One of the things we British tend to congratulate ourselves on is the fact that we know how to put on a good spectacle. The weather might not be very reliable, we might grumble about the trains and all sorts of other things, but when it comes to processions and ceremonies we’ve got it sussed. Give us a Jubilee, or a Royal Wedding, or just changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, and we know what we are about.
Of course, we’ve had a lot of practice; a thousand years or so of coronations and court life. And we’ve got all the right stuff – the golden coaches, the crowns, the robes, the protocol set down for centuries. It’s just there waiting to be wheeled out when we want it. If there’s one thing we can get right, it is majesty. We’re famous for it.
Kings at the time of the prophet Isaiah knew all about majesty too. If you wanted respect, if you wanted to make an impression on those you ruled, and those who might threaten your rule, you had better look splendid; huge palaces and monuments, elaborate clothes, costly jewels, the more bling the better. The great powers of Isaiah’s day were Assyria and later Babylon. You can see some of the relics of their empires in the British Museum in London, vast stone gateways and statues, fearsome winged creatures – guardian spirits - and great carved scenes of battle triumphs, with enslaved people coming to bow before their conquerors. There is nothing retiring or modest about these monuments to royal force – they were designed to strike awe into those who saw them.
It’s not surprising, then, that when Isaiah visualises the courts of heaven, and God enthroned in his Temple, his vision is definitely in the mould of the earthly courts of his time, even down to those winged guardian spirits. It is majestic, mysterious, unimaginably grand – and utterly terrifying. I am sure that any ordinary person who found themselves summoned to the court of a king at the time would have had their hearts in their mouths; one false step and you might find yourself on the wrong side of all that power.
Isaiah paints us a picture of God, enthroned as the King of Kings, with all the trappings that went with that status in the ancient world. But this particular royal encounter turns out not to be quite what Isaiah expects. He is overwhelmed by the grandeur at the beginning. He piles up the images, the supernatural beings, the smoke, the vast train, the Temple literally shaking on its foundations. Isaiah thinks he is going to die, and who can blame him, but that’s not what God has in mind at all. Isaiah might feel like he has no business being there, that he is no more to God than a rather grubby nuisance to be swept aside, but God has other ideas. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for me?” he cries out. To Isaiah’s surprise it seems that God needs him; his presence is not a mistake, but precisely what God wanted, someone who will take his message to the people of Israel.
That might sound strange – surely God doesn’t need anything or anyone if he is almighty? But the God of the Bible is not a God who is content with self-sufficiency, sitting in his heaven in splendid isolation. From the very beginning we see him reaching out of himself, creating a world full of independent creatures who have freedom from him, who can choose to relate to him or not. In the book of Genesis we see him walking in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve, not forcing them to come to him, but wanting their company.
In our Gospel reading John tells us that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” – God’s prime gift to us isn’t a list of rules or statements of faith; it is a person, a relationship. And when Jesus is no longer physically present that relationship is experienced through his Spirit, which draws us into the heart of God, so that, as Paul puts it, we can call out Abba, Father, and know that we are heard.
God is a God of relationships; it seems to be fundamental to his nature. And because of that it is fundamental to our nature too. He made us to be in community, with him and with each other. That’s why there is so much in the Bible about justice, about caring for those who are poor, about treating people with dignity; God cares about how we relate to each other. Serving God, obeying God isn’t enough for God; we have to serve each other as well. God himself seems to say, quite genuinely, that he doesn’t want it all to be about him. And if God didn’t feel complete, in some sense, until he had reached out beyond himself, then how can we be complete without reaching out beyond ourselves either?
Isaiah starts with a vision of God in majesty, God enthroned, God high and lifted up, but the point he is making is quite the opposite. God’s desire is to be with his people, close to them, woven into their lives and weaving their lives together too.
On this weekend when we celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee of course we can expect more than a little gold and glitter, more than a little pomp and ceremony, but these trappings of power, impressive though they are – and fun– aren’t really what it is all about, and I am fairly confident that the Queen would say that too. She has quite deliberately made the focus of her life the service of the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth. She has a very genuine commitment to bringing people together and using her public profile to draw attention to the service that others give to their community. Ultimately all the gold coaches you can muster, all the red coated guardsmen marching in perfect formation, all the trumpeters playing their pitch-perfect fanfares can’t make a nation great; it is something that whole communities are involved with. It has to do with each person – not just monarchs but us too – saying, day by day as Isaiah does, “here I am , send me”. Send me to do the job that I can do where I am. Send me to build the relationships that will make my community strong. Send me to help out with the local Scout troop. Send me to care for my elderly neighbour. Send me to welcome the immigrant family who have moved in nearby and speak no English. Send me to look after the fabric of the church so it can be a welcoming space for people to drop in on. Send me to… Well, what is he sending you to do? For each of us the answer will be different, but none of us is irrelevant, superfluous. Even if you feel you can’t do anything very active you can still say to God “Send me to pray for and encourage others who can.” That’s a really important ministry too. It doesn’t matter how old or young we are, what our qualifications and abilities are. God needs us and we need each other.
It is entirely appropriate that we should be celebrating Trinity Sunday and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the same day. Both of these occasions could just be a celebration of the trappings of power, the aura of majesty, but both could and should be far more than that. Trinity Sunday celebrates the relationship which is at the heart of God - the relationship of the Father, Son and Spirit, loving and being loved, which spreads out into the world and weaves us into the dance too as we serve and love one another. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrates one woman’s commitment to her community, the community of this nation, but in doing so it reminds us – as I am sure she would herself – that every one of us also has a part to play.
I am earnestly hoping that, whatever the weather, our village celebrations today go well – come along and join in! Our homemade bunting is being put out on the Rec. The beer tent is all stocked up. I have boxes of royal craft materials ready to be turned into corgis and patriotic spinners. But at the end of the day the success of our celebrations will be measured in the number of strangers who have become friends and neighbours who have seen the needs of those around them and decided to help, and I pray that as that happens we will see within it just a glimpse of the Trinity, dancing for joy alongside us.