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, while as confusing as any of Israel’s prophet’s might be, is the real gem of the Old Testament as far as I am concerned. Martin Luther called it the gospel of the Old Testament.
Some Christians look to Isaiah almost exclusively to find prophetic predictions of Jesus but this is way too limiting. You know I am not overly fond of treating the prophets as fortune tellers and future predictors. This makes their message shallow and mostly irrelevant to their immediate context. Prophets like Isaiah did make very accurate predictions about the future of Israel but this had less to do with some kind of divine foresight and more to do with their ability to see clearly what was going on around them and measure it against God’s intentions for the nation. The degree of dissonance between how the people lived and what God’s will was for them was directly proportional to the dysfunction and disaster that befell them. Isaiah could see this dissonance and his job was to communicate it. This is what prophets actually did.
In the above text we read of Isaiah’s official commissioning. It comes after 5 chapters of Isaiah laying out the reasons why Israel needed a prophet. It might be boiled down to this, the people believed that as long as they carried out the appointed sacrifices and religious festivals they could do as they pleased to one another. Isaiah laid out the case against Israel which might be summed up by these verses from the first chapter,
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt-offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17 learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
So Isaiah’s Temple commissioning is the culmination of his recognition of the profound dissonance between God’s intentions for the community of Israel and how the people really lived.
The scene in the Temple Isaiah described is one and worshiper might see: the altar, the curtain around the Holy of Holies, the incense, and the coals. But Isaiah is able, through his prophetic imagination, see these things come alive. And we should not think of this imagination as make-believe. Prophetic imagination looks through the eyes of faith to discern a reality inclusive of the presence of God.
With his prophetic imagination Isaiah saw “heavenly” reality over laying the mundane (meaning everyday/normal) activity of the Temple. So the golden seraphs which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant were not just ornamental, in Isaiah’s mind he saw them carrying out their proper work of leading the worship of God and purifying through fire (seraph means fiery).
So also Isaiah saw that living as God’s covenant people in the world is a real, physical reality with real implications and expectations. This will be at the core of Isaiah’s message throughout his 66 chapter book which spans almost 200 years. (Yeah…there was clearly more than one person (generation) at work in the book of Isaiah.)
Connecting the realm of God with the physical world is the practical implications of Trinitarian theology. Yes, this week is Trinity Sunday.
The reality of God is obscured for human by God’s unapproachable nature. But that nature is connected to our world through God’s manifestation where God chooses to be present. In Isaiah’s time God was present through the covenant law meant to shape the covenant community into a representation of God’s will and intention for human relations. Israel was to be a holy (different/other) nation, living according to God’s image of what a community should look like as a sign, not only for Israel but for the world, of God’s intention for creation. In other words, if Israel lived out the covenant other nations, when they looked at Israel, would be looking at the manifestation of God.
In Jesus God’s intention for creation takes the shape, not of a law code, but of a person, and a relationship. But you might also say that Jesus is the very embodiment of the principles of God’s kingdom described in the prophetic imagination of Isaiah and the prophets collectively.
Today Jesus continues to be manifestly present through the agency of the Holy Spirit. I will acknowledge that I don’t really understand how the Holy Spirit works but I know it when I see it, or rather feel it. (I feel a little funny using the phrase “know it when I see it” in reference to the Holy Spirit. The phrase gained prominence in 1964 by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart describing his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio.)
The Holy Spirit is perhaps the principle means through which we might be opened to the prophetic imagination which allowed Isaiah to glimpse the heavenly realm in the midst of the regular activity of living.
This nexus of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is what we seek to encounter in our celebration of the Holy Trinty.