March 2008 - Vol. 17


Holy, Holy, Holy

Isaiah's Call and Mission 

– and Ours

By Tom Mangan


It is dangerous to write about holiness because others could easily draw the conclusion that the writer is holier than he really is. In truth, I write about holiness precisely because it is an area in my life in which I desperately need to grow. 

I would like to begin by addressing the importance of mystery in life. I don’t know about you, but I like a mystery. I like the fact that there are unknowables, undefinables, and “black holes” in our data bank of spiritual knowledge. That God can be known and yet remain unknown is fine by me. I accept the fact that I can grow in the knowledge of him, yet never completely penetrate the deep mystery of his Being.

Religion, faith, and God are not just interesting – they are compelling, specifically because they can never be fully known. Finding the “X” in algebraic problems and in “who-done-it” mysteries is fascinating since they present the challenge of possible discovery or they remain forever elusive. In many instances we will never reach the bottom of certain realities.  “X” won’t be found, and some real-life “who-done-its” will remain unresolved. 

What part of God’s mystery does he want to reveal to me?
When I read scripture, I try to read it as though I’m reading it for the first time. I like to read from different versions so I don’t become overly familiar with particular passages. I try to imagine that I’m in the story and what I’m reading is actually happening to me. In reading scripture I want my Bible to be “active and alive.” I want it to speak to me and reveal what God is opening for me now. In other words, I want the Holy Spirit to pull back the veil and show me a bit of his mystery. I don’t need to know all of it. Just some of it would be great.

I’ve read the sixth chapter of Isaiah many times. It is, therefore, quite easy to say to myself, “I know what this is about. It’s the call of Isaiah and his response to the Lord.”  Taken like this, it is easy to overlook the drama that is taking place here. In so doing, we can miss God himself and his fresh word to us. So I ask myself the question: what is actually happening here and what part of God’s great mystery does he want to reveal to me today? In that spirit, let’s look at Isaiah 6:1-5. 

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said: 
 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; 
 the whole earth is full of his glory. ”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  And I said, “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!”
Encountering the King of all Kings
As I read this, I thought, What a prayer time Isaiah was having! He thinks he is simply going up to the temple to honor the memory of his revered leader now deceased, but instead, he encounters the supreme King of all Kings! Wow – what an experience he had! He got a lot more than he bargained for! Prayer times are a mysterious business. A person can have a hundred regular prayer times and experience nothing particularly striking, but then there’s that one time, as in this instance, when the Lord reveals himself in a spectacular way. Like Isaiah, we sometimes think we’re simply going to fulfill our obligation to pray, and this King, whom we know in part, decides (when we least expect it) to break into our prayer and reveal his presence in some remarkable way.

The first thing I noticed in Isaiah’s experience was that the angels didn’t say God was holy; they didn’t even say he was holy, holy; but rather they declared God to be “holy, holy, holy.” He was three times holy! This was their way of describing the Lord in the superlative degree. I believe this is the only time in scripture that an attribute of God is mentioned three times in succession. God is never described as “love, love, love” or “just, just, just.” His holiness stands alone. It is the distinctive attribute of the Living God; it is the hallmark of who he is. His holiness stands above any other of his many qualities.  He’s magnificent. He fills the temple. He is mighty. He is great. The seraphim know it and express it. They stand in his presence daily and acknowledge that he is three times holy. His majesty is boundless. The liturgies of many of our churches have taken up this anthem and proclaim it in this three-fold way. Through the centuries it stands out as a most solemn hymn of the church.

I was also struck by the fact that like Moses at the burning bush who took his shoes off because he was on holy ground, the angels in this passage cover their feet in this most holy presence. Apparently this is a kind of protocol that is followed by all of God’s creatures when admitted into the Lord’s sanctuary. I see them acknowledging their lowliness by covering their feet in his glorious presence. There is a deep reverence, humility, and mystery in this gesture. 

“We shall see him as he is”
In Exodus 33 Moses was only permitted to see the Lord from the back, and Isaiah only saw God’s reflected glory. What was just a hope to them now becomes a promise to us as his people, the church: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is”  (1 John 3:2). We are destined to enjoy not the mere reflected glory of the Lord, but rather his pure nature in all his manifest glory! Alleluia! 

A final observation for me from this passage was that in the presence of the Lord the door posts and thresholds quaked. And I think that Isaiah quaked as well. In fact, I think he shook the most in this charged atmosphere. The body of Isaiah must have been visibly moved as he pronounced judgment upon himself, saying, “Woe is me!” To put it another way, Isaiah was undone. He came apart at the seams. He was “blown away.” In a moment he was totally exposed before the absolute standard of holiness. He became aware of his complete unworthiness: “I am a man of unclean lips,” he says. He saw his sinfulness. At that moment he knew who God was and who he really was.

Awe draws us near to God
Normally when we experience God and our own unworthiness it comes to us as a gradual revelation. The mystery unfolds before us slowly, but with this prophet it was instantaneous. However, as difficult as this experience was, it did not annihilate him.  Look at how Isaiah responds to this overwhelming vision. Sure, Isaiah was undone, but after groveling, he makes one of the most important declarations in all of sacred scripture: “Here am I. Send me!” I think Rabbi Hershel, a renowned Talmudic scholar and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, described a moment like this best when he wrote, “Awe, unlike fear, does not make us shrink from the awe-inspiring object, but on the contrary, draws us near to it.”

In the end, Isaiah was no “Humpty-Dumpy” who couldn’t be put back together again by anybody in his kingdom. God, seemingly in an instant, put Isaiah back together while leaving his identity intact. His personality was overhauled; he was changed, but not destroyed. Isaiah was still Isaiah when he left the temple as a new man.

There is a pattern in this whole process we mustn’t miss. After a divine encounter, Isaiah is greatly moved. God forgives and transforms him, but then he sends him forth. In this temple visit, Isaiah goes from brokenness to mission. In the end he stands up as a volunteer: “I am ready,” he says, “I will go!” His mystical vision propels him to ministry. His worship isn’t an end in itself. It yields a mission. Grace contained is grace lost. Isaiah has received a great grace, and he is about to be a means of great grace to others. 

I believe that like Isaiah we, too, need to move from conversion to transformation to mission. We either need a missionary or we are missionaries. There is in the call of Isaiah a challenge for every disciple of Christ. Godliness demands manifestation. A world that cannot see Christ must see Christ in us! I invite each one of us to heed the call and bring others into God’s family by welcoming them into our homes, our churches, our community gatherings, and our times of fellowship. Many of us have experienced the Lord’s presence and work in our midst. Let’s share our Good News. I believe that it’s time to step forward and say, “Here am I. Send me!” 
Tom Mangan is the senior coordinator of the People of God Community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. 

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