Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 30, 2021
Isaiah 6:1-8 Commentary
Using this prophetic text for Trinity Sunday will take a bit of exegetical ingenuity. You will have to use strong New Testament glasses to find the Trinity here. But, on the other hand, this is a perfect text for the transition from the celebration of the Great Feasts of the church year to Ordinary Time, because it confronts us with the glory of the God who has done great things for us and it sets before us our calling in Ordinary Time.
As I write the first draft of this sermon starter, I am definitely in a time of transition. It is Inauguration Day in the United States. President Trump has just flown off to Mar-a-Lago and President Biden is about to be formally inaugurated as 46th President of the United States. Given the events of the last four years, this is definitely a transition of power and policy and style. Such times are filled with uncertainty. How will all this turn out? By the time I have written my final draft, we all have some amazing stories about how this has turned out, but I want to stay with my original question about transitional times. How will this all turn out?
That was the question when Isaiah received his vision. Whenever my classically trained Choir Director rolled out the anthem, “In the Year that King Uzziah died,” I rolled my eyes (surreptitiously, of course) and asked myself why. It seemed so irrelevant. But now I see why Isaiah added that little historical note—to tell us that God’s people were going through a time of transition and, thus, needed a word/picture from their unchanging God.
Uzziah had been a good king. In a long line of wicked and inept Kings, Uzziah had been righteous for a long time. But then, at the end, he profaned the temple by illicitly burning incense, as a result of which he caught leprosy. He died in shame. After him, things would mostly go downhill, as the Assyrian and Babylonian threats to the northeast would grow. Israel was almost gone and Judah felt the hot breath of her enemies on her neck. With Uzziah gone and the enemies as the gates, there were many questions about who would be there for God’s people.
It was a good time for God to show up. And God showed up, big time, in a way that almost undid Isaiah and that has inspired generations of believers. What awesome opening words, words that challenge the blanket assertion of John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God….” This was a rare vision of God that people in transition desperately needed. Uzziah’s throne was empty, but here is “the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”
There is much debate about whether this is the heavenly temple after which the earthly temple was patterned. The former would make this a much larger vision, but the later seems more likely given the way the doorposts and thresholds trembled and shook. Either way, the idea is the same. The Lord’s throne looms above even the most splendid earthly thrones. And even the lowest hem of his robe completely filled the entirety of the Temple. No wonder Isaiah’s first response was “Woe to me! My eyes have seen the King, Yahweh Almighty.” The Lord is so majestic and mysterious that Isaiah is reduced to a quivering mass of finitude and guilt. The same should happen to us.
But the vision isn’t over yet. Hovering above Yahweh, the King Almighty, are these two seraphim, 6 winged creatures whose name means fiery, a theme that will be carried forward. Even these majestic heavenly beings have to cover their eyes and feet (private parts, suggest some scholars), because even such beings may not see the glory of God or appear before him indecent.
Though they cannot see the Lord, they know him intimately, so they know what to say in the presence of the Sovereign One. “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah and his fellow Israelites knew about holy places and holy people and holy ceremonies, all set aside, separated for a specific function. But God is not just holy, a little separate, a touch different, set aside for a specific function. God is thrice holy, wholly other, completely different, set aside from everything in creation. One scholar has pointed out that God’s holiness is the only attribute of God that is ever repeated three times like this. He is, quintessentially, The Holy One of Israel.
And yet, though he is high and exalted, immense and transcendent, he is also immanent and available. Indeed, the whole earth is full of his glory. He who sits above the heavens on his mighty throne, also dwells on the earth in all his glory—not just in the cloud that fills the Temple, not just on that quaking smoking mountain from which he gave his Law, but everywhere, all the time. No, we can’t see that glory all the time, but that’s because we mistake the glory of the creator for the glory of his creation, and then worship and serve the created rather than the creator (Romans 1:25). Thank God for pouring all his glory into the One and Only who has made the Father known (John 1:18).
At the sound of the voice of those heavenly beings, not only did the Temple shake to its foundations, but Isaiah was shaken to the core of his being. Earlier visions of God’s glory made people think that they would die. This one completely undid Isaiah. That’s why I like the old KJV translation. “I am undone.” The NIV, “I am ruined,” comes close, as does “I am lost.” Seeing God in all his sovereign glory reduced Isaiah to next to nothing. At the very least, it shut his mouth (the literal meaning of the Hebrew word here). And that is appropriate to what comes next.
Isaiah did not know what to say in the presence of such a God, except to confess his sinfulness. He does that by reference to his lips. That may have been in part because he was struck so dumb by God’s holiness. And it may have been in part because of the Jewish understanding that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart where all wickedness dwells (Matthew 15:18).
At any rate, Isaiah’s vision leads to his confession, which may be the origin of the traditional liturgy in my Reformed tradition, where an opening song of praise is almost immediately followed by a confession of sin and an assurance of pardon and a doxology for the redeeming grace of God. The pardon in Isaiah 6 is particularly painful, involving a burning coal pressed to Isaiah’s lips, thus taking away his guilt and atoning for his sin. Perhaps that is a foreshadowing of the painful suffering of the Servant who will take away the sins of the world.
Atonement and absolution are followed by question and commission. Again, this is the pattern of the Christian life played out in one man. The God who is high and exalted has an earthly mission for his newly purified prophet. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” Instantly, Isaiah says, “Here am I. Send me!” The twin experience of vision and redemption moves Isaiah to unthinking obedience. Would that it did for all of us! Perhaps it doesn’t because we are a bit worried where our mission will take us.
Isaiah very soon experienced second thoughts, when God explained his mission. The RCL leaves verses 9-14 out of our reading, undoubtedly because they are so troublesome. It sounds for all the world as though Isaiah’s mission is to preach in such a way that God’s people won’t repent and return to God. He is to preach them into judgment. To which Isaiah responds, “How long, O Lord?” That’s a good question, because Isaiah’s commission surely doesn’t fit with the Great Commission or, for that matter, the rest of Isaiah’s mission. So, God answers helpfully—until judgment is complete.
Here’s the larger reality. God had been patient for hundreds, even thousands of years. He has saved and guided, saved and corrected, saved and punished, saved and warned, saved and finally said, “That’s enough. I’m done. Here comes the punishment. No more waiting.” But Israel kept ignoring, even mocking, God as in Isaiah 5:19, “Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it. Let it approach, let the plan of the Holy One of Israel come so we may know it.”
That was the last straw for an infinitely patient God. And Isaiah was the one would preach until the judgment finally fell. Then he would turn to “comfort ye my people” (Chapter 40 which begins the Book of Comfort in Isaiah). Indeed, Isaiah 6 ends with a tiny note of hope for a new beginning once the judgment has brought Israel to some semblance of repentance—“so the holy seed will be the stump in the land (verse 13)?
So, asks the Christian preacher, what on earth am I to do with this blazing text? Why use it on Trinity Sunday, 2021? Well, you might use it as a subtle reminder that God was Triune long before he revealed his mysterious Selves. Older scholars saw hints of the Trinity in the “Holy, holy, holy,” each holy for a Person of the Trinity.
Those same scholars heard a dim echo of the creation story in verse 8, where God is both “I” and “Us.” Newer scholars think that the “us” is editorial or royal or even a reference to the heavenly council represented by the seraphim. But even as it is most unlikely that the Creator would refer to angels when he said, “Let us make man in our image,” so it is unlikely that the angels would have any say in sending Isaiah on his Messianic mission. Angels are the sent ones, not the senders. Thus, while we could never claim any clear revelation of the Trinity in Isaiah’s vision, we can at least say that, once we have on the spectacles of the New Testament, we can see hints of God’s complex mystery in this account.
More to the point, I think, is this whole idea of transition. As the world (or at least my country) makes a transition from one King to another, it is reassuring to know that there is a King on a higher throne, whose power is unlimited and whose character is wholly other than our earthly kings who always stumble and fail. And it is bracing to be reminded that this heavenly King is still looking for willing volunteers to carry his hard and gracious Word into a fallen world. The Triune God sends us out into Ordinary Time with the extraordinary message about what he has done to save sinners and remake their world, beginning with a stump and a holy seed and concluding with a cross and an empty tomb.
The angels’ announcement that “the whole earth is full of his glory” made me think of a book I read this summer, Countdown 1945, by Chris Wallace. It tells “the extraordinary story of the atomic bomb and the 116 days that changed the world.” Full of details about the political and military maneuvering around the development and deployment of that most terrible of weapons, I was particularly struck by the precautions surrounding the detonation of the first trial bomb.
The one thing everyone was cautioned about was looking directly at the blast and not using protective googles. If one looked directly at the explosion, one would be blind for life. Even with all those precautions, people were absolutely awestruck at the brilliance of the flash. No one who saw it ever forgot it.
Now imagine that kind of brilliance spread all over the earth, so that the whole earth was full of that glory. Now imagine the creator of atom and universe revealing his glory to the whole earth at once. We would be undone, ruined, lost, struck dumb. Thank God for sparing us and saving us by pouring all his glory into Jesus of Nazareth, so that we could see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (II Cor. 4:6).”
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