May 31, 2015
“I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” Galileo
“Space: the final frontier.” Captain James Tiberius Kirk and Captain Jean Luc Picard
“If people sat outside and looked at the stars each night, I’ll bet they’d live a lot differently.” Calvin from the cartoon, Calvin and Hobbes.
The pictures that we are receiving from the Hubble Telescope are some of the most amazing, awesome, mind-boggling images I have ever seen. Nebula, galaxies and stars, colors and patterns – they are so lovely, so incredible, I can barely wrap my mind around the idea that they are real, not just paintings from someone’s imagination. These are photographs from our universe, and our universe is so much bigger and broader than I – perhaps all of us – could have ever imagined.
When I look at these photographs – and if you have not yet seen them, I highly encourage you to go online and do so – I realize that my language is inadequate to describe what I am seeing. Words such as awesome, amazing, breathtaking, inspiring, are perfectly fine words. But as much meaning as they convey, they still don’t do justice to these images I am trying to illustrate.
When I read these familiar words from the prophet Isaiah, I wonder if Isaiah is not faced with the same dilemma. What he saw in this vision went beyond language.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
Why, you may be asking, is this something that goes beyond words? At first reading it might seem as straightforward as any image of a throne and king that we might have. I know that my mind immediately turns to all of the movies and paintings I have seen that depict a king on a throne. The throne is ornately carved and decorated. The king is robed in sumptuous cloth and lavish jewels. Perhaps the surroundings are also extravagantly outfitted. There might be rich tapestries on the walls, exotic rugs on the floor. And everyone who is waiting attendance on the king is also decked out in their finest digs.
Somehow, I don’t think that this is what Isaiah saw. I doubt that the image of the Lord sitting on his throne was anything like a painting of Henry VIII. Again, language fails me. But when I try to put myself in Isaiah’s shoes, I am overwhelmed by the bigness of it all, the enormity of the scene in front of me. Isaiah speaks of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple. Just the hem! God’s throne must have been bigger than the tallest mountain that exists. God must have been so large and so far above Isaiah, that the hem was all that was able to be seen.
This was no quiet moment of devotion either. The seraphs add more to this vision than I ever realized. The literal translation of seraph is “the burning ones.” We know that smoke filled the temple, but whether they were literally burning, I’m not sure. But I can imagine that something about the seraphs’ aspect was fiery, glowing, shining, flaming. What about the sound of their voices? One Old Testament scholar pointed out that the NRSV’s use of the word “calling,” is misleading. The seraphs were not just calling out to one another in a pleasant, “hey neighbor, how’s your day?” voice. They were not calmly singing a hymn. They were screaming, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”
These fiery, screeching supernatural creatures waited attendance on this enormous, overwhelming God; a God so massive that just the hem of his robe covered the temple like a blanket on a bed. It is no wonder that in the face of all this, Isaiah assumed he was a goner. How could you stand before this largeness and not realize how small you are? How could you stand in the presence of this enormous God, and not believe that you would die because of it? Not only did Isaiah think this was it for him, being in the presence of God’s almighty glory made him realize how sinful he was. He saw clearly how sinful his people were. He was small. He was sinful. He was insignificant.
Yet here is where the story takes an unexpected twist. Isaiah does not die. Whatever his sins were, when the seraph touches his lips with that burning coal, he is cleansed, sanctified. God does not strike him dead, instead God issues a call. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, who at first was convinced that he would not live another moment, raises his hand and eagerly cries out like a student who knows the answer to the teacher’s question, “Here am I; send me!”
While this text is often used as a glowing example of answering God’s call, I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. If we were to read on to verse 13, we would hear that God’s call was not to rush in and save the people, but to confuse them. Make it so they cannot hear what God calls them to do, and cannot see what God wants them to see. There will be punishment and consequences for their actions. Isaiah’s call, at least initially, will not be a joyful one. But that does not mean that it will be without hope either.
I don’t want to dismiss the serious and punitive tone of the call Isaiah is given. But I also don’t want to dismiss the powerful encounter between God and Isaiah either. What I find so striking, so incredible is that this enormous God, this God who could have crushed Isaiah and all of Israel like a bug, draws near.
God draws near. I know that in this particular text, that doesn’t seem to happen. It is the seraph who touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips, not God. Nor does God suddenly shrink down to human size and pat Isaiah on the back for his willingness to take on this call. But still God draws near. The God who calls Isaiah is also the God who is born as a baby. The God who calls Isaiah is also the God whose Spirit blows across ordinary people and empowers them to do extraordinary things. God draws near.
The pictures from the Hubble telescope make me feel small. I am just a dot in a universe that is so massive, we cannot yet see or know its boundaries. In this text from Isaiah, I feel the same way. God is so big. God is so mighty. God is so holy and enormous and overwhelming, who am I but a speck of dust before him. But this big God is also the God who draws near. This big God is the God who called the universe into being for the sake of love. Love. The familiar words from our text in John’s gospel state clearly that God created for love; God sent his Son into the world because of love. Love.
This week I listened to a beautiful interview with Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche. L’Arche began as a small community in France when Vanier invited some men with disabilities to come and live with him. He saw the way that people with physical and mental disabilities were excluded from communities, set aside or even hidden away. So he reached out to include them. L’Arche communities can now be found around the world. They all seek to be intentional about inclusion and about living the love of God that we find exemplified in Jesus.
In the interview Vanier spoke of how his experience with L’Arche and the people he feels called to live with and learn from has caused him to grow in faith and in his understanding of God’s continuing work in his life. He was described by the interviewer as the epitome of tenderness, and it was in his tender voice that he spoke of his relationship with God. He talked about how he sees the crucial element of his faith as being a friend to Jesus. And then he described God as being Love. We know that when we love someone we become vulnerable. When we love another, that person has the power to hurt us and break our hearts. We grieve at the loss of a loved one because loving that person makes us vulnerable. If God is a God of love, indeed if God is Love, which Vanier believes God to be, then God is a vulnerable God. God is a vulnerable God.
That doesn’t seem to reconcile with the vision that we have of God from Isaiah. But I cannot help but think that Vanier is absolutely right. God is about love. God is Love. This enormous, almighty, holy God is Love. God called this world into being because of love, for the sake of love. God is Love which means God is a vulnerable God.
It is easy to think about God being all-powerful and almighty. It is much harder to think of God being vulnerable. I think we want God to be almighty and powerful, because then we can blame God for everything that goes wrong. But to think of God as vulnerable, that is both frightening and profoundly beautiful. God is vulnerable because God loves us. However small and overwhelmed I might feel when I read this text from Isaiah or look at those pictures from space, this reality makes me feel even more so. God is vulnerable because God loves me. God loves us. That is God. That is good news. How will we respond?
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen