Images and Ideas
1In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw God sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God's robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above God; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the God of hosts; the whole earth is full of God's glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “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 God of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of God saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Today is Trinity Sunday in the Liturgical Calendar. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of those really big, gnarly doctrines that I don’t intend to take on in the space of one sermon. In the simplest of understandings, you might say that on Trinity Sunday we celebrate the complexity of God, of how one image of God cannot contain the whole of God. The Trinity makes space for flexibility and fluidity in our image of God. Your understanding of the Trinity is God might be the “traditional” version of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- or as one of my Unitarian friends in seminary put it “The Man, the Boy, and the Bird.” Or you may see the Trinity as including both masculine and feminine images of God, as Mother, daughter and Holy of Holies, as Bobby McFerrin sings about in his version of Psalm 23. There is even an image of the Trinity with a female Holy Spirit painted on the ceiling of a church in Germany. The Trinity reminds us that God is much greater than any image or idea we may come up with. However we conceptualize an image of God, or an idea of who God is, our set notion of God is challenged by our life experience. So, I’d like to take this notion of the trinity- the trinity as a reminder that God is greater than our images for God- and use it as a “pair of glasses” to look at Isaiah’s experience in the temple. For I think today’s passage is, among other things, about how Isaiah’s image and idea of God begin to shift.
It was the year King Uzziah died. That fact doesn’t mean very much to us, but the King’s death was a landmark event in the prophet Isaiah’s external and internal landscape. It’s very much like asking a U.S. citizen “Where were you when you heard the news of President Kennedy’s assassination?” Suddenly your hands are again in the sink full of dishes as the glass slips through your soapy hands and shatters on the floor when the announcement comes over the radio, or once more you are in your first grade class wondering why your teacher is crying so hard, or you are standing with a group of neighbors around a television set stunned by the drama you see unfolding on the nightly news. Perhaps you weren’t even born when Kennedy was shot, but you’ve heard your elders tell the story of where they were and what they felt at the news of his assassination. Such a moment becomes a touchstone in your memory and in the collective memory of the culture forever. When an external event rocks our world, we are sometimes cracked open a bit, which can make space for a new experience of God.
It was in the year King Uzziah died, an event engraved on Isaiah’s heart, which is why he remembers so clearly the timing of this encounter with God in the temple. King Uzziah had reigned for well over forty years, a good and well loved King, known for being fair and righteous. He ruled over the Southern Kingdom, but had managed to keep peace with the Northern Kingdom. So many good things happened under Uzziah’s reign: trade expanded, building projects were completed, a new prosperity emerged. Uzziah ruled with a wisdom that was compared to that of King Solomon, no small compliment. But Uzziah had come into conflict with the priests as he tried to take over the priestly function of burning incense in the temple. And Uzziah had contracted leprosy, and Isaiah wondered why God would let Uzziah die a painful death in a leper’s cottage, why God would punish him in such a way. Isaiah was full of grief and sadness, feeling let down by God and by the King who had given him such hope. In the year that King Uzziah died, an event that rocked their world, Isaiah and a nation struggled with their shattering grief. It was then that Isaiah’s heart was cracked open enough to have en encounter with God that changes him from the inside out.
Isaiah comes to the temple with his images and ideas about God in place. In the holy quiet of the temple, he steps aside from the distractions of his world long enough to notice what is going on inside of himself, especially in regard to his connection to God. I suspect Isaiah’s vision of God in the temple both confirms and challenges the image of God he already had. God appears to him as a King on a throne, a not-so-subtle reminder that God is the ultimate ruler of the world, not Uzziah or any other earthly leader who, no matter how capable, will fail him in the end. Isaiah stands in the temple, awash in the beating of angel wings and a haze of holiness; almost able to reach out and touch the train of God’s robe. His visceral response to this image of God tells us all we need to know about how Isaiah’s God image works in his psyche: Isaiah feels shame. “Woe is me,” he cries, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” When confronted with our human littleness in the face of God’s expansive, holy otherness a certain amount of shame is normal. But that shame can be so powerful that it can dominate our whole experience of God so that nothing else of God can get through to us, none of God’s compassion or mercy or forgiveness can break through the mantle of shame that covers us. Something happens to Isaiah that moves him beyond his idea of God as a condemning God. One of the angels flies to him and touches his lips with a burning coal, a symbolic ritual of cleansing. The message here is that no matter how strong Isaiah’s feeling response of shame is, it is not the final word. God does not condemn Isaiah, God does not fulfill Isaiah’s expectation that God will reject or even destroy him.
Isaiah has an experience of dwelling in the house of God’s love. In that safe space that God gives Isaiah to live in, he is able to rise up from his grief and brokenness, and offer himself to do the work of God in the world. His image and idea of God radically shifts from God as the one who condemns to God as the one who embraces, forgives, cleanses, makes new.
As you walk with Isaiah into the Holy of Holies, what is the image of God that you take there with you? In her book The Birth of the Living God, Ana-Maria Rizutto argues that most of us have an image of God worked out by the time we are very young, usually before we ever darken the door of a church or religious community. She suggests that we arrive at church with our “pet God under our arm.” I know that some of you have done an incredible amount of work in looking carefully at your image of God and how it has shaped your life. Some have traded in the image you were given in your early religious experience of God as harsh and rejecting- perhaps the bearded old white man who is distant and condemning- for an image of a God who is more compassionate and available to you, a God who invites you to dwell in the house of God’s love for you. Others still struggle with trying to come to a new understanding and experience of God, it is a new and challenging idea that our image of God may be limited.
As we enter into the holy of holies with Isaiah, we are invited to encounter not just an idea of a God who loves us, but to experience the deep and abiding love of God. And as you enter into this sacred place, we are invited to come to the table, where we can taste and see God’s surprising and never-ending love for us, God’s children. Come, dwell in the house of God’s love.