"In the year that King Uzziah died".
What significant weight these words carry may easily be lost on us who have no kings, who are removed in time and history from the ancient world, who live in a democratic fluid culture.
Yet, significant they are, even to us!
In the year that King Uzziah died.
The death of a king and particularly this king was a tumultuous event in the ancient world.
Not long before his death King Uzziah had been smote by God with a serious illness for his pride. He had sought to make the offering of a priest in the Temple despite the attempted intervention of the Priests of the day. The consequence for King Uzziah was living in quarantine until the day of his death.
Add these circumstances to the general sense of dislocation and instability that came with the death of a King, Isaiah’s words begin to carry some weight, even for us so far removed.
As one Biblical commentator put it we might begin to get a sense of the event if we compare it to the assassination of JFK in the USA or maybe the more recent events of 9/11, that terrible day when the planes flew into the World Trade Centre.
If we can have a sense of the upset connected with these events we can begin to have a sense of the climate of the time in which Isaiah saw his vision. Now, it may be that some of us feel the dislocation and disturbance in our own era as we consider the global issues which confront us: terrorism, the economic crisis, abject poverty and ecological issues.
It is in the midst of human loss and suffering, in the midst of separation and disconnection that Isaiah sees a vision that despite all this the ever living praise of God continues in the mouths of the seraphim:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts:
The whole earth is full of your glory!”
Do you recognise these words?
The church invites you and I to join this eternal song of the angels adapted in the sanctus of the communion liturgy.
Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
These powerful words of praise join us not only with the song of the seraphim but also with the saints and martyrs of every time and place. These words derived from scripture are the oldest known aspect of the modern liturgy of the church. They date back as far as the first century and became an integral part of the Eucharistic worship of the church by the 6th century.
When we say these words we are transported into the throne room of God’s presence as the divisions created by time and space crumble away and as the false divisions of our human brokenness as the church are transcended. These words thus act as a symbol of our unity as God’s people and with all those divine and earthly who offer praise to God.
They are words not only of praise but of hope. Hope in the unity that we long for and hope that in the face of whatever we might be experiencing God is being worshipped and adored.
Drifting back to my comments about the context of Isaiah’s vision we are reminded that whatever the event occurring, the death of King Uzziah, war, terrorism, economic meltdown, ecological crises, the death of someone we love, the terminal prognosis, the anxiety and depression that afflicts us, or whatever trial we may be experiencing God’s is being praised and is worthy of such praise.
It such a realisation as this that no doubt leads Isaiah to his confession: “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
As human beings our lives appear to be plagued by a myriad of problems, many of which are of our own making. Exposed in the light of God’s glory we confess that we are an imperfect people who need God’s help and the good news is that God offers us such help.
For Isaiah it comes in the form of a burning coal borne by angel’s wings and touched upon his lips but ultimately it comes to whole world as it is born from above.
The good news conveyed in the story from the third chapter from John is that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world but in order that it might be saved through him.
It is God’s work to transform us, by sending the Son and the Spirit to renew us in our relationships as people with one another and with God.
As Jesus points out to Nicodemus and others mentioned in Chapter 2 believing in Jesus because he does cool miracles is not enough, in fact believing in Jesus for any reason is not enough! It is the work of God’s Spirit giving birth to us from above that transforms who we are into who we are made and called to be as people.
Being born from above is not simply an individualistic event that opens the gates of heaven to us but is a cosmic renewal as God sends the Son into the whole world in order that it might be saved through him and come to exist bound together in God’s love as God always intended.
Baptism celebrates this renewal and affirms our conviction that God does indeed stay true to his promises. To be born again means that we are disengaged from all human bonds, the bonds of biology, the ties of nationalism, the parochialism of community and we are reconnected, renewed and reinvigorated as citizens of the coming kingdom bound one to each other and with all people, the world, for whom Christ came.
As the scholar Dylan Bruer indicates:
We are invited to relate to others, whether related to us by blood or not, as sisters and brothers, beloved children of the same loving God.
Take that deeply in, and you'll find much more transformed than just your inward disposition. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother, and you'll feel personally swept up in wanting each one fed, given clean water, an education, decent health care, a real chance in life. Take in that every child of God is your sister or brother in a family of faith following Jesus, and you'll find yourself with genuine desire and taking pleasure in coming closer to the kind of free and full interchange of every gift to which you have access that characterizes the communion of the Trinity. [End quote]
When we baptise not only do we declare God’s love of the individual we are baptising we as a community of faith are reminded of our true calling to live out of that transformation given to us in Jesus and through the power of the Spirit. We live eternity life now – expressing that hope which we have for each other and all the world – on earth as it is in heaven.
The paradox of our Christian existence is that whilst we are born from above, whilst signs of the kingdom do break in, whilst we do with one voice praise God with the sanctus, we live in the tension of still having unclean lips. We harm one another, in pride we compete for power and position, we neglect the cry of our brothers and sisters who do not even have the basic necessities of life. We carry a message of love and hope yet struggle to be all that we are called to be, even to those whom we love most dearly.
We are the world for whom Christ died; we have been saved, we have been made whole. We are constantly being renewed by his love as we continue to enter his presence to have our lips touch by the burning coal and like Isaiah, like Nicodemus, we are given an opportunity to respond, saying ‘Here I am send me’, even when the message we carry is a difficult one to understand, live by and proclaim to a world that wants to ignore it.