Start with Scripture:
God’s call to Isaiah was dramatic. It happened at a dramatic time in history, in a magnificent place, and through a powerful vision.
The year that King Uzziah died may have merely been a point of reference, a way of informing the reader about chronology. It was the year 740 B.C., although Uzziah’s son had reigned as regent for several years prior to that because of Uzziah’s illness.
However, the announcement of the timing may also be a way of letting us know that this is a critical time in the history of Israel and Judah. Soon after this, Jerusalem is besieged by the kings of Damascus and Israel. And not long after that, Assyria conquers the Northern Kingdom of Israel (721 B.C.), and begins to menace the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah’s prophetic career begins in a tough time for the people of God.
The place that this vision is revealed is within the temple itself, presumably during worship. While it is useless for us to speculate about what causes Isaiah to see this vision, or whether anyone else saw it, it is powerful.
This is what is known as a “Theophany,” which essentially means “God shows up.” And how! Isaiah doesn’t describe the Lord – – only the backdrop and the beings that surround him. His robe fills the temple, and the two angels (Seraphim — “the burning ones”) observed the propriety of worship with their six wings – although they each flew with two of the wings, two sets of wings were employed in averting their gaze from God, and avoiding any defilement of his holiness. It is not seemly for any creature to gaze upon the glory of God!
They proclaim in their chant, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the whole temple, at least for Isaiah, is shaken to the foundations, as the smoke of the incense filled the temple.
Sinful man confronted with the holiness of God can create only one appropriate response: conviction of sin and repentance. Isaiah cries out “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Sinful man can do nothing to purge away his own sin — only God can do that. The seraphim purifies Isaiah’s lips with a live coal from the altar, signifying that the prophet’s lips are now cleansed so that he may be a vessel for God’s message. The declaration of the Seraphim confirms this: “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
And then the Lord himself speaks: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
Strange, isn’t it, that the Lord speaks so generally — as though Isaiah is one of many who might respond to his call. It is not specifically addressed to anyone, but the one who will answer becomes clear.
Isaiah, having been purged, and hearing the voice of God, can only volunteer freely, without even knowing what he will be asked to do: “Here am I. Send me!
Where has the sense of the holiness of God gone? How casually do we name God in our prayers, invoke him in our ball games, demand of him that he answer our requests! Where has our vision of God’s transcendence gone? As C.S. Lewis might scold us, “He’s not tame, you know. He’s wild.”
It seems that when someone encounters God, I mean really encounters God, the first thing that they become aware of is God’s holiness and power and transcendence. And no matter how well ‘put together’ we might be, however successful, however decent and moral, we see ourselves in God’s light as if for the first time, and we confess with Isaiah, “Woe to me!”. . . “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” If there is not that recognition of the gulf that exists between God and humanity, I would question whether someone has really been in the presence of God at all.
And then there is the sense that only at God’s initiative can we cleansed from our sin – not by self-improvement programs, or better education, or forty days of spiritual discipline – good as those things all are! Only the fire of God can purify us!
And when the call comes, it does come to all who have been purified. The question is, who will answer that call? The one who steps forward and says “Here am I. Send me!
It is not lost on me that this reading is selected for Trinity Sunday. I just feel inadequate to even begin to explore the mystery of the Trinity, when so many more holy and more erudite than I have tried and confessed their own inadequacy.
I can point to the Triune declaration of the Seraphim: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. I can point out that when the Lord speaks, he speaks first in the first person singular — “Whom shall I send? and then in the first person plural And who will go for us?” Could this be a plural that reminds us that God is One in Three Persons? Is it likely that this is not unlike some interpretations of Genesis when God speaks of himself in the third person plural: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness (Genesis 1:26). I tend to think so.
I can only say that for me this is a deeply personal passage. On December 21, 1974, the year that Richard Nixon resigned as president of the United States, I too experienced a vision of God while I was gazing out over the San Bernardino Valley in California, and knew that God was looking back at me. And then I knew that not only is God real, but that I now had a purpose – to tell others that God is real and therefore life has meaning.
That was just the beginning. Although my comparison to Isaiah is as a gnat to an eagle, there was much more to follow!
Your holiness surpasses my meager ability to describe! And yet you have cleansed me of sin through your Son, and called me and empowered me to serve you through your Holy Spirit. Forgive me for those times when I have failed you, and empower me to go where you send me. Amen.
PHOTOS: “take the coal, touch my lips, here I am” by Mike is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.