Rev. Dr. Martha ter Kuile
May 30, 2021
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!
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 above 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. And 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!’
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.’ 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!’
May God bless to our understanding these words from Holy Scripture.
What a picture of God we have in today’s readings! Enthroned above us, directing the wind and waves with awesome power, by means of a magnificent voice. In the Psalm that Dale read, the cedars spin and crack apart, and the mighty oaks twirl, and the air is filled with fire and heavenly beings crying Glory! Just as a thunderstorm can be both thrilling and terrifying, this God is pretty alarming. A long way from the tender shepherd who leads you to lie down in green pastures and restore your soul.
The vision that Isaiah has as he visits the Temple in Jerusalem is just as overwhelming. He sees huge angels – seraphim with six wings, hovering over the throne of God and singing continuously. Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of Hosts. This is one of the passages that gives us the famous old hymn, which we’ll sing again today. The voices of the seraphim rattle the doorways and fill the Temple with smoke. Isaiah is overcome by his own unworthiness when he sees the living God. And stunned when his own tongue is anointed with a burning coal.
Not very many people have mystical visions of God like these ones. As someone said in the lectionary group, we are more familiar with the God of the still small voice that comes after the wind and racket. You might even say we prefer a God of gentle nudges and whispers, perhaps experienced in the quiet woods, or in the consoling embrace of a friend. Because it is Trinity Sunday we are primed for a variety of images – maker, mender, builder as we said in the Call to Worship. Source, Saviour, Comforter. Father, Son, Spirit. We think of water, ice, and vapour, or the three leaves of a shamrock. There are lots of images of the Divine, and lots of ways to experience that cosmic power. But Isaiah’s God on a throne, with singing seraphim and billowing smoke is a bit much.
Perhaps the worst thing about someone else’s mystical vision is that it seems so irrelevant. Could there be anything farther from the grinding needs of this sorrowing world than a heavenly king? What do seraphim have to do with 215 little bodies buried in secret, without ceremony or compassion, in a Kamloops schoolyard? What do the cries of Holy and Glory say to the Tulsa Massacre, 100 years ago tomorrow, and still felt in the persistent injustices of anti-black racism? How does the vision of a Lord God Almighty who shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare teach us to value and regenerate this faltering blue planet? Can a God too holy to be seen amidst the smoke and flames bring comfort to the sick, or hope to the downhearted? What possible point can there be in the story of Isaiah as he comes before the throne?
The text gives a clue; Isaiah arrives at the Temple on a bad day in a bad year – the year that King Uzziah died. Things have been unravelling in Jerusalem. As social injustice and debauchery and corruption around him have grown, Isaiah is convinced that God’s bitter disappointment with the people will soon bring calamity. Enemy nations are swirling around, waiting their turn to attack, and it seems clear to the prophet that there is nothing ahead but trouble. He is feeling helpless, unable to accomplish anything. He arrives at the Temple discouraged and heartsore. And there, has a vision of glory.
When Isaiah comes before the throne, he is reminded that the power and goodness of God is much greater than the troubles around him. It is that goodness itself that reaches out and invites him to keep on.
Whom shall I send?, says the Lord, and Isaiah replies, Here I am; send me!
In the Bible, the real importance of an ecstatic encounter with the divine reality is not the bliss of it or the awe of it. Bliss and awe by themselves have no significance, however delightful they may be. What follows from a mystical vision is always a task, in this story of Isaiah and throughout Christian history. You and I may never have a mystical vision. But every one of us has the capacity to encounter the deep truth of God’s love. When we are overwhelmed by the pain of the world, and the folly of humanity, and the difficulty of a way forward, we too are invited to take a moment before the throne.
And for this we give God thanks. Amen.