YEAR C: EPIPHANY 5
(Sunday between February 4 and February 10)
Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13)
Overwhelming visions of God’s glory in the heavenly court contrast with deep misgivings about the human ability (or desire?) to see and hear what God puts before them. This is the issue Isaiah 6 raises. Many see it as the ‘call’ narrative for the eighth century prophet, Isaiah, an account of his sense of vocation. The chapter might reflect an initial experience of the prophet, but in its present position it fulfils another role. The call narratives for other prophets stand at the start of the prophet’s activity (cf. Jer 1:4-10 last week; Ezek 1-3). Not this ‘call’. Surrounded by other prophetic sayings, it now gives a sense of authority, or ‘call’, to other material in the book of Isaiah, whether it originated with Isaiah or not. This prophetic ‘call’ did not only concern one man and his audience, but has become inextricably linked to the word that man proclaimed, and which we still hear. In its immediate context (Isaiah 6-8) the call to Isaiah was to urge the political powers of his day, faced with questions of national allegiance and security, to ‘stand firm in faith’ (7:9) and let the way of God shape their path and decisions. In our own day, with our continuing national involvement in wars in the Middle East, and the media, some politicians and sectors of the community raising fears for our security which can shape how we receive strangers on our doorstep, one can rightly question to what extent we collectively ‘stand firm in faith’ or in a more secular language, the extent to which we are willing to give people a ‘fair go’.
The lectionary gives the preacher a choice today: vv. 1-8 or 1-13. The two readings give different messages. Verses 1-8 focus on the glory of God in his heavenly court – the ‘vocation’ of which is to constantly sing the praise of God. At the other end of the reading is heard the courageous, almost ‘heroic’ response of the prophet to the divine call ‘Who will go for us?’ ‘Here am I; send me!’ says Isaiah. The beginning and end of vv. 1-8 give us two wonderful pictures. The revealing of God’s heavenly glory calls forth costly human commitment. This point should not be passed over lightly, but it is not all the passage has to say.
The context in which the vision of God’s glory is given and the prophet’s response heard is important. God is enthroned, ‘high and lofty’, and his glory fills the earth (v. 3). But how does his glory fill the earth? Verses 1-4 take place inside the temple, and give us no clue. Moreover, the prophet only volunteers to go forth after he has become painfully aware of his own sinfulness amidst a sinful people, and been forgiven. Both these matters affect how we understand God’s glory and the calling of the prophet. We do not, however, understand the full effect until we read vv. 9-13.
The prophet is to say to the people ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand’ (v. 9). He is to make the people’s mind dull, ‘stop their ears, and shut their eyes’ so that they will not understand, repent and be healed (v. 10). In his own seeing, hearing, repentance, and cleansing (vv. 1-8), the prophet is pictured as the antithesis of the people (vv. 9-10). But what is the point? Is the prophet called to deceive? Does God really want to heal this people? The prophet asks ‘how long?’ will it continue. Until cities lie waste and death seems to have overcome all (v. 11-12). Only then, and in only the smallest way, will seed reflecting the holiness of the glorious king of all the earth be evident (v.13). Only in the context of the most revealing and severe judgment, will salvation itself be seen.
The prophet’s question in v. 11 is important. It is not ‘how’ to proclaim, but ‘how long?’ It echoes the deepest lamentations of the psalmists (cf. Pss 6:3; 13:1-2; 35:17 etc.). Isaiah’s calling will bring pain – not just in terms of realising his own sinfulness, for he has experienced forgiveness – but in terms of proclaiming a message that will fall on deaf ears. He calls a people to repentance knowing that most will never say ‘our eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.’ It is not that the prophet realises in hindsight that he was not heard. Nor is it that God does not really want to heal anyone. It is that the prophet’s response to God’s call draws him into a complex web of words of judgment (critique of individuals and society) and words of hope, of standing firm in faith. And the latter will only finally be realised among the valleys of the shadow of death.
God’s words in the very world which his glory ‘fills’ are often dismissed, or go unheard. God’s prophets often bear the pain of that. In this painful, seemingly endless task the holy seed bearing new life is found. As countless small congregations across the world regularly sing or recite the Sanctus, the ‘Holy, holy, holy’, in the prayer before communion, they echo the cry of the heavenly hosts in Isaiah 6. Their worship and their numbers may be dismissed as insignificant but the holy seed is in their stump.
The Gospel reading (Luke 5:1-11) makes a similar point. Peter’s cry ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ (v. 8) both echoes Isaiah’s cry and differs from it. His earlier response to Jesus’ invitation to cast the nets again into the sea after a long night’s fruitless work, has a touch of ‘how long?’ about it. But Jesus’ invitation calls for a response of faith, just as God had charged Isaiah to proclaim.
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