I enjoy the challenge of passages like Isaiah 6. The narrative is familiar enough: while worshiping in the Jerusalem Temple, the prophet Isaiah has a vision, and in that vision YHWH calls him to go and to speak. The scandal upon which I usually meditate is the content of the commission: the prophet is to speak so that the people do not hear, to render them deaf with his warnings of divine visitation, to preach until destruction is upon Jerusalem. There’s no small amount of soul-searching that has to happen when one meditates upon that part of the episode.
But this week’s reading does not allow one to get that far: in the absence of the harsh message of coming destruction, the scandal of the vision itself comes into focus. The sentence is so stark that I don’t remember ever “seeing” it the way I do as I write this, but it’s hard to deny that the sentence is there: “I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 1:1)
Before my own Bible teachers in seminary and in college Bible classes before that taught me to sit in submission to what the Bible actually says, I would have had little trouble with this, and I’ve heard preachers who no doubt would still dispatch that little sentence with the tools of Bible-harmony. Whatever Isaiah means, these preachers would say without saying it this bluntly, he couldn’t have meant what he actually says. John 1 says that nobody has seen God, and before that Exodus says that anyone who sees God would die as a result. Since Isaiah keeps on living into chapter six, verse two, he must not have seen the Lord.
There was a time when I would have made that same move. I’m not so sure any more. To take that harmonizing stance means that I, the mortal, have the authority to say that this Bible verse must relativize that one, that verse alpha sets up the categorical rules for reading, while verse beta is the “problem verse” that needs categorizing. There have been times in my own career as a teacher of the Bible that I’d be comfortable making those moves; now I’m not as sure.
What I am sure of is that this vision, in which Isaiah says that he saw the Lord (and he says so in a text that the Church has recognized as inspired from the inception of the Church), leads to an experience of terror, not of assurance: Isaiah, who no doubt knows the character of the Lord whom he worships (and whom he saw!), immediately cries out his own woe. When YHWH shows up, righteousness is vindicated and wickedness scattered, and Isaiah has no doubt where he sits in that schema. When one of the flaming ones (I render that somewhat woodenly to remind myself that this is no scene from a Precious Moments display) touches his lips with the burning coal, the flaming one does so as a prelude to the oracle of doom: even to announce the destruction of Jerusalem YHWH would have a messenger whose sins have been burned away.
I won’t pause here to ponder the implications of this scene for our talk of atonement; that’s for another day. What strikes me, when the Scriptures begin and end as they do (and thus is the benefit of preaching a lectionary that one does not invent), is that the standard response to a divine calling, the “Here I am,” comes only after the sight of the Lord and a response of abject terror. This is no story of a lifelong aspiration to “preach the word” or a “people person” who decides on a “career” that fits the entertainer’s personality: this is a moment of divine act, when YHWH, Lord of Hosts, reaches into the Temple that should bear his name in order to inspire the messenger who will proclaim his wrath. It’s unavoidably wrapped up in the story of Israel–no least-common-denominator religion allowed here–and yet flies in the face of much of Israel’s talk about God. Such is the prophetic moment, the time when YHWH reveals YHWH’s self in a radical moment, setting down a new root that Israel and Church ignore at our peril. Such episodes are what make me naturally suspicious of self-appointed “radicals” who seem interested in parroting philosophies and political agendas that I could have picked up in some German philosopher’s book or advertising executive’s playbook decades or centuries before. When Isaiah sees, he sees the Lord. When he fears, he fears the Lord. When he hears, he hears the Lord. And when he goes forth, as the one whom God has sent, he does so as a divine messenger. Certainly that’s nothing less than social criticism and commentary, and certainly that opens up possibilities for prognostication, but in his moment, the real scandal is that this mortal speaks as the voice of the LORD.
May we hear the prophets and respond with fear and trembling. And with faith.