Unholy Moments — Isaiah 6:1-8 — May 31 2015

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Isa 6:01-08

From our Isaiah reading today, I would like to ask you to meditate with me on the Song of the Heavenly Beings– the song of the Seraphim.

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts/ the whole earth is full of his glory

There were probably three prophets called by the name Isaiah whose writings formed the book of Isaiah, covering over 1o0 years of history.  Isa 6:1f was a part of first Isaiah’s inaugural vision; an ecstatic experience, in which Isaiah saw an appearance of God – probably in the Temple, and experienced his call to be a prophet.

HOLY

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts/ the whole earth is full of his glory

In this reading, first Isaiah said that he felt sinful and lived with a sinful community.  If I say the word unholy, what comes to mind for you?  When the government of Syria unleashed poison gas on the children of that country, to me it was unholy and evil.  It seems unholy for FIFA to be saturated with corruption.  The word ‘unholy’ may invoke or scenes that involve oppression, abuse, or violence; hatred, ugliness, or cruelty; chaos, disorder, suffering, or fear.

On the other hand, the word ‘holy’ translates the Hebrew word kedosh. Kedosh (perhaps like the sun) means ‘shining’, ‘exalted’, ‘transcendent’ (but not, in this passage at least, ‘separated’).  This word kedosh is connected with fire – and in our reading, those who sing are the seraphim, or, ‘the burning ones’ — possibly winged serpents; a bit like the serpents on the staff of Asclepius (the Greek god of healing and medicine).  You can see a visual image of a seraph in some stained glass windows. Raised serpents are an avenue of healing in the story of Moses, quoted by Jesus in John chapter 3.

Holiness in the OT is connected with light, heat, smoke, flame, furnace, cauldrons, ashes, brimstone, scorching, blazing, consuming, burning, kindling, glowing, and warmth.  It is connected with energy, and therefore, with life.  ‘Fiery’ elements in Isaiah’s call were the purification of the prophet’s lips, with a burning coal; and that the coal was carried by a ‘burning one’, a seraph.

“Holy, holy, holy…”   The triple use of the word holy alludes to the triple aspects or characteristics of the simple and single God.

The first Holy is for God the creator.  Think of the awesome glory of creation revealed by the Hubble space telescope.  This ‘holy’ refers also to God the just judge of us when we ignore the divine commands.  In Isaiah, Israel goes into captivity in Babylon for the reason of turning their backs upon God.  Insofar as we break the divine commands, as we do, we all turn our backs to God, we then face into darkness, and are in a broken relationship with God.  And one day, the chickens come home to roost.

The second Holy is for God the redeemer, or rescuer.  I was once in a small sailboat that capsized in the open sea, without a life jacket.  Within five or ten minutes we expected to die. I was never more grateful to see a police launch racing towards us to rescue me and my friends.  In the “Servant Songs” of second Isaiah (chapters 40-55) we see the appearance of a representative of God sent to rescue Israel. “I will remember your sins no more,” says God in the book of second Isaiah (43:25). Many people remember our sins.  Most of all, we remember our own sins.  But God does not remember the sins of a penitent person!  Just as God long before rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, so now again, God rescued them from captivity in Babylon.

The third Holy is for God the ever present, the nurturer, the sustainer, the sanctifier.  “My word will not return to me void… it will accomplish its purposes”, says Isaiah (55:11).  It is God the holy Spirit that gives effect to that promise.  The Holy Spirit inspired the original writers of the scriptures, and then all those who affirmed, transmitted, translated, and distributed the Word through the world in every age.

The word “Trinity” is not in the Bible.  Yet we have in Isaiah the triple holiness of the one God as creator, rescuer, sustainer — holy, holy, holy.  This is what Christians mean when they refer to the Trinity.

What are the things in your life that are sources of energy – what ‘fires you up’?

LORD GOD OF HOSTS (or OF ARMIES or OF POWERS)

At first sight, Isaiah’s conception of Yahweh seems like monotheism, but actually, it is (henotheism and) not monotheism.  Monotheism is that there is only one god and no other gods.  First Isaiah (along with the other prophets before the exile of the Israelites to Babylon) never says that there are no other gods at all that are worshiped in the world.  For example, when Jeremiah calls the pagan gods ‘vanities’ (habalim),  e.g. Jer 16:19 etc., he is acknowledging there was worship of other gods, but Jeremiah described them as nonexistent or weak or powerless.

We are all surrounded by powers which are ‘worshiped’ or acknowledged. We all know the power of nature and the limits of our physical bodies; the power of the tax authorities; the road authorities; and powerful systems of national rulers, academe, justice, commerce, or sport.  We know the power of debt, and of disease, cults, and of our psychological challenges.  We know the power of each human gender.  We ignore them at our peril!  First Isaiah recognizes their power, but says that Yahweh is the god of all these powers.  “Lord God of powers.”  Those powers are not to paralyze us with fear, for the God that we can trust is over them all.

GLORY

‘Glory’ translates the Hebrew kevod, that is, ‘heavy’, ‘weighty’, ‘splendor’, or ‘honor’.  ‘Heavy’, or ‘weighty’ does not mean a burden, but means, rather, something that endures.  When youngsters graduate from school and college they have gained in their inner person something that endures.

If I say the word ‘glory’, what comes to your mind?  Try to think, for a moment, about a few scenes from your earliest memories that still endure for you—memories that you would say, had something glorious about them.

(Take some time for reflection.)

Perhaps what comes to mind are words or scenes that glow and radiate with love, security, or harmony—this is a personal idea of what glory may mean for each of us as individuals.

The prophets that came before the exile from Israel (the pre-exilic prophets) saw Yahweh as the ruler of heaven and earth, the sovereign of humanity, whose glory fills the whole earth, and who is everywhere. They saw the divine glory in the pillar of fire and smoke of the Exodus. They saw that words of Yahweh, in the mouth of the prophets, endured; they were valid for heaven and earth and for all nations of the world.  They spoke of a God who one day would judge not only his own people, but also other peoples and the whole created world.

For Isaiah, the incense that filled the temple looked like just the fringe of God’s robe – God fills the whole earth.  Merton said that if we could only see it, every person shines with the glory of God.  Long ago, I remember walking along the beach at Plettenberg Bay, in the Cape (of South Africa), where, in the surf, there was some rather unusual form of marine life that fluoresced — diatoms, perhaps.  The result was that the surf flickered with light; and when one’s foot came down on the sand, there was a flash of fluorescent light.  All our steps, and all our actions can be like that.  We can look for and see the flash of God’s glory in every step, in every moment of our day, and in every encounter.

THANKSGIVING

The call of Isaiah includes the message that Isaiah is to give to Israel – a call to Israel to turn away from pride and turn towards Yahweh in thanksgiving.

One way that Israel understood its ‘election’ (through the covenant with Abraham, and through the Exodus) was as God’s undeserved and incomprehensible love.  In return, however, God demanded love and gratitude from Israel.  The people must become cleansed from popular corruption, above all from the illusion that their ‘election’ was the self-evident guarantee of a happy future.

In First Isaiah, what provoked the fury of the creator Yahweh, and acts of divine justice, was human pride.  In Psalm 29, these things are depicted by metaphors taken from nature (the cedars of Lebanon, the oaks of Bashan, etc.).  But in sum there, God purposes peace.

CONCLUSION

So there is a great and unfurling depth in the few words of the unceasing song of the seraphim:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts/ the whole earth is full of his glory

When we sing this song of the Seraphim, in some mysterious way we join with their eternal song.  God help us to be fired up with divine power and life; to see the divine glory in all things; and to remember those glorious things that have endured in our lives.  God help us to not be frightened or paralyzed by all the little powers that swirl around us, but to trust that God is in charge of them all.  When Isaiah took up God’s mission and purpose for his life, he was warned that the people would not listen (to him, or later, to Jesus), but Isaiah was to go anyway.  God help us to open ourselves each moment to the divine purposes; and to live in a spirit of humility and thankfulness.    Amen.

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