Roughly 736 years before the birth of Jesus, an official court prophet in Jerusalem named Isaiah went into the Temple. I was an anxious time for Judah, the kingdom in which he lived. The King of Assyria had declared himself king of the world and set out to make sure the rest of the world got the memo. Judah’s own king had died, and a new king was on the throne. Judah’s neighbors wanted to fight Assyria, and they wanted to force Judah to join them. Isaiah was in the Temple and suddenly he saw God. As an official court prophet, he was going to have to talk about this to the king and other powerful people. Plus, I assume he’d tell his friends.
He sees God and laments, “Alas, I am a man of unclean lips of a people of unclean lips.” So, one of the angels grabs a hot coal and thrusts it onto Isaiah’s mouth, “O, you got unclean lips? There, that’ll sterilize you.” What is that about? One later midrash—or Jewish commentary—on the text said that while the angel was doing this, God said, “Badmouth yourself all you want, but are you also the master of my children that you refer to them as a people of unclean lips?” In other words, God loves those people. (This is an important detail.) Then, God says, “Whom shall I send?” And Isaiah says, “Send me.”
The First Reading stopped, there; the story continues. God says, “Go, tell the powerful to keep listening but not comprehend. Tell them what I tell you, and in doing that you will make them less and less likely to agree with you.” Isaiah says, “How long do I have to do that?” God responds, “Until your leaders destroy your country.” We are not told how Isaiah reacts to that. If this is how the powerful will respond, what’s the deal with burning Isaiah’s lips for calling these people “unclean”? It’s God telling Isaiah, “You have to love them. You can’t think of them as less than you are.” You can’t think of that group, in this case the rich and powerful, as not being people. You can’t think of CEOs and presidents as unclean, any more than you can think of black men, people without homes, or dark-skinned immigrants as unclean. This job is going to be difficult, Isaiah, and your audience not receptive. You can’t lose sight of them being human.
The Gospel reading shows us Jesus lovingly and relentlessly speaking the truth to a powerful person who is struggling to understand it. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a leader. That’s all John tells us. People listen to him, he is of the theological and political faction that applies temple regulations to daily living and believes God’s people are to be holy (or clean) and will be raised from the dead at the last. Jesus has driven out the animal salesmen and the money changers from the Temple, and this made an impression on Nicodemus, enough that he decided to approach Jesus and find out what Jesus had to say.
Now, I would like to think that no one in real life could be as dense as Nicodemus, but I’ve had theological conversations with people online, so I can’t rule it out. Furthermore, while I generally read Nicodemus as conveniently asking the questions needed to get Jesus to talk about what Jesus wants to talk about, he can be taken at face value. “You’ve got God with you, right, Jesus?” No one can see God without being born from above. “Ah, but how can you be born after growing old? You can’t climb back into your mother’s womb!” No, no, it’s a spiritual thing. “But how does that work?” You mean you don’t know? Jesus thinks it’s obvious. Jesus knows that people must accept that God is the true origin of people. “Born-From-Above” means living with the faith that God is your true origin. In the Gospel of John, people who are “born of the flesh” or “born of the will of man” are people who think they are the source of their own lives, who trust their pedigree or their station in life or their outward displays of piety. Jesus says, “No, you are from God. We must understand that first.”
You are from God. In the First Reading, Isaiah describes God as seated on a throne on high, and the hem of his robe filled Solomon’s Temple. It’s as if we were two-dimensional beings—like really flat checkers. We can move forward and backward and side to side, 360 degrees of movement, which is all there is what more could you want. And then, suddenly, we’re confronted with the concept of “up.” “How far does that go?” God is here, all of God is here on this board. But I can’t see the top. In the Gospel, Jesus tells us God is our proper origin. We must be born from above and know that God is our origin. But God is not merely a starting point. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit loving each other. That love is the reason the Son becomes Jesus; that’s the mission Jesus is on: “God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The God who is so great that it is as though God occupies additional dimensions we cannot see, loves this world mightily. Loves you mightily. Loves people who drive you nuts, mightily. And this is the case whether we see it or not. God loves you whether you know it or not. God loves all of this whether we see it or not. Christian living has nothing to do with getting God to love us (God already does that); it has a lot to do with accepting that God loves us. And accepting that God loves everyone else, even when they don’t get it.
That’s what Isaiah and Jesus do. Things go for Isaiah exactly as God said they would. He prophesies, the people don’t listen, things turn out badly, Isaiah says, “Gee, too bad no one warned you this would happen.” But Isaiah’s scalded lips always remind him: God loves these people; I’m not allowed to think of them as unclean or less than I am. Jesus, he has more signs and more teaching moments, but he loses more disciples than he makes. And he will get frustrated. He is human, and he is dealing with us. We are frustrating. Yet, as he himself says, he loves us to the end, giving his life, rising from the grave, and returning to the Father to send us the Holy Spirit. (That would not by my first inclination. If I got crucified and then rose from the dead I would be all, “I’m not hanging around to have that happen again.” Jesus says, “Have more of me.”)
Now none of us are Jesus, but then neither was Isaiah. As Jesus kept loving those who refused to understand God as their origin, so Isaiah let the Spirit guide him to love those who refused to understand God as their origin, even when this refusal carried grave consequences for Isaiah. Judah got suckered into all kinds of geopolitical blunders and wound up a client state of Assyria, pretending to be independent. Isaiah never stopped prophesying and Isaiah never stopped loving the world. Like Isaiah, we can bear that prophetic word; like Isaiah, we can love the world.
Like Isaiah we have seen God. We see God every time we join the words of the angels crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and we hear the words of the Eternal Word of God, who says of food and drink, “This is my body; this is my blood.” We will hold God in our hands, and God will become part of us, closer to us than we are to ourselves. And we’ll know, “God is entirely here, but there’s way more, too, and I can’t see the top.” And while we might not get the hot coal to the lips—if that does happen to you, please report that person to me immediately—we don’t get the hot coal, but as that wine burns on the way down—and it burns, it’s fortified—maybe we remember as Isaiah did that a lot of other people are taking this blood of Christ, and the God who occupies dimensions we cannot understand loves them as mightily as God loves us.
And like Isaiah we can live this. There is a world that does not know God is its origin. There is a world full of our fellow human beings who think they are the source of their own lives. Who trust their outward displays of piety, who invoke the name of Jesus as their excuse to harm the people Jesus died to save. Who trust their own will, and the weapon they take in hand, and their power to wreak destruction and terror on a café, or a school, or a market. Who trust their ancestry, their pedigree, and then call anyone with a different ancestry, a different language, a different station in life something less than human, who take children from refugees and hand them over to human traffickers. Who can’t even watch the stinking royal wedding without complaining that the Duchess of Sussex is biracial. I couldn’t even get up early enough to watch the thing, but you’re up at the crack of dawn to complain about her ethnicity.
And God loves every single one. And no one—neither they nor we—can change it. What we can do is love the world and bear the Word to it. We can preach Christ crucified and risen to dehumanizer and dehumanized alike. We can declare the real presence of God in food and drink to oppressor and oppressed alike. We can testify to what we know: the origin of the world. We can do this, because God loves us mightily enough to reveal that to us.