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John 3.1-17 & Isaiah 6.1-8

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and Christian provocateur, tells a parable of one who humbles himself and comes down from above. It is a long, complex passage, typical of Kierkegaard, but it has been summarized as follows: “Suppose there was a king who loved a humble maiden. The king was like no other king. Every statesman trembled before his power. No one dared breathe a word against him, for he had the strength to crush all opponents.

And yet this mighty king was melted by love for a humble maiden who lived in a poor village in his kingdom. How could he declare his love for her? In an odd sort of way, his kingliness tied his hands. If he brought her to the palace and crowned her head with jewels and clothed her body in royal robes, she would surely not resist—no one dared resist him. But would she love him?

She would say she loved him, of course, but would she truly? Or would she live with him in fear, nursing a private grief for the life she had left behind? Would she be happy at his side? How could he know for sure? If he rode to her forest cottage in his royal carriage, with an armed escort waving bright banners, that too would overwhelm her. He did not want a cringing subject. He wanted a lover, an equal. He wanted her to forget that he was a king and she a humble maiden and to let shared love cross the gulf between them. For it is only in love that the unequal can be made equal.

The king, convinced he could not elevate the maiden without crushing her freedom, resolved to descend to her. Clothed as a beggar, he approached her cottage with a worn cloak fluttering loose about him. This was not just a disguise – the king took on a totally new identity – He had renounced his throne to declare his love and to win hers.” [øren-kierkegaard; summary appears to be from Kierkegaard's Disappointment with God; original parable appears in Philosophical Fragments, Ch. 2 ]

The king’s dilemma is precisely the dilemma posed by our scriptures on this Trinity Sunday. Isaiah’s mystical vision of God high and lifted up, enthroned far above the Temple, the divine glory filling the whole earth is a vision of awe. It is beautiful and stunning, but it is overwhelming as well. We glimpse, and I underline glimpse, the unspeakable power and majesty of God. And before such a vision, we would likely respond as does Isaiah: “Woe is me. I am nothing before the One who is Something, the source and power behind all things. How can I, finite and sinful, stand before the Infinite and Holy God.”

And yet, we are told by Jesus that this incomprehensible Being loves us, all of us, the whole world—all people and, by implication, the whole of the created order. Isaiah’s vision points to this stunning truth, for the prophet is forgiven and commissioned. If God did not care, there would be no need to try to mend the relationship between God and Israel by sending the prophet, indeed, there would be no relationship to mend. That relationship, the covenant between God and Israel, was initiated by God in the first place and, because God loves God’s people, God sends the prophet to call them back from the separation of sin into right relationship.  

This act of sending One for the purpose of reconciliation is made more explicit—and more personal—in John’s Gospel: Out of a great love for the whole world, God sends the Son for us and for our salvation [John 3.16]. Of course, in John’s theology, the Son, Jesus, is the Word made flesh, and that Word is God [John 1]. So it is on this occasion that God does not send another, a messenger like Isaiah, to tell us of God’s love. Instead, God comes in the flesh, in human form, like a king throwing off his robes and crown and donning the everyday clothes of a peasant, so that we will not be overawed but so that we might see clearly how great is the divine love for us.

Martin Luther put it this way in one of his Christmas sermons: “Divinity may terrify [a person]. Inexpressible majesty will crush him. That is why Christ took on our humanity, save for sin, that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm [us].” [Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by Roland Bainton, p. 33]  

So, this love divine comes down from above, “descends from heaven,” [John 3.13] to dwell with us in the incarnation and life of Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, both the Son of God and the Son of Man. And this love continues to dwell with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. But for John, this love, which is God’s life and power, is seen most clearly in the death and resurrection of Christ: “the Son of Man must be lifted up…. [and] If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me.” When Christ is lifted up on the cross, we see God’s love made manifest in the scandalous, limitless extremes to which God will go to reconcile and save us—God would rather die than stop loving us! [Dr. Tom Graves in a lecture at BTSR, Fall 1996] And, when Christ is lifted up in the resurrection and ascension, we see the great power of that love. It is stronger than all other powers, even death; it is life giving and world making. This is what draws us to God—love.

As Luther observed, those who see God as a harsh judge see God wrongly, for in truth God is a gracious and merciful Father. The Son was not sent into the world to condemn the world, but so that the world may be saved. Bob Stuhlman expresses the same idea, when he summarizes one of Thomas Merton’s essays by saying, “God did not create humans to punish them. God created humans because [God] wanted a partner to be a companion in the dance.” [Bob Stuhlmann,; though he presents this as a quote, it seems to be a summation of Merton’s “The General Dance,” from New Seeds of Contemplation, 290-297]

In Kierkegaard’s parable, what wins the peasant maiden’s heart will not be the king’s majesty or his power. Awe is not love. It will be the love that the king shows, the kindness of his deeds, the quality of his character, the generosity of disposition—in short the beauty of his person, of his heart and soul and mind—which will move the maiden to truly love him.    

Ultimately, what draws us to God is not the mystery of God’s holiness, God’s absolute transcendence, God’s otherness. No, God’s holiness by itself is awe inspiring, but that awe can easily become the fear of a distant, unknowable diety. If all we knew of God was the unspeakable grandeur, the indescribable majesty, the utter righteousness, the unimaginable power, the unendurable holiness which Isaiah glimpsed in the Temple, we could easily fear God, we could feel reverence for God, but we could not love God.

What draws us, draws our hearts and souls, to God is God’s immanence, God’s nearness and care, God’s loving presence with us, the beauty of God’s loving actions for us. We are drawn to God because we are awed by God’s beauty and love.

While I was studying the History of Christianity at Union Presbyterian Seminary, I took a class on St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions, Augustine asks, “What is it, then, that I love when I love my God?” [X.7.11, The Confessions, trans. by Maria Boulding, 1997, p. 244]  This question sparked quite the discussion in my class: what is it about God that causes Augustine to love God; what is his love responding to? Despite our best efforts, the class session ended without us ever quite answering the question.  But I kept thinking about it, and eventually I came to a realization. Earlier in the book, Augustine observed that no one has ever loved that which they did not find beautiful. Later, thinking of the long, slow road he traveled to faith, he laments to God, “Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you!....You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.” [X.27.38, p. 262] Clearly, Augustine was in love with God and that love is inextricably connected to the beauty of God. He had been overcome by the divine beauty he perceived in God’s goodness, God’s creativity, God’s compassion. The beauty of God had burst forth upon his heart and soul and now awed by that beauty and love, he is overcome by the longing of love. Augustine had been reborn as a lover of God.        

Though it may not be so dramatic as Augustine’s experience and language, I believe we too are wooed by God’s beauty. We love God because we have seen the beauty of God’s character and being revealed in the acts of self-giving love of the One who is the Creator, the Crucified, and the Comforter. We love God because we have seen God’s love in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We love because we have seen Christ renounce his throne for us, not counting equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptying himself, coming down from heaven, being found in human form, and enduring death as he was lifted up on a cross. [Philippians 2.6-7]   We love because we have seen the King clothed in beggar’s rags, drawing near to us in humility, coming to the very cottage where we live, so that we might know his for who he is, experience his love and have life abundant and eternal.

So let us give thanks, for God—who is high and lifted up, beyond all comprehension and imagination—has come down to us in love and humility. Let us praise God for God’s majesty and power and let us love God for we have been shown God’s love and beauty in Christ who came from above in the name of love, not to condemn, but to bring hope, life and salvation. Amen.