(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
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!” 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; send me!”
9And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 10Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” 11Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.
If you have been here long enough to know much about me, you know that I am a bonafide Memphis boy and that I take my barbecue very seriously. My very first sermon in this place, almost right at two years ago, was the story of Jesus healing a man possessed by a demon by sending the demon into a herd of pigs which promptly ran off a cliff and died, and I titled the sermon, “A Waste of Perfectly Good Barbecue.”
And maybe it’s because summer grill season has begun or maybe because my blood type is barbecue sauce, but the thing I can’t get over in this morning’s scripture lesson is the idea of the prophet Isaiah declaring that he is a person of unclean lips, and an angel flying over to the altar, picking up tongs and grabbing a piece of glowing hot coal and rubbing it on the poor guy’s mouth! Never mind how absolutely painful that sounds; I was tempted to title this sermon, “A Waste of Perfectly Good Charcoal!”
You know, I wish I could say that this the weirdest story in the Bible, but that’s just not true. The Bible is full of weird stories, especially when we start talking about prophetic visions, which is what this is, and even though we’re talking about a floating throne, and God wearing a garment so big that the hem fills the whole temple, and a guy kissing charcoal, this isn’t even in the top ten weirdest stories in the Bible. Probably not even the top fifty.
And this presents a problem for me. I am a capital V, capital R, capital G, Very Reasonable Guy. I don’t mean to suggest I dismiss the supernatural power we read about in scripture. I just mean that when I am reading my Bible and I come across strange visions and angels and kissing hot coals and all the rest, my eyes sort of glaze over a little bit, I kind of start wanting to hurry to the next passage, you know, to try to find something where somebody gives me clear instruction on how to be a Christian instead of presenting me with some bizarre vision that sounds like it came from the mind of Terry Gilliam or Salvador Dali.
But for as much as I find this story strange, I should be honest and admit that there’s another reason I struggle with this stuff. It is that I am afraid of what it means. You know, when Jesus says, “Sell everything you own and give the money the poor,” I can say, oh, surely he isn’t talking about me; he’s talking to somebody whose things get in the way of his devotion, and it is easy to talk yourself out of it. Likewise when Jesus says, “blessed are those who mourn,” I can say, “Isn’t that nice? They’ll get theirs, too.”
When I am presented with a prophetic vision, though, something that has a meaning deeper than the literal words used to tell the story, it is harder to hide, for when you do the difficult work of interpretation, of taking a complicated, strange story like the one we read this morning and trying to figure out what it really means, when you strip away the strange language and the like, you are left with pure, unadulterated Truth, and I am reminded that in the story of Adam and Eve, it was when they gained the knowledge of good and evil that they realized they were utterly naked in the presence of God.
This is what it means to be in God’s presence: when you get to the truth that lies underneath the words of these dreams and visions, it becomes impossible to hide.
And this is precisely the point. We may see dreams and visions in the Bible as unusual; we may speed up our reading to skip past them, but that is exactly the wrong reaction. In fact, when you come across something like this, you should actually slow down and let these stories simmer in your soul, for they are trying to tell you to focus, to pay attention, that what is contained here is so important that simple language will not do.
You may know that Stacey and Emmaline and I were in Colorado last week for vacation with family, thirteen of us in all piled into a house in Breckenridge, and on Tuesday we drove up plowed roads, halfway up the mountain, as the snow banks slowly melted and made a muddy mess of everything, and we got on thirteen horses and took the family horseback riding up the mountain, up a trail which is usually covered in snow but which, in late May, serves as a path for the wranglers to take freezing tourists on a particularly slow trail ride.
It is an unusual feeling, to ride in a place that is usually covered by several feet of snow, with chair lifts above your head paused for the summer, to look down and see ground that skiers never see. And while the path the horses walked on had been snow plowed, it was early enough in the mud season that most of the banks were still covered in snow, and it is beautiful, but it is also disorienting, that kind of snow. You are used to being able to follow visual clues on the ground, and then it’s all covered, and it throws you off.
And in the middle of the snow, some in places where it had already melted, as if it were just in the middle of nowhere, you’d see a trail marker. Go left for this trail. Go right for this one. If the snow weren’t there it wouldn’t make sense, but there it was.
Life is like this, of course. You go along and then all of a sudden the thing you thought you knew doesn’t hold true anymore, and it is disorienting. And when we come across strange bits in the Bible, they function like the ski markers did, reminding you to pay attention, to slow down, to process, to experience truth beyond words.
And that’s exactly the right way to deal with this morning’s scripture passage from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Isaiah has a vision of God, high on a throne, so large that just the hem of God’s robe fills the whole temple. That’s your first trail marker that we’re talking about a vision, something metaphorical rather than literal, because, of course, if the hem filled the whole temple, the robe itself would cover the state of Georgia, certainly the country of Israel, and there wouldn’t be any room for the seraphs, the angels to fly around. But it’s a vision, remember, and it is talking about something so deep and meaningful that the words so bulge with meaning that they nearly shatter. And then, of course, there are the angels flittering all about, covering their face and their feet, as if to signal that they are carrying truth so blindingly truthful that to be in the presence of it without covering your eyes would knock you out cold.
They are singing, the angels, “Holy, holy, holy,” because one holy is not enough to describe Almighty God, “holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
It is in this context, in this room, that the prophet realizes that he is not worthy to be in the presence of God, that God is so holy, so completely good, so full of grace that nobody deserves to be there, and yet, even being unworthy, he has laid eyes upon God.
Now, let’s stop just for a minute, because this is significant. Sure, the angel stuff is weird, the hem of the robe is weird, but there’s remarkable grace in this moment, hope for you and me, because I don’t know about you, but I don’t belong in that room. I barely belong in this one. I don’t belong in the presence of God. Like Isaiah, I have unclean lips. I can’t even make it to church without exercising those unclean lips when I get cut off on North Decatur Road! I certainly do not have it all together.
And even with that acknowledgement, even acknowledging that he, like me, is not the greatest thing since sliced bread, even then the prophet Isaiah sees God. But the story does not end there. One of the six-winged angels takes a pair of tongs and flies over to the altar, where coals are waiting to receive a sacrifice, and the angel uses the tongs to pick up a burning coal, flies over to Isaiah, and touches it to his lips, and in what can only be another act of remarkable grace, it does not burn him . . . but cleanses him. Blots out his sin. Burns away everything that keeps him from God.
There is so much power in that kind of moment that it bleeds through the words. When you come across something like this, it’s not like you can just say, “oh, isn’t it wonderful that we’re forgiven.” It’s a forgiveness that is deeper than words, that is so significant as to totally defeat any attempt to describe it as it is, and I am keenly aware of the folly of trying to do this in a sermon. A painter can paint, and a composer can write music, but all a preacher has is words, and it’s not easy to talk about. I mean, how do you talk about something that is ineffable, something that is deeper than words?
And yet for as hard as it is to talk about, there is power in this moment, this burning away of everything that stands between us and God. It brings you right into the presence of capital-t Truth. You start to understand why the Bible uses these unusual visions to give gravity to the moment, because when you stand in the presence of truth, when you stand before God, you can’t just describe it. Regular descriptions just won’t do.
Now, listen: I’m not trying to be high-minded here. This idea that what we are about is deeper than words isn’t just something that comes from well-credentialed theologians. It is something that comes from God, from this very passage in Isaiah! It sounds even weirder to me than the bit about the charcoal, but the voice of God says this to the prophet Isaiah: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
That doesn’t sound like God to me. I understand God through the lens of Jesus Christ, who says that you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind. So the idea that people—and let’s be honest here, God is talking about us—the idea that we ought to be made dull, that our ears ought to be stopped and our eyes shut, that we ought to stop trying to comprehend with our minds, that just doesn’t jibe with me understanding of who God is.
… but, I guess, in some ways, it does make sense. As a capital VRG, Very Reasonable Guy, I want to fit God into my own logic system. I want to be able to say, this is who God is and who God isn’t, and everything that stands outside of this box I’ve created is not of God. And so maybe I could afford a little bit of mind-dulling: not that I should stop engaging God with my mind, but so that when my mind is dulled and my ears are stopped and my eyes are shut, the only thing left is my heart, my very essence, the holy seed, the image of God that is within me, so that the things that separate me, that distract me, are burned away and I find myself in the presence of God.
It is unusual, but it is the best language can do to describe the kind of grace we receive, as heirs of Christ, as children of the living God. It is a grace beyond description, the kind of grace that is expressed only in a gratitude so strong that it pulls the words out of your throat and leaves you in stunned silence.
And how long will that grace go with us? Why, God says, it will go with us “until cities lie waste without inhabitant, until all there is is houses without people, until the land is utterly desolate,” or in other words, that grace will go with us until the very end.
You start to understand, seeing that kind of grace, how the prophet Isaiah could so quickly go from someone so drowning in his own unworthiness that he can think of nothing to say in the presence of God beyond “woe is me! I am a person of unclean lips” to someone who is so moved he cannot wait to volunteer his services.
I mean, my God, he’s so moved by that grace, by that presence, that he does a complete 180. He goes from totally unworthy to sent out to do God’s work. And I wonder, what if we were willing, you and I? What if, rather than getting trapped in strange language and the unusual imagery, what if we were willing to dig and dig and mine the truth out of the stories of grace we find in scripture and in life!, what if we so desperately sought God until we could do nothing but sit in the presence of the truth of grace, unable to hide from it . . . and allow God to use us? Can you imagine the kinds of things we could do if we let God—if we let this God use us? Can you imagine what would happen if we were willing to give voice to that quiet pull of grace that draws us toward God, if we were willing to say, “Here I am, send me?”