Today I want to focus on the Isaiah reading, though Genesis will not be totally ignored. Isaiah 6:1-12 is the vision in the temple of God’s holiness. It is an extraordinary passage. Ezekiel (chapter 1) was granted a vision of the glory of God that is much wilder and phantasmagorical than Isaiah’s vision; but there too the voice of God speaks from the fantastic vision to call Ezekiel to a mission, just as Isaiah is called. The vision is meant to cleanse and empower Isaiah for the difficult task at hand. Ezekiel sees cherubim guarding the divine throne – just as God had instructed Moses in constructing the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10-22) and also Solomon in constructing the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 6:23-28). But Isaiah in his vision sees seraphim, not cherubim. It is outside my interest today to discuss these heavenly creatures. They are certainly beyond any conventional images of angels.
The seraphim have six wings and they call out to one another words that have become part of the Christian Liturgy, the Sanctus in the Roman Mass. In the Orthodox Church, the vision of Isaiah has been incorporated into the Anaphora (the Eucharistic Prayer). In the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom, the following exchange takes place between the presiding priest and the congregation (represented by the choir):
We also thank you for this liturgy which you are pleased to accept from our hands, even though you are surrounded by thousands of Archangels and tens of thousands of angels, by the cherubim and seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring with their wings, singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, proclaiming and saying:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabbath, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.
Notice that though the Christian churches have turned these words into a hymn addressed to God (“heaven and earth are filled with your glory”), the seraphim are not singing this as a hymn to God; they are calling out these words to one another. It is as if they are celebrating the holiness of God (“heaven and earth are filled with his glory”). Their words are not addressed to God; God doesn’t need to be reminded of God’s holiness. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us too when we use these words in our worship. Do we notice one another? Do we call out these words to each other? Do we speak to each other of God’s holiness?
Isaiah’s reaction to this vision is shattering: “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!” What a huge contrast to the casual way we modern Christians enter into God’s presence. The comfortable, cushioned experience of worship in today’s churches is as remote as possible from the terrifying experience that Isaiah had. We moderns forget all too easily that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
This does not mean that we should revert to pagan appeasement of an angry deity or a superstitious fear of “god”! But it does mean that perhaps we take God too lightly, too much “the man upstairs,” or our “buddy” in daily life. The language that people use today in referring to God is certainly indicative that we have come a long way from Isaiah’s visionary experience. All the more reason why the holiness of God needs to become part of our speech of God. Everything in the Bible is open to new and varied interpretations – except one: the holiness of God! That is non-negotiable. And God’s holiness has nothing to do with conventional ideas of holiness. God’s holiness includes all the ambiguous aspects of God we have already encountered in the early chapters of Genesis, including those aspects of God’s behavior that rattle us. If we were comfortable with everything that we read of this God, then it is likely that we are speaking of God. Even if the language is mythological – perhaps especially when the language is mythological – God’s holiness includes God’s wildness and unpredictability. Above all, God’s holiness specifically underlines God’s total freedom to act in ways that humans cannot understand. If this sounds a bit imperial and dictatorial – well, that is the picture of God in the Bible, take it or leave it! We are not given the privilege of turning God into something or someone we are comfortable with.
Confronted with this awe-inducing vision of God’s glory, Isaiah’s only response is to acknowledge his own sinfulness and the sinfulness of his people. He is not separate from the sins of his fellow countrymen! But his lips are cleansed by one of the seraphs: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” It’s interesting that these exact words are spoken by the priest after receiving communion: “This has touched my lips and taken away my iniquity and cleansed me of my sin.” Communion serves the same purpose as the burning coal did in Isaiah’s case.
But what is the purpose of this cleansing? Is it just a personal salvation that is at stake, or a pious purification? No, the purpose in Isaiah’s case is one and one only: To go and speak God’s word to the people. The divine call sounds out: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah does not hesitate to answer: “Here am I! Send me.” That is the purpose of every encounter with God. God does not waste his divine manifestations so people can feel good about themselves or privileged to have had a vision of God or Jesus. God only speaks or allows a vision when a purpose is to be accomplished – and the purpose is rarely if ever a personal one for the person receiving the vision or word. So if you ever believe that you’ve received a vision or manifestation of God in some form or other, ask why you might have received it. If there is no purpose you can identify, then forget it, you only received what your own imagination produced. Sorry if this sounds harsh, but I’m only going on the evidence of what I read in the Bible.
After engaging with Isaiah’s text, is there much purpose in spending time with today’s Genesis reading (5:1-24)? It’s the first extended genealogy in the Bible – a fascinating list of names who lived extremely long lifetimes. How one accepts these long lifetimes is up to each reader, and I have no interest in discussing the various theories and interpretations that have been offered over the centuries. The primary interest of this genealogy comes in verse 24, where we read, “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him.” Enoch lived only 365 years, compared to the 800 and 900 years that other people lived in this genealogy. Did he die young and go to be with God, as we are accustomed to saying for our own dead? Or did God physically take him and removed him from earthly life? We don’t know, and I’m not interested in speculating. I just find the sentence beautifully poetic, and I see no further need for explanation. It’s beautiful, and I pray someone might say the same thing about me after I’m gone. I pray that the same could be said about you, whoever you are, who are reading this. In the meantime, while we’re alive, we’re given the privilege of saying to each other, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” May the glory of this God be in you too who read this!