Sunday, February 6, 2022
92 million miles from here, a giant ball of gas burns at the center of our solar system. This star, this Sun, is the thing that gives life to the world. Plants take sunlight and metabolize it to grow. Animals then eat those plants for daily food. By the light of Sun, we see by day. We bask in the Sun on the beach, we now harness the Sun and turn it into solar energy, we are stunned by the beauty of each new sunrise over the Seawall. Thanks be to God for that ball of gas out there in space.
But, of course, the very thing that gives light to the world, that makes food possible, the very thing that makes Earth inhabitable, is also incredibly dangerous. If you stare at the Sun, you go blind. We wear sunscreen to protect our skin from damage by the Sun’s rays. We wear sunglasses so as not to damage our eyes. We have this paradoxical relationship with the Sun – we need it, but if we are not too careful, it will harm us.
We need it, and yet we cannot look at it. This is something that the prophet Isaiah would have understood after his divine vision. Isaiah is in the temple of the Lord when God is revealed to him. “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him, each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voice of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, ‘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!”
The Lord God is revealed to Isaiah but Isaiah cannot even see all of God, but only the hem of his robe. The seraphs, these angelic beings are there in attendance, but even they cannot look at the Lord, they must hide their faces. And when Isaiah finally understand what is happening he says, “woe is me!” In other words, “I’m as good as dead because I have seen the Lord!” The very presence of the Lord, the One who gives life, can also take it away. We need God, and yet we ought to be careful around God, too.
I know that in a lot of modern Christianity we talk about growing closer to the Lord, about being friends with Jesus, about wanting to see God’s face. I think Isaiah would beg to differ. Beholding even the hem of the Lord’s robe in the temple filled Isaiah with dread, thinking that he had died at the very sight of it. “Woe is me!” This tells us a lot about who God is. We ought to be careful around God.
This happens all throughout the holy scriptures. After eating of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve hide from the presence of God. Moses’ radiates with the glory of God after being on Mount Sinai. Peter falls to his knees in his own fishing boat when he realizes who Jesus is. Peter’s words echo Isaiah’s – “go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” Meeting the Lord God is a terrifying proposition. In the medieval church, people prayed that they would be saved from dying suddenly and unprepared. They didn’t pray that because they were afraid of death – they prayed that because they were afraid of God (paraphrase of Stanley Hauerwas). Like Isaiah, they knew that even a glimpse of God would be the end.
And so I wonder, I wonder, have we become too comfortable with God? Have we lost the sense of wonder and awe and majesty that the Lord should inspire in us? Are we too familiar with the Lord God? It’s like we’ve stared at the Sun too long, not knowing the spiritual damage done to our eyes, to our souls. Whatever happened to the fear of the Lord?
Now, I’m not saying that we should be scared of God. There is a difference between being afraid and being scared. I’m not saying that God is like some boogey man hiding in the closet, ready to jump out and scare us. I don’t think we should be scared of God. But I do think that being afraid, the fear of the Lord, is proper. When we fear the Lord, it shows that we have the right respect, the proper reverence for God. “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah says. “Go away from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” Peter says. And what do we say? Usually some sentimental clap-trap about seeing God in a group of trees or walking with Jesus in a garden during sunset. Today I’m asking us to reconsider all of that, to reconsider who God is. To think about the terrifying proposition that would be coming face to face with God.
And while this gives us a hint of who God is, it also tell us who God isn’t. And maybe that’s the more serious thing. God is not some tame deity. God is not some spirit that gives us warm fuzzy feelings. God is not some dumb idol made of wood or stone. God is not a trifling thing, a hobby, a thought exercise. The Lord God is the One who rends the heavens and makes himself known to us – through a burning bush, through a vision in a temple, through a miraculous catch of fish, or through any such disconcerting and terrifying revelation. This Lord is worthy of our fear and reverence.
So mostly what I have to say is this – be warned. When the Lord God comes near, when the Lord God is revealed to you, it will be a fearsome moment. As it was for Isaiah. As it was for Peter. When you drop to your knees and close your eyes in prayer, be warned. You might just see a vision and hear a sound from the throne. Are you ready for that? When you come forward to eat, to drink the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to actually take him into your own body, you might just have a revelation, a vision, you might just be filled with awe and dread and love all at the same time. This is who God is and what God does. This is the paradoxical relationship we have with God. We want to be close, and yet that closeness is utterly terrifying.
I’ll end today with a bit of a confession. See, my practice is that whenever I’m in the church office, I come in here to say my daily prayers. And when I come in I feel all those good feelings. I feel the centuries of prayer layered over the walls, I feel all the thousands of people who have been married, buried, and baptized here. I feel comfortable, at home. But that’s not the only thing I feel; maybe it’s this grand space, maybe it’s the darkened church, maybe it’s stillness and quietness in here. But I’ll admit, when I walk in here, in the dark, by myself I’m always just a bit on edge. You sit in here long enough and you can feel and hear the building creak in the wind. I think about my predecessor who had a vision of death right here, right where I’m standing now, and collapsed and died. I think of Isaiah who was minding in his own business in the temple when suddenly the room was filled with smoke and sound and seraphs. I confess that sometimes, I’m just a little afraid. Not scared, not frightened, but in awe. I want to serve God in all I do, in all I have, in every moment of every day I want to know the love of Jesus Christ and his blood shed for me. But I’m also well aware that a vision of God, the presence of the Lord, is an experience akin to death. What I have learned in my life with God is this paradox.
In the year King Uzziah died, the Lord God came to Isaiah. And it was a beautiful, holy, inspiring, awful paradox. In the year 2022, the Lord God is coming to you. It will be a fearsome experience. And I pray that when that does happen, when we do meet the Lord, we have the faith of Isaiah. “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!”