Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]
For most of the country, this Fifth Sunday of Epiphany falls about the time when winter is at its worst.
The Christmas lights are long gone, and there seems no end to the cold days and dark nights. This sense of never-ending gloom is the way the people of Israel were feeling during the time of Isaiah in Jerusalem, for they are quickly falling under the shadow of Assyrian domination. It is a time of fear and uncertainty for the people and the leadership. God’s promises of a peaceful, secure place to dwell are difficult to believe in the face of a massive army moving south and claiming everything in its path.
Enter the prophet, Isaiah, who tells of God as being exalted, powerful, and the ruler of the universe. In the chapters that follow this reading, Isaiah will reassure King Ahaz to place his trust in this great God, not in humans (7:1-23). Scholars believe this is why the call of Isaiah is placed immediately before this act of reassurance. The job of Isaiah in those darkening days was a difficult one; to assure the people and to call them into account for their actions and lack of faith.
The text itself is magnificent, especially against this dark backdrop. It is set in the place where earth and heaven meet, the holy of holies. Here, the prophet can see into God’s celestial throne room. Here, the LORD is so magnificent that “the hem of God’s robe fills the temple (verse 1).” This is certainly a place of awe, where the scale alone dwarfs the prophet.
A preacher would be well suited to help set the stage. God’s hem fills the biggest building humans could construct at the time. Cathedrals like St. John the Divine in New York or Notre Dame in Paris create the same scale and often have this image or its counterpart from Revelation 4 painted on a ceiling that towers above tiny human visitors. In addition, God is attended by fierce creatures. These are not the chubby baby angels that appear on Christmas cards, but scary flying snakes, probably the size of sea serpents that are singing with loud, almost ear piercing, voices constantly proclaiming God’s holiness and glory.
It is no wonder in this context Isaiah feels unclean and unworthy and is afraid that this very sight will cause instant death! The prophet’s words, however, can be difficult to decipher. Is he lost (New Revised Standard Version) or ruined (New International Version) in verse 5? The Hebrew root has three meanings, and it is not clear which one is correct here. The word can mean “to be destroyed,” or “be brought to silence,” or “made in the likeness of God” as in Isaiah 40:18. All are possible and offer preaching possibilities.
It is also possible that all three are meant because each tells a truth about humans and God. God can destroy us; an encounter could stun us into silence; and even when unclean we are still made in God’s image. It is interesting that the word for “unclean” here is not implying sin, but it is a ritual word indicating the prophet did not properly prepare for this encounter. This happening seems to have occurred without warning. This is also a preaching point: God does not wait for us to “get clean” before appearing. This is a good intersection with the New Testament text for this week.
The next scene continues the mythical character of the text. The prophet’s lips are touched with a burning stone or coal brought by one of the creatures from the altar. This is a metaphor of the forgiveness that is granted at this very throne each and every time we come before the Lord. We tend over time to take this act for granted, but forgiveness is something that only the great God and Creator and Controller of the Universe can grant!
It seems so ordinary, but this text reminds us that forgiveness is anything but ordinary. Like Isaiah, we stand small and human before God, dependent on a gracious act for our restoration. Modern English translations imply that it is only “then” that the prophet can hear God, but the Hebrew text is not as clear here, using only the simple conjunction waw. God asks a question that under the circumstances has no answer except the one given. Those that have been called by God to a task know very well that there is usually only one answer — whether that call is to pastor a congregation or parent a child.
The call was, as we see from Jeremiah, decided in our very creation. We can resist but will not be whole until we answer God and become what we are created to be and do. It is no surprise that the hymn based on this verse “Here I am, Lord” appears in the liturgy of so many ordination and commissioning services.
This text, as noted, gives several avenues for preaching. Yet there is also a decision to be made. The reading for this day ends at verse 9 and as an Old Testament scholar, I have a problem with using all of the positive images of calling here without telling the rest of the story, continuing to verse 13, which speaks of the difficulty of prophetic truth-telling. But as a preacher, I can see that continuing the text depends on the central message of the sermon itself. However, we as preachers have a responsibility to tell of the difficulty of following God’s call for the decision of the newly-minted disciples in the Luke text will not bring an easy life either. There is a price to be paid for singing “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty” in the face of an oppressive force that thinks otherwise. If this additional section is not included on this day, it should be part of the regular proclamation of the Word.