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)
Trying to imagine, perceive, or come to grips with God in ways that make sense to us have God either as impersonal – like energy – and how do you relate to electricity or radiation? – or personal – and then generally we make him a ‘bigger’ version of us so to speak. When it comes to the Bible, however, we encounter a single characteristic or description of God – holiness – God is a holy God – and this is something which defines God but it is something we have no real knowledge of. We might think of it as power, as shiny (if we’re linking holy and glory together), energy, purity, goodness, but it is not something we resonate with ourselves. The Bible is consistent – God is holy – humanity is not – and in fact when people in the Bible do have experiences of God’s holiness they are afraid, upset, unnerved, terrified – they sense danger. Their self preservation kicks in – and we, sitting here calmly, do wonder what is going on. Adam and Eve hiding in the garden, the people of Israel at Mount Sinai, the rules and regulations surrounding the tabernacle and the temple and the times people suddenly died – think Nadab and Abihu and Uzzah – think Isaiah in our First Reading and his ‘woe is me’ – think Peter at the great catch of fish with Jesus in the boat and him turning to Jesus and saying, ‘Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord’. There is something going on that we don’t sense or experience – we have to imagine.
Theologically you’ve learnt the ‘sound effect’ because in all my time here whenever I teach or preach about God’s holiness and we talk about what happens when holiness – and only God is inherently holy – and sin come into contact then the outcome is [sound effect of explosion] – the same should petrol vapour and flame meet, the same should we be at the centre of a nuclear explosion.
To deal with flame, radiation, Ebola we wear protective clothing. The Bible is the story of how a holy God stays close to his rebellious sinful people who have so distorted themselves that they have made it impossible to be with God to be close to God – humanity wants to be its own god so badly – and the perversity of sin – akin to the murder suicide suffered in some families – is that we would rather destroy ourselves and others then let God be our God.
And God has a problem. How to be close to rebellious people in a way that is safe for them? The Bible is the story of the length a holy God will go to create a new heaven and a new earth, to deal with sin, and to clothe himself in such a way – words spoken by so many messengers and then the Word made flesh – the Word incarnate – in flesh – and then wet words and edible words with bread and
wine. We have the Holy Bible, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion and those descriptions are saying something – that God is close to us safely.
For Isaiah the easing of his ‘woe’, his cleansing, his preparation was with fire – a burning coal touched his mouth – touched his lips and his guilt was taken away, his sins atoned for – and it is pretty obvious what he is to do next when God asks, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’. Isaiah is to speak. And that is what he will do – speak, proclaim, teach, write – get the words out about who God is and what God has done and how God wants people to live because of what God has done.
What is critical here is proximity and touch – words and physical contact do this – and God is actively – and safely – bringing himself and his gifts to people. Remember that it is in our human nature to want the gifts but never the Giver. And God keeps his distance – the sun and the rain fall on all and the blessings of the earth are for all – but we all recognise and know that relationships are not good at a distance but are close things and so God uses words, water, bread and wine – all pointing to, bringing, revealing Jesus – to declare to all people on this planet that in Jesus, we have God with us – safely, graciously, giving his life and calling us to follow him each day into our lives and our relationships.
And to understand who Jesus is and how he relates to God we discover a further mystery in holiness – that God is one – and Jesus talks about the Father and the Spirit whom we discover are also holy. Only God in and of himself is holy and that is true even in the mystery of the Trinity.
So relating to this holy Triune God is not a relationship for the faint hearted because when touched by God we see things differently and our ethics and life goals are reoriented away from self to others. This is not ‘doormat’ theology or a position of weakness or subservience but a recognition that we are loved by God and that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. And this is brought home personally to us when God speaks to us directly as we remember our baptism – that we are baptised – each day; as we read his word, as we hear it preached and taught; as we commune. And when we read the New Testament letters we hear how the people of God for all their problems, sins, selfishness were still addressed as ‘saints’ – which doesn’t mean ‘good people’ but God’s holy ones, people who have been touched by God.
Isaiah’s lips were touch and he went out and spoke. Today the followers of Jesus are born again, forgiven, fed, and blessed and they go out – ‘Send me, Lord’ – to live. All body parts, all emotions, all psychologies are touched by God and we go out to use them in our relationships, among the people we live with – living lives to the full, lives of service, lives of peace and hope, lives of resilience and discipleship, lives of repentance and forgiveness, lives of joy – in a world still full of and reeking of sin and death.
God has come safely to us and through us to the world. His goal remains the same as it has always been from that first sin – that people may live with him forever. And look at what lengths God goes [point to cross – font, lectern, altar, congregation] so that we may live!
- Isaiah 1:6 - 8