by David Baer, May 27, 2018
Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
Some things are just too big to see. My wife and I spent our honeymoon on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, and it was an amazing adventure in a beautiful country of wild seas, towering mountains, and majestic evergreen forests. One day we went on a tour on a zodiac boat across Clayoquot Sound, and we got a sense for how rich the waters were, what with all the large animals they sustained—seals, sea lions, orcas, and grey whales. There was a playful orca out in the sound that day, one who seemed to realize that he had captured our attention. So he repeatedly jumped up out of the water and came down with an enormous splash, to the delight of everyone watching. I was lucky enough to capture a picture of this great big animal surging up out of the waves. What a showoff! He wanted to be seen.
The grey whales were something else, though. We could catch a glimspe here of a back sliding up out of the surface of the water, there a water spout where the animals breathed, and every now and then a tail fluke. But the vast bulk of the whales remained hidden. We knew we were in the presence of a creature of immense size, something wonderful and yet hidden, something our senses could never perceive directly and completely. If we wanted a picture of the grey whale, we had to piece it together from these fragmentary bits, and even then we’d probably get it wrong. Because some things are just too big to see.
Today is Trinity Sunday. It’s a day when the church remembers and celebrates the Three-in-One, One-in-Three nature of the God who loves, creates, and saves us. But when it comes to talking about God as Trinity, the scriptures can only give us glimpses of something bigger than our perception and our understanding. Some things are just too big to see.
Isaiah son of Amoz comes into the Temple in Jerusalem in our Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, and he’s confronted with something way too big to see. We don’t know too much about Isaiah’s life, but he seems to have no trouble getting an audience with kings, so he’s probably a royal official. He might have been accompanying the new king, Jotham, to the Temple on the day of a festival. In any case, as he looks into the inner sanctuary, the holiest of holies, and he sees God sitting on a throne, high and lofty and out of sight, while the hem of God’s robe—the very bottom of God’s clothing—fills the temple. This is a God who is too big to see, to wonderful and exalted to be perceived.
But this glimpse of God is not all Isaiah sees. There are otherworldly beings in attendance on God. Don’t make the mistake of imagining that these are angels like we usually picture them. These are not human figures with a single pair of wings. “Saraph” in Hebrew literally means, “the burning one.” The word is used elsewhere to refer to snakes. So these are like dragons—fiery, scaly, terrifying creatures with wings, and probably claws and sharp teeth as well!
Now, sometimes when prophets in the Bible tell the story of how God called them, there’s a precious little back and forth where God says, “I’m appointing you a prophet.” And the prophet says, “I’m not up to the job! Send somebody else!” And then God says, “Don’t worry about it… I’ll tell you what to say.” And then the prophet comes up with some other excuse, and so on. That’s not what happens here. Isaiah’s not concerned with whether he’s up to the job of being a prophet. His main concern right now involves being eaten by one of those giant flying snakes, or else being burned up by the all-consuming fire of God’s other-worldly holiness. The house is filled with smoke, and the foundations are shaking as these terrifying creatures shout, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts!” Job qualifications are the last thing on Isaiah’s mind, because he is convinced he is about to die.
And why? “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says, “and I live among a people of unclean lips.” It’s amazing to me that Isaiah is not only worried about his own guilt, not only concerned with his personal failings—lying or cheating or stealing, coveting his neighbor’s belongings, dishonoring his parents, and so on. He’s also worried about standing before God as a representative of his people, someone involved in, and in a sense accountable for, their sins. When his neighbors worship idols or commit injustice against vulnerable persons—foreigners, widows, and the poor—Isaiah carries that guilt, and he feels the terrifying burden of that guilt when he comes face-to-face with God.
Do we carry that sense of responsibility for the society we’re part of? Martin Luther King did. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”1 The disproportionate weight of the criminal justice system that falls on people of color concerns us all, because like it or not, we’re all tied together. There are 1,475 migrant children who showed up at the border that federal government says it has lost track of—it doesn’t know whether they are with the sponsors the government found for them, with their families, or picked up by human traffickers.2 It’s not a new problem—the children arrived between 2009 and 2014—but it doesn’t give me confidence, when we hear about migrant children today being separated from their parents, that these kids are going to be OK. These children and what happens to them concern us all, because like it or not, we’re all tied together. We are all of us men and women of unclean lips, who live among a people of unclean lips.
Isaiah’s reaction to the holy, otherworldly presence of God is the same as Martin Luther King’s, only more urgent—“I’ve got a lot to answer for, and my people have a lot to answer for, and this isn’t going to end well.” Isaiah has seen God, and God is too big, too frightening, too menacing to this flawed and fragile creature. But God’s response to Isaiah’s terror and awe is to send one of these frightening creatures over with a burning coal to touch to his lips, a gesture of cleansing and forgiveness that stings and heals.
Some things are too big to be seen. God is too big for our finite senses, and too holy for our fallible, fallen character. With God’s robe filling the Temple, God’s presence extending through all space and time, is there room for Isaiah, for you, for me? But God creates the space for us, makes room for us.
Today is Trinity Sunday, which is always a tough one for us preachers. It’s not just that the Trinity is hard to understand. It’s that the history of the church is littered with heresy after heresy about the Trinity. It’s as though anyone who tries to explain it inevitably messes up. And preachers throughout history have gotten the relationship between the Three Persons wrong time after time. One called Jesus “Son of the Eternal God” instead of “Eternal Son of God.” They burned him alive. One said that Jesus was of a similar substance, not the same substance, as God the Father—it’s one letter different in Greek. They kicked him and all his friends out of the church, and literal knock-down-drag-out fights erupted at church councils. Maybe it seems silly to us, but when you remember that we’re made in the image of God, and that to misunderstand who God is means that we misunderstand who we are and how we are meant to live and relate to our neighbors, you can see that the stakes are pretty high. (Still, I think we could have done with a lot less burning and physical assault. Doesn’t the Bible we all read say, very plainly, that God is love?) But here’s the point: any simple explanation you can come up with for the Trinity, anything you can get your head around is probably wrong. Some things are just too big to see—if I give you an explanation of the Trinity that you can understand, it will be wrong, and I’ll be burned at the stake (not really!).
But one thing that people have been able to say, one thing that fits with the Scriptures and has stood the test of time, is that within God’s essential being, at the heart of who God is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are never wholly separate. They dwell within each other, each making space for one another. (The technical word for this is perichoresis, if you want to sound really smart.) So in the Bible Jesus talks about God the Father being in him, and himself being in God the Father. But in the same prayer he asks for his friends to be taken up into that relationship, with these words: “so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22b-23). In the mutual embrace of the Three Persons of God, there is room for the disciples, for Isaiah, for you, and for me. Think of it as a big group hug that always has room for one more.
When God makes room for Isaiah, touching his lips with the burning coal and setting his guilt aside, Isaiah is no longer afraid, and so he’s able to hear what God is saying: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And out of his newfound security and acceptance in the presence of God, Isaiah is able to say, “Here am I; send me!” When God takes us into the big group hug in God’s uncreated being, we experience love and acceptance, but we also begin to want the things God wants and to do the things God does.
Not everyone encounters God in the terrifying way Isaiah did. Some of you have felt God’s vastness when you’ve watched the sky light up with the fire of the setting sun or looked across the immense ocean. For me, God has broken through into my life most fully through other people—in the sacred spaces of a family funeral, or a fellowship group in prayer. But however you encounter God, whatever it is that folds you into that embrace that always has room for one more, whether that experience is in your past or one that you’re still waiting for, I want to invite you to bring Isaiah’s attentiveness and eagerness to it. God creates us, loves us, saves us for a purpose. When we’re caught up into God’s heart, our own hearts are transformed, and we’re given a new life and a new direction. My hope and prayer for you is to take notice, in those moments God is close, and say, “Thank you, God. Now what is it you would like me to do?”
Some things are too big to be seen. But thanks be to God, through God’s love and grace there is room in the heart of God for us to come in and abide, to be transformed and to lift up our voice with Isaiah: “Here I am, send me!” Amen.
Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf. Accessed 5/25/2018.
Ron Nixon, “Federal Agencies Lost Track of Nearly 1,500 Migrant Children Placed With Sponsors.” NY Times. 26 Apr 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/26/us/politics/migrant-children-missing.html. Accessed 5/25/2018.