22 November 2020 Singing with the Seraphs Martin Baker
A Vision of God in the Temple
6 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. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 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!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 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.” 8 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!”
I was at dinner last week and we were talking about the New Zealand elections.
And we talked especially about how the elections were reported.
The excitement started when earlier in the day Clark Gayford the Prime Minister’s fiancé, brought out a plate of bar-b-que appetisers for the waiting reporters. A lot of commentary around that. And later we shifted to various election night venues. Some were a little subdued, some were rather more excited.
We talked also about the American elections. The anger, the accusations, the vitriol. People with placards and even some carrying weapons.
A country as small as ours and a country as huge as the United States, I know it is difficult to draw comparisons. But the contrast made me think about how we respond to change, how we respond to a sense of threat, the different responses to the virus, it says a lot about a lot of things. Who we are as a nation, as people. What we regard as good leadership at these times.
In our reading this morning, there is that big question.
Is there a hope we can hold on to, even in the midst of our biggest challenges? Even when we confront our own mortality. Is there a hope that brings also a sense of peace and purpose?
Politics, change and threat and upheaval sit behind our reading this morning.
Our reading begins with those words
‘In the year that King Uzziah died. ‘
King Uzziah went downhill quite badly at the end . He might have died from leprosy, but he had reigned for over 40 years. And most of that time, life in Judah was stable, prosperous secure. But now the King had died
On top of that, Isaiah’s people, the Judeans, were now facing threatening encroachment from the Assyrian Empire. At the time of Isaiah 6, the Assyrians were the most formidable army of all time with advanced weaponry, massive economic support. I talked last week about the stories of their brutality.
In contrast, Jerusalem, where Isaiah was speaking from, was a city with hastily erected defences, filled with refugees from the countryside and other captured cities.
A time of transition, of upheaval of change, of threat. That’s how our reading begins.
In the year that King Uzziah died,
And then this statement
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
We can overlook this opening statement about the death of King Uzziah, but it was also a kind of shorthand, for in the year everything was going wrong. Their 2020 year.
So we are told about Uzziah’ s death, and then I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
And the ancient hearers of Isaiah would see the contrast here. Earthy turmoil, on one hand, and the Lord sitting on a throne with his robe filling the temple.
So the death of the earthly King - and the Lord, Sovereign of the heavens and the earth, sitting on a throne high and lofty.
Things are bad, and things, at the same time, are also wonderfully good.
King Uzziah has died but there is another king, an overwhelming reality and it’s centred on this image of God's radical holiness, the Lord of Hosts, the Divine and Sovereign God, lifted so high in glory and splendour that even the seraphs must cover their faces. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;" they proclaim, "the whole earth is full of God's glory."
As we face our own turmoil, the virus, the anguish that we can even find within -
And in the midst of this we are being invited in to join with the seraphs, these heavenly creatures of some type, and say "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;" "the whole earth is full of God's glory."
It may not be in the hearing of a sermon that you encounter what Isaiah is speaking about today.
But in worship. Some piece of music that lifts our souls, some vision in art that confronts us with some unspeakable reality, Bruce Chamberlin has just completed with his daughters some tramps in the South Island he tells me, including the Kepler tramp from Te Anau.
I remember a moment for me on that tramp, just as you immerge from the dense dark beech forest near the start of the Kepler track, when you have been climbing up through for an hour or two in relative darkness, and you come out and you encounter this overwhelming vista of the alps and the snow and the almost blinding sunlight, and the beauty almost brings you to your knees in praise, and you find yourself almost overwhelmed in your senses.
I reach into the poetry of the Psalms, the heavens declare the glory of god, or
I lift my eyes to the hills from where does my help come.
But it is not just those moments.
There is a famous little story about the leader of the reformation, Martin Luther. He was a priest who married a young former nun called Kate - and he wrote “There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow that were not there before.”
There is this moment that scholars trace where Luther discovers, much to his surprise the wonder of love and intimacy with Kate and how this discovery changed so much of Luther’s writings about things that were at the very heart of his protestant theology.
It may not be the heavens and the earth or a great piece of art, or music - but a pair of pigtails on the pillow beside you.
One historian wrote, Luther would discover, much to his surprise, that along with the theological and religious changes the Reformation was advancing, his marriage to the strong, smart, capable Kate would spark a social revolution as impactful as the Reformation of doctrine.
I am sure that God has given us this wonderful gift to behold beauty and find awe and wonder in what we see. Even in the people we encounter.
One of the biggest dangers of being locked for hours in the office or in the lounge staring at a screen or overwhelmed by the news or the minutiae of our business or the unnameable anxieties that float around, is that we deprive ourselves of these moments of holiness where we can join with the seraphs and proclaim the whole earth if full of God’s glory.
In our reformed theology that is why we do not consecrate places or buildings or things. There is no place where God’s glory is absent.
Here in our story today, summoned to the throne of God and surrounded by the awe and terror of the Lord, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and that of his people. He is not worthy to stand before the Lord, yet here he is. He knows he is unworthy to serve, yet what other option does he have here at the throne of God? This is not the time to say no; it is the time, in Isaiah's words, to say woe. "Woe is me! I am lost."
That woe is a deep gut wrenching word.
That deep and profound moment when we come to terms with the fact we are fundamentally flawed and fundamentally loved and forgiven.
There is a deep mystery at work here, in our reading. And it profoundly upsets Isaiah's equilibrium. But in the upsetting, Isaiah is able to confess his sin, be cleansed of his guilt, and receive a clean heart. Only then can he hear God's call with clarity.
There are three key points in our reading today.
The first is that God encounters us in these times when our King Uzziah has died - now at these times of upheaval and change, our moments when our stability and order our lives are under threat .
The second is that we encounter God in worship. God is in this place. God’s robe fills the temple. One way or another in our prayers, our music, our reading from scripture we join with this heavenly host in saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
And we take that attitude of worship into our homes and lives and work places.
It may not be the pigtails on the pillow or the mountain tops on the Kepler track , but to start each day in the midst of all we face and say the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.
Instead of your first worry for the day take some time with the seraphs and say the earth is filled with his glory.
And finally, today with Isaiah, we discover that this encounter in worship, changes us.
The seraph touched my mouth with this burning coal and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
The holiness the overwhelming grace and love we encounter is the source of our change.
8 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's encounter with the living God teaches us that there is no way to know God without being changed. That kind of transformation leads to service, to work and witness in God's name.
Maybe this week in a dinner with family or friends where the language speaks of anguish and fear, you can offer a word of reassurance. You and I can still speak about some reason for thanks; can speak about the holiness and the glory we can still encounter even in these times.
And perhaps for us, or those we encounter, an affirmation too that the past does not have to trap us, our mistakes, our sins do not have to define us. We are people who claim the power not of the hot coal but the Spirit, people who live on the resurrection side of the cross.
And maybe through worship, through our own encounter with holiness and glory, we find renewal, and we find that God is not done with us, and we can answer that call, in the midst of everything else, whom shall I send and who will go for us? And we say, we say here am I, send me
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