Shawna Atteberry

Baker, Writer, Teacher

Trinity Sunday Sermon: The Earth Is Full of God’s Glory

The Earth Is Full of God’s Glory (Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17: Trinity Sunday, Year B)

“In the year King Uzziah died,” Isaiah said, and those who were listening shuddered and looked at their feet instead of at him. It would be the equivalent of saying “In the year terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center.” Or “In the year Covid-19 shut down the world.” The year King Uzziah died was not a good time for the country of Judah. The empire of Assyria was expanding its power through conquest. The end of Uzziah’s reign would be the last time Judah was an independent country in the middle of the empires of the Middle East and Egypt. The Syro-Ephraimitic War was just beginning. As a response to Assyria’s growing dominance, Syria and Israel had joined together to fight Assyria. When Judah refused to join them, they decided to attack Judah and make King Ahaz, Uzziah’s successor, join them one way or the other. So when Isaiah began his story of how he was called by God with “In the year King Uzziah died,” the people were not expecting a story with a happy ending.

Then Isaiah told where he was when he saw his vision of God: the Temple. And the people thought, “Oh that must be nice. To be one of the few people who can go into the Temple and be safe. How nice for him.”

Because here is what we modern-day Christians tend to forget: the Temple in Jerusalem was not like our churches. Not just anyone could get into the Temple itself: you had to be descended from Aaron. Only Aaron’s male descendants could be priests, and priests were the only ones allowed into the Temple itself. Women could go into the outer court, and men could go into the inner court, but only priests went into the temple. Isaiah was part of a very select group. The only reason he could pray in the Temple where God appeared to him was that he was born into the right family.

But God isn’t going to let Isaiah stay in the Temple. Although Isaiah had a vision of God’s robe filling the Temple, the seraphs who wait before the throne declare: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The WHOLE earth is full of God’s glory—not just the Temple or even the Temple Mount. The seraphs declare God is found in all of the world, and God wants someone to go into that world and tell the people God is with them wherever they are.

The Temple hierarchy is still firmly in place when Nicodemus visits Jesus one night in John 3. In fact, Jesus had just let the priests know what he thought of the way they controlled access to God in the previous chapter by throwing the merchants and money changers out of the Temple’s outer court. The only place women and Gentile proselytes could worship was also a noisy marketplace full of merchants selling animals to sacrifice and exchanging unclean pagan money for the Temple shekel. Jewish men could get away from the chaos in the inner court of the Temple, and of course, the priests could still go into the silent Temple, so the noise and hoopla from the outer court didn’t bother them in the least.

Jesus makes it clear to Nicodemus that God hasn’t changed her mind about being out and about in the world. The two have an interesting and befuddling theological conversation:

Jesus begins: “‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 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.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?’”

I don’t know if Nicodemus is actually confused by this conversation, or if he is being deliberately obtuse. Nicodemus is part of the Temple hierarchy: he benefits as a leader who has access to God and denies that same access to most of the Jewish people and all of the Gentile proselytes. But if Jesus is right–if there is another birth after the physical birth that gave Nicodemus the privileged access to God he has, and that birth of the Spirit grants equal access to God regardless of what tribe or family that one is born into–then who needs to the Temple? And who needs the Temple hierarchy to mediate between God and her people? If “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” is true, and this birth of the Spirit is as mysterious as the wind coming and going then how is the Temple hierarchy able to control access to the God of the heavens and the earth?

So when Nicodemus asks: “How can these things be?” he may not be asking about how being born from above by the Spirit is possible. He may be asking how can it be that everyone is able to have equal access to God.

So you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Trinity Sunday. Here’s the takeaway: it doesn’t matter which member of the Trinity we’re talking about: the Father or Mother, the Son, or the Holy Spirit: there is one thing the entire Godhead is agreed on: everyone on this planet has equal access to God the Father and Mother, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The whole earth is full of God’s glory. The Spirit blows wherever she wants and makes whoever she wills a child of God, regardless of birth, family, race, nationality, religion, or creed. The family of the Trinity wants everyone to come into the fold, and the Godhead has always been actively working against all of the ways we humans come up with to limit access to God.

God appeared to Isaiah in the Temple because that was the only place Isaiah thought God would be and found out otherwise. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night and discovers Jesus’ clearing out the Temple of salespeople was just the start of his radical idea that God was everywhere. And this is where my brain has been all week. Seeing the power structures in place in these Scripture Readings to keep most of the people away from God. Thanks to this last year I’ve been thinking A LOT about power structures anyway, as I’m sure most of us have. Both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown us the unequal access to health care, justice, and being able to walk down the street safely whole swaths of Americans have to live with. The last thing the church should be doing is upholding these power structures. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: the white church in the U. S. not only upholds these power structures, but we created them. Then we claimed they were God’s will just as Isaiah and Nicodemus thought it was God’s will to so severely limit access to God through the Temple hierarchy.

You’d think at some point God would just get tired of us stupid humans doing the same thing over and over and over again. Seriously, we’ve been creating power structures to limit access to God and to the resources God created for everyone to share in since the beginning. All the selfishness, greed, and power hoarding going on in this country isn’t new. Just ask the people of Judah after King Uzziah died. The human race has been acting this way for a very long time. And God just keeps coming to us and showing us there is another way to live. The WHOLE EARTH is still full of God’s glory. God the Creator is still creating and re-creating the world. God the Son is still teaching the world what it looks like to live the way God wants us to live. God the Holy Spirit is still blowing through the world making us children of God with unlimited access to the Holy and Undivided Trinity. The Trinity never gives up on us. So we can’t give up on ourselves either.

I’m proud of the work Grace has done to address our own prejudices and the way we are complicit in these power structures. I’m proud we want to repent of these sins, and we want to do things that will start taking down these structures. As we do this work of making the South Loop and Chicago a more equitable place for everyone, we need to remember that the Holy Trinity has already gone before us. The Godhead has been at work in this city for a very long time challenging these power structures, and leading churches across the city to address different aspects of the power structures that try to hoard as much as possible for the fewest people possible.

As we enter Ordinary Time—the time the church is called to take Christ out into the world–we need to remember Christ is already in the world working. The Holy Spirit is still blowing through the world. And the Creator is still fine-tuning her creation. We just need to pay attention. Pay attention to where the Trinity is already at work. Then join the Creator, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the continuing work of redeeming the entire world for God because the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

Sermon: Are You The One or should we look for someone else?

Are You The One

Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11 (Year A, Advent 3)

As a cynical and sarcastic pessimist, I have a soft spot in my heart for what I call The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible. Many of you have heard me refer to The Apostle Paul as That Old Curmudgeon, and in today’s gospel reading, we continue the story of my second favorite curmudgeon in the Bible: John the Baptist. The Old Curmudgeons of the Bible don’t mince words. They don’t have time for trigger warnings. And they don’t take anyone’s crap. They don’t take crap from the reigning religious authorities like the Sadducees or Pharisees or even Jesus’ own brother after he makes his way to top the hierarchy in Jerusalem. They don’t take crap from any of the Herods or even from the churches one of them planted in Corinth. They have work to do and truth to tell, and they don’t let anything get in the way of that. And in today’s gospel reading we discover that John isn’t taking any crap from Jesus either.

In fact from last week’s Gospel reading to this week’s reading, we’re at something of a loss. Last week John is in the wilderness preaching truth to power and baptizing people in the Jordan. He’s not taking any crap from those Pharisees and Sadducees when they show up to find out why everyone is running to the middle of nowhere. He’s telling the people who flock to him about the One who is coming after him who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. This Coming One is going to do some major house cleaning when he shows up. If we continued through the rest of Matthew 3, we would’ve read of John hesitating to baptize Jesus, saying Jesus needed to baptize him.

Then we hit this week’s reading in Matthew: “While John was in prison, he heard about the works the Messiah was performing, and sent a message by way of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” And all of us go: “Huh? What happened?” How did John wind up in prison? Why is he sending his disciples with this question? What happened?

The funny thing is we don’t find out why John is in prison for a few more chapters in Matthew. We have to make it to chapter 14 before we discover why John is no longer preaching by the Jordan. There we discover that John took on Herod Antipas, who happens to be the son of Herod the Great, the king responsible for slaughtering the Holy Innocents in Bethlehem to make sure he stayed on the throne. The son isn’t much better. Herod Antipas continuously raised taxes on the people to live a more lavish lifestyle and further consolidate his own power against his brothers.

One of the ways he consolidated his power against his brother Philip was by marrying Philip’s ex-wife, Herodias after their divorce. According to the family laws in Leviticus, this was incest and not to be done. Matthew 14 tells us Herod arrested John and threw him in prison because John had been telling him: “It is against the Law for you to have her.” The Jewish historian Josephus reported that Herod Antipas arrested John because he was afraid “John might stir the people to insurrection” (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 388), which means John might have also been telling Herod Antipas that he shouldn’t be exploiting the people to make himself richer.

So now we know why John is in prison. Now comes the bigger question: why is John now questioning who Jesus is? “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?” When you’re doing research to preach on this passage, it’s quite entertaining to read how some scholars try to explain this away. They don’t want to admit that even John the Baptist had his doubts. Instead it was John’s disciples who had the doubts, and that is why John sent them—for their own good. I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that John was having his doubts, given the circumstances.

John’s been arrested and he’s in prison for preaching the coming reign of God and holding Judah’s leaders accountable. He had been telling everyone that when The Chosen One came “That One will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire, whose winnowing-fan will clear the threshing floor. The grain will be gathered into the barn, but the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire.” Some major housecleaning was supposed to be happening: Judah’s enemies were supposed to be overthrown, God’s kingdom was to be established, and peace would reign. Jerusalem would be the center of the world, and people from everywhere would come and worship God.

But none of this was happening. Jesus is spending most of his time wandering around Galilee, healing people and teaching in synagogues, hilltops, and by the sea. He doesn’t seem too interested in taking on the Herod family or Rome, for that matter. So John asks, “Are you ‘The One who is to come’ or do we look for another?”

I like that John’s question doesn’t seem to phase Jesus. Of course, Jesus knew he wasn’t acting like the Messiah that John and many of the people had been expecting. He hadn’t made himself king, he wasn’t raising an army, and he had not once talked of driving the Romans out. The only time he had talked about Rome to this point was to tell the people when a Roman soldier commanded them to go a mile carrying their packs, the people were to go two. Jesus was not the Messiah, the Son of Bathsheba and David, John and others were expecting.

Jesus pointed John in a different direction. He wanted John to know that his definition of what The Chosen One looked like wasn’t the only description of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Our reading from Isaiah this morning states: “Say to those who are faint of heart: ‘Take courage! Do not be afraid! Look, YHWH is coming, vindication is coming, the recompense of God—God is coming to save you!” And when God comes, she will open the eyes of the blind and unseal the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing! On hearing John’s question, Jesus’ response was to point to what he was doing: “Those who are blind recover their sight; those who cannot walk are able to walk; those with leprosy are cured; those who are deaf hear; the dead are raised to life; and the anawim—the ‘have-nots’–have the Good News preached to them.” Look at my works Jesus said. It was almost as if Jesus said, “Stop focusing on just the one thing you want and see everything I’m doing.”

Then Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them: What did you go out to the boondocks to see? Why did you traipse out to the middle of nowhere? Was it to watch the reeds blowing in the wind? Was it to see men like Herod dressed in their finery? No, they went to see the man Herod had thrown in prison. They went to see John who spoke truth to power, even when it cost him his freedom. They went to see John who didn’t mince words with anyone—not even the religious leaders. They went to see John who didn’t take anyone’s crap—including Jesus. When Jesus didn’t live up to ideal, he wanted to know what was going on, and if he should move on. In his own way, Jesus told him to stay and stick it out. Then Jesus went on to praise John—doubts and all: “So what did you go out to see—a prophet? Yes, a prophet—and more than a prophet!” John was the promised Elijah who would make the way for God to break into our world in a new and joyous way: he proclaimed that God had come among us and would set things right. And because of his ministry nothing would be the same.

I hate that the lectionary does not finish this story. Jesus goes on to challenge the crowd he just praised John in front of: “What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but your wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes eating and drinking, and they say, “This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”

There’s a warning there for us this Advent season as we once again wait for Christ. What are we waiting for? When Christ comes will it be as we expected? Or will we be disappointed like John because Jesus didn’t come the way we wanted him to? Or will we be like the crowds who can’t decide what they want. They run out into the wilderness to see John, but his tough, ascetic lifestyle and his warnings of the coming judgment of God don’t sit well with them, and they return to their homes. Then Jesus comes inviting all to the banquet of God and bringing God’s love to everyone: insiders and outsiders, and that kind of inclusivity makes them run home too. We don’t really want everyone to get in, do we?

But that is the vision of both Jesus and Isaiah: everyone has a place in God’s kingdom, and when God comes everything changes. Deserts bloom. Wildernesses burst into gardens. Wastelands bubble up into pools of water. We help each other as we “strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees.” We assure the faint of heart: “Don’t be afraid. God is coming.” And when God comes the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame dance with joy, and the mute sing. Isaiah’s vision is of a joyful community making sure everyone gets on the Sacred Path that not even those of us with no sense of direction can get lost on. We can’t get lost because we’re going together, and we’re taking care of each other on the way. And when that happens, God comes.