The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
In the Presence of a Mystery
The very stuff of God was spilling out of heaven – transgressing the assumed boundaries. God's robe was filling the Temple – within the grasp of the earnest worshipers, in the presence of those desperate to touch the divine, within the reach of unclean human hands. God's glory was flooding the earth – Heaven saturating the common stuff of life. And while God was breaking the borders, so was a prophet, a man named Isaiah – a man of unclean lips in the land of holiness.
It was like walking through the wardrobe or falling down the rabbit hole. It was as if someone slipped him the red pill. In an instant Isaiah was transported – his eyes seeing the unseen, his ears hearing the unheard. He is an unwitting intruder in a world not his own – a world that exists outside of time, a world previous thought to be inaccessible to mortals.
“Overwhelming” is probably the only way to describe the experience – and even “overwhelming” is insufficient. Nobody sees God and lives; not even the great Moses was allowed to see God's face. But Isaiah’s eyes see God, on the heavenly throne, in all of God's considerable glory, surrounded by fiery winged creatures. Even those heavenly creatures, the seraphs know to hide their eyes from the divine glory; it's more dangerous than looking directly at the sun. These fiery creatures do not, however, cover their mouths; in fact, they never go silent – an impenetrable wall of sound, hymns of praise spinning and buzzing around the throne of God – swirling around the space, each refrain more impassioned, a noise so intense the ground quaked. And the smoke: incense suffocating the space, as thick as morning fog. The offerings and prayers of the people combining into an intoxicating fragrance, the smoky air filling God's nostrils. The sights, the sounds, the scents: a sensual trance. “Overwhelming” to say the least.
After the initial shock of it all, Isaiah is suddenly very self-aware. Walter Brueggemann says, “[Isaiah], in the presence of YHWH's holiness, has a fresh sense of himself, his inadequacy, his lack of qualification to be in the holy presence.” Actually, more specifically, he is very aware of his lips. They are unclean. And not only his lips – all of them, all of the lips. He is a man of unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips. And so, how can it be that he stands in the presence of a holy mystery – and yet lives?
Today's passage from Isaiah begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord...” Now, not a lot is known about this King Uzziah. That he is mentioned here might simply be to set the historical context of the prophet's mystical encounter, or perhaps to remind the reader that earthly kings come and go but the Lord remains enthroned forever.
I think there is another possibility as well. King Uzziah's story is told in the biblical book of 2 Chronicles; the story ends with his death. According to that book he died of leprosy. See, the story goes, in his arrogance, Uzziah walked into the Temple and decided to personally make an offering on the altar of incense – a task reserved for the priests, for those consecrated by God. Uzziah was unclean; he had not been consecrated, he had not been made holy. And so, the text tells us, God struck him with the ailment and he died. And now here stands Isaiah, a man of self-professed unclean lips, in the presence of that same holy God – in the very year his king died for this type of violation. The first words out of Isaiah's mouth then are no surprise: “Woe is me!”
It might strike us as a bit odd that the prophet is not excited or joyous or cozy. Instead, he is undone. He is afraid. The holiness of God's presence has revealed, more than anything, his own unworthiness. Like standing naked on an empty stage, Isaiah feels exposed and out-of-place. And there is also that lingering fear that he might, at any moment, drop dead – obliterated by the uncut presence of God.
That we are given an Old Testament passage for Trinity Sunday always intrigues me. There is, before the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit, no talk of the Trinity in the Bible, no notion of the concept. Ancient Jews did not acknowledge the Triune nature of God; neither do modern Jews. The theology is simply not present in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament.
And yet, today we hear this story from the book of Isaiah – this story, set some 700 years before the birth of the Christ. And yet, it seems to me a very appropriate passage for this Sunday, for this Trinity Sunday. What the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us, perhaps more than anything, is that we worship a Holy Mystery – a God we can love and worship and honor, but never truly understand. And in the presence of that Mystery we are undone, laid bare, exposed – compelled to fall on our knees and make our confession.
For all our human intelligence and achievement and advancement, we are no closer to solving the mystery of this Triune God. Our words fail us; our minds are inadequate; our efforts insufficient.
And yet, despite our lack of understanding, despite our unclean lips and meager faith, we are invited into God's presence – or perhaps better said, we are subsumed by God's presence. Our Holy God transgresses the assumed boundaries to fill our world, to fill our lives, to fill our hearts – a Holy God within the reach of unclean hands – a Creator so enamored with the creatures that God gets in our skin.
And though we are small and unworthy, mere mortals before the One who was and is and is to come, God accepts us. God adopts us as children, marks us as Christ's own forever, seals us with the Holy Spirit. We are invited into the life, into the heart, of the Trinity; invited, like the prophet, to stand in the presence of a Holy Mystery.
And then we are sent out, still alive, more alive than ever before – entrusted to represent a God we can neither explain, nor understand. But that is God's concern, and not ours. God chooses us and makes us worthy. God wants us. God loves us. God believes in us. It's a mystery, to be sure. But then again, so is God.