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. 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. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
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!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 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.” 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!”
Some events are so momentous that we remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when they occurred. Such was the death of a king in the ancient world. If we want to appreciate the full impact of King Uzziah’s death, we should imagine the impact of the assassination of JFK, or the morning of 9/11. If we can remember how the world convulsed when these events occurred, we will have a sense of the cultural and political climate at the time when Isaiah has his vision in the temple.
It is the year 740 BCE. Uzziah had been a very successful and powerful king for around 50 years. 2ndChronicles tells us that 10 years earlier, Uzziah had been struck by leprosy because his regal pride led him to make an offering normally reserved for a priest in the Temple. To make a long story short, Uzziah challenged the sacred worship rituals of the Temple and lost, big time. The consequence was the leper formerly known as King lived in quarantine until the day of his death, and a regent had been ruling publically in his place. The king’s death under such circumstances would cause enormous political uncertainty. Things were slowly unraveling in Judea. It seems appropriate Isaiah might feel the sharp and weighty call of God. God always seems to show up in unraveling places.
God’s people also tend to show up when things are falling apart. When big events such as 9/11 occur, churches often see an uptick in attendance. In cities like New York and Washington, D.C., and all around the country, many churches threw open their doors during those days in 2001, some staying open 24 hours a day, to accommodate the large numbers of people seeking solace. I suspect many of the people who went to church in 2001 were the kind of people who hardly ever step foot in a church, but thought they might find comfort within the walls of a place that is holy or sacred. Maybe that is why Isaiah found himself in the temple on this day. Maybe Isaiah just needed to find comfort in the rituals of worship in hopes that familiar things would ease his troubled mind.
For some of us, church can still feel like the safest place in the world to be. Days like 9/11 don’t happen often, thank goodness, but life does happen to us everyday, and we are often undone by the mundane and ordinary struggles of an average week. For many of us church is the place where we find comfort and sense of well-being when things outside are not going well at all.
If a peaceful, comforting worship experience was what Isaiah was looking for, what he got was quite opposite. Our text today is not about the quiet comforting presence of God, but about awe, about shuddering, about being completely overwhelmed and undone by the vast power of the Holy One of Israel. A power so searing that even angels have to cover their eyes because they cannot bear to look upon the face of God. A presence so huge that the hem of God’s robe fills every nook and cranny of the temple. A force so great that the entire temple shakes from its very foundation and is filled with smoke.
Isaiah’s worship experience in the Temple on this day is anything but comforting. It is shattering, humbling, astounding, and terrifying. This is a God revealed neither as an adoring father, nor as a gentle shepherd, but a fearsome God whose name is too holy to utter and whose face is more likely to blind your eyes than open them. Isaiah encounters the One who effortlessly holds the entire cosmos together. And he quickly realizes God can just as easily tear apart a sorry sinner like himself. One commentator speculates the Seraphs are actually crying out not in melodic song when they sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” but in the pain and agony because they have wandered too near to YHWH’s unmediated holiness.
In the presence of all that glory, Isaiah feels small, lost, and diminished. Instead of being comforted, Isaiah is confronted by his brokenness, and is very nearly destroyed by the realization of his smallness in comparison to God. “Woe is me,” Isaiah says. “I am lost, I am unclean, and I live among people just as unclean as I am.” The Hebrew word translated as “lost” in our English Bibles is actually a word that is closer to being “undone.” Isaiah is undone, coming apart at the seams, driven to his knees by the presence of the Holy. But more than that, I think, Isaiah is undone by the vast chasm between himself – a completely messed up person in a very messed up world – and the absolute unmessed-up majesty of God.
This is not exactly the kind of script we expect to encounter when we arrive at church on a Sunday morning. But it is a script that is crucial to the tug of war at the heart of our faith. We are always struggling to stand in the gap between the complete otherness of God, and the intimacy God craves with us. Images of God as both frighteningly omnipotent and exquisitely vulnerable exist in scripture. Both images of God are crucial in our lives.
And that is the genius of this text from Isaiah. On the one hand, we see the immenseness of God’s presence in the Temple, but we also see something else. Just as Isaiah is undone by a painful awareness of his deep unworthiness, Isaiah is suddenly, passionately and intimately touched by an utterly forgiving God. Isaiah does not perish as he might imagine, but is lifted up, forgiven and healed completely. No more guilt, no more shame, no more anguish. All of it gone, not tenderly or painlessly, but in the blinding burning flash of a white hot coal.
Because I am an introvert, I have always felt closer to God in a quiet sanctuary, with quiet people, worshipping a God who does not talk back in the manner Isaiah encounters, or in the way in which the apostles encounter the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. I feel much more at peace in a time of silent, centering prayer than I do in a raucous worship service with waving of hands and loud music. My guess is if you’re sitting here this morning, you may feel similarly drawn to a quiet space of contemplation.
But I wonder if we limit the power of God to transform us when we want to keep God quiet and dignified and manageable. So let’s be honest with ourselves as we ponder this question: do we want God messing with us in the same way God messes with Isaiah? Do we really come to worship each Sunday morning only to find ourselves blown away by the Holy One of Israel? Do we want to find ourselves on the receiving end of a white hot coal? Do we want to become undone like Isaiah?
Today is Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. I have said it before and I will say it again, the Trinity itself is a mystery beyond anyone’s comprehension and understanding. But I will also say we can’t give up the Trinity, not matter how badly it makes our heads hurt trying to figure it out. The reason we need the Trinity is we have to somehow keep in balance the various ways in which God is experienced in Scripture.
We need the God who is entirely Other, the God of glory and power and might. We need the Spirit of fire and wind, who blows where it and as it will, sometimes as a gentle comforting breeze and sometimes as a tornado that knocks us off our feet. And we need the Son, the peasant baby who shed the glory and majesty of God to come down to us, close to us, so we could become more like God, not through any effort of our own, but simply because it pleased God to claim us as God’s beloved and holy children.
Actually, there would be no Trinity had it not been for the mystery of Jesus, this man who lived and died like a martyr but was resurrected. Ever since the mysterious event of the cross and resurrection, Christians have found the mystery of God’s deep love and God’s unapproachable holiness brought together in sharp and inescapable focus in Jesus. The Trinity is a way to get at that tension between what is wholly human in the Son, wholly divine in the Father, both of whom are wholly present to us in the Spirit.
But the text from Isaiah ought to tell us something about how we think about this life we are called to as people of faith. Because at its heart, this is a story about being called by God into a redeemed life. We must wrestle with the reality of being changed, sometimes uncomfortably, as we are marked by the touch of God, which, as Isaiah discovers, both burns and heals.
Moments of wonder and awe like those described by Isaiah do not often happen for we are human beings, imperfect and understandably frightened to get too close to the awesome majesty of God. But, sometimes moments of awe and wonder come close to us when we least expect it. In moments, sometimes very small moments, when we are really paying attention to the movement of the Spirit in our lives.
There will be a moment you’ll find yourself in the temple – or in your living room or on a crowded street or on a plane to South Sudan or in bed at 2 a.m. when sleep is elusive. In those moments, you’ll hear a voice that says, “Whom shall I send into this terrible, beautiful world?” And if you are not careful, you’ll become undone enough by the voice to find yourself saying, “Send me.” And who knows what will happen then? Only God knows.
The message Isaiah is called by God to speak to the people will not make their lives easier. In fact, life is Judah is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Listen to this terrible message God gives to Isaiah:
“Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Two verses after saying “Here I am, send me!” Isaiah blurts out, “How long, O Lord?” And who can blame him? He’s been called to deliver a hopeless word to a stubborn and feckless group of people. But that’s what prophets do when they decide to say ok to God.
In a commentary on this passage, Dr. John Holbert says:
“By all means, call your people to follow the Lord, bid them give their lives for God’s service. It is what we do! But to follow God rightly does not always lead to great congregations, vast religious campuses, and budgets that rival those of small nations. What we are called to say to our world is that the last are first, the least are greatest, and the greatest among us is a servant. Such two thousand year old words have regularly been met by dull ears, sightless eyes, and clouded minds; all of which have led again and again to wasted cities and empty lands, ravaged by wars and famines and hopelessness.”
I am no prophet, but I live my life striving to hear what God has to say. I prefer a small still voice, I admit, as opposed to the pyrotechnics Isaiah experiences. But I know all of us crave the presence of God. The crazy part of it, though, is we don’t get to dictate the terms of how we’ll experience the holy. For ourselves or anyone else. We cannot control God and how God will work in our lives.
When have you found yourself undone and on your knees and feeling about as unworthy as a person can feel? When have you experienced the deep forgiveness and love of God?
Sometimes God’s presence is creative — nurturing new ways of being in community and creating hope through word and deed. Sometimes God’s presence is sustaining — keeping all the systems that govern our lives working efficiently and effectively. Sometimes God’s presence is healing — caring for those the world has forgotten or reaching out to someone in need.
And sometimes, God’s presence will undo us and lead us to places we do not choose, would not choose, for ourselves. Sometimes God’s presence will disorient us as a new vision obscures our old ways of seeing the world. And often God’s presence will disturb us as we are unable to turn away from the world’s deep pain and injustice.
No matter how we experience the presence of God, we can never be separated from the promise of God – to be with us, to be for us, to be in us. Which is the best kind of promise, especially when the pivots of the threshold are shaking and it looks like the whole place is about to go up in flames.
Thanks be to God. Amen.