Somewhere in my reading recently, I ran across this familiar rant about God’s invisibility. “If God really wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding, you know, make himself visible, write in words across the sky, speak audibly so that everyone can hear his voice, do some miracle that would make his presence and power undoubtable? This game of hide and seek that God plays with the human race makes it far too difficult to believe in God.”
This season of Epiphany is a reminder that God has made himself visible and audible and tangible, but people still didn’t come to faith in large numbers in spite of these epiphanies. Our reading in Isaiah 6 shows us the two very different responses to an overwhelming Epiphany of God’s glory. I would set this up by asking my congregation, what would you do if you were faced with an Epiphany? Would you respond like Isaiah or like Israel?
The appearance of God to Isaiah happened in a time like ours, a time of political turmoil. It was the year that King Uzziah died. He was a good king in every way during a time when Israel’s leadership was checkered to say the least. Uzziah had been godly and had led well and Israel had prospered. But now he was dead; who would succeed him? A change in administration could upset everything. In that atmosphere of national uncertainty, Isaiah was given a vision of the real King.
“I saw Yahweh seated on a throne, high and exalted….” But doesn’t the Bible say that if anyone sees the Lord face to face, that person will surely die (Exodus 33:20). What Isaiah actually saw was, not the face of God, not the back of God (as Moses did in that Exodus passage), but just the hem of the Lord’s regal robe. The train of God’s robe was so massive that it filled the entire temple.
But Isaiah saw, and heard, more. “Above the Lord were seraphs, each with 6 wings….” We don’t know what a seraph is; the word is simply a transliteration of the Hebrew. It means something like “fiery,” so folks have for centuries pictured these beings as fiery angels. The remarkable thing about them is their multiple wings. One set, of course, covers their eyes, so they don’t look on the Lord. Another covers their feet, a euphemism for their nakedness, because no one could appear before the Lord with their privates exposed. With the third they remain airborne, a sight that must have left Isaiah’s jaw hanging open.
But the sound they make is the center of this Epiphany: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty (of Hosts); the whole earth is full of his glory.” Though early theologians saw that triple “holy” as proof of the Trinity, it is more likely a proclamation of the pure holiness, the perfect holiness of Yahweh, the sheer otherness of God. And significantly for those who demand that God put in an appearance if he wants us to believe in him, the seraphs declare that the whole world is an Epiphany; “the whole earth is full of his glory.” One thinks here of corroborating passages like Psalm 19:1 (“the heavens declare the glory of God”) and Romans 1:20 (“since the creation of the world God’s… eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made….”). More on that later.
This Epiphany is not quite over. With details that remind us of God’s previous appearance on Mount Sinai, the sound of their seraphs’ voices made the doorposts and threshold of the Temple shake and the Temple filled with smoke. It was an earthshaking, life altering, multisensory event, at the center of which is God. It was the kind of event that should move anyone to faith.
It does more than that for Isaiah. It undoes him. “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Consonant with the traditional teaching that seeing God will result in your death, Isaiah expects to die. On the contrary, his life has just begun, in a way he could have never have imagined.
His new life begins with redemption, as one of the seraphs takes a coal from the temple altar and touches it to Isaiah’s formerly unclean lips. The man who has confessed his unworthiness by focusing in his lips has now been given clean lips, because his “guilt [has been] taken away and his sin atoned for.”
His redemption is followed by his commissioning for a task that will occupy the rest of his new life. Isaiah (over)hears God asking his heavenly council, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Without missing a beat, Isaiah blurts out, “Here am I. Send me!”
His words have been held up in thousands of sermons as the quintessential response to the call of God to missions and ministry of all sorts. A keen sense of inadequacy and a strong sense of urgency are the appropriate response to an Epiphany of God’s greatness and an experience of God’s grace. These words are the right answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece. What would you do if you were faced with an Epiphany? You could make a fine sermon on the first part of Isaiah 6.
But if you did that, you would have missed the second part of this dramatic passage. The Lectionary leaves out that second part or, as one commentator puts it, chickens out. That is understandable. Verses 8-13 are a mighty challenge for anyone who wants to preach grace, especially to those who ask the kind of question I posed at the beginning. “If God really wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he come out of hiding? Why doesn’t he give us an Epiphany of his glory?”
Well, God has done that here and Isaiah, as I said, responded in the right way. But the epiphany continues, and in what God says next we encounter words that will be an obstacle to faith, even for believers. Indeed, it made Isaiah pause for a moment, because God gave Isaiah a commission that on the surface makes no sense. It sounds for all the world like a commission to preach in order to prevent people from repenting and being healed. “Make the heart of these people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
This is so shocking that even Isaiah, a man eager to speak for God, asks God a deceptively simple question. “For how long?” Which, being interpreted, means something like, “Really? That can’t be right. That’s not the long-term message, is it? That’s not the sole purpose of my preaching. I’m not sure I’m up for that. Maybe one sermon in that vein, or a series, but then can’t we get on to the grace part, and repentance, and healing.”
For centuries preachers have questioned this commission. Indeed, the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), translates this very differently. In the LXX, Isaiah is supposed to preach a message of judgment, and the result will be a further hardening of Israel’s heart and continued deafness and blindness to God’s message. In other words, what we have here is not the prescription for Isaiah’s preaching, what is supposed to happen, but the description of the results of his preaching, what will happen in spite of his best efforts. In Matthew’s Gospel (13:10-17), Jesus explains the Parable of the Sower in just those terms. He didn’t preach in parables in order to make people blind and deaf and non-comprehending; but his parabolic preaching would not be understood because people are all of those things.
I’m tempted to adopt that explanation or, easier yet, just skip these last verses of Isaiah 6 as the Lectionary does. But what if the translation of the NIV and most other versions is the correct one? What are we to make of these harsh words about Isaiah’s preaching? Could it be that God really intended to use Isaiah’s words to make his people so deaf and blind and calloused that they wouldn’t repent and be healed? If so, what kind of God is that?
The answer is, a God who would rather die than let sin and evil and rebellion win. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand the harshness of God’s words, we need to understand just how hardened Israel had become in its sin. In Isaiah 5 God has just uttered Isaiah’s response to God’s glory, “Woe.” But in that previous chapter God is responding not to divine glory, but to human depravity. Six times God says “Woe to you!” Read that chapter and you’ll get a sense of a people who are so far gone into sin that there is no remedy. Verses 18-19 are probably the vilest words of them all, as Israel mocks the threat of God’s punishment for their sins. “Woe to… those who say, ’Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy of Israel come, so we may know it.’”
For years, Israel has played at repentance, feigned contrition, and then returned to their wicked, wicked ways. Nothing God did produced the desired result of repentance and healing. So now God will do all he can do to save his people. He will send Isaiah with his message of doom, so that the sin of his people will finally result in their death as a nation. When Isaiah asks, “How long must I preach this,” God replies: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitants, until houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.”
Then, and only then, is there any hope of Israel’s genuine repentance and deep healing. Isaiah’s question (“For how long?”) was on the mark. There is a limit to this kind of preaching. It is not the heart of the Gospel. But sometimes it is necessary to speak harshly, so that a spiritually dead people can be revived. Sometimes people must come to the end of themselves before they will find God. God doesn’t explicitly say that here, but it is surely hinted at in the very last words of Isaiah 6, where God uses a mysterious image—“so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” When Israel is reduced to nothing but a dead stump, there is still hope, because there is still a holy seed.
It may be a bit much to hear in this a foretaste of the shoot, the branch, the root growing up out of dry ground that Isaiah will talk about later. But if we read Isaiah’s commission in the light of the rest of Scripture, we will recall that the God who spoke so harshly and dealt so brutally with his sin hardened people was willing to die to save them from their sin and evil and rebellion. Sometimes hard situations demand hard solutions, like an Incarnation and a Cross. What we have in Isaiah 6 and in the Gospel is a God who would rather die than let sin and evil and rebellion win and finally ruin his good creation and his beloved children.
I began by asking how we would respond to an Epiphany of God’s glory. Isaiah responded the right way. Israel responded the wrong way. The seraphs had thundered, “The whole earth is full of his glory.” Israel had seen it in nature. And they had more than nature; they had grace, in the form of the mighty acts of God in the Exodus and in the wilderness wandering and in the conquest of the Land and in the giving of the Law. God had revealed himself to them over and over again. But they responded with stubborn rebellion. And God says, “Woe to you.”
That’s not what God wants, not ultimately. He wants us to say, “Woe to me. I am ruined.” Then he can redeem us and give us a life that is life indeed. There must be a “woe.” It all depends on who says it.
The end of World War II provided a painful example of destroying in order to save. That bloody war had dragged on for years and it looked like it would go on for months more at the cost of many more lives. In order to shorten the war, save American and Allied lives, and, eventually, save the majority of Japanese, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It was a terrible thing, but it was necessary to save the world in the face of an implacable foe.
In a recent issue of Money magazine (purchased with unused airline points, if you must know), there was a heartbreaking story about the opioid crisis in America. It featured one family that has paid dearly for that epidemic. Both sons had fallen prey to that addiction. Taking care of them had cost their parents nearly every cent they had, along with countless sleepless nights and untold heartache. Finally, they decided they would stop taking care of their sons. Every effort to save them had not only failed, but had even contributed to their condition. So, mom and dad simply got hard and refused to give them anything. They let their beloved sons sink into abject misery because nothing they did had helped to save them. They did it to save themselves. It ended up saving their sons lives, as their terrible conditions finally moved them to treatment and healing. God did it to Israel in the days of Isaiah to save their lives, even though he had to be incredibly harsh to do that.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 10, 2019
Isaiah 6:1-13 Commentary