A word about the context of this passage before I read the Scripture. In the time of David and Solomon there was one United Kingdom—one Israel. Some history happened, and the nation split. The Northern Territory became Israel, capital Samaria; the Southern Territory became Judah, capital Jerusalem. Under the reign of King Uzziah, Judah reached the height of its power. It was a prosperous nation and a well fortified one. Uzziah’s death signified change and coincided with the rise of a new king in Assyria, a king who would march through and defeat the Northern Kingdom and would soon knock on Jerusalem’s doors (albeit unsuccessfully). Isaiah is doing his work in a shifting political climate. Things have been good. But then this thing…this death…& there is a palpable feeling that all is not well.
When the Scripture reads “in the year King Uzziah died”, one might substitute “in the year JFK was killed” or, more palpably today, “in the year the towers fell”.
Let’s get to it, then:
At long last—our Scripture today comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah, verses one through eight:
“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!’
Isaiah’s vision begins in a place not unlike this—he is worshipping at The Temple. Suddenly he finds himself enraptured, taken into the heavenly realm, into to the very depths of the throne room and shown a vision like no other.
My own experience of worship is rather more bland…and though I have been known to clap, I have only one vision. And it was a dream.
A dream wherein, in the year Bill Clinton was inaugurated, I saw a dinosaur. To be more specific, I saw the film Jurassic Park—“saw” being rather an overstatement in this context, as I mostly saw the back of my theater chair and my mother’s side, terrified as I was (and remain) of dinosaurs—and for weeks following had a terrifyingly real dream-vision of being chased by dinosaurs through the recently-constructed mall. The dinosaur’s tail filled the food court and his jaw encompassed the Limited Too. Around him were terrified shoppers. And they sang “Run! Run! Run!” And I ran. The dream was palpable and real and continues to fill me with fear and, on occasion, sweat.
But then there’s this: the reality, the actuality, of Isaiah’s vision. Isaiah is worshipping in the Temple at Jerusalem, a place unimaginably large in scope and symbol. At the center stands the Holy of Holies, the place where the Arc is kept. And this is no ordinary Arc, this is the vessel which holds the capital-P Presence of God. This is, quite literally, the place where Heaven and Earth meet, where the infinite becomes finite and the immeasurable is measured in time.
Isaiah is outside of the Holy of Hollies, amidst the clatter of bells, the chanting of worshippers, the smoke of the incense and the incessant chatter of the Priest (some of you may understand quite acutely at this moment how ordinary and dull the preceding moment might have been for poor Isaiah). When suddenly. Suddenly.
I saw the Lord. The unseeable, the inaudible, the up-till-now silent Yahweh. I saw the Lord.
From there, some things went down. Some terrifying, Jurassic Park things.
Isaiah’s introduction is painfully brief, and the shift from “in the year…” to “I saw the Lord” leaves the reader with a bit of whiplash. It is jarring and it is meant to be so.
Isaiah’s vision (which is, by proxy, ours) is terrifying. Before him sits God: so large, so unimaginable. His garment hem alone fills the Temple. The glory of this lovely worshipping space is overwhelmed by the most unimportant part of God’s heavenly attire, the hem of the robe. I imagine that in our Meetinghouse we would see but a stitch. But a shadow of the towering figure above.
Surrounding God, hiding themselves and God are the seraphim. Fiery, winged creatures (not unlike fire-proof Jurassic Park dinosaurs) fly about attending to God’s needs and filling the Temple with smoke. And these beings proclaim:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.
On this side of the page, this side of the vision, such an image may sound rather lovely. But recall: this is Jurassic Park level terror. This is no trifle, no beautiful heavenly throne room. This is a huge God surrounded by fiery dragon-like snakes whose very speaking shakes the only ground on which poor Isaiah has to stand. The Temple and everything it stands for shakes in God’s presence.
The glory Isaiah beholds contrasts sharply with Isaiah’s particular situation. The passage moves from the marvelous world that God has created to the world man has wrought. Faced with the terrible glory of God, Isaiah is immediately aware of his own sin, a sin shared by his community. And from holy we move to woe. Woe is me. I am lost (the word here could also mean “destroyed” or “made silent”). Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.
The power of God is contrasted with the prophet’s lack of power, his unpreparedness to stand in the Throne Room, his dwelling among a community that has darkened the light of God’s creation. God appears and Isaiah’s very foundation, his very sense of self, is shaken, scattered. Faced with the holy, Isaiah experiences the anxiety of imperfection, of sinfulness, of hopelessness. And, standing on the finite side of the infinite, he his acutely aware that he can’t do a thing about it.
Here is where our story connects with Isaiah’s. As with the year King Uzziah died, in this year, in our world, all is not well. We are a people of unclean lips. We are sinful and we live in sinful times. We participate in systems that exploit the poor, we vote for representatives who legislate hate, we own phones built by under-paid and over-worked, we bank on the rich getting richer in the hope that we might skim a bit off the top. We cheat. We lie to one another (and to ourselves). We run red lights, curse trucks on 206. Whomever, whatever, the news is still the same, woe, woe, woe for I am lost.
But with the God of the Holies all is not woe and losing. Far from it.
Though we cannot change ourselves, God can change us. As with Israel, God will send the seraphim to sear our tongues and purify us. And though it is not a diet we might choose, and though we may wish we hadn’t shown up for this particular vision, there is nothing we can do but receive that purification. It will shake us to our very foundation, this voice, this hot-coal, but in the shaking it will find us. We who were lost will be found, found in the throne rome, found in the terror, found on the edge of God’s unimaginable glory.
Toward the end of the passage, God speaks.
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
I watch a show called Game of Thrones. And in the most recent episode there’s a battle a’brewin’ when the King, the head of the army, and his deputy become, for one reason or another, indisposed. The third in command is a strategy-man. He is in every way ill-equipped to lead any battle, much less this one. In the face of defeat, though, he recognizes the impossible: it must be him. In a beautiful moment, the man looks down and says to himself, shocked, “I’ll lead the battle.” You can see in his face that it is the last thing he expects. Louder then, to the troops, he repeats himself, “I’ll lead the battle.”
Isaiah’s word of response to God’s call, “Hinneni” would be better translated as an exploitative—holy crap, the Prophet says, it’s me. I’ll go. It is as if Isaiah surprises himself. Here am I, he whispers. And more confidently: Here am I. Send me.
And with that God disrupts the economy and gives the unclean man a new mission. Go to my people. Now, Isaiah’s word from here isn’t overly positive. He proclaims the fall of the Kingdom. But God’s call is not a generic one, and it’s not given so that the man can boast or gloat in having something, someone, some special knowledge. It’s given so that he can go.
Isaiah is not given eyes to see God so that he may go on ignoring the world in front of him. Isaiah is given eyes to see God so that he might see the glory God has created and the ruins humanity has made of it. Isaiah is given eyes and a voice so that he may disrupt the injustices before him, proclaim the woe of sinfulness and the mercy of God.
And we with him. I haven’t experienced God in rapture. Only in the dull, everyday moments of my life. But that does not release me of the responsibility of Isaiah’s vision. God has called me. God has called you. God calls each of us. And we are required to see and to speak.
God’s glory is everywhere waiting to be seen. Speak of it. Speak of a world within our world that is nevertheless better than our world. Speak of a God who is silent but nevertheless acts in Glory and Mercy. Speak of Justice for the Widow and the Orphan, the poor and the other.
God has shaken our very foundations so that we can go from this place and shake the world’s. That, simply, is our call. Our charge. Our commission and our benediction. Amen.
Preached at The Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, Lawrenceville, New Jersey on June 3, 2012. The sermon was my final at PCOL. I take full responsibility for misspellings, bad theology and the occasional good’in.