pen on paper drawing of six-winged seraph
Reaching out to overcome distance and difference of holiness

[A sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8,  the Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 9]

Would we want to have Isaiah’s vision? That overwhelming vision clearly affected Isaiah’s understanding of God; a vision of God like that might change our understanding of God, too.

Whether we would want to have this particular vision, however – we might seriously need to ask this question. Isaiah’s vision emphasizes God’s holiness. Contemporary Christians, especially the ones I know, and perhaps the one I am, don’t always do that, don’t always say “holiness” as the first thing that comes to mind when someone says “God.” We seem to be more likely to think about and talk about God’s grace and God’s inclusive acceptance; or God’s justice, God’s preferential option for the poor; or God’s love and forgiveness. It’s not that we would deny that God is holy, just that it’s not the main thing we have in mind about God.

And astonishingly, this vision of God’s transcendent holiness contributes to Isaiah’s unhesitating willingness to serve God by saying “Here I am, send me” when he hears that God needs someone to be sent, to “go for” the cosmic assembly and to deliver what turns out to be a pretty dismal prophetic message to the people of Judah and Jerusalem. Isaiah goes from dread of doom at seeing the holy God to hand-waving volunteerism in the blink of an eye – what is going on? So not only do we need to consider whether we would want to experience such a vision, we would do well to consider why it produces the dramatic effect it does.

And probably, since this is a vision that emphasizes God’s transcendent holiness, we need to give some thought to what we mean by holiness. Because God’s holiness is the central message of this vision: the seraphs, who are fearsome and holy themselves, it seems, acknowledge and continuously proclaim God’s holiness; God occupies and completely dwarfs the holy space of the Temple in Jerusalem; Isaiah recognizes God’s holiness in his despairing cry, that he is too unclean, and comes from a people that is too unclean, to look on the holy God and survive the experience. What is all of this about?

Classically, we describe what is “holy,” or what is “sacred,” as that which is set apart, for instance for a special use or purpose. While we think of holiness as having something to do with goodness, or righteousness, because we know that God and those things that are dedicated to God are holy, and because we know God is good, and while we use the language of “holier than thou” to describe people who think they are better than others, ultimately holiness signifies being different.

These days, perhaps one good way to think about holiness is in relation to “boundaries.” Almost everyone these days has heard of boundaries; has heard that it is important to have “healthy boundaries;” has heard people talk about folks who have “no boundaries” or “boundary issues.” Boundaries are those limits and recognitions that separate us from others, and what is ours from what is yours or theirs, the lines that keep us from confusing ourselves with our parents or our children, and that mark off the difference between what is appropriate and what is exploitative, or abusive. We could think of “holiness” in terms of boundaries, as the line between what is divine or set apart for the use of the divine, the limit of what pertains to or belongs to God.

God is not confused, it seems, about who God is, and what that means, both for God and for God’s creation. We humans, however, sometimes do get confused. We imagine that God is identical to this or that limited aspect of the creation; looks like this or that animal; has the nature of this or that abstract entity. We get God mixed up with all kinds of other creatures and other created things. There are some beautiful ideas we can have when we do that … but they are all incompatible with the kind of strict boundary maintenance that has to do with “holiness.” Because whoever and whatever is holy is someone or something that is on the other side of an important boundary, a boundary we are expected to respect, to acknowledge, to recognize.

God is personal, but is not a person. God is distinctly different from human beings, in ways we know, and presumably in ways we know nothing of. It is probably a mistake to say that God is “wholly other” than humanity. That is how Karl Barth’s phrase “ganz anderes” is often translated, which would suggest that there is no point of contact at all between God and us. If that were the case, we presumably would not even be able to receive any revelation from God. But it is presumably no mistake to understand that God is really, seriously different from us, and in some ways fundamentally so.

The first central point in Isaiah’s vision, then, becomes this vast distance and difference between God and humanity, the immense and seemingly unbridgeable separation of God from Isaiah, the sense of which Isaiah experiences as holiness. And the simultaneous experience of uncleanness goes along with that. This recognition is ancient, as well; the rabbis of the Mishna noted that the holy scriptures “make the hands unclean” – it seems, because contact with these holy things makes us aware of the difference, the un-holinesss, of what is other than the scriptures; in the same way, the vision of God makes Isaiah acutely aware that he is not God, everything that God is not, impure and not good, in contrast to God’s purity and goodness – enough to feel doomed.

Which leads immediately to the second central point in the vision, which is that God also overcomes the distance and the differences between God and humanity. In Isaiah’s case, the seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with an ember from the altar – an altar, let’s not forget, that God instituted, for the special purpose of bridging the distance between God and God’s people. And the seraph announces to Isaiah that now his transgression is turned aside and his sin is covered, so Isaiah knows that he is safe, and he becomes able to hear God; he is now in God’s presence, has come through this distance and difference between God and humanity, with God’s authorization; he knows he has permission, he knows all is well.

So Isaiah, of all the people we have considered so far, has just had a vivid, direct demonstration that he can trust God precisely to overcome this distance and difference, not by ignoring or confusing the boundaries that establish God’s holiness, but by making a way over the obstacle to relationship they impose, for God’s own sake. Having experienced God’s reconciling concern, Isaiah is free to obey God with complete confidence. Furthermore, Isaiah has a powerful motivation to do whatever this awe-inspiring personage suggests. Because there are some personalities that we wouldn’t even think of saying “no” to …

According to the Christian story, this experience of Isaiah’s is one we could all share, because God has done essentially the same thing for humanity in general. In Jesus Christ, in whom God and humanity were brought together in one perfect human life. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection a humanity that seemed doomed to distance and separation was reconciled to God’s ever-living divinity. In the same way that an ember from the altar purified Isaiah’s speech, baptism into Christ’s holiness gives Christians assurance that they are declared acceptable in God’s presence, and can hear God’s word to humanity in Jesus Christ and can communicate with God in prayer through Christ’s name.

Knowing that really ought to make us as confident as Isaiah ourselves. We, too, really could hear God’s call to humanity in Jesus Christ as a call to us. We, too, could answer without any fear or hesitation, knowing that whatever the God who reconciles us to Godself would bring about will ultimately be for our good and for the good of our relationship with God. Isaiah’s vision of God is not really, fundamentally, different from the vision humanity has had of God in Jesus Christ. In its particulars, yes, it’s different. But in its deeper significance, it points to the same basic reality: the overwhelmingly holy God reaches out to communicate with people, and makes it possible for people to experience God’s awe-inspiring presence, to hear God’s Word, and to say yes to participating in God’s mission. That, surely, is a vision to embrace.