Listen to our service and sermon below:
A man comes into a house of worship, just as you and I have done this morning. He has no reason to think that today will be any different from all the other times he’s been in that sanctuary, but this time he is shaken to the core. Something happens that terrifies him, dismantles him, reorients him. When he leaves the place, he is not the same person as the one who went in.
This is twenty-eight centuries ago. The man’s name is Isaiah, and what overtakes him in the temple is a vision of God. It can’t actually be God that he sees, of course, it is an image. But something in it is very real: God enthroned, high and lifted up, so massive that the temple is filled up just by the hem of God’s garment, and with a thick cloud of smoke all around. Unearthly creatures fly upward, crying out, “Holy! Holy! Holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is full of God’s glory!”—and the thunder of that praise causes the foundations of the temple to shake.
High overhead—what is that, which Isaiah now sees, vast as the sky? Is that a face? My God, is that what the face of pure love looks like? Unutterable goodness… fathomless mind… inconceivable power… terrible beauty… “a face half-ruined with suffering and fierce with joy.” 1
Who knows what Isaiah saw in his vision of God. Whatever it was, the cry erupting all around it was: Holy! Holy! Holy! and Glory! The whole earth is full of God’s glory!
This is the beginning, I think, of all that finally matters: the Holy. Behind and within and beyond all that ever was or ever will be is the Holy One; and the whole earth, the whole universe, is filled with glory, the glory of God.
How lightly we use our little word God—but we don’t know what we’re talking about. Whatever we imagined of God wouldn’t come close to being enough. It’s an awakening to realize that our notions of God have been absurdly, preposterously small. This awakening strips us of the private little gods we had in our pocket—the family gods, national gods, our intramural religious gods, the scorekeeper, the tyrant, our imaginary friend. What we are left with is Deity that doesn’t play on our team, is not a Christian, defies all categories, exceeds all universes, inhabits and holds all times at once, obliterating all distinction between “sacred” and “secular” or between darkness and light; and the infinite goodness of God is beyond us to grasp. So the soaring voices in the vision cry out: Holy! The earth abounds with God’s glory!
And if we are beginning to see it, then this is what our lives cry out. We live in wonderment and in reverence. The holy is among us. The world is luminous with it, and with possibilities for it. So, we live awestruck lives, never too far from trembling, exulting, weeping, dancing, falling to our knees and giving our lives away in love. There are a thousand ways to cry, Holy! Holy! Holy!
One of them is coming to terms with what is unholy in ourselves. Looks at Isaiah. Standing in the bright light streaming from the throne, he looks down at himself, horrified. It’s as if his skin is leprous. He cries out, Woe is me, I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips! Please notice: he doesn’t come to this awareness because someone has scolded him or shamed him or because he’s got a tyrannical conscience, and obsession with guilt. He comes to this horror because he has finally seen what is real, what matters, what goodness and beauty and love and life truly are, and with how out of sync he has been with it all when it could have been otherwise.
He also knows that the problem isn’t just him, it is systemic and infectious: I am part of a people of unclean lips. His disease is his share in the disease that infects the institutions and structures of his world. It’s the nation, society, family, religion, education, economics, values, biases; and the poison flows from one generation to the next. I am in it and so are you. We are caught up in it: victims, participants, and purveyors. We are the wounded who do our share of wounding; we are sinned against and sinners on our own, and with countless co-conspirators. Consequently, we are estranged from the earth, from each other, from God, and from ourselves.
We do not come to this knowledge by obsessing on our faults. For Isaiah and for us, painful self-knowledge comes best from a vision of the beautiful, the glorious, the holy, high and lifted up, from longing to be one with it and lamenting all that distorts and blocks us from it.
And do you see what happens next? Without his even asking, a figure flies from the throne toward him with, in Flannery O’Connor’s phrase, “the terrible speed of mercy.” A live coal touches his lips, and the words come: Your guilt is gone. God has not accused him. Love has no interest in our self-despising. God has bigger concerns than our guilt.
When we tell the truth about ourselves and our people and come to know that the grace of God is the healing of our guilt, then we are free. Free, for starts, to hear a question, and to answer it.
Isaiah, now liberated from looking at himself with shame, notices that God is sighing over the broken world: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? My people are killing each other, they exclude and oppress and abandon each other. Their minds are filled with deadly illusions and falsehoods. Too many are poor, frightened, lonely, lost. Will anyone be a voice?
Isaiah steps out of the shadows and says, “I will.”
God hadn’t even called his name, hadn’t spoken to him at all. The man overhears the divine question, which might be answered by any number of others. No need for you or me to be personally addressed. Anyone who takes the world’s situation seriously can hear the question and become an answer. That goes for you and me now, as God is still asking for volunteers and sending them into the world’s need. Given the vision of God’s holy face over the world, given the glory that everywhere is and everywhere wants to be, how can we not step out of the shadows and say, “I will try to be a voice.”
They said it three times, the word Holy. We might hear it this way. The Lord high and lifted up—Holy! A human being telling painful truth, then being touched by divine compassion—Holy! God’s longing for a healed world and someone willing to say yes—Holy! Awe, lament, and consent to our high purpose: Holy! Holy! Holy! And the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.
If our hearts are just too broken for this, too discouraged, too troubled, too guilty, too victimized, too beaten down for praise or confession or our high calling, then it might be well to stop and raise our eyes to that awful place called the hill of the skull, and to God’s Beloved dying there, high and lifted up, splayed against the sky. Holy! And he cried out forgiveness for us all. Holy! And on the third day, his resurrection was also God’s question: Now who will follow? Our answer is our life. And Christ himself, enthroned, will bless and breathe the word over our living: Holy!
1 Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat (New York: The Seabury Press, 1968), 18.
2 Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away, in O’Connor: Collected Works, Library of America (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1988), 478.