• May 29, 2018

Purification of Isaiah’s lips, fresco from St. Martin Church in Nohant-Vic, France

Psalm 29
Isaiah 6:1-8

Isaiah has a vision. God is sitting on a throne, like a king. But not quite like a human king. In fact, the God who occupies this throne is so large, that just the hem of his robe fills the entire temple. Far, far up above, mysterious celestial beings called Seraphs fly around. Each Seraph has six wings, and they say: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The voices of the Seraphs shake the building. The whole space fills with smoke. And Isaiah becomes afraid.

Our bible is filled with stories like this. Incredible stories, awe-inspiring stories about God. Take, for instance, Psalm 29, also read today. God, the psalmist writes, has strength and splendor. God’s voice thunders, it flashes forth like fire. God’s voice shakes the wilderness, causing everyone to say, “Glory!” “The Lord sits enthroned as a king forever,” the psalm concludes; “May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!”

The God of our scriptures, the God of our traditions, has many names and faces.  God is a still, small voice; a companion on the way, a well of living water, the movement of breath in our lungs. But God is also very often described as vast and powerful beyond measure; glorious; thunderous; even terrifying.

What does it mean to worship a God like this? A big God; a scary God; a God with power and authority; a God who is enthroned as a king forever?

The original audience of these scripture passages was very familiar with the imagery of kings and thrones. The Ancient near east was a world full of royal succession battles and kingdoms competing with one another. Kings and thrones mean something less immediate for us today. We associate them more with fairy tales than everyday life. So what would a fitting comparison for God’s vastness be for us here today?

Perhaps we could say that God is richer than the 1%, and more powerful than the largest corporation. God reigns even over royal weddings, and presides also at Monday night football.  God’s might is greater than nuclear weapons, or semi-automatic rifles.

But there’s a problem with all of these metaphors, ancient and new. Human forms of power aren’t right for God.  God’s might may be mightier than human might, but it doesn’t really resemble it. God pushes back against evil not with overwhelming shows of force and dominance, but persistent and widespread subversion; wisdom and courage; resurrection power; Pentecost diversity.

How do we worship a God who is great like that? Great like a mustard seed.  Great like Jesus, a poor dark-skinned refugee.  Great like a child. Great like the Poor People’s Campaign, and like athletes who take a knee, and like people who place themselves between weapons and school children.

I love that the Seraphs, these burning holy beings with six wings who hover around the enormous God in Isaiah, are calling to one another when they say, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  Surely the other Seraphs know that God is holy. But the Seraphs still tell one another, as if they might need a reminder of what it’s all really about: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

This makes me think of the church, where we meet, according to tradition, to worship God. But heaven knows churches spend plenty of time and effort worshiping the wrong thing.  We may worship ourselves, or wealth, or power.  We may pay allegiance to the way we’ve always done it, or the way that won’t upset anyone. We confuse faith with patriotism, to the detriment of both. It’s hard to keep our focus where it ought to be: on the one who is powerful not in the most obvious ways, but in ways that surprise us and invite us to be changed.

We, too, need to call out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory, of her glory, of their glory.”  Look, feel, notice, beloved, observe the God who is holy: take in her glory. Give this God your worship.

Three years ago, as this text came up in the lectionary, I talked in more detail about the words of the Seraphs: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” These words are part of Jewish worship, and they form part of one of the most ancient Christian hymns, the Sanctus. The Sanctus always contains these words from Isaiah, and usually adds additional words found in the Psalms (118:26) and the Gospel of Matthew (21:9): Holy, Holy, Holy Lord; the whole earth is full of your glory. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.

For Christians, calling God holy three times can be a way of lifting up God’s trinitarian nature.  That’s why the scripture is chosen for this Trinity Sunday. If you’re really missing a chance to dive into the mystery of the trinity this morning, please let me know, I’m glad to talk with you move about it. However, the trinity was definitely not on the minds of the Jewish authors of Isaiah. It’s a concept for God that emerged even later than the Second, or Greek, or New Testament.  So I wonder if saying Holy, Holy, Holy, might be a way of simply saying: God is holy. No, holier than that. No, still more holy. God is bigger and more powerful and more holy than we have yet imagined. But, pay attention: God’s holiness is why we’re here. God’s holiness is what it’s all about.

So let’s take a moment, this morning, to consider that holiness. I invite you to get comfortable in your seat, to take a few deep breaths, to close your eyes as you feel moved. Imagine a moment when beauty gave you goosebumps.  Imagine a moment when love astonished you.  Imagine a moment that made your soul say: Wow! Or, if such a moment has not happened in your life, imagine what it would be like, to have your heart so filled up, that all you could say was: Holy, Holy, Holy…

God, you are indescribable. God, you are uncontainable. God, you are holy beyond what we can understand or express. Still, keep us turning towards you: witnessing you with our senses; welcoming you into our hearts; worshiping you with our lives. Amen.