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. 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!” 6Then 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;
This is Trinity Sunday, when in many churches around the world preachers are doing their best to define and discuss the Holy Trinity. It’s an intimidating task, and every year when it comes around I flash back to a day in my first student minister position. I was working in a retirement community and spent a good deal of time ministering to the staff. One day one of the housekeepers asked me to join her on coffee break, and then asked if I could please explain exactly how God could be three different people at the same time before she had to go back to work. Well, I knew there was no way in the world I could do this – theologians have been writing books on the subject since about the year 400 and they haven’t been able to make it clear yet. We’re not even really supposed to understand it. As Thomas Acquinas said “We know that God is, not what God is.” Her coffee break lasted just about the same amount of time that a sermon does, and I am no better able to explain this great mystery in 15 minutes now than I was then.
One thing I think I understand about the different persons of God is that we hear God in different ways. God chooses different means to break into our lives, to get our attention, and the way we hear it has something to do with the way each of us understands God.
Look at Isaiah, for example. His focus in life was God, creator and sustainer, law giver and judge, Lord and bridegroom of Israel. So when he heard God speak, he heard from the Lord of the Universe, mighty Yahweh on the throne of heaven, surrounded by the heavenly host.
Isaiah wasn’t always a prophet. He was a priest in Jerusalem. His job was to make sure worship went the way it was supposed to, to preside over the various rituals in the temple, to make sacrifices in the proper way, to make sure the offerings were distributed among the poor fairly – in a lot of ways his job was pretty much like my job.
His job was also to take care that only the worthy came close to God – to protect the Holy of the Holies from anyone who wasn’t supposed to be in there. Only the priests were allowed behind the curtain to the place where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and then only after rigorous cleansing rituals to make sure they were acceptable. It wasn’t that they believed God lived in the temple, exactly, any more than we believe that God lives in this building. The Holy of the Holies within the temple was more like the place God rested his feet while sitting on the heavenly throne – but even getting near the place where God’s feet touched the earth was too wonderful and holy for ordinary people. Isaiah no doubt expected that his life would keep on going the way it had been, and then, he had this vision. He found himself in the presence of God. He was in God’s actual presence within the temple, surrounded by wonderful beings and heavenly music and the most marvelous incense. And of course he panicked. “I’m not worthy. What am I doing here?” No doubt he thought he was going to die immediately, for scripture told him no one can see the glory of God and live. Even Moses only got a glimpse of the back of God, and that while he was hiding behind a rock. And Isaiah certainly wasn’t Moses. He was just a priest and he knew that he was no better than the people he served. He knew that no matter how many cleansing rituals he went through, the bottom line was that he was just as impure as any other person. But a seraph brought a live coal from the altar, which cleansed his lips and his soul, so that he could not just hear God’s word, but so he would be able to speak it to others. And when God said “Who will go to our people?” Isaiah said “I’m here. I’ll go.”
I wonder if Isaiah would be so anxious to volunteer if he realized just how hard it was going to be to get anyone to listen to him, if he realized how much pain this new job was going to bring into his life. Because what happened here is that Isaiah’s job changed. Isaiah was now a prophet. From now on, instead of making sure everything kept going the nice comfortable way it had been going, he was supposed to bring people to change. He was supposed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. He was supposed to shake people out of complacency and teach them how to change their world, to shape it according to God’s will rather than according to their own desires. He was supposed to bring God’s word to the people and bring the needs of the people to God. He was to be the conduit between God and Israel. From now on he would fight against the status quo instead of working to maintain it.
I don’t know what Isaiah normally felt walking into the temple before this momentous. Did he see it as “the office” or was it always a special place? I don’t know if he found leading the worship services exhilarating or whether it was just a job. Or whether his response was like mine – varied according to a whole host of causes. Sometimes when I come in on Sunday morning I am just so focused on making sure the sound system is turned on, and checking to see that everything is where it’s supposed to be, and discovering broken things that it just doesn’t feel very worshipful in here. And sometimes, when I wander over in the middle of the week for no particular reason it is as if God is here waiting for me. Sometimes when I pray I’m just kind of going through the motions and sometimes it is an overwhelming experience. Very often during worship I feel like a stage manager, trying to make sure things happen in a timely manner, in the proper order and in such a way that the congregation feels like they have been in worship. And sometimes the prayers and hymns and readings get to me the way I would hope they get to everyone else. And you know that sometimes the sermons take on a life of their own, when the Spirit decides to say what I don’t know how to.
On this occasion, however, Isaiah knew he was in the presence of God. He felt the power, heard the voices, smelled the smoke – all of it was overpowering. He was overwhelmed with awe, realizing that he was in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. He was filled with humility. He was no longer the high-ranking priest of the Temple. In God’s presence he was just a man with all the same failings other people had. And he became willing to offer himself in service, to carry God’s word to God’s children, to do whatever God asked him to do and go where ever God asked him to go. It wouldn’t be for quite some time that God would say to Isaiah ‘Behold, I am about to do a new thing.” But clearly, God was doing a new thing in Isaiah’s life on this day, because from this day forward Isaiah will be an entirely different person.
The thing about God is that we never really know what to expect. God has a way of breaking through, of coming into our lives in amazing ways, unexpected ways. We find ourselves going about our lives in the same old way, expecting to find God in the same old places and suddenly it’s not like that at all. Suddenly God’s presence is real and different and frightening, and we find ourselves compelled to change in ways we would never have considered before. We find ourselves doing things we never would have considered.
God has a way of changing the things that make us most comfortable, and then waiting to see how long it takes us to move on with a new thing. Isaiah was comfortable as a priest. He knew what to do next, he knew all the rituals and the methods of sacrifice and to divide up the lambs and such between the temple and the poor. He figured he’d spend his life doing the same old, same old, just like his father and his father before him.
Yesterday I got a phone call from someone who said, “God’s not there! What do I do?” Just the day before she had told me that God was like a big pillow that she hugged close to herself at night to keep her safe and comfortable. But yesterday when she reached for that pillow it wasn’t there. I know that God didn’t go away, but I think maybe God is letting her know that it’s time for her to give up that safe, comfortable pillow and let God lead her into a new way of being. For many, church is that comfortable pillow. We’re used to things going in a particular way on Sunday mornings. We’re used to the bills getting paid and the office being open and repairs getting done. And when that changes, or looks like it might change, it gets scary. One local congregation had a meeting this week to talk about what to do now that they had lost a substantial portion of their income. Some panicked and said, “God’s not there. Our pillow has disappeared.” And others said “Have faith. God will do a new thing in us. We just don’t know what it is yet.”
We really don’t know what God will ask of us next. We can be fairly certain it will be outside our comfort zone. Isaiah didn’t expect to find himself in God’s actual presence. And he didn’t expect to hear God ask, “Who shall we send?” But when he heard that, he didn’t hesitate. He didn’t dither or worry or start looking for that comfortable pillow. He said “Here am I. I will go.”
When we find ourselves in God’s presence may we respond in the same way that Isaiah did. May we approach with awe, with fear and trembling and love and trust. May we stand before God with humility, knowing that we are no better or worse than anyone else in God’s eyes. And may we offer ourselves to serve God’s people in what ever way God asks. And most of all, let us keep in mind God’s words to us through Isaiah – the priest turned prophet – “Behold, I will do a new thing in you.”
I will do a new thing in you, I will do a new thing in you,
Whatever you ask for, whatever you pray for,
Nothing will be denied,
Says the Lord.