But now, a quarter of a century later, I look at this text with different eyes. And that, of course, is fine. I often hear people say, when a passage in the Bible comes round again, as it does every three years if you follow the Lectionary – we’ve looked at this before; what more is there to say? But over time, everybody changes, and we bring new experiences to our reading of Scripture. If we take Scripture seriously, as we do in this church, reading it is always a conversation between the reader and the written word. As we change, so Scripture reveals new things to us.
If, twenty-five years ago, I read this as a story about Isaiah, now I find I am reading it more as a story about God. Of course, it is both, and always has been, but, no longer a young minister starting out, I find myself wanting to explore different aspects of this passage.
It begins, grounded very firmly in time, anchored by a contemporary reference to the death of King Uzziah. In the passage, the king’s death has no more relevance than as a marker in time, but that temporality provides a very striking contrast with what Isaiah sees. At a moment in time, he is given a glimpse of what is eternal – God and his kingdom.
This vision of God is what most affects Isaiah and what, having seen it, he most eagerly wants to share. He speaks of God, sitting on a throne, and emphasises how high up God is, so far above all God’s creatures. He hints at the majesty of God, so vast that only a little bit of his robe, the hem, was enough completely to fill the temple. God is attended by seraphs, creatures we can only imagine, but even they, in the presence of God, are so in awe that they cover their faces.
The essential thing which Isaiah wants to convey about God is the very thing about which the seraphs sing – God’s holiness. We often use the word ‘holy’ in our worship – we echo the words Isaiah heard the seraphs sing in our communion liturgy – but it might be good to pause for a moment and consider what it really means.
Of course, the word ‘holy’ has a variety of meanings. We use it to mean ‘religious’ or ‘pious’. We refer to the elements at communion being holy, by which we mean set apart for a sacred use. But none of these definitions really makes sense when the word is applied to God. The holiness of God is something else. When we speak of God being holy, it is a description of the fundamental nature of God’s being, an acknowledgement of God’s absolute purity and of God’s absolute perfection. When we speak of the holiness of God, we also speak of God’s perfect wisdom and perfect justice. To say that God is holy is to say that God is quite unlike his creatures, which fall short of perfection in so many ways.
It is this encounter with the holiness of God that is so difficult for Isaiah, and leads him to exclaim, “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!” he believed, as was the tradition of Judaism, that sin-prone mortals could not behold God in God’s full majesty and still live. The contrast between God and humans was too great.
Yet the Bible has a number of stories about those who see God face to face and live. There’s Jacob, who wrestles with God at the Jabbok. There’s Moses, who receives the Law on Mount Sinai. There’s Isaiah. And, of course, there is everyone who meets Jesus, the physical, visible manifestation of God. Seeing God in Jesus changes everything. No longer is seeing the face of God to be feared. It is an experience to be sought because meeting God in Jesus brings life in all its fullness.
We seek to encounter the holiness of God and we do it in a way which closely mirrors Isaiah’s experience. We seek God’s holiness every time we gather in worship. The vision Isaiah relates tells us that wherever God is, there is worship; and, because God is everywhere at all times, then worship should be unceasing. But the most intense worship follows a particular pattern, and moves through recognisable stages.
First of all, worship at its most profound begins by gathering together. We join with each other in worship, as Isaiah joined with the numberless host of seraphs. But as we come, consciously, into the presence of God, we are struck, as Isaiah was, with a realisation of our own unworthiness. We confess our sins because, faced with the holiness of God, we cannot hide them any more. But as soon as we confess, we receive forgiveness and we are made clean. The image of the burning coal cauterising the wound of sin is particularly powerful. Made new and deemed worthy, as Isaiah was, we hear the word of God. For Isaiah, that word was his prophet’s commission. For us, it may take a variety of forms at a variety of times, but God’s word always has a personal edge to it. God speaks to each of us in a way which demands our attention.
And God speaks always with a purpose, and that purpose is to transform us and to call us, to change us from creatures enthralled by sin into willing servants of Almighty God, whose lives reflect God’s holiness. Few, if any of us, will hear God in anything like the way Isaiah did, but we always have access to God’s word to us when we attend to the reading of Scripture. Scripture is our assurance that God is not silent.
God is always seeking those who will serve him, and the ways in which we may serve God are more numerous than the grains of sand on the shore. We do not need to wait to hear God speak. God’s words are before us on the page. It is not just to Isaiah that God has said, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” It is to each of us; and from each of our mouths should come the words, “Here am I; send me!”