The king was dead. For over 40 years Uzziah had ruled Judah, and those years had been an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity for the Kingdom. In a land where the average life span was around 40 years, very few people could remember a time when Uzziah was not their king. And now the throne of David was empty. The prince to be crowned and enthroned was Uzziah’s son Ahaz–a dipstick if there ever was one. No one, including Isaiah, took comfort in Ahaz’s accession to power. It was during this time of national mourning and instability that Isaiah was in the temple, perhaps with his mind on the vacant throne in the adjoining royal palace.
Suddenly before his very eyes, his surroundings were transformed. The temple became the heavenly courts with God and God’s courtiers and retainers in attendance; the priests became the seraphim (perhaps winged, fiery servants who did God’s bidding); the incense became first the train of God’s royal robes and then smoke which filled the heavenly throne room; the liturgy of the priests became the antiphony of the seraphim who thundered one to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory”; the pillars of the temple became the foundations of creation itself which shook at the antiphony of the seraphim; the ark became the very throne of God and on that throne Isaiah saw the Lord.
According to Hebrew tradition, anyone who saw God would not live to tell about it. Notice that the seraphim even cover their eyes before the glory of God. Isaiah, overwhelmed by this vision and fully cognizant of his own finitude and unworthiness, thought it was over for him. “Woe is me,” he said. “I’m a goner, for I am a man of unclean lips, and live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
With these words the business of the heavenly court is interrupted. One of the seraphim takes a coal from the altar with a pair of tongs, flies over to Isaiah, touches his lips with the coal, and says, “Now that this has touched your lips (“No kidding!” thought Isaiah), your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Contrary to much preaching, God does not call us into a sense of sin, shame, and guilt. Instead, God calls us out of it.
Cleansed by forgiveness, Isaiah listens in as the heavenly court business continues. God asks the heavenly court, “Whom shall I send to Judah with my word? Who shall go for us?” And Isaiah, who has beheld the glory of God and been cleansed by sacred fire, says, “Here am I; send me.” And thus begins the prophetic ministry of one of the greatest prophets in Holy Scripture.
There are many directions we could go in looking at this familiar passage of Scripture. I have five sermons on this passage, and each sermon focuses on a different and relevant aspect of these verses. Today I want us to focus on the holiness of God. We don’t talk much about holiness today. It’s out of fashion. We prefer to speak of the closeness and intimacy of God–the many ways in which God is like we are. Whether God is our friend, our father or mother, our grandfather or grandmother, or the man upstairs, we prefer our images of God to be familiar, cozy, stable, predictable, and comforting–perhaps even a little boring. And so Isaiah’s favorite name for God, the Holy One of Israel, does little for us. Is there a place for the concept of holiness today? Can there be an understanding of holiness which does not degenerate into Moral Majority lunacy or Saturday Night Live “church lady” piety? In an age of the internet, psychotherapy, and constant change, can the church speak with any integrity or relevancy regarding the holiness of God?
Let us first note what holiness in the biblical faith signifies. Holiness primarily means something or someone who is other than what we are. Holiness refers to the uniqueness of God. God, for all God’s intimacy with and love for us, is wholly different from creatures, human or otherwise. Whether we are talking about love, creativity, wisdom, power, purpose, goodness, truth, justice, righteousness, or availability, God’s capacity so far exceeds ours as to be uniquely different in quantity and quality. As God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
What we are talking about is the mystery of God–the realization that God is far more than we can ever imagine–the humility which confesses that what we know of God is at best a smidgen of the vast truth regarding the Creator and Redeemer of this universe–the awe which results in joyful and thankful worship–the intimation that there are limitless frontiers beyond the vast horizons our eyes can already see–the peace which comes from knowing that God is in all and all is in God.
We are folk in desperate need of such mystery. With all our sophistication and all our impressive technology, we are a people who can no longer wonder. Cut off from creation in the artificial, sterile environments in which we live, we rarely find ourselves overwhelmed by the beauty, grandeur, majesty, and harmony of the natural world. Our lives, like our possessions, are too often a mess of “ticky-tacky all in a row.”
As human creatures we need to experience the wholly otherness of God. Such an experience will keep us from a presumptive intimacy with God which allows for no radical transformation of our lives. Such an experience will save us from what C.S. Lewis called a flabby kind of religion which is not good at saying “no” when “no” is the just and noble word to speak. Such an experience will keep us from taking the little truth we do possess, stamping it as absolute and assuming that there is no more truth to be discovered and learned. Such an experience can reveal how parochial, wrong-headed, and wrong-hearted many of our convictions, prejudices, and morals can be. Such an experience of the holiness and mystery of God will open our eyes so that, along with Isaiah, we can see the whole earth filled with the blazing glory of God. Such an experience will put us in our place as a part of a good creation dependent on its Creator and responsible for harmonious interactions with the rest of God’s creatures. And such an experience will lift us out of the abyss of nothingness we are digging in our society and show us the stars–reveal to us the destiny we share because of the creative goodness of God.
I know practically nothing about astronomy. But one thing which fascinates me is how vast this universe really is. Astronomers tell us that the universe began some 14 billion years ago with a big bang. And some 14 billion light years away are the most distant objects of the universe, star-like objects called quasars. (A light year is the distance it would take for light to travel for one year at a speed of 186,000 miles per second.) In this vast universe there are hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. Our sun is part of the galaxy Milky Way along with several hundred billion other stars. Our sun moves at about 500,000 miles per hour, taking some 250 million years to make a single circuit around the center of the galaxy. Now all this is mind-boggling, isn’t it? But listen to this–astronomers now theorize that the entire universe (all matter, energy, time, and space) exploded in the big bang from an extremely concentrated speck far smaller than an atom. While still a speck, cosmologists calculate the universe would have had a temperature of a million trillion degrees. Ordinary matter did not exist under those conditions and our familiar laws of physics did not apply. As that speck exploded and expanded, it cooled, and matter, energy, space, and time were created. Just imagine everything we now know as this vast universe originating from a speck smaller than an atom!
I would suggest that this scientific discovery can function as a parable for us in imagining the mystery of God. If you had been around 14 billion years ago, would you have imagined that all of this vast, splendid, manifold universe could have come from a speck smaller than an atom? Perhaps what we know of God is like that tiny speck. The fullness of God, the creativity of God, the love of God, the future of God and the magnificence of God are so much greater than we can ever imagine, much less understand. Such fullness of God can create within us a proper humility. But such fullness can also give us hope on a grand scale. If this wonderful universe can come from a speck of matter smaller than an atom, then who knows where this universe and our lives as a part of this creation can end in the heart of God? If what we now see and understand is a smidgen of what is, can be, and will be, then is there not reason for us to give thanks and sing canticles of joy? If the fullness of God is greater than a vast universe which originates from a speck smaller than an atom, then is there not enough mystery and promise for us as we face our daily problems, not to mention the seemingly insurmountable challenges of humankind?
Isaiah was in the temple during a crisis in the history of Judah. We too live in a time of crisis–environmental degradation, poverty, hunger, crime, drug abuse, unprecedented political corruption, and meaninglessness. Perhaps if we could lift our eyes and behold something of the mystery, the holiness, the glory of God filling this universe and commune with that mystery, stand in awe of that holiness, and celebrate that glory, we too could see the Lord, high and lifted up. And we too could know the peace of Isaiah, the serenity which can give us the courage even to say, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”
Perhaps the greatest mystery of our faith is how this great God whose steps span eternity can slow down the divine pace and walk with us. This God who is far more than we can ever imagine calls us by name. At this Table the High and Holy One before whom even the angels cover their eyes bends down to touch us in love, reassurance, and hope. May the mystery of God’s holy love engage our hearts as we are nourished by this bread of life and wine of the new covenant.
After the sacred coal from the altar of incense had touched Isaiah’s lips, he was forgiven and cleansed for service. This sacred bread and wine have touched our lips, and by our confession and God’s grace we too are forgiven and cleansed for service. Authentic worship proceeds from adoration to confession, from confession to affirmation by God, and from affirmation to service. Let us now complete our worship as we each say prayerfully and sincerely, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.”