An observation: how many of us make the connection between the scene depicted in Isaiah 6:1-8 and the atmospheric tone of our Anglican tradition of worship in the Episcopal Church? Some of us are fortunate to worship in churches where the craftsmen of a past generation have employed stone and wood, color and iconography, glass, tile and rich fabric to create a context rich in the symbolism and atmosphere of Isaiah’s description of his experience in the Temple at Jerusalem.
There are, indeed, contemporary churches where in a different way the architectural purity of unadorned line and spaciousness of dimension recaptures the grandeur of Isaiah’s experience. Yet, even when our church building may seem rather pedestrian and ordinary by comparison with great cathedrals and churches, care is never-the-less taken to make the sanctuary a fitting place for the worship of God.
For the worship of God is what Episcopalians do first and foremost when they meet together on Sunday morning. No matter the building we happen to find ourselves in, the structure of the liturgy communicates the very essence of Isaiah’s experience. At the climax of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, the congregation loudly proclaims the Seraphs’ cry:
Isaiah 6:1-8 has created the imaginative template for Christian liturgical worship. Sometimes this template translates as a physical space, but always as an internal space, independent of physical environment in which the members of the worshiping congregation are drawn into a collective experience facilitated by the heartbeat of the liturgy. For worship offers us a collective experience that is greater than the sum total of our individual parts. Whether celebrated with pomp and circumstance or with a simple and quiet dignity by a priest and a handful of faithful worshipers.
A second observation about this passage is that it is one of the most powerful if not the most powerful account of a call or conversion experience to be found anywhere in scripture. Overwhelmed with sensory overload, the young Isaiah in response to the Seraphim song ejaculates: Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips: yet my eyes gave seen the king, the Lord of hosts! Extending the metaphor of unclean lips, a seraph takes a burning coal from the incense stand and seers his lips as absolution is pronounced.
I had a rather facetious thought that I should always have a brazier of burning coals to hand when I hear individual confessions – but I guess that this is not a good way to encourage privatized Episcopalians to avail themselves of this spiritual remedy for a troubled conscience.
My third observation concerning this passage is that immediately the deal has been sealed between Isaiah and the Lord, the Lord makes a request in the form of the question: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?
In his first letter to the Corinthians the Apostle, Paul hints at his own conversion experience, which compares well alongside that of Isaiah’s. Saul as he was then known, while travelling to Damascus in pursuit of the followers of Jesus whom he – Pharisees of the strictest party of the Pharisees was persecuting, he is struck down by a vision that leaves him disoriented and blind for several days.
Saul, would have been extremely familiar with Isaiah’s account of his call in the Temple. Many times his meditation upon the text may well have convinced him of his divinely appointed mission to bring the renegade followers of Jesus to book. Perhaps it was his meditation on Isaiah 6 that as his mind sought to fill the time as he travelled on the hot and dusty road, Saul suddenly saw more than the hem of the Lord’s garment. Did Saul gaze upon the very face of God and see the face of Jesus asking him: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? Saul, the Pharisee, driven by a jealous longing for the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel was confronted with the realization that the promise that motivated his waking hours and haunted his dreams had come to fulfilment already in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So far, we have two examples of fairly mystical and somewhat ecstatic conversion experiences. The account of being called that Luke offers us in Chapter 5 is set in the context of everyday activity. Peter and his companions are small boat owners. They are tired after a hard night fishing and frustrated with little to show for it. Who is this guy sitting in a boat talking nonsense about throwing out the nest again?
In most translations Simon addresses Jesus as Master when he protests that they have been at it all night. While grammatically correct, Richard Swanson suggest a more idiomatic choice of boss, suggesting something of a facetious edge underneath Simon’s outward respect to this itinerant teacher who is, frankly, just making a nuisance of himself. In to Jesus suggestion the spirit of Simon’s response seems to convey the meaning of:
It’s all a big surprise when the nets are so full of fish they can’t be hauled in without help. In that moment, whatever it is that Simon recognizes, it causes him to fall at Jesus feet exclaiming: Go away from me for I am not worthy enough to draw your attention to me. We hear the echo of Isaiah’s words: I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.
Jesus in effect says: Never mind, there’s nothing to be afraid of because from now on you will be catching people. Luke tells us, Simon and his partners James and John left everything in that moment and followed Jesus.
Do you have a recollection of a call or conversion experience? For most of us the growth into faith is gradual and allowing for some ups and downs, coming to faith is a steady process over time. And yet, can we recall a memory of a moment in time – when looking back – we now see a turning point when we set out on a new path towards faith?
Mine came at the age of 15 when I attended the service of Evensong for the first time in the beautiful stone church of St Barnabas, in Fendalton, the East Side of my home town of Christchurch, New Zealand. As I gazed at the altar – alight with two tall candles burning below the great East Window through which the last of the summer twilight filtered, I became enthralled by the sung rhythm of the suffrages – the call and answer responses that are intoned, alternating back and forth between officiant, choir, and congregation. I heard the words in my head: how come I never knew there was anything as beautiful as this?
This memory is more a testament to my internal experience rather than to any extraordinary uniqueness of this particular Evensong; for this is the nature of call or conversion experience. Sometimes, the moment of call comes with dramatic special effects, but mostly it comes through ordinary events that for the individual take on extraordinary significance.
I went home that evening, outwardly unchanged. But looking back, sitting in that church, on that particular evening, I set out upon a different path. It took many years for me to be able to say: here am I, Lord, send me.
We are all people with unclean lips, and we too find in us the echo of Simon Peter’s words: go away from me Lord, for I am not worthy. Yet, the Lord calls uncovers the trustworthiness that is in us.
We certainly live among a people with unclean lips, and it’s clear that the purpose of God’s call to each of us is to advance the expectations of the kingdom identifying and challenging the evils of the human societal status quo which always favors power and wealth in the fight for justice and liberation from all forms of oppression. But we also have seen the Lord of hosts.
Each week we come to worship, where we hear and receive God in the dignity of the liturgy and in the faces of those with whom we worship. We take God into our mouths, and we feed on him in our hearts. We too have seen the Lord of hosts and we are ready, if we will but know it, to take hold of the opportunities and meet head-on the challenges that lie ahead. Yet, one more thing is needed. Our consent. God still asks: Whom shall I send, who will go for us? Do we have the courage to say: here am I, here are we, Lord, I/we will go.