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Of Seraphs and Such Things: How Do You See God?

Isaiah 6:1-8.

Sermon delivered by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Have you ever been awe-struck?
Has some event, or some scene so completely overwhelmed you that it left you speechless?
Or made you cry, or laugh, or dance, or fill your heart so full it almost burst?

There’s one moment that immediately comes to mind for me.
It was the night I saw heaven.
We had climbed up to the top of a mountain
in Yosemite National Park in Northern California.
As the fading light gave way to a cold, clear night,
it was as if the entire canopy of heaven was draped over our heads like shimmering silk.

The sizeable crowd of friends and strangers who had made this trek to the mountain top
fell gradually, then completely silent, awed, worshipful.
That night we saw stars born, we saw stars fall.
No matter how the astronomers might describe what we saw in their technical language,
I know this… I saw heaven.
It was as if I was somehow swept up into eternity,
part of it, one with the universe.
And it was awesome. Holy.

There’s a term philosophers use for this sort of time-out-of time moment,
this space between the ordinary and the holy, the earthly and the sacred,
where boundaries are blurred, our state is ambiguous,
and we find ourselves on the threshold between
one way of being, or thinking or feeling, and another.
It’s called liminality or Liminal space.

A blurring of the lines between earth and heaven,
an ambiguous state of awareness of one’s surroundings
being more than the sum of their material parts.

This is where we find Isaiah in this strange, awe-filled passage.
It’s at this point that I should offer you, better late than never
the on-screen warning that the following reading
contains scenes of divine encounter, strong religious language,
and may be disturbing to some viewers.

I confess to having messed mightily with your normal churchly sensitivities with that egregiously dramatic reading,
but I wanted to find some way to make the simple words
“One day I saw God in the Temple” leap off the page with
some sense of the power, terror, awe and utter liminality
with which they were first penned 3000 years ago.

For Isaiah was indeed in liminal space.
It begins simply enough.
Isaiah begins by locating the event historically,
“One day, in the year that King Uzziah died”
One day, when the Judean kingdom was living under increasing
threat from Assyria in the far North,
and from the Ephraimites and Syrians not thirty miles away.
One day when people were being taxed to the hilt to pay for soldiers
to defend them from this 8th century BCE international terror threat.
One day, Isaiah says, he was in the Temple.

The Jerusalem temple,
huge, stone-built splendour
high on the hill overlooking the city of David.
Its gold coloured colonnades glinting gold in the Middle Eastern sun,
a building designed to provoke awe
in all who saw it, all who entered it.

A building designed to create liminal space
between the vast courtyard where the people gathered to offer sacrifice,
and the stone Holy of Holies at its far end,
a place where only the high priest could enter,
the holiest place in Judah,
where the Ark of the Covenant was kept.

One day, in this Temple, Isaiah saw God.

It’s likely that Isaiah was a worker in the Temple,
a religious professional,
used to trotting up and down the temple precincts,
sweeping up ashes from the altars,
lighting the lamps, polishing the acacia wood doors,
perhaps singing psalms with the pilgrims and worshippers,
folding bulletins, straightening the hymn numbers.
Taking his environment for granted, most of the time.

Just like, most of the time I barely notice if it’s a starry night,
neglect to see the canopy of heaven spread like a mantle across the sky.
Just like, most of the time my own ‘religious professionalism’
as a professor of theology can lead me to take this ‘God-stuff’
and make it very ordinary.

But not this day.
Not this particular day in the year that King Uzziah died.
This day, some wrinkle in time,
when the ordinary became holy…

Perhaps it was those strange serpentine, angelic, six-winged creatures
carved in red and purple and gold on the doors of the tabernacle,
that caught the light in a particular way,
perhaps the columns of updrafted smoke from the altars made him dizzy.
Maybe the shimmering splendour of the cloth of gold curtain drawn around the ark of covenant
Or an extra loud blast on the ram’s horn shofar,
the noises of pilgrims singing psalms and
of animals bleating in terror at the smell of blood and fire.
Perhaps it was the tension and fear of the world outside that clung to him
like dust on his shoes, causing him to enter the Sanctuary with a prayer on his heart….
“Holy God, help us….”

Whatever it was, that day, in the year of Uzziah’s death,
Isaiah felt the threshold shake,
found himself in the space between holiness and earthliness,
and, he tells us, with shattering simplicity,
“I saw God.”

The Temple of God filled with seraphic splendour,
The canopy of heaven, draped across the night sky like shimmering silk.
The miraculous moment when a newborn opens her mouth to cry aloud her first breath.
The pregnant silence of peace and passing that can happen at the death- bed of one old and full of years, passing from this world to the next.
These are all holy spaces.

Even this green-roofed, simple space in Pointe Claire
most days so comfortingly ordinary, so welcomingly familiar,
has its moments;
Christmas eve, singing Silent Night, staring into a candle’s flame;
walking behind and in front of friends and strangers up this aisle
to take a piece of bread and a sip of juice;
the kiss of a couple the moment after they say “I do;”
the silent darkness of a meditation service,
the sound of silence after the last string is bowed on Peter Purich’s violin.
Moments when heaven and earth meet,
when the threshold trembles just a little.
And if we let ourselves,
we might just whisper..
“Well, I don’t know, but maybe, yes, surely,
God was in this place, this moment.”

These moments knock us off the solid ground of the ordinary, don’t they?
We may have a certain reticence to let ourselves go there too often.
These encounters with God are,
by their nature, unsettling.
Isaiah was convinced he’d seen too much for a human to see and live.
Terror wouldn’t be too strong a word to describe his reaction.
And terror is something we don’t want to experience too often, if at all.

In recent generations in the Church,
and particularly the United Church,
we’ve moved a long way from talking
about God as mighty, splendid, awesome, terrifying.
It was probably a little jarring to our ears
to hear those strange seraphs referring to God
as “Lord of the armies of Heaven.”
The God we encourage our children to meet in Kids Zone and in our worship together
is Loving, Generous, Dependable,
accepting, forgiving, gracious.
– And don’t get me wrong, God is all of those things.

Yes, all of those things.
Not just the close-by, deep in our hearts, loving Mother-Father God,
but also the awesome, no universe is large enought to-contain-thee,
God of earth-shaking splendour and majesty, Creator God.

God is all these things,
and we need God to be all these things.
Otherwise our world shrinks, and we never reach its edges,
those liminal thresholds where the ‘otherness’ of God comes close
to touch our humanness with fiery coals.

We need the awesomeness as well as the closeness of God
when we have to say death’s fare-well to a loved one,
stand at the threshold as they cross into life beyond this life.

We need the holiness as well as the intimacy of God
when we have to face the illness with no cure,
or else how will we learn to live beyond its limitations?

We need the mighty power as well as the weeping sadness of God
when our world is pockmarked with injustice,
or else how will we ever pray with hope that divine justice will prevail?

We need the infinite empowering love as well as the companioning God
when we look forward into an unknown future as individuals or as communities of faith,
otherwise we may believe we have to do it all by ourselves, without God’s guiding help.

God is, and ever shall be all this, and more than we can ever ask or imagine,
for which, God be thanked. Amen.

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