Trinity Sunday sermon
by Dr. Patrick Kelly
26th May 2013
A Vision of God in the Temple
6In 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. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And I said: ‘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!’
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The 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.’ 8Then 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!’
12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord”
I don’t know about you, but this opening sentence stops me in my tracks. You could build a Bible on this single sentence.
It begins with an identified point in history, remembered by an important event – in this case, someone important who died. How often have you said something almost identical to this? In my case, I could say – in the year that my father died, I came back to New Zealand. My dad may not be in any one else’s history book, but he’s certainly in mine. Or to pick a different reference, in the case of this Parish: in the year of the Springbok Tour, Murray Spackman became Vicar of Devonport.
Whatever else the Bible is, it is full of points in historical time, in this case, “In the year that King Uzziah died…” So much for the first part. Hardly out of our experience.
But it’s the last phrase that makes this different. A Bible, not a history book: “I saw the Lord”
When have you said, or how can you say (how can anyone say): “In the year that such-and-such an event happened, I saw the Lord?” Did Isaiah see God? Is it even possible to see God, and if it is, is it possible for you, or for me?
If you’ll excuse the alliteration, I want to try and touch on three things for this passage, and in the third part also refer briefly to John’s gospel, which in many ways builds on it.
Firstly, the context. Just how significant was it, that Isaiah saw what he saw?
Secondly, the content. What exactly did Isaiah see?
Thirdly, the consequence. What does this mean – for us?
1. THE CONTEXT
1.1 There’s a context in history: Isaiah’s vision happened in a real time and a real place.
Who was King Uzziah, and when did he die?
King Uzziah, also known as King Azariah, was a King of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, based in Jerusalem. He reigned for 52 years – the longest by a country mile of all the Kings of Israel and Judah (King Solomon included). If he were a King of England, it would put him in the top 5.
And King Uzziah was no slouch. He was a good King, whose reign is remembered as a kind of golden age in the history of Judah. He died in 739 BC. To put that in context, if the legend of the foundation of the city of Rome is true, then Rome was founded bang in the middle of Uzziah’s reign.
Uzziah was followed by his son Jotham, his grandson Ahaz and his great grandson Hezekiah. In the reign of his grandson Ahaz, the northern kingdom of Israel was invaded and then obliterated by Assyria. In the reign of his great grandson Hezekiah, things began to turn to custard for Israel as well. Finally, about 150 years after the death of Uzziah, Jerusalem was destroyed and many of the survivors deported to Babylon.
Why does this context matter? Well, in the first chapter of the book of Isaiah, Isaiah tells us that the sayings recorded in the Book of Isaiah were given to him through the reign of all 4 of those Kings – at a minimum Isaiah, it seems, prophesied in Judah over a period of almost 60 years. Putting that in today’s context, if Isaiah were an old man today, he would have begun preaching in 1953. By his own account, Isaiah straddled the whole slow fall of Judah from triumph to the brink of disaster.
We don’t know how old Isaiah was when he began to prophesy, but he may not have been much more than a teenager, a young man at most.
So here’s a question for you: in the context of Isaiah’s entire ministry of 60 years, how often did he see God?
As far as we know, the answer is: once.
This was it – and I’ll come back to that later.
1.2 There’s a context for us. We don’t read this passage in a vacuum either. Isaiah’s vision is profoundly important in the history of the Church.
The seraphim cry to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory”. Have you ever heard that before?
Every time you take communion you hear it, because a variation of that cry (the “Sanctus”) has been part of the liturgy of the Christian church for almost 2000 years. Go anywhere in the world where there is a Christian church, of any denomination, using a liturgy which dates back to the very beginning of Christianity, and you will hear the cry of the seraphim. The very first of those repeats is in the Book of Revelation, chapter 4, when John of Patmos hears the same chorus.
There are lots of possible reasons for that, and I think probably the most important is the vision itself. But why schedule this reading for Trinity Sunday?
When, at the end of our reading today, Isaiah offers to go and speak, God gives him a message. You can read it in the rest of the chapter, and that message is referenced twice in the New Testament.
St John refers to that message earlier in the same Gospel we heard read from today. John wrote: “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). For John, the person Isaiah saw sitting on the throne was Jesus Christ.
St Paul, preaching in Rome in Acts 28:25, also quotes Isaiah’s message, and says “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet…” For Paul, the message Isaiah received came from the Holy Spirit.
So from the early days of the Christian church, the “Holy, holy, holy” cry of the seraphim was taken as worship of the Trinity: God three-in-one, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
1.3 But there was another context, for Isaiah alone
It is easy nowadays to patronize the people of the Old Testament, particularly when we want to disregard their experience. I suspect many people think that belief in God arose because people back then were credulous, given to hearing voices and seeing visions.
But just how many people in the Old Testament saw God, and how did the Jews view those who made such a claim?
When you read the Old Testament, and put aside metaphors and angels, those who are reported to have seen God can be numbered on the fingers of one hand: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses. None of those encounters read quite like the vision that Isaiah describes here. Arguably, Isaiah’s vision is unique – one of a kind.
Seeing God was hardly a common experience in the life of God’s people.
It was said of Moses that “the Lord used to speak to Moses… as a man speaks to his friend”(Exodus 33:11), and that when Moses came out of the tent of meeting, his face shone with the glory of God, to such an extent that he had to keep his face veiled till the glory faded (Exodus 34:34-35). But even of Moses it is recorded that he asked to see God’s glory and God replied “You cannot see my face, for no-one can see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Even Moses, we are told, was only permitted to see God’s back.
From the time of Moses onwards, the orthodox theology was that no-one could see God. Going into the presence of God was the special job of the priests alone, and even the High Priest could go into the holy of holies only once a year.
By the time of Isaiah, it had been priestly theology for more than 500 years, that no man could see God and live. Seeing God was profoundly dangerous.
It is perhaps not surprising that no one claimed to see God.
No-one was free of this restriction. Uzziah was a good King. But towards the end of his reign, he tried to go into the Temple to burn incense on the altar, where only the priests were allowed to go (2 Chronicles 26:16-23). The Bible records that he was struck with leprosy. Jewish historians outside the Bible claimed that there was a great earthquake, the Temple cracked, the light let in fell on Uzziah’s face and he immediately became a leper. He had to hand over the rule to his son and became a hermit until his death (Josephus, Talmud). And Uzziah had made no attempt to see God – he just entered the place in the Temple where God might (in theory) be seen. This whole episode must have happened when Isaiah was a child.
So it’s no wonder that when Isaiah saw God, he was… terrified. “Woe is me, for I am lost”. And he was. According to Jewish tradition, the manner of Isaiah’s death was that he was executed (sawn in half) by Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, on the pretext that he had committed blasphemy by claiming to see God, 60 years before (Talmud).
2. THE CONTENT
So what exactly did Isaiah see?
I don’t presume to know, and Isaiah doesn’t attempt to describe God in detail – there is an overwhelming sense of grandeur, and awe, and glory, but Isaiah describes the effects and the surroundings more than God himself. What I think is clear is, that what he saw shook him to the core, and what he saw, no-one else saw.
In particular, Isaiah spends more time describing the seraphim than God. The word comes from a word that means “burning”. Calvin likens them to sunbeams. This is the only place in the OT that the word seraphim is used like this. Everywhere else, it means serpents, usually fiery ones. They are certainly not the chubby cherubim of Renaissance paintings. These are scary – they could even be interpreted as six-winged dragons.
But even the seraphim do not see what Isaiah sees. God is so bright that even the seraphim cover their faces as they fly, and so holy that they cover their feet. Isaiah is staring at a sun that even they cannot face, and by all proper thinking, he should go blind.
“Woe is me”, says Isaiah – but he doesn’t say “because I am condemned to death” (which is what you might expect). He says “I am lost” (Calvin: “I have been reduced to silence”). Why? Because “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”.
I can’t help but think of Jesus’ words in Matthew about the mouth (“it is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out”, Matthew 15:11), and about the eyes – “the eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light, but if not, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22).
I think it’s fair to suggest that Isaiah was a talker. But now he’s struck dumb, because he realizes the rubbish that has been coming out of his mouth.
He is, if you like, overwhelmed by a sense of his own sinfulness.
It’s not exactly fashionable to contemplate sinfulness.
Even in the Anglican liturgy, we’ve toned it down. We don’t quote the psalmist any more every Sunday, and say “I am a worm, and no man”.
And with some justification – talking about sinfulness can easily become a tool of oppression, and religious people have been using it for a long time, from the priests of Israel’s history, through the Pharisees of Jesus’ time to the present day.
But the essential point here, surely, is that no-one else accuses Isaiah of sinfulness. Isaiah judges himself.
We don’t hear the voice of God booming from the throne: “You are a worm and no man. How dare you approach my divine majesty!” You have to presume that God initiated this vision, not Isaiah – and in fact, at this stage, Isaiah doesn’t hear the voice of God at all.
Isaiah sees God, and no words are necessary. Isaiah’s recognition of his sinfulness is not a judgment imposed on him by God, it is a judgment imposed on Isaiah, by Isaiah. It is the honest analysis of a man who sees himself as he really is, because he sees himself in the brightest light there is.
All of us who are honest with ourselves, no matter how talented we may be in one area or another, will have times when we are brought to a halt by the recognition of sheer quality, a quality that we know exceeds our own, and always will.
When was the last time something just took your breath away. A time when you just had to stop, and say to yourself, “Oh, my God”.
It might have been an unexpected sunset, the multitude of stars on dark night, a piece of music sublimely played. Something you just stop and acknowledge that, in this moment, you are contemplating something so much greater than you.
Or maybe it was something more prosaic, but a moment still of magic – a superb run through the midfield in the Super 15 (a piece of athleticism that you know you could never, even in your wildest dreams, have executed), a miracle pass like Israel Dagg in the semi-final of the World Cup, an act of bravery, a simple act of kindness. The kind of thing that, if you could, you would stop and applaud.
Imagine, if you can, that experience magnified and amplified and multiplied to the point that you are completely and utterly overwhelmed. Nothing you can say, nothing you can do, just an utter awareness of your own insignificance, and the wonder that is God. It is out of this that a human being can say “I am a worm” – not as a tool of one man’s judgment of another, but as an honest response to a reality that is completely beyond us.
3. THE CONSEQUENCE
What is Isaiah’s response?
His response is NOT: I feel so bad, I have to act (out of guilt). In fact, almost the opposite is true. The sunbeam flies to him, carrying a burning coal from the altar, and touches it to his lips. He says “your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven”.
If guilt was a motivation, that motivation is removed.
It is NOT, I have a debt so big, I must spend my life working to pay it off.
The debt is forgiven.
Isaiah is a free man. He has seen God, and lived. He has been fully exposed for who he is, and he has been forgiven and accepted, as he is.
Isaiah’s experience is magic and awe and wonder, and his response is pure impulse.
Isaiah can no more NOT respond, than a planet can spin away from the sun.
It is at that point, that Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord (verse 8): “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” Is that the first time God spoke – or is it the first time that Isaiah was able to hear what God had been saying all along. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to suggest that the coal may have touched his lips, but it was his ears that were opened.
Then Isaiah said: “Here am I! Send me.” I imagine Isaiah like a child in a crowd, jumping up and down to get the teacher’s attention = “Me, me – pick me!”
Does this strike you as the response of a man motivated by oppression, or a sense of guilt? No – Isaiah has seen the light, and that one sight will sustain him for 60 years.
In many ways, Isaiah’s experience is exactly the same as that of any Christian who truly grasps what it means to be fully known, and yet to be forgiven. The whole of the good news of Jesus Christ, is that God wants to be seen, and that in Christ, all can see him, all can approach him, and all can be forgiven. It is no wonder that the early Church adopted this vision as their own, and believed that it was Jesus that Isaiah saw upon that throne. One can imagine the words of John Newton on the lips of Isaiah – “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see”.
So what about you, and what about me?
I haven’t seen God in the sense that Isaiah did, and I expect I never will – not in this life, at least. I suspect you are all in the same boat.
If it’s any comfort, almost nobody has. So don’t bother trying.
But hold on a moment.
Stop, and think.
Has there ever been a moment of wonder in your life. A moment which was, for the lack of a better word, “pure magic”. A moment of clarity, a moment when it all made sense, a moment when you saw beyond the darkness, a moment when you just KNEW, a moment when you took the leap of faith and discovered there was ground beneath your feet.
We cannot pretend that life is not hard, and during the course of our lives we will encounter all sorts of setbacks, tragedies and even cruelties. We will be disappointed in ourselves, and we will be disappointed in others. We will mess up good and proper. Isaiah would say the same.
But it is not guilt that will sustain us. Guilt will destroy us.
What will sustain us, is the vision of God. And I do believe, that in some way, God must give that vision to each of us. We cannot go on without it.
God, if you let him, will send you a sunbeam. In the Gospel reading, Jesus says this: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you”.
Think about it. What God said to Isaiah, and Isaiah passed on, was not all there is to be said. What Jesus said, and the Gospels passed on, was not all there is to be said. I venture to suggest there is something that the Holy Spirit will say to you, that only you can hear, and only you can transmit.
Christianity is not about what happened to Isaiah, or what happened to John – it is about what is happening to you, and to me, and through us to those around us.
I look around this room, and I see 100 people, perhaps 2000 years or more of cumulative life experience, God alone knows how many “ah ha” moments, how many lessons learned, how many visions seen, how many choices or decisions made in faith, hope or love. If I could see you as God sees you, maybe I wouldn’t see you at all – maybe I’d see you like light shone through a prism, sunbeams, each you with a colour and an angle that only you can reproduce.
I need you, and you need me. For in you and through you, I can see God.