I have heard, and indeed preached, quite a few sermons on this text from Isaiah. Most of them it has to be said at ordination or induction services. These are usually occasions marked by a frisson of nervousness, a strong sense of achievement and expectation, and quite a lot of sandwiches and tea. Sometimes, threaded through the very human and tangible events of such a day, there comes a hint of something holy and strong, holy and immortal, something of the awesome presence of God. Even in a nonconformist chapel, even one unredeemed by beauty, on a wet Saturday afternoon in an unfashionable suburb, even there, I have sensed a flash of God’s presence and the people are hushed for a moment by the holiness of God.
I love going to Wells Cathedral and have even toured the ‘high parts’, which took my breath away, and I wondered what on earth the people of medieval Wells made of it. It spoke no doubt of the power of the rich, but did it speak too of the wonder and majesty of God, as sometime buildings can speak? I remember once visiting the great cathedral of St John in New York and I looked up and saw swirls of incense at the every height of the ceiling arches, far, far above me –and never before had I realised the meaning of that verse about prayer rising like incense. It was lovely and beautiful, but awesome and spine-chilling. And I’ve been in the Cathedral of St Pierre in Geneva when the organist was playing Vidor’s Toccata and making my whole body vibrate with sound.
The great Temple in Jerusalem was one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was about 250 years old when the young Isaiah, of the priestly class, looked up. Isaiah was in a space more awesome still than anything you and I have likely ever known. Isaiah was in the Temple, and he saw God. He saw the skirt of God’s robe, shining, shimmering, like shot silk. And he saw angels, the attendants of God. And he heard them cry ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole earth is full of God’s glory’. And as they called out the foundations shook and the whole Temple began to be filled with smoke.
Isaiah’s reaction was to cry out in terror and in remorse. ‘Woe is me’. ‘I, a man of unclean lips, I, who dwell among a people of unclean lips’. Isaiah, the great wordsmith of Israel, the Cranmer and the Shakespeare of his day, protests that he cannot speak. He is moved to silence by the breathtaking presence of God. His epiphany of God, his vision, is not only of the glory of God, not only of the power, wonder and beauty of God, it is of the holiness of God. And his first instinct is to think that he is doomed, that this will destroy him, that all is lost. And the story of the glowing coal brought with tongs to touch his lips, tells us something of the danger of meeting with God. The lips of the nation’s most talented user of language are seared by burning. They are blistered and scorched, the flesh scarred painfully. To meet the holy God is for Isaiah an experience that sears and wounds him, that is dangerous, destructive and it hurts. This is not a pleasant afternoon, but a moment of such clarity that it burns him. This is how it is to meet with the holy God. I wonder if you have ever met with God like that…?
And then hundreds of years later, Simon Peter and his friends met Jesus by the lake. And there was a miracle. After a night time of fishing and catching nothing, Simon had lent Jesus his boat and he was using it as a temporary pulpit. After the sermon he told Simon to put out his nets and go fishing again. ‘If you say so’ said Simon. And they caught so much that the nets began to split. A catch so big that the price of fish was about to come down. But more than a business triumph, it was a miracle. And it brought Simon to his knees. But unlike in most of the films, Simon does not bow his head in humble prayer and admiration, but intead he says ‘Go, Lord and leave me, sinner that I am’. The effect of the miracle was not to excite Simon at the power of God or to leave him whooping with delight at such a catch, it was to bring him to his knees asking for forgiveness. For in Jesus he had met not just the glory of God, but the holiness of God. Like Isaiah he was now in danger, knowing his flawedness and fraility before the astonishing and life-endangering holiness he had seen in Jesus. And his first reaction was to tell Jesus to go, to get away from him.
The experience of God’s holiness is one written deep into the traditions in which we share. And it is written deep, though sometimes we bury it, in our own experience. I think I knew it more in my childhood than I do now, when in so many ways the sheer busyness and prose of life can obscure it. But there have been times in my life and I hope in yours when a flash of Isaiah’s experience and Peter’s might become ours, or when like Mary we are overcome by the presence of God. And this is not simply about the glory of God. Glory, grandeur, power and majesty are one thing, yes. And sometimes we can find ourselves overcome by a sense of God’s grandeur – whether by the natural world or by the ancient stones of a great cathedral or the swelling cadence of a moving song. Glory we know. But holiness is something else, something more. Glory might swell our hearts, move us to tears, inspire us and uplift up, but holiness, the holiness of God is something terrifying, dangerous, aweful. To know God is to be burned.
There is something perhaps of this experience of holiness in becoming a disciple of Jesus. If we are really serious about coming close to God, then for all of us there is a painful burning away of something of our pride and individuality as we are prepared to serve the living God. Becoming and being a Christian can be a kind of burning experience as we recognise that something in us has to change. I don’t think that any of us can escape the burning coal which comes to touch us. And none of us in fact should escape its searing pain and its cleansing touch. Coming close to God is an awesome experience – it’s more than opening a hymn book or joining an organisation.
Isaiah met not simply the power of glory of God, not simply the majesty and the might, but the holiness of God. And it is this that brings us to our knees. To experience the holiness of God is to discover intensely the goodness of God, the pure and utterly fulfilled love of God. Isaiah did not meet only the glory of God in the trumpets and gold sense of glory, but the clear and shining goodness of God. And it was this that seared him painfully, this knowledge of the holiness of the all holy. Great power is not necessarily holy, indeed it is often very far from holy. Grandeur is not holy, indeed it is often deceptive and false display. True holiness is about purity and goodness and love. And when we meet it we are burned and humbled. Religion has sometimes confused these things, but in Isaiah’s vision, and in Simon Peter’s experience by the lake, for a moment, the confusion is gone. The holiness of God is made known and we fall to our knees. And sometimes the holiness of God is known in a holy person, in whose presence we know a kind of goodness and purity and strength that impresses. I’ve met people like that…
Centuries after Isaiah’s vision of God in the Temple, there came one who some have described as ‘the holy one’. He talked sbout pulling down the Temple with its ‘holy of holies’ and rebuilding it or remaking it in his own body. If Jesus is the new Temple then he is the new place of holiness, the place above all places where God’s holy presence is made known. But this time it is not we who are burned by knowing him, not we who are wounded, but him. Jesus was the holy one (even the demons could see that) – but he did not burn or scorch or wound. In fact he touched those others judged unholy, unfit to be in the presence of God – the diseased, the bodies of women at certain times, those of other nations – and he touched them with healing, acceptance, with the kind of love that makes everything pure by its intensity and grace. And because he crossed the barriers of holiness, because he kissed unclean lips (like Isaiah’s) and touched dirty bodies and scarred sinners, the people who thought that they had to guard the holiness of God, took him and gave him up to be crucified. And they took him outside the holy city, outside the walls, – and in a place which was a place of dirt, disgrace and death – in the dust heap of the city – they killed him. And so it was that the God whose holiness could seem only to sear and burn us with its purity, comes instead to take upon Godself the deepest unholiness, the deepest and most searing pain – and to bring together the great awesome holiness of God with the reality of the stuff of human life.
We are not, I suspect, mostly, potential Isaiahs or Peters. But it might be that on some days, or in some places, or wandering in a place marked by a particular holiness, or at some moment in our lives when we are not necessarily looking for it, we shall sense the awesome holiness of God. This is not unknown among us. But we need not fear the searing, burning touch of God, because we are in Christ. And in him all humanity, the stuff of which we are made, has been made holy. We are touched by grace, purified by God’s love, all the stuff of our lives made holy. And like Isaiah, and like Peter, and like Mary who received the holiness of God in her own body, and like countless ones before us, we are charged with holiness that others may see that God comes to touch and bless with holy love. The curtain of the temple is torn and the holiness of God is unleashed upon the world – not to burn, but to bless, not to be feared but to be welcomed.
Most of all, the miracle is, that the holiness and the glory of God, the very God who Isaiah knew in the great Temple, has been seen in Jesus – in human flesh, even in flesh made impure by touching us – and that it seen and known still in among us – for here, in this very place, are holy people. Thanks be to