Reading Isaiah 6.1–8
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
I’ve had a few days away this week, which has meant more time to keep up with the news. This sermon has been in my thoughts too, and it has led to a bizarre pairing in my head I need to share with you: two people, each facing a testing experience. The first is Isaiah the prophet, one day in Jerusalem nearly three thousand years ago, who has a moment of encounter with God:
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!
And here is the other, speaking on Friday…
I’m not perfect. Nobody is perfect.
And then this…
I was thinking, it was in meditation. I am a faithful man and I said, Now God, Allah, or whoever is this extraordinary – whatever it is – spirit in the world that we believe, they will help us.
And what is Sepp Blatter (for it was he) doing in a sermon on this of all mornings? His re-election as President of scandal-ridden FIFA bumped the Queen’s Speech off top news billing. Is he going to do the same for the Holy Trinity? Well, there are many things that you could say about this – remarkable man, the Silvio Berlusconi of world sport – but I mention him just now as the authentic voice of the shapeless spiritual awareness – ‘God, Allah, whoever’ – of many in our culture.
Today is the day when we especially think about the distinctive shape that Christian faith finds in the reality of God, the day when ‘God, Allah, whoever’ meets Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And my aim this morning is to see how Christian talk about God as the Holy Trinity might help us to give shape to our experience of God. Let Isaiah be our guide.
The sixth chapter of Isaiah is a classic Trinity Sunday reading because Isaiah hears the angels say ‘Holy’ three times. That sounds a bit contrived, and if you had gone up to Isaiah afterwards and asked him if he had just had an experience of the Holy Trinity he would have said whatever the Hebrew is for ‘You what?’ Yet in his encounter with God it’s all there, really.
First, Isaiah senses a distance between himself and God. God is ‘high and lofty’, and ‘holy’, which means ‘set apart’. God is God. ‘God’ is not just a poetic device for talking about the deep stuff of being human. Critics of belief in God have long said that it is: when you try to pray, they say, it’s not God but your own deep consciousness you’re trying to get in touch with. Some kindly voices even say it’s OK to keep using the God language, so long as you realise that what you are really talking about is yourself.
Well, there is some truth in this. Set aside ten minutes tomorrow morning to try to pray and, whatever happens, you are likely to be more attentive to yourself (or ‘mindful’, to use the vogue word). But is that the whole truth? It’s possible that all this prayer and worship is a dream world we need to wake up from, but – well, ask yourself – does it feel like that? Are we just talking to ourselves, or are we being addressed?
We have reached the point at which many people get stuck. They have some sense of the divine but at this distance it’s hard to make God out. It’s a bit shapeless, Blatteresque, a bit ‘God, Allah, whoever’.
Isaiah, though, sees more than that. This God who is radically other than Isaiah is not remote from him. In his vision he sees God in what seems to be human form, a cosmic monarch on a throne, and the hem of his regal robe fills the temple (I imagine in his vison that gorgeous fabric swirls around him). Meanwhile, up above, angels sing that the whole earth, not just the temple, is full of God’s glory: the fabric of God’s presence is all around, all the time; and Isaiah, in that moment and that special place, is given a glimpse of what is true always and everywhere.
And that is not a bad definition of our purpose in being here: in this moment and in this place we seek to catch a glimpse of what’s true at all times and in all places. That’s why today and every Sunday we sing the song of Isaiah’s angels – ‘Heaven and earth are full of your glory’ – and ask God to help us see that glory.
For Isaiah, though, it’s more than just seeing. It becomes palpably, painfully intimate. As we heard, all this makes Isaiah feel inadequate, but then a seraph, an angel, flies down to him and touches his mouth with a hot coal. Just feel that for a moment: it is (as your fitness coach might put it) a pain that brings gain – ‘Now this has touched your lips your sin is blotted out.’
Here is another authenticity test for belief in God. A further objection – and it can be a valid one – is that such belief brings comfort and reassurance and so is essentially an exercise in self-gratification. Well, it can bring these things but, again, that is not the whole truth: if it’s authentic, belief in God is not always comfortable. Take forgiveness, that hot potato of a gift that the seraph brings Isaiah: to know forgiveness I must first face up to what I’ve done wrong, which can be most uncomfortable.
How was church this morning?
Oh, really good, thanks. Painful.
Angels in the Hebrew scriptures are ambiguous figures. Sometimes they are described as creatures like you and me, and sometimes they are more like aspects of God’s own being; and almost always they are go-betweens from God to humanity and back again. Isaiah’s encounter with the seraph completes his glimpse of the threefold reality that is God: utterly separate yet wonderfully, painfully close, and – more than that – in touch with us.
It is just a moment, though, and a visionary one at that. Christian faith will literally flesh out that vision. Centuries after Isaiah, a small group of those who share his Jewish faith will say that God, the source of all that is, has gone to extreme lengths to be close to us: in the birth and death and life of Jesus, God has taken a local address among us. And, more than that, the presence of God, made flesh in Jesus, is available to people who never knew Jesus in the flesh. That will be part of what they will mean when they speak of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
So – all this may make perfect sense. Or it may not. I’m not perfect; nobody is perfect; and happily, God doesn’t wait for us to reach perfect understanding before being involved in our lives. The statement of belief in the Trinity I’ll invite you to say in a moment in the Nicene Creed talks about who God is, and what God is already doing among us, whether we grasp it or not.
The Lord will hear the prayers Mr Blatter addresses to ‘God, Allah, whoever.’ I just hope he will wait to hear what God might say in reply. For unless we open our minds to God – and prepare ourselves for the occasionally uncomfortable, hot coal moment – then our critics will be right: this will essentially be about us, not God. Remember Isaiah. Once he really glimpses what God is like, he immediately wants to do what God wants.
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!’