In the English language we often use the word ‘awe’ to describe our encounters with the beauty of nature. I remember the first time Marci and I took the tramway up Whistler’s Mountain in Jasper and then climbed to the top. It was one of the few days in the year when the air is absolutely clear, and we were able to see all the way to Mount Robson. Mountain ranges were stretching away on either side of us into the distance, and far below us we could see the Jasper town site and the various lakes and rivers around it. I could only feel a sense of awe at what I could see all around me.
The words ‘awe’ and ‘fear’ are sometimes used in the New Testament to describe people’s reactions to Jesus. Frequently, in response to a miracle or a healing, we read about people having a sense of awe at the mighty acts of God. What they were seeing was way outside of their previous experience, and certainly outside their control, and they were shaken by it; that’s what the New Testament means when it says that they were ‘afraid’.
But I think most of us today would prefer not to use words like ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ to describe our relationship with God. For the most part, we’ve tamed God down; we’ve restricted him to the pages of a service book and the walls of a church building and the hours of a Sunday worship service. And so when we read about an experience of God such as the one Isaiah recounts in our first lesson for today, we find it hard to relate to what is said there.
Also we’ve been told many times that it’s wrong for us to fear the Lord; Jesus apparently did away with that, and all we should feel nowadays is a warm fuzzy feeling of being unconditionally accepted. The God who many people believe in today is more like a cuddly teddy bear than the awesome creator and Lord we read about in our Old Testament reading today. And so it’s probably a healthy corrective for us to focus on Isaiah’s story for a few minutes and think about what it has to say to us about the God we are worshipping today, on Trinity Sunday.
First let me set the scene for you. We’re told that Isaiah had this transformational encounter with God ‘in the year that King Uzziah died’ (v.1). Uzziah died in approximately 740 B.C., after an exceptionally long reign of fifty-two years. During his reign the little kingdom of Judah had enjoyed a time of relative peace and independence, but it was not to last. At about the same time as his death, Tiglath-Pileser III became the king of the mighty Assyrian empire, and he began a period of aggressive expansion in which he did his best to absorb all the little independent states in Syria and Palestine. From then on, in Isaiah’s lifetime, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah lived under the threat of Assyrian domination.
So Isaiah was living in a period of change; it was the end of a golden age and the beginning of a time of instability and fear. Israel and Judah felt small and vulnerable against the might of Assyria and its king. And in this context, God gave Isaiah a vision of who the true king really was, a vision that emphasized God’s power and majesty and holiness – which was exactly the message Isaiah and his countrymen needed to hear. Isaiah seems to have had this vision of the glory of God in the temple; perhaps he had gone there to pray or to take part in a sacrifice.
So what does the vision tell us about the Lord, the God of Israel?
First, and most obviously, Isaiah encounters a holy God, one who cannot be adequately described, one in whose presence awe, and even fear, is an appropriate response. Look at verses 1-4:
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 around 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.
Notice that Isaiah does not attempt to describe the Lord’s appearance. This is a common feature of accounts of appearances of God in the Bible; they seem to describe the edge of the field of vision, and the ‘court personalities’ around God, but not God himself. It seems as if the authors have accepted the fact that there is no human language available for them to describe the awesome God who they have seen. The most that Isaiah can bring himself to say is that the Lord’s throne was ‘high and lofty’, and that ‘the hem of his robe filled the temple’. I don’t know if any of you have seen the coronation photographs of Queen Elizabeth from 1953; she is a fairly small figure but is wearing an absolutely enormous cloak, which stretches all around the platform on which she is standing. And so Isaiah sees God as the high King of all kings, with a massive cloak that stretches around him, so huge that it fills the entire temple building.
Truly there is no language that we can use, or no picture we can create, that can adequately describe God. The Bible uses all sorts of images for God: the rock of our salvation, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of the armies of heaven, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the true heavenly Father, and so on. But none of them is big enough to give us a complete picture of what God is like. Quite possibly, if we actually saw God face to face, our brains wouldn’t be able to take him in.
In Isaiah’s vision even the ‘court personalities’ around the king seem pretty impressive. The Hebrew word ‘seraph’ means ‘fiery one’. Each of the seraphs has six wings, but they only use two for flying. With two they cover their eyes, because the Bible says you can’t see the face of God and live. With two more they cover their feet, which is a polite Hebrew euphemism for the private parts, because the Old Testament cautions priests against appearing naked before the Lord. They are calling out to each other in a song of worship: ‘Holy holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’. And this is not a quiet song; Isaiah says that the threshold of the temple shook at the sound of their voices, and the whole house was filled with the smoke from the incense and the sacrifices.
The living God is truly awesome! Earthly rulers may be impressive, but they pale into insignificance beside this holy God. And this isn’t just an Old Testament emphasis. The gospels tell us that when the disciples saw Jesus transfigured before them on the mountain they were awestruck, and in the Book of Revelation, when John saw the risen and ascended Jesus he says ‘I fell at his feet as though dead’ (Revelation 1:17). This is God: loving and merciful and tender to all, yes indeed, but also awesome and holy, the Creator of the galaxies, the one who is completely untouched by evil, and is determined to drive it out of his creation.
Then comes the second thing we learn from Isaiah’s vision: Isaiah encounters a forgiving God. When Isaiah sees God in all his majesty and awe and holiness, the effect on him is dramatic. He has seen God with his own naked eye, and the people of Israel have been taught from the time of Moses that no one can see God and live. The seraphs cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (v.3); the word ‘holy’ means ‘separate’, ‘different’, ‘removed from all evil’. God is completely good and holy and righteous; he’s totally opposed to sin, and Isaiah has always been taught that it’s a fearful thing for a sinful human being to come into the presence of this holy God. And Isaiah is very aware of his own sinfulness. And so we read in verse 5 that he cries out, ‘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!’
Fortunately for Isaiah, the Old Testament had a way of dealing with sin; it took place in the very temple where Isaiah was standing. Animals were offered to God in sacrifice on the altar, and as their blood was shed, forgiveness was poured out upon God’s people. These sacrifices are alluded to in the next part of the reading, verses 6-7:
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’.
The animal sacrifices were burned before the Lord, and this is the significance of the burning coal that the angel takes from the altar and applies to Isaiah’s lips; it’s the power of the sacrifice bringing forgiveness to Isaiah. The coal is a sort of sacramental sign of this, bringing it home and making it real for him.
The New Testament tells us that those animal sacrifices were like a signpost pointing to the perfect sacrifice that Jesus would offer when he gave himself freely on the cross for the sins of the whole world. That sacrifice touches each of us when we turn to Jesus in faith and ask for God’s forgiveness. And in our New Testament era God uses sacramental signs to help us, too, just as the coal was used to help Isaiah: the signs of baptism and Holy Communion. Each time we come to the Lord’s table in faith and receive the bread and wine, it’s as if the angel says to us as well, “See, this has touched your lips, and so your sin is forgiven and your guilt is wiped away”.
When we understand Holy Communion in this way, it can be a powerful thing for us. We might find ourselves coming up to the Lord’s Table very aware of our own shortcomings; we know very well that we haven’t loved God with our whole heart, and we haven’t loved our neighbour as ourselves. Perhaps there are particular things on our conscience, weighing us down and causing us to be afraid. And we’re very aware of the fact that God is a holy God, as Isaiah tells us in this reading.
But nevertheless, we take comfort from the fact that Jesus died for sinners, and we all qualify. We remember how he turned to the criminal who died beside him and assured him of salvation: “Today, you will be with me in paradise”. And so we come forward to the Lord’s Table; we stretch out our hands in faith to receive the gift the Lord has for us. Our hands are empty; we come as needy people, asking the Lord’s forgiveness. And somehow the miracle happens again: we eat and drink as Jesus commanded us, and God’s gift meets with our weak and trembling faith, and perhaps we even sense a weight lifting from our shoulders. “Go in peace”, says Jesus; “Your sins are forgiven”.
Will we feel that every time we receive the sacrament? No, probably not. Is it true, whether we feel like it or not? Yes, it definitely is. When Jesus first gave the cup of Holy Communion to his disciples he said, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). We may not be able to understand it, but we trust the promise Jesus gave us. Queen Elizabeth 1 is reputed to have written this little verse:
‘Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.
So let us come, whenever we celebrate Holy Communion, so that we may meet this forgiving God that Isaiah tells us about.
But there’s one more element to Isaiah’s experience that we need to notice: Isaiah encounters a sending God. He has a message he wants to send out to people everywhere, and he is looking for messengers to take it. And so in verse 8 we read, ‘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 accepts the call of God to be a messenger. He has seen the awesome God of Israel; he has experienced the forgiveness and cleansing from his sins; now he must take the message of God to others. God does not promise that his messenger will have an easy life; far from it. Our reading stopped at verse 8, but if we continue to read we see that God gives Isaiah a very discouraging prediction: he’s going to speak and speak, but the people aren’t going to listen, to the point that Isaiah will be saying to himself, ‘It seems as if the more I speak, the less they want to listen – it’s almost as if my words are turning them away from God, not toward him’. When God’s message goes out, people do not always turn to him with joy, and if we’re not having much success – if people are not responding and our church is not growing – this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing anything wrong. It may be that we’re speaking the truth, and people are finding that truth too hard to stomach!
God is still looking for messengers today, as he did in the time of Isaiah. The good news of Jesus needs to be announced to everyone, and God has chosen to speak it through human mouthpieces. If you have experienced the wonder and joy of forgiveness and new life, as Isaiah did, then you too are called by God to share that news with others.
‘Whom shall I send?’ Where might he be sending us? To most of us it will be to our families and friends, our work colleagues and neighbours. You may be the only Bible those folks will read; when the Lord wants a word spoken to them, are you willing to be the one who speaks it?
In 1981 the words of this text inspired a Jesuit priest, Father Dan Schutte, to write a song that has become a classic. Here’s the first verse
I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin my hand will save.
I who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.
God is holy and awesome, far above anything we can imagine, and completely free of evil and sin. But this holy and awesome God is also the one who forgives our sins; he came among us in Jesus and poured out his blood for all of us on the cross so that the burden of sin could be lifted from our shoulders. And if we have tasted that free gift of forgiveness, then we also are sent out, like Isaiah, to tell others about God and to help them come closer to him for themselves. God says to you and me today, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” I hope you will join me in the words of Isaiah: “Here am I; send me”. Amen.