Confrontation and Calling: A Reflection on Isaiah 6:1-18

Today, the Sunday following Pentecost, is the Sunday the Western Church commemorates the revelation of God as Trinity. This is a notoriously difficult doctrine to understand or explain, especially when trying to interpret the Church’s classic definitions as found in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (in common speech ‘Nicene’) Creed and writings of the Church Fathers that support them. There’s a lot to be said about all this, but for today I’d simply like to say this: The way the Trinity is described by the Fathers — the language of ‘essence’ and ‘person’ and so on — was not intended to explain away the Mystery of God, but rather to preserve the Mystery of God as experienced by Christians in the Church. The early Christians experienced God as Father, as Son, and as Holy Spirit; these were distinct experiences and they understood there to be relationships between these three; and yet they did not experience them as three Gods, but as the same God. And so, if the formal doctrine is hard to understand, this is because it is trying to express an experience of God that transcends reason and words. And it is this — the experience of God, theophany — that I’d like to reflect on today.

As long-time readers will know, I love the stories of theophanies in the Scriptures (as my previous studies on the theophanies of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and Job suggest!). And so I cannot resist reflecting on today’s reading from the Prophets, which recounts Isaiah’s famous vision of God during which he receives his prophetic calling.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the LORD sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.

And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And 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 Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The 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.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6.1-8)

Isaiah has a vision of God, enthroned as a magnificent, heavenly King. At first, he experiences this as a confrontation: In witnessing God’s transcendent holiness, Isaiah is confronted with the harsh reality of his own life and that of his people in comparison. (In the Integral jargon introduced last week, we could say that this transcendent state experience allows Isaiah to make his failures, and those of Jerusalem elite society to live up to their covenant responsibilities an object of his awareness.) This confrontation with the Truth undoes him. Then an angel comes and purifies his speech (symbolized in the vision by being burned with the coal, as in a refiner’s fire). Now, when God asks who will go to be God’s messenger, Isaiah is able to stand up and say, “Here I am; send me!”

While it isn’t to be found in the text assigned today, the message God gives Isaiah is chilling. I often comment that there is a continuity between our experiences and our vocations, and Isaiah is no exception. In his vision he sees the vast separation between who God is and the realities of the life of God’s people. And this is precisely the message he is to share — even though Judah’s rulers will not repent like he did, and his words will be misunderstood and go unheeded:

‘Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. (v.11-12)

While our world is very different from Isaiah’s, and our understanding of our relationship with God is very different from ancient Judah’s, the sins Isaiah and all the prophets point out are startlingly familiar to our own situation: rulers granting favors in exchange for money, a justice system that prefers the cause of the powerful to that of the powerless, social structures that allow for the rich to become richer while the poor lose what little they have, and a fundamentally ungodly society whitewashed with a veneer of religiosity and self-serving national myths.

The gift and challenge of this century so far has been that our own society is being increasingly confronted with the ways we too fall short, not only in comparison with God, but also with our own stated values. Are we paying attention? Will we, like Isaiah, see that we have “unclean lips, and come from a people of unclean lips” and repent? Or will we stop our ears and cover our eyes to injustice like the Jerusalem elite of so long ago? Only time will tell.

But, in the aftermath of last Sunday’s feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the pouring out of God’s good and all-holy Spirit upon all of the faithful and not just a select few, there is a further question for us: Not just how will respond to being confronted with the Truth as Isaiah was, but also how we will respond to God’s question: “Whom shall I send?” Who is God sending today? In light of Pentecost, the answer is clear: It’s our turn. It’s our turn not just to recognize injustice but to be prophetic agents of change in the world.

This is our calling as Christians, not because there is some outside political agenda we follow, but because, as Christians, we have seen God and been confronted with the shocking truths of just how wide the gulf between God and our societies is. Because, as Christians, our lives are caught up with one another’s and with God’s life. Speaking Truth, working of Justice, and making Shalom — these are what it means to be swept up in the life of God, in the divine dance of the Trinity.

And so, I believe that God is asking the same question of us that was put to Isaiah all those centuries ago: Whom shall I send?

May we, with Isaiah (and Abraham and Moses and Samuel and Mary), have the courage to answer: “Here I am.”

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