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Isaiah 6:1-8

On this Trinity Sunday we celebrate the fullness of the mystery of God as Father, Son and Spirit, the one who creates, redeems and gives life to all creation. This Sunday comes as a natural conclusion to what has passed to date in our Christian year. We have looked to the coming of God in Advent, celebrated God’s coming in Jesus, remembered his death and resurrection, and lately proclaimed the gift of the Spirit to Christ’s church. Now we hear of the fullness of God’s being and presence in all creation. In this context the Gospel for the day, John 3:1-17, speaks of being born of the Spirit and of the Father sending the Son. In Romans 8:12-17, we read of being led by the Spirit of God. The Old Testament reading and Psalm 29 focus our attention on God as sovereign of all creation. But as is appropriate in consideration of the idea of the Trinity, there is an interweaving of divine activity in each of these readings.

In Isa 6:1-8 the prophet has a vision of God enthroned in his heavenly court, albeit located in the Jerusalem temple. These verses focus on the glory of God in his heavenly court – the ‘vocation’ of which is to constantly sing the praise of God. Even in such a context the passage conveys a sense of the mystery of God. The prophet only sees the hem of God’s robe which fills the temple (v. 1), not God’s ‘upper half’ so to speak. Moreover, the heavenly beings, the seraphim, even shield their eyes from the full vision of God.  This overwhelming vision of God’s glory contrasts with all around it and the prophet is quickly aware of a deep sense of unworthiness (v. 5). However, at the other end of the reading we hear his courageous, almost ‘heroic’ response to the divine question ‘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.

Between the prophet’s vision and sense of unworthiness, and his final gesture of readiness to go forth for God, stands a wondrous act of forgiveness. At his distress over being a human of ‘unclean lips’, one of the seraphim takes a coal from the altar and touches Isaiah’s lips with the words ‘your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’ (v. 6). This is the technical language of the rites of forgiveness in the temple. But note that the prophet does not ask for it. He is overwhelmed by the reality of his guilt and sin. The act of forgiveness comes entirely from the realm of God. God’s response to the prophet’s situation, through the actions of the seraphim, is one of sheer grace and compassion. The act of forgiveness, symbolised through refinement by fire taken from God’s own altar is one that comes freely and mercifully from God.

The context in which the initial vision of God’s glory is given and the prophet’s final 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 conclusion of the chapter. I would even venture to suggest that the full impact of Isaiah 6 on our understanding of God as Trinity is deficient without these last verses.

The prophet is told 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 seeing, hearing, repentance, and cleansing (vv. 1-8), the prophet is pictured as the antithesis of the people (vv. 9-10). The prophet asks ‘how long?’ will this continue? Until cities lie waste and death seems to have overcome all (vv. 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 of ‘how long?’ echoes the deepest lamentations of the psalmists (cf. Pss 6:3; 13:1-2; 35:17 etc.). Isaiah’s response to God’s question will bring pain – not in terms of realising his own sinfulness, for he has already 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, or does so only at great cost to those healed. God’s initiative in cleansing Isaiah puts the lie to that notion. It is that the prophet’s response to God’s question draws him into a complex web of words of judgment (critique of individuals and society) and words of hope, of standing firm in faith (Isa 7:9). 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. The Son bore that pain in a way even beyond that of the prophets. In this painful, seemingly fruitless 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 (Isa 6:3). The Spirit of God leads them in that song. Their worship and their numbers may be dismissed as insignificant but the holy seed is in their stump.

Psalm 29

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