Still going out into the world
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8 ESV)
Last Sunday’s colour red has given way to the white we’ve been used to in the seasons of Christmas and Easter. White in Church language refers to God’s action in Christ – where God has made himself known to us in the person of Jesus. That is the work of the Holy Spirit – God, the Holy Spirit – to make himself known (and we have the ‘fun’ of language for perhaps I should have said ‘themselves known’). This Sunday is the first Sunday in the season of the Church – usually the colour is green but we start with white – and that is important in religion – to not start with oneself but with God.
We don’t get the impression that Isaiah is starting with anything really because he is facing the ending of the long reign of King Uzziah – 52 years is not inconsiderable – you’re part of the social and political landscape for the people – a quiet certainty for decades – and in Uzziah’s case a living witness to God’s sovereignty for although Uzziah started ruling as coregent with his father and was faithful to God and a good and successful ruler by himself, he was also proud and wanted, it seems, more power and so he entered the temple to offer incense on the altar of incense – something only the priests were authorised to do and when confronted he was struck by leprosy and spent the last 11 years of his reign isolated away from everyone while his son Jotham ruled out in public so to speak. This was the social and political landscape – kings come and go eventually – but God does not.
We have no idea as to where Isaiah was when God revealed himself. Was he looking up and all of sudden his gaze could peer through the clouds or the sky? Was he in the temple precincts awaiting the blessing of the Lord from the priest and he peered through pillars, doors and walls into the Holy of Holies? Isaiah doesn’t tell us where he was but what he saw – perceived, understood, experienced – the wonder of the presence of God. Through Isaiah we, too, meet the seraphim – the six winged heavenly creatures who call to each other that God is unique, not part of their creation or any creation – and they use the words – three times ‘Holy, holy, holy’ and state that God’s glory fills the whole earth. There is power, voices that shake things – and it’s not even God’s voice that makes the earth quake and the smoke – maybe we have the sense of a refinery, a furnace, who knows but Isaiah is small in this scene, tiny. But it’s not size Isaiah mentions – rather it is sin. Where God’s holiness exists sin realises it is in danger. Isaiah understands this in his being – he is lost for he has seen the Lord of hosts – and that’s close enough – too close for safety.
Of course we know that God rescues Isaiah – protects him through his own actions of taking away his sin and guilt – not with blood on this occasion but with fire – a burning coal touches Isaiah’s mouth so that when the Lord calls out for a messenger, Isaiah is ready to say, ‘Here I am! Send me!’.
Isaiah will have a long prophetic ministry – speaking to people who will not understand, who will listen but not hear, see but not comprehend. Isaiah’s words will include many declarations of judgement and punishment for stubborn and blind rebellion but it will also include many promises of God’s rescue – his deliverance through a special person – described variously as Immanuel, Mighty God, a suffering servant. Somehow in this person, God’s holiness and sin will meet in a way that is safe for sinners and God’s glory will fill the whole earth.
Fast forward in time hundreds of years and Luke records that angels sang at the birth of a boy who was wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ (Luke 2:14 ESV). And John will write about him when he’s a man when he says just before his crucifixion:
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. So the crowd answered him, “We have heard from the Law that the Christ remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” So Jesus said to them, “The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them. Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed what he heard from us,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said,
“He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart,
lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn,
and I would heal them.”
Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. (John 12:27-41 ESV)
John wrote what he did so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing have life in his name (John 20:31). I stand here in a line of clergy who have stood before people for almost twenty centuries saying the same thing – that in Jesus Christ the fullness of God is found bodily and this defies our mathematics and science because I’m saying that the infinite can be contained in the finite and further that the immortal spirit that is God when in human flesh died and these mysteries, these holy mysteries, are the fulfilment of what Isaiah saw and said.
This land has a long reigning monarch – long may she reign – but our society is facing possibly the biggest challenges in terms of changes that people have ever faced if we think of the society when Queen Elizabeth came to the throne and today. Think technologically – medicine, communication, space; think socially in terms of family life, morality, class and nationalisms; think politically or economically; think music and film – so so many changes. Yet at our core human beings haven’t changed for we all crave love and sin and death still plague us. And then there is God. Yes, there may be more of them in the supermarket of religion these days but Jesus’ grave is still empty and no one has found the body! That’s not going to happen claim Christians for each generation proclaims the seismic news – it shakes the foundations of everything! – ‘Christ is risen!’ (He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!)
And in the explanation and teaching about Jesus, Christians have more to say than Isaiah but we still use the same orientation points – sin and holiness – God majestic and mighty – and we keep pointing to the cross as evidence. Because of Jesus, we know God more fully – of course he is a mystery and God is a mystery – but one can live with mystery – especially when there is grace involved – undeserved love – and so with Jesus we are directed to his Father and all that the Father has is Jesus’ and together they send the Holy Spirit who no longer is moving over the waters before creation but is now moving over this world and it’s walking dead and making new life in Christ. Jesus leads us to the inevitable truth when we consider him and his words that God is one and also three – triune – Trinitarian – still defying our mathematics and science – but expanding our understanding of sin – it’s depths and hold on us – and the heights of God’s grace – what he has done and does so that we might live with him.
Isaiah’s experience was Isaiah’s but that holy encounter is replicated in a safe and joyous way through words, water, bread and wine whereby God meets his people to bless them. Sure, we can bemoan our continual sins and seek forgiveness so that we’re not ashamed as we make the lives of the people around us better but we do not bemoan God’s presence for with Jesus we have confidence to come into God’s presence – as children coming home to love and warmth and help. And when we leave here – blessed and refreshed – we know that God is sending us back out into the world to give away and share what we have received – repentance (God’s kindness), forgiveness (God’s mercy), and love (God’s grace).
Here I am, Lord. Send me.
- Isaiah 6:1 - 8