Isaiah 6:1-8 CEB
In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!
All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.
I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”
Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
I said, “I’m here; send me.”
How big is your God? Is the LORD as big as Isaiah describes the divine in his vision? Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.” Now, this must have come as a shock to the Israelite people, after all, they assumed that the temple in Jerusalem was, at the very least, filled with the entirety of God. After all, the psalmist says, “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4 NRSV). God is the god of Israel, so certainly we should expect the Lord to be entirely in the temple! Here is Isaiah, though, telling us that only just the hem of God’s robe is there and that is enough to fill one of the grandest temples of the ancient world. So, how big is your God? Is your God as big as the one Reginald Heber describes in the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!”? How merciful, how mighty is your God? Our God deserves our praise, so let’s not shortchange the divine by making our God too small.
How do you imagine God? I don’t mean imagining what the Lord Almighty looks like, but rather how do you see God functioning in your life? I mean, it is certainly no sin to say that God is very personal and involved in our lives. Our Lord blesses us by taking an eternity’s worth of time to see and care for each of us. God loves us so much that God sent Jesus, the Son, to be one of us and to die on our behalf so we can be in an eternal relationship with our LORD. At the same time, we can twist the intimate and caring side of God. One of the best ways I have heard this put is that we can, at times, start thinking of God as our personal divine vending machine. You put in your prayers, your good thoughts and actions, and even your worship; then, God dispenses with what you want. Put in your money, and get your divine candy bar. Author James C. Howell gives us other examples like God as our “personal assistant, an energy drink, or a Santa Claus that leaves gifts behind now and then.” God is there when we need the divine, but doesn’t really inspire awe and can’t really make any asks of us.
Here’s where hymns come in handy, like “Holy, Holy, Holy.” As I shared in a video devotional last week, this line from the United Methodist Hymnal preface explains it well:
“Our hymnals serve as instruments by which the spiritual heritage received from the past is celebrated in the present and transmitted to future generations. Next to the Bible, our hymnals have been our most formative resource.”
This hymn echoes the words Isaiah says pour from the lips of the seraphs that surround the throne of God, “‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!’” Tell me, does this God sound like a divine vending machine, some doting grandfather in the sky that only ever gives us what we want if only we ask nice enough? We are told in scripture and repeatedly in hymns that our God is holy.
Tell me, how do you understand holiness? What comes to mind when you see something described as holy? John Wesley describes this holiness as essential to the “attributes of the almighty, all-wise God [as] He is infinitely distant from every touch of evil.” Our God is good and cannot tolerate what is evil. Repeatedly we are told that God is holy, and this hymn tells us that we should be in awe of this holy God! After all, would you worship a God that is willing to do evil or tolerate it in this world? It is the reason that God consistently demands the same things from his people and creation time and time again, “O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 NRSV)? It is the reason that the people of God have resisted violence, slavery, and oppression in all forms. Our God is holy and cannot tolerate evil because our God is wholly good.
Look at the seraphs that are calling out these words, “Holy, holy, holy,” did you notice anything strange about how they are described? We are told they have six wings, and they only use two to fly, as “with two they veiled their faces.” These seraphs have covered their eyes. These angels are not even holy enough to be able to look upon the very God they serve! Isaiah has just cause, then, to believe he is in trouble! How can any of us be holy enough to see God and live? That is the reason he cries out, “‘Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!’” To see God face to face was to die because we cannot be as holy as God!
If this were the only attribute of God, we would be lost, but look at what God does, and how this action is reflected in our hymn today. An angel takes a coal from the altar of the temple and touches it to Isaiah’s lips to purify them, to make them holy. These next lines in scripture are powerful, and they are echoed beautifully elsewhere in another hymn that praises God:
“‘Whom shall I send?’ [...] ‘Here I am, Lord.’”
God is holy, definitely, but God is also love and mercy. God desires and is relationship. Reginald Heber heard these words in Isaiah, heard them echoed again in Revelation, and saw something more in this three-time repetition of the word “holy.” Each holy became a stand-in for the three persons of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “blessed Trinity! Have you ever paid attention to the tune names in your hymnal? If you haven’t, I hope you do a little more after today because the tune of this hymn is called “NICAEA” calling to mind the Nicene Creed which above all else affirms the triune nature of our God. Our God is love because these three persons in the Godhead are in a constant loving relationship with each other. The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and each loves and is loved by the Holy Spirit in turn. In fact, the early church father, Augustine, actually thought that this third person in the Trinity, this Holy Spirit was the very embodiment of the love between Father and Son.
Our hymn ties holiness and love together, in this triune God. This hymn reminds us of just who God is and why we should praise the divine, it reminds us just how big this God is. This God is big enough to love all of us, big enough to love all of this, the works of “earth and sky and sea,” into existence. We would not know what is good or holy without God, for “only thou art holy, there is none beside thee.” At the same time, God’s might, God’s holiness, only serves to further God’s mercy, as the hymn tells us, “Merciful and mighty, God in three persons.” God’s might enhances God’s mercy. Just like with Isaiah, God invites us to be holy too. God invites us to be like the divine, to have the same heart and mind. This only happens when we see just how dependent we are upon our God.
We cannot imitate our God if our God is too small, for that is no god at all, merely what we are willing to make space for in our lives. God asks more. No space, no person, no idea, no church, and certainly no box can contain the fullness of our God! Our God shows us what is to be holy, to be love. God goes one step further and invites us to be bigger too, to collectively be the temple of the living God, in order to hold more of God than a stone temple ever could. We are invited to be filled with God’s presence and to do God’s work in this world. In this way, our lives will be a song that will rise in praise of our God, merciful and mighty. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman