence of the unutterable and
sovereign glory of the goodness of God."

Amid the smoke of incense or from the sacrifice on the altar in the temple,
Isaiah envisioned Yahweh praised by heavenly creatures and singing of
Yahweh's holiness. The vision caused Isaiah to shrink in shame before this
spectacular revelation of holiness. Then one of the heavenly beings touched
the prophet's lips with a live coal symbolizing his cleaning from sin and
his right to speak on Yahweh's behalf. Isaiah heard the voice of Yahweh
calling for someone to speak to Yahweh's sinful people; and he responds. 

The event has a specific historical context:"the year that King Uzziah
died." The year 742 BCE is an approximate date, although biblical
historians cannot be altogether sure. II Kings 15:1ff give the king another
name, Azariah (cf.14:21; 15:13). Isaiah may have been one of the courtiers
or a member of the priesthood. He had contact with several kings of Judah,
the southern kingdom, through perilous times until at least 701 BCE. His
oracles often met with royal displeasure because they counseled actions
which, however spiritually motivated, were politically unpalatable (chs.
36-39).

The passage emphasizes the holiness of Yahweh in that in the intensity of
his vision when Isaiah  "saw the Lord" and heard the divine summons,
Yahweh's face and feet were hidden from him. It was the six winged
seraphim, the heavenly attendants of Yahweh, of which Isaiah catches sight.
In other words, spiritual being can only be spiritually encountered. The
experience can only be expressed in humanly relevant terms. As Scott says,
"Holiness is the essential quality of deity, glory is the manifestation of
deity in the natural world."

Isaiah's familiarity with the cult of Yahweh underlies the ritual act of
mouth-purification (vss. 6-7) symbolizing divine forgiveness enabling the
prophet to speak in Yahweh's name, "Thus saith the Lord ..." Contact with
the holiness of Yahweh sanctified Isaiah for his prophetic mission. His
humble response, "Here am I! Send me," represented total commitment that
countless others have made in similar circumstances. Vocation is our human
response to a divine summons.

Not all prophets or pastors, from ancient times to the present day, have
been called in such dramatic fashion. This brief narrative gives scriptural
credibility to the ecstatic nature of some calls to ministry. Modern
secular minds may cast doubt on the validity of such calls. For those to
whom it has happened, it has been a life-changing experience, not the
hallucinations of religious fanatics. For me, the compelling power of the
experience has lasted for nearly sixty years.


PSALM 29.           Praise for the glory of God in a thunderstorm? That is
an imaginative interpretation of a very natural occurrence in almost any
part of the world. Yet that is the main emphasis in this psalm. The power
of the storm attracts the poet's attention.  The mighty elements have the
status of demi-gods. It is they who are addressed in vss. 1-2 as "heavenly
beings" and summoned to ascribe glory to Yahweh, their "holy array" in the
heavens worshiping as if in the temple. 

Storms of great violence still occur in Palestine. Sweeping down from the
heights of Mount Lebanon, strong cold fronts collide with warm air from the
deserts of the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas. This result is furious storms
which can do great damage to the unwary, especially those poor enough or
foolish enough to build their fragile shelters in the wadis of the
wilderness or the valleys of spring-fed mountain streams. Such disasters
still happen in even the most modern urban communities of California and in
the barrios of Central and South America. Those who live in "Tornado Alley"
on the plains of the American midwest can also attest to the violence of
such storms. Insurance policies still include a clause defining some
destructive events as "acts of God."

The psalmist hears the majestic voice of God in the sound of thunder as the
storm rolls closer (vs. 3-4). The cedars of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon
(Sirion) bend before the wind, skipping like a calf or a young wild ox
(vss. 5-6). The aurochs, from which cattle were domesticated, may not have
been entirely extinct in the more remote foothills of Lebanon at this time.
Lightning appears as flames from the same mouth from which the voice of
Yahweh thunders (vs. 7). The references to Lebanon in the north and the
wilderness of Kadesh in the southern desert on the borders of Sinai (vs. 8)
represent the expanse of the whole nation over which the storm spreads its
fury. Due to the absence of vowels in Hebrew, some versions translate vs. 9
differently. The KJV has it, "The voice of the Lord maketh the hinds to
calve." That might be possible in a heavy storm if the deer were as
terrified as some humans are at such times. The more exact translations in
the RSV and NRSV better serve the intended poetic parallelism. A tornado
whistling through a forest has the power to strip leaves from trees or
uproot great oaks and whirl them to the ground. That would appear to be the
image the poet has in mind.

As the storm passes, reflection on its meaning calms the poet. The One who
is sovereign over all the most forces of nature is also able to give
strength and peace to Israel, Yahweh's chosen people.


ROMANS 8:12-17.     Here Paul claims that having the Spirit of the risen
Christ is the key to Christian discipleship. The Spirit enables us to live
as the people of God rather than as slaves to the value system of the world
around us.

A good deal of scholarly effort has concentrated on what Paul meant by "the
flesh." Most probably, his concept arose from his long, intense association
and training with the Pharisees. In a word, it meant sin, anything that
separates us from God. To quote William Barclay in his *The Mind of Paul*
(Harper, 1958. 190): "Sin is not simply an influence or a force; it is a
kind of personal demonic power which invades a man and takes up residence
in him. It is in fact there that Paul's whole conception of the body and
the flesh comes in. Any invading enemy requires a bridgehead; it is the
flesh which gives sin a bridgehead. The flesh is not simply the body; and
the sins of the flesh are not simply fleshly sins. Idolatry, hatred,
strife, wrath, heresy are all sins of the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:20) The flesh
is the  human nature apart from God. And it is just there that sin obtains
the bridgehead for the invasion whose end is the occupation of the human
personality."

Putting that in terms of contemporary thought, "the flesh" represents the
value system of the dominate culture to which everyone is subjected and to
which one is attracted, consciously or unconsciously. The moral and
spiritual power that enables us to live free of the dominating influence of
"the flesh" is the Holy Spirit (vss. 12-13). But as the whole body of his
correspondence with the apostolic churches makes abundantly clear, Paul had
no illusions about the challenge of living by the Spirit and not the flesh.

E.P Sanders carries Paul's understanding of "the flesh" even farther: "His
penetrating observations have to do with how it is that the man who does
not have faith in Christ is not only lost in a formal and external sense -
handed over to destruction - but even lost to himself, being unable to
achieve the goal which he so ardently desires. For that which is desired -
life - can only be received as a gift, so that the effort to attain it is
self-defeating." (*Paul and Palestinian Judaism.* SCM Press, 1977. 509)

There is more. The antidote to this universal human predicament is found in
vs. 14 of this passage.  Those who through faith in Christ receive the gift
of the Holy Spirit "are the children of God." In vs. 15, Paul uses the
metaphor of adoption into the family of God in contrast to slavery as the
means by which the gift of given to us. Anyone, parent or child, who has
experienced adoption senses immediately the difference. The adopted child
in regarded as a member of the family as much as if born into the family
naturally. However intimately a slave or servant may be regarded, or how
long he or she may serve in a household, that person never becomes a member
of the family with all the incumbent rights and privileges of an adopted
child. The child can never be removed from the family circle. As Paul puts
it in vs. 17: "And if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs
with Christ."

Paul ends this segment of his message with the startling affirmation of the
implications of being a member of the family of God with Christ: "If, in
fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him." We
receive everything that accrues to the family, whether great riches and
honour, or, as the Romans may well have been about to experience when Paul
wrote to them, persecution, privation and unjust punishment for crimes they
did not commit. Tradition holds that Paul himself died during Nero's
persecution of the Christians in Rome whom he blamed for the great fire the
emperor himself has started so he could rebuild the city to his liking.

There is one more brief reference in vs. 15b-16 that bears investigation.
At one time or another, every Christian feels frustrated by his or her
feeble efforts to pray. When crises come upon on us, many feel especially
bereft of the spiritual connections that make prayer meaningful and
helpful. Like terrified children we can only cry out, "Daddy, help me!" It
is then, in our moments of terror, we most need the Spirit to interpret our
cries for help and to reassure us that we are indeed the children of the
living, loving God who knows our plight and will not desert us in our need. 

Had Paul heard what was happening to the Christian community in Rome under
the mad emperor Nero? Had he determined to appeal to the emperor himself so
that he might join them in their time of danger? Nero was fiercely anti-
semitic as had been his adoptive father, Claudius, whom he succeeded as
emperor. Paul met two of his closest co-workers in Corinth, Priscilla and
Aquila, after Claudius had banished them from Rome with other Jews in 49/50
CE. The postscript to the Letter to the Romans (16:3) includes a warm
greeting to Priscilla and Aquila which indicates that there were once again
back in the capital of the empire. We can only speculate how Paul may have
intended his reference to Spirit-assisted prayer to be understood by his
audience. Our own interpretation of it, however, may yield a fruitful
homily for the early summer.


JOHN 3:1-17         Reading the NT two millennia after it was composed, we
need to remember that those who created the gospels from the oral
traditions to which they had access  knew about, believed in, and assumed
they were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. This majestic passage is one
of many in the New Testament witnessing to what subsequently became the
doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It describes the ministry Jesus and the
activity of the Holy Spirit as God engaged in God's redeeming work in and
for the world. 
     
The story John told is a simple one: Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews,
learned from Jesus how the Spirit makes us new spiritual persons through
faith in the crucified and risen Christ. This comes about because God loves
the world so much that God sent Jesus into the world to save us humans and
this planet through this faith.

Some people look at John 3:16 as the secret for obtaining eternal life
beyond death. In this passage, however, John makes the point that God is as
much concerned about how we live in this life now as with what happens to
us afterward. As the subsequent verses 18 to 21 explain, God's judgment
occurs and eternal life begins when we believe who Jesus is and what his
coming into the world really means.

In the theological struggles of the 21st  century "born again" became the
rallying cry of conservatively minded Christians, the magical open sesame
to salvation. In many respects it has the same force as the synoptic gospel
proclamation, "repent and believe the gospel." It is a metaphor for a new
moral and spiritual beginning which comes about for those who have faith
that Jesus is who he said he is, the Messiah/Christ, Son of God, come to
empower us to live God requires of us. Was it not out of such a context
that Jesus chided Nicodemus, "Are you a teacher of Israel and you do not
understand these things? (vs. 10)  In these words the distinctiveness of
the Christian faith stands out.

In all of the discourses of Jesus which John includes in his gospel, it is
difficult to distinguish how much are remembrances of what Jesus may have
actually said or the commentary of John himself.  Obviously in vss. 11-17,
Jesus, or more probably John, was thinking about the whole story of
incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of God's sovereign
love made manifest in Jesus.  We find another metaphor of universal
salvation in the comparison of the crucifixion to Moses' elevation of the
serpent which prevented the Israelites from dying of a plague of poisonous
snakes (vss. 14-15 cf. Numbers 21:4-9).  With this parallel, John
reiterated that salvation as God's intention in the classic statement of
vs. 16. 

If that were not enough to convince the unbelieving, and especially the
Jewish element of his audience, John drove his point home in vs. 17-21 by
introducing the constant OT theme of divine judgment on sin.  Yet here John
differentiated Christian from Jewish theology.  God's judgment does not
come for the purpose of condemning the wicked who transgress a moral law or
ritual code, as so often stated in the OT.  The purpose of divine judgment
is to bring the whole world to faith.  This reaffirms in a remarkable way
that Jesus is the full expression of divine love in human form as stated so
exquisitely in vs. 16.

What, then, is the Holy Trinity but the God who is love coming to us in
whatever way we humans can receive the gift of God's own life and thereby
be recreated as new persons who express love in all our relationships?

                                              
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2003 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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