Lesson: Isaiah 6:1-8
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
The Book of Isaiah is a composite of writings from three distinct periods in Ancient Israel’s history. The writings were compiled from about 700 BCE to about 300 BCE.
Chapters 1-39 are called “First Isaiah” and are the words of a prophet (one who speaks for YHWH – translated as “LORD” in all capital letters in the NRSV) who called for Jerusalem to repent in the 30 years before Jerusalem came under siege by the Assyrians in 701 BCE. “Second Isaiah” is Chapters 40 to 55. In these chapters, a prophet brought hope to the Judeans during the Exile in Babylon (587 to 539 BCE) by telling them they had suffered enough and would return to Jerusalem. “Third Isaiah” is Chapters 56 to 66 in which a prophet gave encouragement to the Judeans who had returned to Jerusalem (which was largely destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE) after the Exile had ended.
Today’s reading is usually referred to as “the Call of Isaiah.” Using the reigns of kings as a way of denoting years was a common method, and King Uzziah of the Kingdom of Judea died in 733 BCE, at a time when the Assyrian Empire was dominant. The Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel (the Northern 10 Tribes) in 722 BCE.
The scene of Isaiah’s Call is intended to inspire awe and uses hyperbole (the hem of the LORD’s robe fills the temple) (v.1) to create that sense. The LORD is surrounded by angels – seraphs (literally, “burning ones”) with six wings, two of which cover their “feet” (a customary euphemism in Hebrew Scriptures for one’s private parts).
Just as Samuel responded to the LORD’s call in 1 Sam. 3, Isaiah responds with the same words: “Here I am; send me” (v.8).
Epistle: Romans 8:12-17
12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ– if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was his longest, last, and most complex letter. It was written in the late 50s or early 60s (CE) – about ten years before the first Gospel (Mark) was written – to a Jesus Follower community that Paul did not establish. Among other messages in the letter, Paul sought to encourage respectful and supportive relationships between the Gentile Jesus Followers and the Jewish Jesus Followers in Rome.
The “backstory” is that the Roman Emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome in 49 CE. His successor, Nero (54-68 CE), allowed Jews (including Jewish Jesus Followers) to return to Rome, and this created tensions about leadership and worship within the Jesus Follower Community. (Jesus Followers were not called “Christians” until the 80’s.)
Paul was a Jew who became a Jesus Follower who saw the Jesus Follower Movement as part of a broader Judaism. As such, he continued to have expectations about the fullness of the Coming of the Messiah/the Christ. Reflecting his Jewish roots, Paul exhorted the Jesus Follower Community in Rome to follow the Commandments, particularly to love one another as neighbors.
Today’s verses placed in opposition “the Spirit” on the one hand and “the flesh” and “the body” on the other. In doing this, Paul was using these terms as “verbal shorthand” for concepts he developed in this and other epistles.
Paul was not denigrating human bodies as intrinsically opposed to the Spirit. Instead, he used “the flesh” and “the body” to as shorthand for the “values of the world” – or “the System” – values that exalt power, self-centeredness, autonomy, and personal achievement as measures of a person’s worth. Similarly, Paul criticized the idea that slavish obedience to the Law would enable one to “earn” or “merit” salvation or wholeness.
Salvation is a byproduct (not the goal) of living in the Spirit, and the Spirit bears witness to the fact that we are children of God and heirs of God with Christ (v.17). We only need accept that gift and live into it.
Gospel: John 3:1-17
1 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 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.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
The Fourth Gospel is different in many ways from the Synoptic Gospels. The “signs” (miracles) and many of the stories in the Fourth Gospel are unique to it, such as the Wedding at Cana, Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the Raising of Lazarus.
The chronology of events is also different in the Fourth Gospel. For example, the Temple Event (“cleansing of the Temple”) occurred early in Jesus’ Ministry in the Fourth Gospel, rather than late as in the Synoptic Gospels. In the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, but in the Fourth Gospel, it occurred the day before the first day of Passover so that Jesus (who is described as “the Lamb of God”) died at the time lambs were being sacrificed at the Temple for the Passover Seder to be held that night.
Today’s reading is also unique to the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus is identified as a Pharisee, and as a “leader off the Jews” (v.1). He may have been a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, that was responsible for the internal and autonomous affairs of the Jewish people. Because of his position, Nicodemus came to Jesus secretly “at night” (v.2)
In the Fourth Gospel, the phrase “the Jews” almost always meant “the Jewish ruling authorities” and was not reference to the Jewish people generally.
As often occurred in stories in the Fourth Gospel, the “foil” (Nicodemus) took the words of Jesus literally (v.4) rather than understanding the spiritual import of them. In verse 7, the word in Greek for “you” is plural, so the message in the Gospel was presented as being intended for persons in addition to Nicodemus. The words “born from above” can also be translated as “born anew.” ”Wind” in verse 8 can also be translated as “the breath” or “the spirit.”
Given the difficult relationship between the Jesus Followers and the Pharisees at the time the Fourth Gospel was written (c.95 CE), this exchange was critical of the Pharisees who “do not understand” (vv. 10-12).
The reference to the story of Moses’ lifting the bronze serpent in the wilderness (v.14) looked back to the account in Num.21:9 in which the Israelites complained again about their food. In this story, YHWH got angry and attacked the Israelites with poisonous snakes and many people died until Moses intervened and put a bronze serpent on a pole so that people who were bitten might live if they looked upon the bronze serpent. Because Jesus as the Son of Man brings eternal life, he was portrayed as superior to Moses.
Because Greek texts did not include punctuation (such as quotation marks), it is not clear if the statements in verses 16 and 17 were attributed by the author of the Fourth Gospel as quotes from Jesus or if they are statements by the author of the Gospel.