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It Could Happen Here


Isaiah 6:1-8   Mark 4:13 -20


Yes, I’m aware that Sunday morning has almost passed and there isn’t much left of a rain-free weekend, one of the few we’ve had this summer. Perhaps, then, you want me to conclude the sermon and service as quickly as I can.  For this reason we may have come to this service with something on our mind besides the adoration of God.

Yes, I’m aware that this is the 33rd time I’ve preached in Knox Church . Many of you have heard me speak dozens of times. Since there are a finite number of synaptic firings in everyone’s grey matter, many of you have already figured out how my ‘noodle’ works. As soon as I announce the text you can outline the sermon.  As soon as I announce the text some of you can write the sermon.

Yes, Isaiah was sitting among fellow-worshippers in the Jerusalem temple, in yet another service, where he had worshipped for years.  What the clergy and congregation were doing that day — singing, praying, speaking, offering — they had done countless times before. He wasn’t expecting anything beyond doing it all one more time.

And then it happened. Precisely when Isaiah expected nothing. It happened to him at worship, as it has happened to me at worship and may happen to anyone at worship.  What happened? “I saw the Lord, seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the skirt of his robe billowed throughout Knox Church at Spadina and Harbord.

“But God is spirit”, someone wants to remind me, “and since God is spirit he doesn’t wear a robe with a swirling skirt”.   Let’s not be pedantic. Let’s not trivialize the episode in Isaiah’s life that left him forever different, as Jacob’s wrestling through the night at Peniel left him forever different, as Paul’s prostration on the way to Damascus left him forever different, as my stomach-churning recognition, during an evening service when I was fourteen years old, left me forever different, unable to deny what I knew loomed before me (the ministry of Word, sacrament and pastoral care) and unable to escape it.  It happened to Isaiah during worship.  Why shouldn’t it happen to anyone at St. Matthew’s By-The-Gas-Station on any worship occasion at all?


I: — What exactly happened to Isaiah? “I saw the Lord!” Almost.  He almost saw the Lord. The Hebrew bible insists that no one on earth can “see” God and live. Strictly speaking, Isaiah saw, in his life-altering vision, throne and robes and attendants. Throne and robe and attendants point to Him whom no one can see and live.

Isaiah was sitting in church for the thousandth time expecting nothing more than what had happened (or hadn’t happened) last week when inexplicably the incense-smoke used in worship to symbolize God’s presence suddenly symbolized nothing: it was the palpable presence of God. While the rest of the congrega­tion sat bored half-to-death wishing Rev. Drone would learn to stop when he was finished, Isaiah felt the foundations of the building tremble as though an earthquake were underway. With his Spirit-sensitised sight he saw the Seraphim, creatures who extol God’s holiness, surrounding the throne.

The Seraphim had three pairs of wings.  With one pair they flew around the throne of God, honouring the One whom only the spiritually quickened can approach.  With another pair they covered their eyes but not their ears, their task being always to hear what God utters, never to try to pry into the innermost recesses of God’s ineffableness.  With their third pair of wings they covered their “feet” (feet being a Hebrew circumlocution for genitals; their modesty constrained them to “cover up” before God.)


Each Seraph called to the other, “Holy, holy, holy”. To say “holy, holy, holy” of God, rather, is to say that God is uniquely holy, inexpressibly holy, unsurpassably holy, incomparably holy. That’s it — incomparably holy. When Isaiah overhears the Seraphim calling “holy, holy, holy” to each other as they surround the throne of God there is seared upon Isaiah forever the awareness that God is uniquely holy, solely holy, singular­ly holy.

It all adds up to one thing: God is incomparable.  God is not the “nth” degree of anything human.  God is not a projection of humankind at its best or humankind at its strongest or humankind at its most mysterious.  God is uniquely, irreducibly, self-existently GOD.

Vague? Abstract?    Ethereal? Hard-to-find?   Not for Isaiah. God is an evanescence we can’t locate?  God, rather, is the densest density we can’t avoid.   Never will I forget the day I went to see my favourite philosophy professor, Emil Fackenheim, about a term paper I had to write.   (Fackenheim, a world-class philosopher, was the crown jewel of the philosophy department of the University of Toronto . We talked about my essay for five minutes. Then he pushed his glasses up onto his forehead, tipped his chair back, put his feet on his desk, and fired up a big cigar.  “Philosophy”, he said to me, “we’ve talked enough about philosophy. Let’s talk about GOD. (I can’t pronounce the word properly. When Fackenheim said ‘God’ the whole room filled with the shekinah, the presence.) Shepherd, if modernity thinks about God at all, it thinks God is vague while we human beings are concrete. The truth is just the opposite. It’s God who is concrete and it’s we who are vague.  There’s no question mark hanging above Him; the question mark is hanging above us. There’s nothing problematic about Him; but in the wake of the depredations of the past 100 years there’s everything problematic about humankind.”  Puffing out a huge cloud of noxious cigar smoke (by now the cloud of cigar smoke was to me the incense in Isaiah’s temple), Fackenheim concluded, “Just remember, Shepherd, God is not the answer to our questions; God is forever the question to our ‘answers’.  And don’t forget: it’s we who are ‘iffy’ and insubstantial and dubious; but concerning him there is nothing ‘iffy’ or insubstantial or dubious at all.”

Whenever the Hebrew bible speaks of God as “The Holy One” the thrust of the passage is that God distances himself from every kind of human presumptuousness; God distances himself from every kind of human project and projection and prejudice and pet peeve.  God distances himself from all that is not worthy of him, not true of him, simply not him.   The Holy One is incomparable.  Hosea comes upon some Israelite people with vindictive hearts who are bent on retaliation. At that moment Hosea overhears God say, “I won’t do what you people are bent on doing, for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst.” (Hosea 11:9)

As Isaiah sat in church, doing whatever it was he had already done a thousand times over, he “saw the Lord, high and exalted”.  He heard the Seraphim magnifying the holiness of God as they called to each other, “There is none like Him!”   In that instant Isaiah knew that “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” God’s glory is the outer expression of his innermost splendour.  God’s glory is the earthly manifestation of God’s unearthly Godness. And just when Isaiah knew the whole earth to be full of God’s glory, he felt the whole earth to be reeling as though it were breaking up.  Isaiah was threatened. He had nowhere to stand. Where can anyone stand in an earthquake? Every last security he possessed evaporated like a water droplet beneath a blowtorch.


II: — What did Isaiah do? He crumbled.   “Woe is me! For I am lost!” He didn’t say, as so much denominational literature says, “This is a meaningful worship-experience. Let’s write it up so others can see if it’s meaningful for them too.”         He crumbled.

Why did Isaiah crumble? “Woe is me. For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.”  Plainly he is horrified. A man of unclean lips? Lips express what lies hidden in the heart. Unclean lips mean defiled heart.  Isaiah knows it of himself; and he knows it of everyone else.   Because his heart is defiled there’s no chance he can make his unclean lips clean, acceptable to God.  Then can his community do this for him, as the collectivists among us like to tell us? But every last person in his community is similarly defiled, corrupted, sin-riddled throughout. Then God is the one to make clean what is now filthy and putrid.   But Isaiah has apprehended God, and now he knows that before the Holy One defiled people aren’t cleansed; they are annihilated.  Intense heat doesn’t cleanse a moth’s wings; intense heat annihilates them. Ultra-intense light doesn’t improve the eye’s sensitivity to light; it annihilates it. “Woe is me!   For I am lost; for my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.” The horror is as unendurable as the annihilation is inescapable.

We must always be careful in speaking of God’s holiness.   We must never create the impression, in our experience-hungry era, that an experience of God’s holiness is something like an experience of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing our favourite Beethoven composition: a warm bath of aesthetic immediacy soaking us in pleasure, relaxation, sentiment — all of which finds us leaving the concert hall profoundly satisfied. Isaiah didn’t say of his experience of God’s holiness, “More delightful than a Mozart piano sonata, more satisfying than a good meal, more stimulating than an article in The New Yorker.”    Neither did Isaiah, prophet that he was, leave the temple thinking that as a result of his experience he now had enough sermon-material for the next three weeks.         Isaiah didn’t leave the temple.  He didn’t move. Why move when you are milliseconds from annihilation?

Goethe, the greatest of Germany ’s literary giants; Goethe said, “No one can contemplate sheer evil and remain sane.” Goethe may have been right; I think he was.  Isaiah knew, however, that no one can view pure holiness and remain.  It may be that we can’t behold sheer evil and exist sane.  It is certain that we can’t behold the Holy One and exist.  John the seer, the writer of the book of Revelation; John too was exposed for an instant to his Lord, risen, ascended, glorious, “whose eyes were like a flame of fire and whose voice was like the sound of many waters and whose face was like the sun shining in full strength.” (Revelation 1: 12-17) In that instant, John tells us, “I fell at his feet as though dead.”

The holiness of God is incarnated in the Son of God.   Then it’s readily understood why Peter, upon seeing Jesus on one occasion, fell at the feet of the master and cried, “Depart from me; just leave me!” Peter knew, as John the seer knew, and as Isaiah knew, that when we are face-to-face with the Holy One His departure is our only hope of survival.


III: — Or is it? Isaiah did survive the dreadful encounter. But not because God departed. “Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’“

Can you imagine what it would be to be touched — anywhere — with a live coal? And to be touched on the lips, one of the most sensitive areas of the body?  It would be painful beyond telling. Yet even as the pain seared Isaiah and his knees shook from it he knew that the one thing needed had been done. He was now fit to face God and could endure God’s holy presence.

For our Hebrew parents the altar in the temple was the venue of sacrifice. Sacrifices were the God-ordained means whereby defiled people could approach the One who does not tolerate sin. Worshippers brought to the temple the very best animal they had, always a male; a ram, for instance. Why a male? Anyone connected with agriculture knows that the best male of a flock or herd is ever so much more than a good-quality animal; the best male of a flock or herd, used for breeding purposes, is the owner’s future.  When a superb racehorse like Northern Dancer wins the Kentucky Derby or the Queen’s Plate, the racehorse doesn’t keep racing (and winning) until he’s past his prime.         Every time he races he risks injury; an injured horse has to be shot. Once the horse has proven himself by winning two or three big races, he never races again; instead he breeds. Northern Dancer raced for two years and then impregnated mares for 25; Northern Dancer made millions for his owner.  He was his owner’s future.

The best of the flock or herd lent material prosperity to the owner and his family; material prosperity meant social superiority; it all added up to power. In other words, owning a prized animal meant the owner could “lord it over” his neighbours. To give up the animal meant no wealth, no social advantage, no power.  So far from “lording it over” others one could now only serve others. To give it up at worship meant that the worshipper was abandoning the future he had orchestrated for himself and was entrusting his future to God.   Specifically, in bringing the best of flock or herd to the temple as a sacrifice the worshipper was declaring that God was his future.

Isaiah was at worship that day.  He would have brought something to offer at worship.  He may have been “going through the motions”, as we say, aware in his head of what the temple-liturgy meant even as his heart was who knows where — when it happened.  In his vision he saw the seraph take a burning coal from the altar and touch his lips with it. As the coal seared his lips it remedied his heart.  His guilt was purged, his sin forgiven, his sacrifice sealed.         The God whom he couldn’t withstand only seconds ago was now his sole future.


As painful as it is to meet up with the holiness of God, we can survive it. We can survive it, however, only as the pain of it becomes a little more painful: the burning coal from the fire which is consuming the sacrifice we say we have brought in good faith, the burning coal from the fire which declares we say that God is our future; this coal has to scorch us. As it scorches us it forever alters the expression our life takes (our lips); it also alters the innermost essence of our life (our heart).  At this moment our profession that God is our future begins to be credible.


IV: — The result of it all for Isaiah was that he knew God to be calling him.  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”         Isaiah could only reply, “Here am I!   Send me.”

Encounter with the Holy One leaves us neither merely prostrated nor merely pardoned. Encounter with the Holy One causes us to hear and quickens our response.   To be drawn into the life of the One who sends all sorts of people and whose sending culminates in the sending of his Son; to be drawn into God’s life is to be sent oneself.         And so Isaiah is sent out.

Will the people to whom Isaiah is sent hear him and heed him?  Will Isaiah’s mission be a howling success? It isn’t going to be a howling success. They will neither hear him nor heed him.  They will only plug their ears and harden their hearts.  Then has Isaiah been commissioned to a fruitless, useless task?   No. Not all of Israel will plug their ears and harden their hearts.  Some will hear and heed; some will respond eagerly and offer themselves as the vehicle whereby God’s purposes are forwarded for the world.

It’s no different with us.  Face-to-face with God we are neither merely prostrated nor merely pardoned. God calls us and commissions us to a work that frequently seems fruitless and largely appears useless. Ultimately, however, it isn’t fruitless or useless.

In his parable of the sower and the seed Jesus maintains that relatively little of the seed that is sown ever issues in a full-grown plant. But the little seed that does germinate and mature issues in a full-grown plant whose yield is staggering: up to 100-fold. (This is a yield of 10,000 %.) Much seed is sown, says Jesus; little seed germinates and thrives; but the little that germinates and thrives issues in a huge yield, far beyond what anyone could imagine.

Therefore the one thing we must never do is assume that the work to which God appoints us is fruitless.  We must never assume that because so much seed issues in nothing therefore all seed issues in nothing.  We must always know that the little seed that takes root and matures issues in what is beyond our knowing or telling.  We must put behind us all calculation as to how much fruit our work is going to bear and therefore whether we are going to serve. Our only response can be to say with Isaiah, and to keep on saying, “Here am I; send me” — and then leave the outcome in God’s hands.

This is where it ends. It begins in worship. Isaiah was at worship putting up with several old hymns and a highly repetitive sermon when his world overturned. Someone engulfed him and he knew that the whole earth was full of God’s glory.  Thereafter he never doubted what he was to do in the church, where God’s glory is known; thereafter he never doubted what he was to do in the world, which God’s glory will never abandon.


                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd  
August 2008                                                                                                                 

preached on 17th August 2008 at Knox Presbyterian Church, Toronto