Updated for Trinity Sunday 2016. (These were the lessons in 2012 when I preached the sermon.)
Let us pray: Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see. Amen.
It was a set-up. Yeshayahu, Isaiah was set up. God set Isaiah up. Isaiah was minding his own business. He was asleep and dreaming. Or he was awake and taken out of this world. One moment he was in the world he knew and the next he was in a world he could only imagine. He was in heaven – and he wasn’t even dead. He was in a large throne room, in a temple that was not entirely of this world – he couldn’t have gotten into the most sacred space of the Israelite temple. Most of the temple was what we would call a compound and most of its real estate was outside, plazas and patios. The large sacrificial altar was outside. The only building was the most holy place, the smallest but tallest part of the complex with the small incense altar and menorah in the front part and the ark of the covenant – which was a theoretical throne – inside behind the veil. Only priests could enter the building and only the High Priest could enter behind the and then only once a year. Isaiah could have never gotten in on his own; he was not a priest. Yet there he was. The temple seems larger and grander in his vision than it was in the sixth century BCE, during his own lifetime.
Perhaps in his vision Isaiah was transported to a reconfigured version of the temple, like in a Harry Potter movie, so that the insides were bigger than the outsides and there was room for the throne and its occupant and attendants. Isaiah was somewhere in the back, perhaps behind a pillar. And no one seemed to notice him. Perhaps I should say no thing noticed him, because there were things in there that he couldn’t imagine. There were great balls of fire, talking, singing, shouting and flying – although how they could see where they were going, I don’t know because they covered their faces with two of their wings and… I think they were naked because they were covering their lower halves – although how can anyone tell if a flying ball of fire is naked let alone what’s below the waist – and I use the word “waist” loosely, I don’t know. I say this because the Hebrew word for “feet” or “legs” includes everything below the waist and frequently means above the thighs and below the waist.
I imagine Isaiah’s eyes bugging out of his head. I tell my students that “angels” for lack of a better word – messengers in Hebrew includes ordinary human message-bearers and supernatural beings – divine messengers such as those Isaiah saw were something like aliens in our culture. There were stories about them, and a few folk claimed to have seen them, but they were special people and not always in the good sense: There are volumes of scholarship dedicated to figuring out if Ezekiel was bipolar, schizophrenic or on hallucinogenic mushrooms or something else. In fact the word that is usually translated as “lo” or “behold” – what most folk say when they see angels in the bible is much more like “Holy **** look at that!”
And Isaiah is not just seeing fire-seraphim, who were technically not angels or messengers – the Hebrew bible treats seraphim, cherubim and divine messengers as different species and doesn’t interchange their titles. Isaiah is seeing God. Wait. That can’t be right, can it? Sure the prophet Micaiah said that he had seen the God of Heaven enthroned in glory, but he was one of those controversial prophets and no one knew quite what to make of him. And, he said that God intentionally mislead God’s people. (1 Kgs 22) And since the scriptures hadn’t been written down yet it’s not clear if Isaiah even knew that story or viewed it as credible, let alone canonical. The elders of Israel saw God in the wilderness, but then there was that one time that God hid Moses and only let him look at God’s—well… Does God have a rump? Could a human being see God and live? Was Isaiah going to die? Was he already dead? Might he make it out of this alive-ish as long as he didn’t try to look at God’s face? No worries on that score; Isaiah was clinging to my imaginary pillar as though his life depended on it.
So Isaiah is peeping around this pillar, I think, it helps me understand why nobody saw him. But surely God knew he was there. It’s not like Isaiah turned the wrong corner out on his daily walk and wound up in heaven. He had been brought here, some kind of way. Set up, I say. But no one is talking to him. Yet, they’re just going about their business which oddly enough seems to be talking about God and not talking to God. They say to one another:
קדוש קדוש קדוש יהוה צבאות מלא כל-הארץ כבודו
Holy, holy, holy, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.
Their voices rolled like the thunder in our Psalm and the doors shook in their frames. Isaiah couldn’t tell if the doors were the only thing shaking or if everything was shaking. The whole world was topsy-turvy and his world was decidedly flat. It was after all, the Iron Age. And then this smoke filled the room, fragrant smoke, unlike any incense he had ever smelled. Incense in heaven? Isaiah didn’t have the language to describe God as a high church Anglican. But on the other hand, this was God’s home and people did burn incense in their houses, especially rich people. But Isaiah was a bit unsettled by the apparently self-tending incense altar. There was no attendant!
And not feeling particularly bold, not bold at all, overcome and overwhelmed, Isaiah said: אוי-לי, Woe is me. I am undone, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the One-Who-Rules, the Sovereign-Commander of angel-armies!
And as soon as the words left his mouth, he clapped his hands over his mouth but it was too late. They heard him and one of them started flying in his direction. Isaiah held on to that pillar for all he was worth. And he couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t passed out yet. Half the people who had ever claimed to have seen an angel collapsed or passed plumb out. So why was he still on his feet? The death grip he had on that pillar I see when I imagine this story kept him upright.
The seraph that flew towards him stopped above the altar of heavenly incense and picked up a lit coal from the altar with a pair of tongs. Wait, how is she, he, it holding a pair of tongs with fingers of flame? And how hot is that coal if a creature made out of fire needs tongs to pick it up? And what is he – ok the grammar says it’s male but grammatical gender isn’t always biological gender, but then again biology doesn’t really apply here – so what is he going to do with that coal? The seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with that coal. There are no words to describe what he felt. The text doesn’t give us any and I can’t imagine any. And I have a pretty vivid imagination.
The seraph pronounced the words of kippurim, the words of atonement that the high priest would only pronounce once a year. And God spoke. For a moment Isaiah had forgotten that God was there! On the throne, veiled in smoke. God spoke and Isaiah couldn’t see who God was talking to. God wasn’t talking to him. God was just talking. And he, Isaiah, was eavesdropping. Except that it was a set up. He had been brought here for a reason.
God said, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us. And Isaiah just happened to be in the right place at the right time, to hear God’s need for somebody, in a place he couldn’t have gotten into if he tried. That coal has had some kind of effect on him. He finally let go of that pillar. And Isaiah said: הנני שלחני, Holy **** it’s me; send me translated as “Here am I; send me.” The text doesn’t tell us how Isaiah got back to our world, or whether he experienced the whole thing as a dream or vision.
But we do know that Isaiah told his story. He told it and people were affected by it whether they believed it or not. And in the days when all they had were the stories of their people and the stories of their God, someone said this story is important. We have to remember this story and tell it to our children. We have to teach them to teach their children and those who come after them so that they will know who we were and who our God is.
Some 740-odd years later, Isaiah and his story, vision, experience, sending and embrace of his commission have been written into the scriptures of his people. They will become the scriptures of peoples beyond his people, in addition to his people because of one person: Yeshua ben Miryam l’Natzeret, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s child.
Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus, shared a naming tradition, rooted in the word for salvation in their native Hebrew – we have German to thank for the “J” in Jesus and Latin for the “I” in Isaiah, but they both begin with the same letter in Hebrew, a yud, a “y.” Yeshayahu and Yeshua, Isaiah and Jesus also shared elements of a divine commission. They were each sent. They were each sent to bear a message for and from God. They both preached and prophesied their messages. But Yeshua, Jesus, was also the message that he preached:
For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have everlasting life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We celebrate the relationship between Jesus and his God and Father who sent him into this world, to us, today on Trinity Sunday. Jesus speaks of God as his Father, of himself as the Son of Woman – I know your translations say “Son of Man” but the Greek can mean either and we shall shortly affirm in the Creed that Jesus got his humanity on his mother’s side. And Jesus speaks of the Spirit who gives birth to us. Throughout the gospels Jesus speaks of God by many names, inviting us to do the same: Wisdom who is justified by her deeds and her children, the male farmer who plants the mustard seed, the baker-woman who kneads yeast into her loaf, the male shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep; the woman house-holder who sweeps her house looking for her precious lost coin; the Advocate and the Comforter and many, many more.
Isaiah named God as “Lord,” and LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies, and then as the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies. First Isaiah calls God “lord” with lower case letters; something like “honored sir,” a human title shared by Moses and other important men. Then Isaiah calls God something like “LORD” with capital letters, representing God’s Most Holy Name that cannot be pronounced by human tongues and is related to the verb “I AM;” LORD or Commander of Heaven’s armies or “hosts.” God is not throwing a party – not yet – God’s hosts are brigades or battalions of heavenly warriors. And lastly Isaiah calls God “the King” or “the One Who Rules, Commander of Heaven’s armies.”
The church has largely settled on one way of naming God to our great poverty. The blessed, holy Trinity is one way and only one way of naming the God of many names, the God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God. It is not the only way and it is not my way. If you know me you are not surprised by that. I once famously – or perhaps infamously – responded to a question during a job interview about the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible by saying I didn’t believe the Trinity. There’s a reason some preachers call Trinity Sunday Heresy Sunday.
God is beyond numbering and naming. The scriptures use many more than three names or images to describe God and do not limit us to any. And the scriptures do not mention the Trinity at all. Three names make a nice poetic flourish. But God is not bound or limited by our limitations. God is One, and Two – Incarnate and Incorporeal, and Three and Seven (the “seven spirits of God” in Rev 3:1; 4:5; 5:6) and God is Many and Ineffable.
But since today is Trinity Sunday, Let’s name God in Threes:
Author, Word and Translator;
Sovereign, Savior and Shelter;
Majesty, Mercy and Mystery;
Creator, Christ, and Compassion;
Parent, Partner, and Friend;
Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver;
Holy Incarnate Majesty, Holy Incarnate Word, Holy Abiding Spirit;
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer;
God who brings us to life, calls us to freedom, and moves between us with love;
The God of Isaiah, the God of Jesus and our God.
The God of many names is our God, Isaiah’s God and the God of Jesus the Messiah. How do you name God?
warrior, king, mother, father, righteous judge,
shepherd, banner, rock, fortress, deliverer,
peace, light, salvation,
strength and shield,
I had recently discovered the Game of Thrones series of books when I first wrote this sermon. In one of the realms of the books there is a religion based on the Seven: Mother, Father, Maid, Warrior, Crone, Smith and Stranger. Sometimes the Seven speak to me as a more complete metaphor for God than do the Three. And there are the two religions in Lois Bujold’s Curse of Challion. The religion is either Quadrene (Four) or Quintarian (Five) depending on which you believe is orthodox rendering the other heterodox or downright heretical. The agreed upon Four are the Mother, Daughter, Father and Son. The disputed fifth is the Bastard – ask Job about that one, that’s another sermon.
However you name God, the Many-Named God transcends and defies our attempts to number and name. Instead, God conspires. To conspire is con spiro, to breathe together, not just deceitful or treacherous planning. God breathes with us, breathes in us, breathes through us in this Pentecost season to change the world through the Church.
We like Isaiah have been set up. We like Isaiah and Jesus have been sent. We have been commissioned to tell the story of the God who loves us, who is Love and bids us love one another, world without end. Amen.