I’ve been looking at pictures taken from the Hubble Telescope; images of nebulae and galaxies, star clusters, comets. Galaxies continue to evolve and the universe continues to expand, and I am completely awestruck and overwhelmed at the magnificence and magnitude of the universe we reside in. My brain is unable to take all of it in. These snapshots of the cosmos are so beautiful and intricate that you would think they were actually paintings drawn from the imagination of a genius artist, and painted onto a canvas with the lush strokes of a brush. But what looks like swirls of color from a brush dipped into paint are really swirls of gas and clouds and heat, forming and shaping into something new and even more beautiful.
In pictures of our own galaxy, you’ll see that earth is just a tiny dot in the midst of a much grander, much greater map of stars and planets. Yet even as I have stared at these images as I would a painting in an art gallery, finding peace in the grand scale of God’s cosmic art work, I have also turned my eye to pictures of earth. I have looked at images of people here and around the world: ordinary people, working people, young people, old people, women, men, children, people with every hue of skin and color of eye and hair. I’ve gazed at pictures of people rejoicing and people mourning, people weeping, people laughing. I’ve taken in photos of a few people in intimate moments and masses of people in enormous crowds.
From the enormity of the ever expanding universe to the most particular details of our human condition, these different images have provided me with a strange and somewhat calming glimpse into our earth, into our lives, into the mysteries of God and this world we have been given.
In the year that King Uzziah died, in the year that the world seemed to fall apart, Isaiah had a vision of the Lord. The Lord was sitting on a throne so high and great that just the hem of the Lord’s robe filled the temple. Attending to the Lord were Seraphs; strange and frightening creatures with six wings. Two wings covered their faces so they could not see the face of God, and two wings covered their feet so they could not touch God, and with two wings they flew. While we may sweetly sing, “holy, holy, holy,” the seraphs screamed it.
“HOLY, HOLY, HOLY IS THE LORD OF HOSTS; THE WHOLE EARTH IS FULL OF HIS GLORY.”
Perhaps the reverberations of a million explosions happening at one time might convey how loud and wild was that seraph song; it was so deafening, so fierce that the foundations of the temple shook and undulated with the sound. Hearing what he was hearing and seeing what he was seeing, Isaiah cried out,
“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 have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah was sure that this was his end because no one could see the Lord and live, but then something even stranger happened. A seraph flew over to Isaiah with a live, burning coal taken from the altar of the temple. The seraph touched that fiery coal to Isaiah’s lips, and offered him assurance of forgiveness.
“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Whatever scalding pain that coal may have caused him, Isaiah’s guilt and fear dissipated. For the next voice we hear is the Lord’s.
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Isaiah did not flinch nor hesitate in his response. He eagerly, zealously cried out,
“Here am I, send me!”
How many times have I heard this great call story at ordination services and confirmation services? It is a profound witness to both God’s call and a prophet’s answer. It conveys images of grandeur and greatness; God’s hem fills the entire temple; seraphs flying and screaming out the holiness of the Lord. These images are as big and majestic as are the images from the Hubble telescope – pictures of God’s vast and unfolding universe. Isaiah saw the greatness of God in that moment, and he answered God’s call to go, to serve with a resounding, “Here am I!” Just as those do who are ordained, who are confirmed, who are commissioned and sent. I answered these words at my own ordination. Who will go for us, whom shall I send? I will go, Lord. I will go. Here am I, send me!
But before we get too caught up in the grandeur of this moment, let us not forget that this call was issued not only in the largeness of God in the temple, but in the year that King Uzziah died, the year that everything fell apart. This call was made not so that Isaiah could stay in the temple, in the bigness of the biggest picture, but so that Isaiah could go out into the immediate circumstances of a people who were wondering what would come next. This call was given so that Isaiah could go out and serve a people who were broken, hurting, lost, afraid, forgotten, angry, confused and unsure.
Isaiah was sent out from the vastness of God into the particularities, the details, the messiness of the lives of God’s children.
So often this story is read at Advent. It is read in tandem with our expectation of God’s incarnation into the world through his Son, Jesus our Christ. But what is the incarnation? Is it a nice idea? Is it a way to understand a God who is really just floating above us, watching from a distance, from the vastness of the cosmos? Or is God being born into the details of our lives? It seems to me that the power of the incarnation is that God chose the extraordinarily messy process of birth so that God could be in our extraordinary messiness. God willingly was born into our misery, into our beauty, into our paradoxes and peculiarities, into all that is good about us and all that is bad about us. God chose to be born into the small details that make up a bigger life. God’s call to Isaiah was issued on a grand scale, but its fulfillment would occur in the details.
So here we are: in the details, in the messiness, in the paradox, in the fear, the beauty, the anger, the joy, the confusion, no closer to fulfilling God’s call to live as his Son lived, to sacrifice as his Son sacrificed, to love as his Son loved. But our falling short of God’s call does not deter that call from being issued over and over again. Our frailties and our failings do not keep God from calling us over and over into the messiness, into the details, into the smaller picture, into the individual, into the near, the close, the imminent, the present, not because the bigger picture doesn’t matter, but so that the bigger picture may be made whole; so that we, broken and fractured as we are, may be made whole. So that we may, as the late Leonard Cohen wrote, “stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
“I did my best, it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch. I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you. And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”*
I’ll stand before the Lord of Son with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
Let all of God’s children say, “Hallelujah!” Amen.
*I promise I decided to use this last verse before I realized that the song was sung by Kate McKinnon on the opening of Saturday Night Live. Her performance was much better than my own.