This weekend is one of celebration. The Queen, Queen Elizabeth, has been our Queen for 60 years, since 1952. And whether you are a Royalist or a Republican you cannot have failed to notice that fact. Some of us are even getting an extra day off to mark the special event. There may not be the same number of street parties here north of the border, nevertheless many people are celebrating something that has lasted in a world where very few things do. It’s a moment in history. History has always used these sorts of moments to place us in a certain time and community. Our reading from Isaiah does just that. It begins: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died.’ That helps us, as readers, to place just exactly where in the history of Israel to put Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple. There are many parallels between the situation the Queen finds herself in and that of the prophet Isaiah. I’m not saying that the Queen is a prophet; far from it. She is a person just like the rest of us. One of his children, and she herself believes that. I know because she told me! In life we may live under all sorts of hierarchies but under God all are equal. Our reading from Romans tells us that we are all heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ but we are all called to be subject to God’s will, you, me, the Queen and anyone who professes Jesus Christ as saviour.
Isaiah, like our Queen, was being given a job to do, not one that he had particularly sought and not one that he thought he was necessarily equipped to do. But it was also what can only be described as an offer he couldn’t very well refuse! Because God was telling him to do it. It was an appointment of the highest order! He said, I am a sinful man, I can’t do whatever it is you might ask me to do. I can’t do it, don’t ask me please? Choose someone better, someone cleverer, someone purer. But God is not to be put off and so he forgives Isaiah and Isaiah amazed finds himself saying, ‘Here I am Lord, send me!’ The Queen was fairly safely down the pecking order of succession for many years until things changed and suddenly her plans had to be changed. There must have been many moments when she thought, I can’t do this, please don’t ask me. Just as Isaiah’s life changed when God touched his lips and anointed him with the burning coal, so did the young Queen’s life change when she was anointed with oil and crowned on that day in 1952. She’s now an elderly lady and well respected and like many of us who are still working she has little clear idea of when she could or should retire. I suspect she doesn’t believe that she should at all because she believes her position to be one that she has been called to. You can’t retire from a calling. You can wind down, change direction, stop getting paid but you can’t retire.
We’re coming up to the 50th anniversary of the incarceration of Nelson Mandela. On 15 June 1962 he was jailed for life. He served 27 years and when he was released in 1990 he carried on the work he believed with his whole heart that he had been called to do. He served as a politician, gaining the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, a brave man, even braver when you think that at the age of 80 he married again for the third time! At 85 he decided to ‘retire’ and take things more quietly, only to emerge in 2010 at the World Cup closing ceremony and it turns out that while he was supposedly taking things quietly he was in fact instrumental in bringing that event to South Africa. You cannot retire from a calling. God has a job for all his children, the nature of the job may change from year to year, but the job is still there to do. Everything that we do as Christians is part of our calling. It’s a way of life and one that we have been born into.
The Gospel reading for today is from John’s Gospel, Chapter 3. It tells the story of a conversation Jesus has with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who came to him secretly under cover of darkness to ask him this question: ‘How is it that you can do these amazing things? It must be because you have come from God.’ Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again! Nicodemus is puzzled and so Jesus explains that he is talking not of earthly birth but of spiritual birth. He then tells Nicodemus that he, Jesus, has come from heaven and that he will go back there. He tells Nicodemus that through belief in him all people can begin new lives in the power of the Spirit and then there is this famous verse:
‘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.’
John’s Gospel, Chapter 3, Verse 16.
This is very possibly the most important verse in the whole of our Bibles.
Now this ‘born again’ stuff caused all kinds of consternation in the mind of Nicodemus. He didn’t understand what Jesus was getting at and we too have continued to get all mixed up about that. Despite the fact that we have been told that all are equal under God we have started to divide Christians up into those that are born again and those that are not, and some groups of Christians have a check list to judge whether you are truly ‘born again’ or not. I don’t think that’s how it works. In fact, I am pretty certain that that’s not how it works. When we baptise a child or an adult here in our church we recognise their potential. We dedicate that potential to God and we invoke the Holy Spirit to watch over their growth as a Christian. We ask their sponsors or parents or the person themselves to take some responsibility for their further development and we ask the community to promise to help too. It’s a team effort in a way. The relationship with the Spirit has begun and it will continue throughout their lives. At times that person may say ‘yes’ to the invitation, but there may be many invitations and it will just be the start of a long relationship with God and his Holy Spirit. One from which at times we shrink and at other times, like Isaiah we find we simply can’t say ‘no’. But it is a calling and a relationship and an anointing from which we cannot retire. It is always growing, always changing, always challenging. Even if the Queen decided to retire and pass on the mantle to Prince Charles, she would still be the Queen. I don’t think for one minute that she will do that but her anointing cannot be undone. Our election as God’s children cannot be undone. We could say ‘no’ and many people do but it will not do us any good. We are already infused with the Spirit of God. It’s a force to be reckoned with and at times it will turn our lives upside down but if we try to ignore it will keep on calling us back.
And so on this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate what we call the Godhead. The Royal team, if you like, that is our God. For God is not just one but a community in himself, an institution. God the Father, the Creator, the one who brought everything into being. God the Son who became a man and lived among us to prove to us that life is only a part of all that is, that there is more. God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God that was there before life ever began but that is now accessible through faith in Jesus Christ to each and every one of us. This Holy Trinity of which we are at once subjects but also heirs.