Holy! Holy! Holy!
A sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8 by Nathan Nettleton, 4 February 2001
When we truly encounter God in worship, we see everything in all its splendour and horror and are transformed for mission.
There is a lot of emphasis in many churches these days on making worship services user friendly. The ideology says that we should do everything possible to make sure that people who dont normally go to church feel comfortable and at home in the worship service. Worship shouldnt make them feel any more uncomfortable than putting their feet up at home and watching the telly. The church growth experts tell us that that way, theyll feel okay about coming back and providing you put on a good show and give them a positive experience, youll get increasing numbers of people coming to church. Well, we seem to be proving that right, because we havent followed that advice at all, and sure enough, we dont have lots more people coming to church!
The question we need to face then is this: Is our worship faithful to the biblical pictures of what worship should be, or are the church growth people right that our small numbers are proof that we are failing to be what God wants us to be?
The scripture readings we have heard tonight included some of the classic texts for developing a biblical understanding of worship. The passage from Isaiah would be one of the most frequently quoted in books and articles describing what happens when people encounter God in worship, and in the reading from Lukes gospel, Peters experience mirrors much of what happened to Isaiah.
Isaiah had a vision of God while he was in the temple. We dont know if Isaiah was alone in the temple or whether it was a public gathering for worship. Whichever it was, Isaiah had a vision of God. He says, I saw the Lord. He struggles to describe what he saw. Its always hard to describe the indescribable. Clearly one of the things that struck him was how different God was from us. He speaks of God as being high and lifted-up and enormous. Isaiah was in the temple, the biggest building of its day, but when he saw the Lord it was as though no more than the cuff of Gods sleeve could fit in the temple. If hed had the vision today he would have probably said that the cuff of Gods sleeve filled the MCG! And around God were awesome fiery creatures called seraphim which called out constantly, Holy! Holy! Holy is the Lord who rules over everything. The whole earth is full of Gods glory.
The vision of God didnt seem to be confined to the Temple where Isaiah was. God couldnt fit in the temple and the vision spilled out to fill the whole earth with Gods glory. This kind of vision is not a dime a dozen. You cant make it happen because it is a gift from God, a gift of self-revelation. All you can do is help to make it possible, by ensuring that youd be ready for it if God offered you the gift. This kind of vision generally only comes to those who put serious time and energy into prayerfully focussing their attention on God. It is what we call contemplation, and it is the only way most people will ever see beyond the surface realities of life to perceive the deep truths of the universe and its God.
The impact of this vision on Isaiah is about as user friendly as a freight train coming through your lounge room wall. At first he feels like hes in an earthquake. The whole building begins to shake and fill with smoke. And an earthquake would be welcome at that moment, because Isaiah feels like he wants the ground to open up and swallow him. He is overcome by the awesomeness of God which fills the whole earth and makes the ground shake beneath him. Isaiah falls down thinking that hes going to die.
Coming face to face with this awesome God and hearing the cries of holiness from the seraphim, Isaiah feels like hes standing naked and exposed. He is suddenly horribly aware of all sorts of things he doesnt like about himself. Everything that he previously thought was worthwhile and important suddenly seems like scum. As he said on another occasion, even his righteous deeds seemed like filthy rags. And feeling painfully aware of his own scuminess in the presence of such awesome holiness, he feels as though hes walked naked into a blazing furnace from which he cannot possibly emerge alive. Im a goner, he says, I cant open my mouth without exposing myself as a sinner, and the same is true of everyone I know; yet here I am, naked before the all-consuming holiness of the Lord!
But he does survive. He survives by the gift of God. God sends one of the seraphim to take a live coal from the altar and touch Isaiahs lips. Having faced his own sinfulness, Isaiah is now faced with the even more awesome prospect of forgiveness. Isaiah, your guilt has gone. Your sin is blotted out. This is not the user friendly, hey, dont worry about it, it will be okay, kind of thing. This is being dropped into the abyss and snatched back out just as your scream reached blood-curdling.
Having been touched by the burning coal of forgiveness, Isaiah now hears the Lord speak for the first time. Maybe he heard more than were told, but the crucial bit is a question: Whom shall I send? Is there someone who will go on our behalf?
And Isaiah responds to the word of the Lord by offering himself: Here am I. Send me! And so the Lord commissions Isaiah for his task as a preacher and prophet, to preach to a people who will refuse to hear and will ignore the Word all the way to their own destruction.
Can you see why this story is used so often in descriptions of a biblical understanding of worship? Can you see how Isaiahs experience mirrors much of the pattern of what we do here each Sunday? We approach the God who is the most tremendous mystery, the God who is beyond what we can envisage or describe, the God who is surrounded by cries of Holy! Holy! Holy Lord! God of truth and light. Heaven and earth are full of Gods glory. And as we approach we become aware of how far we fall short of the awesome holiness of the God who searches us and knows us. In the face of what seems like a consuming fire, with all that we are lying open to God, all we can do is cry We confess that we have sinned. Lord have mercy!
We hear the words of the Seraph, You guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out. You are forgiven. And it is then, as a forgiven people who have been touched by the purifying fire of God, that we are able to hear the Word of God. The scriptures are read and proclaimed to us, and the vision they proclaim always begs the questions, Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?
So we respond by offering ourselves. With bread and wine as tokens of our gifts of ourselves, we gather around the table in thanksgiving to become what we receive - the body of Christ. And as the body of Christ we are sent out into the world to proclaim the good news of Gods love and forgiveness, but we are sent out knowing that that proclamation may well fall on deaf ears, but we are to be faithful in proclaiming it nevertheless. Isaiah lived that story, and we reenact it each week so that we might be drawn into it and live it too.
Can you see too how Peter went through much the same experience when he first encountered Jesus? When he got a glimpse of who Jesus was, he fell to his knees and begged him to get out of his life: Go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.
He too thought that if he got to close, the holiness would consume him alive. But he too was touched by the word of promise and he left everything to follow Jesus and to proclaim the good news of Gods love and forgiveness.
A little over a year ago, a woman came to our Christmas eve service. I observed during the service how she seemed to be almost physically withdrawing into herself as the service progressed. Afterwards, I spoke to her and she said, Wow, Im used to churches where you just go along and someone preaches at you and then you go back to living the same as you always have as though nothing had ever happened. But Ive never experienced anything like this. I couldnt join in with you all with those words you were saying, because you cant say things like that and then just go back to living the way you always have.
I admired her courage and honesty, but I was sad she didnt yet feel able to say, Here and I, send me. It sounded to me like what happened to her was a bit like what happened to Isaiah and Peter. She caught a vision of something she couldnt describe, something that confronted her with herself and scared her half to death. The church growth experts would tell us that we should make sure that our worship doesnt do that to people because it will scare them off. Maybe theyre right, because there is no doubt that sometimes it does. That woman has never been back. But it seems to me that if our worship services can have a similar impact on people to the impact that encounters with God are described as having in the Bible, then Im not sure that I care that much about numbers, nice as they might be. In the biblical stories, most people who encounter God fall down and scream and think they are going to die, and that doesnt sound very comfortable and user-friendly to me. But it is in that encounter that they find that they are loved and forgiven and that they are transformed into the hands and feet of God in the world.
If you want to approach God at this table, you might not find it comfortable. You might be needing a crash helmet. But if you want to see yourself and the universe and God as they really are, and if you want to find and be transformed into what you were created to be, then this is the place of encounter with the Holy one. If we walk into this fire together, you may never be the same again, but you will come out alive - more alive than youve ever been before!