This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


Isaiah 6:1-8
            Worship in Jerusalem in the 8th century before Jesus was somewhat different from our worship today.  It took place in Solomon’s Temple and it involved a prodigious amount of incense.  (This was still the case in Jesus’ time, as we see from the experience of Jesus’ grandfather, Zechariah, in the Temple.)  The interior of the Temple was designed and decorated with various symbols, representing the created order, earthly and heavenly.  In fact the Temple at the same time represented the whole of creation, and the heavenly throne-room of God.  Which is to say that God’s creation is God’s throne-room.  We hear this in several Psalms, the Psalms being the prayerbook/hymnal of the Second Temple.
            One of the purposes of worship in the Temple was to produce a kind of altered state of consciousness.  People – priests mainly – went into the Temple, at least in part, to have visions.  Sometimes those visions actually get written down, as here with Isaiah.
            Now, visions of God’s glory were existentially terrifying experiences.  The few we have accounts of are almost indescribable.  They are pretty harrowing, and no one who has had one is ever the same again.
            Isaiah the prophet is in there and he has a vision.  It is the year of the death of King Uzziah, who has been king for 52 years.  He was one of the few kings of Judah who gets a passing grade from the writers of the biblical history.  But now it is a time of transition. 
            The nation’s years of relative stability are over.  A war was breaking out in which the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram, or Syria, were about to invade the southern kingdom of Judah because Judah refused to join them in an alliance against the powerful Assyrians to the north.
            In his vision, Isaiah sees the Lord on the throne.  The throne was the lid of the ark of the covenant.  And he also sees seraphs, which were monstrous, winged, fiery, serpent-like heavenly beings.  There were two large, carved seraphs in the temple; maybe Isaiah saw these spring to life!  They sing the hymn: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 
            The “holiness” of God refers to God’s otherness, or transcendence.  God is above and beyond creation; God is separate; and yet a the same time they sing: “the whole earth is full of his glory.”  So God, or at least God’s glory, is also right here as well.  This idea, that God can be both infinitely distant from the creation, as well as at the same time somehow intimately embedded within it, is an insight the eventually led to the Christian understanding of the Trinity.

            You can see that there is a liturgical structure here as well.  The first response in coming into God’s presence is praise.  And even today, praise is the beginning of our worship experience every Sunday. 
            The second response on the part of the worshiper is, well, terror.  The prophet is so overawed and overwhelmed by this experience of God’s glory that he has to confess his own unworthiness.  “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!”  God’s holiness, goodness, size, and power are overwhelming, and the only reaction is a recognition of how small and imperfect and vulnerable we are by comparison.
            In other words, he realizes his own sinfulness, and that he does not have adequate language to describe or appropriately praise this awesome God.  His “unclean lips” refers to this inability to communicate anything accurate about this God; God is beyond language, our words all fail.  And his people, who make it their business to praise and obey God, have the same problem.  God is beyond words; our words don’t cut it.  In fact, Any language about God is necessarily idolatrous when compared to the real thing.
            There is no encounter with God in which a person does not gain the conviction of being completely out of their depth and a veritable bug, liable to be completely annihilated by God’s sheer hugeness, goodness, and power, that threatens to simply blast you to pieces by its tremendous light.  In an encounter with the living God your first, only, and most heartfelt hope is for survival.
            Then comes the third part of the liturgy.  One of the seraphs, these spirit-monsters, takes a hot coal from the incense altar.  It uses tongs, less to prevent it from being burned but to protect the prophet from being touched by a seraph.  And the seraph touches his mouth with this red-hot, live coal as an act of purification.  His flesh is not burned, but the effect is to take away his sin and guilt so that he will be a worthy vehicle to serve the Lord and speak the word of the Lord. 
            God’s Word cannot issue forth from unclean, sinful, guilty lips.  It is the most presumptuous thing in the world for someone like me, or even a great prophet like Isaiah, to stand here and attempt to bring God’s Word to people.  It would be like trying to push multiple gigawatts of electricity through a small piece of copper wire: it would vaporize in a second into a puff of ozone smoke.  God purifies the ones whom God chooses to deliver the Word.  You have to have your sin burned off of you first.

            Then comes the final part of the liturgy, the sending.  God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And the prophet replies, “Here I am; send me!”  Isaiah, once he is purified, feels he is ready for this task.  He raises his hand.  He volunteers.  He is clearly overawed and swept away by the experience, because in his normal mind he would have known that to volunteer for this job was absolute insanity.  To become the spokes-person for the Lord basically to attempt to do the impossible and have everyone hate you for it.  Nevertheless, he volunteers; which is a good thing because when God calls you there is no saying no anyway.
            So, he then receives his orders.  He is to preach to the people even though they will not listen.  Indeed, God prevents them from listening; God hardens their hearts so they can’t understand and obey, even if they wanted to.  God’s plan is too big for their participation.  They’d only muck it up.  Jesus says the same thing, by the way.  He says he speaks in parables so people won’t get it.  Because when people of unclean lips think they get something they really don’t. 
            Isaiah is going to be sent into the maelstrom of middle east politics, which was at least as much of a quicksand of duplicity, violence, ambiguity, and contradictions then as it is today.  He is going to bring God’s word to the king and give him explicit advice about foreign policy… and the king, of course, is going to have none of it.  He will ignore God’s words and do what he wants.  The consequences for this will be terrible… but they won’t happen for nearly a century, when the nation is all but destroyed by the Babylonians.  And seventy more years after that unspeakable catastrophe, God is going to start over, like a new sprout emerges from the burned stump of a cut tree.
            The entire book of Isaiah needs to be read through the miraculous experience recounted in chapters 40-55, the people’s deliverance from exile in Babylon.  Just as Jesus’ entire life circles towards his crucifixion and resurrection, the entire history of God’s people is moving towards the exile and restoration.  And it is all a repetition of the original pattern of bondage and deliverance we see in the exodus story. 
            The meaning of our faith and the faith of the Scriptures and of Jesus the Messiah may be summed up most briefly in the affirmation that God brings people from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom, from sin to redemption, from disease to healing, and from death to life.  This is the underlying trajectory of the whole creation, which originates when God brings order out of chaos by the Word and Spirit, and is fulfilled in creation’s renewal and transfiguration at the end.
            This movement, perhaps, is the way we experience the glory of God.  The whole earth is full of this glory, after all.  Isaiah’s vision is of the Lord’s pervasive presence within creation.  It happens in the Temple, which represented creation; and the seraphs specifically sing about the whole earth being full of God’s glory. 
            The question becomes one of how do we participate in what God is doing in creation.  For we are also people of unclean lips in the sense that our words are inadequate and generally get in the way, even when they are accurate and accurately understood, which is almost never.
            The burning coal that takes away our sin is Jesus Christ.  God gives him to the world out of love so that when we trust in him, believe in him, our relationship with God and creation is restored and purified.  In him, by the power of the Holy Spirit he gives us, God’s justice and love become our way of life as justice and love come to characterize our life together.
            When that happens we also find ourselves sent out into the world with a message.  It is a message that we preach in words, certainly.  Words are important; they indicate whom we are obeying.  At the same time it is a message that we live with our actions and show in our relationships.  It starts by the way we exhibit justice and love together in the gathering of disciples, the church.  And it extends into the way we relate to others in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, shops, and other community places.
            In the end, even though Isaiah has a lot of bad news to deliver, the final resolution is good news:  there will be a new sprout that emerges from the burned stump.  God’s people will be redeemed.  They shall not perish forever.  For in the end God sends this message to Isaiah, and God sends the Son into the world, and the Son sends us into the world… not to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through him.
            We have now to be emissaries of that life.  We have to be examples of that life.  We have to show that whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus and lives by his example and commandments, will not perish but have eternal life.  That eternal life begins here and now.

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