Isaiah 6 (NRSV). 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. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 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!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph[b] touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Sometime really, really soon, I’ve got to sit down and read the book of Isaiah!
Ever since I sang Handel’s Messiah as a student in a college-and-community chorus, I’ve loved the snatches I heard of Isaiah’s poetry in the oratorio — comfort ye my people … ev’ry valley shall be exalted … O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion — and I feel like I ought to know more about all the Old Testament prophets. But I’ve been intimidated by Isaiah’s length (66 chapters). Just lately, though, I’ve moved it up on my to-do list.
What tipped the scales was the story of Isaiah’s call to be a prophet.
Like I do with so many good things, I more-or-less blundered into it. In those first days of Russian terror-bombing of civilians in Ukraine, I came across a column by Rachel Sharansky Danziger, an Israeli lifestyle columnist. (I journaled about her column HERE.) “We pray for God to extend His hand and help [the Ukrainians],” she said, “but it is OUR hands and legs and hearts that are required, it is our ‘hineni’ – our ‘here I am’ – that history awaits.”
The Hebrew word hineni, means “here I am.” But it means more than that. It’s what Moses, Samuel and Isaiah said, sometimes with great reluctance, when called by God. And it begins a prayer that Jewish cantors recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days. It is an “existential expression,” says Matt Axelrod, a New Jersey cantor writing for the My Jewish Learning website. It means “I’m not only here, but I’m here. Spiritually, I’m all in. I’m prepared to reflect on who I am, what’s important to me, and how I can effect change for others.”
Since I’m coming up to the final stages of a six-month discernment process for candidates who want to be Dominican associates — lay persons who stand with the religious order in carrying out its mission — that caught my attention. So I looked into it.
From a couple of keyword searches on the Biblegateway.com website, I learned that Moses, Jacob, Samuel, Isaiah, among others, all replied “here I am” (or “here am I,” depending on the translation) when God called them. Curious to know more, I looked up the passages. And that’s when I saw the story of Isaiah’s call to prophesy, which happened, for the record, about 740 BCE.
Now I don’t claim to have much in common with the prophet Isaiah (although I was a police beat reporter for 10 years, and I guess you could say I have “unclean lips” — at least the kind of potty mouth you pick up in a world of reporters, cops, ambulance attendants and criminal defense attorneys). Nor do I claim to have ever seen God face-to-face.
But I could relate to Isaiah’s vision.
Woe is me! I too live among of people of unclean lips. I’m not exactly cut out to be a prophet, and I can relate to what comes next. Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord”? And God replies, until “the land is utterly desolate; / until the Lord sends everyone far away.”
I can relate to that too. In 740 BCE, the people of Israel were caught up in what now we would call the great-power politics of the day, ping-ponged between Assyria to the east and Egypt to the west. And Isaiah’s prophesy looks ahead to what would happen in later years, including the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and exile in Babylon. The book, as we have it today, was later edited to reflect that later history, so much of it pertains to that period instead of Isaiah’s. But the story line is clear: Israel is in deep trouble.
Which means Isaiah’s account of his vision in the Temple rings a bell when I read it. I can see why the poor guy would be daunted. He’s being called to a thankless job.
Want to try waking people up to the reality of climate change in our era, anyone? How about the drift toward authoritarianism in America and overseas? Russia? China? Other threats to the rules-based international order? Taking effective measures now to prepare for the next world-wide zoonotic pandemic? The list goes on …
I don’t have answers to any of this, and I can’t do a learned exegesis of Isaiah 6, either. But Isaiah’s vision seems contemporary, as the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” So does his answer. “Here am I; send me!” I’m not as concerned with the imagery here, with the throne of God and the six-winged seraphim, as much as I am with the Q-and-A. It couldn’t be any more relevant to today’s crises if God were wearing a windbreaker and plaid shirt like George Burns’ character in the movie Oh, God!
If nothing else, Isaiah’s vision is a passage I want to sit with for a while.
When I want to really get into a bible passage, I like to use a simplified version of lectio divina — the age-old monastic discipline of engaging scripture — that Jesuit author James Martin published in Word Among Us magazine (I get dead links now when I try to find it now on the internet, but I excerpted parts of it HERE). Fr. Martin boils lectio down to four words: Read, Think, Pray, Act. So let’s follow his format and see where it leads us.
Read. “At the most basic level,” he says, “you ask: What is going on in this Bible passage?” In spite of its startling imagery, the six-winged seraph flying around with a live coal in a pair of tongs before the throne of God, it strikes me as pretty straightforward. God is God, and it’s well known that you can’t look on the face of God and live. The seraph is an angel, and an angel is a messenger of God.
And Isaiah is Isaiah, feeling exactly what I imagine most of us would feel at the moment we were called to be a prophet: Scared speechless. Yet he answers: Here am I, Lord.
Think. Fr. Martin asks, “What is God saying to me through the text?” That’s a little harder to suss out. We know what God says to Isaiah. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I know, from a keyword search in Wikipedia, that the prophet Isaiah warned the Israelites of “the wrath of the Lord of hosts” if they didn’t mend their ways, although he did say a remnant would survive.
There’s a lot more to the book of Isaiah than that, and I want to come back to it, but what interests me now is the prophet’s vision in the temple. Is there anything useful I can take away from it?
When I’m doing lectio divina, I like to consult a Luther Seminary website called Working Preacher that has commentaries on the pericopes, or assigned readings, in the common lectionary. The commentaries tend to be practical and geared as much to the lay people in the pews as to preachers who are probably working up next Sunday’s sermon when they consult the website.
And, sure enough, in her commentary on the passage, Patricia Tull, emerita professor at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, has something for me. She notes that God had to call Abraham, Jacob, Moses and Samuel by name, “repeatedly and explicitly” but Isaiah volunteers:
Unlike Moses with his myriad excuses, Isaiah is hardly able to contain his excitement, waving his hand like a student raring to speak up in class. He is Scripture’s only figure to cry out: “Here I am! Send me!” In a very few strokes the story paints a prophet who, despite discouragement, remains eager to mediate between God and his community.
Well, I don’t know if I’d go as far as that, but certainly Isaiah shows he’s more than willing to take on a tough job. Unclean lips and all!
Tull clarifies that, too — it doesn’t mean what I thought it did. She speculates that the expression may be related to “mouth purification rituals” in ancient cultures, which means the angel with the hot coal and tongs pronounces Isaiah’s “guilt ‘departed’ and his sin ‘atoned’.” This, she suggests, is important because “atonement so easily obtained suggests a God ready to forgive others just as quickly.”
I really, really like that idea, and not just because of my old police beat reporter’s potty mouth.
Pray. The next part of Fr. Martin’s four-word outline: “What do I want to say to God about the text?” Welp, pretty much what Isaiah said in the temple: I’m an old guy of unclean lips — what can I say to a people of unclean lips? And I have a followup question: What do you want me to do, God? Where do you want to send me?
Isn’t that what discernment is all about?
Act. “Finally,” says Fr. Martin, “you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.” OK, got it. We act. But how? Where? To what effect?
In the time frame covered by the book of Isaiah, the threat to Judah and Israel came from Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and, later, king Cyrus of Persia. Not to mention the homegrown “corrupt princes and judges” who offended “the holy one of Israel” with their unrighteousness. (Full disclosure: I’m quoting from the summary in Wikipedia here.) Does any of this sound familiar?
The Middle East was a cockpit, in 740 BCE as it is now, and the Israelites were caught up in the fighting. Today the scope is wider, and our great-power rivalries are worldwide, with climate change thrown in as a further indicator of coming apocalypse. What in blue blazes can I do?
Well, I’m certainly not cut out to be a prophet, and not just because of my potty mouth. But maybe there’s some little something I can do to nibble around the edges of the apocalypse? Try to be more compassionate and faithful, for sure, as Fr. Martin suggests. Vote. Tithe. Earmark donations for Lutheran Social Services of Illinois and the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. Recycle. Overseed the lawn with white clover to attract pollinators. Read up on Laudato Si’ and refugee relief. Vote! Did I mention that already? Well, it’s especially important this year. Be a better listener. Maybe most of all, listen.
When and if God answers my prayer — when God tells me what God wants me to do — I don’t think it’s going to come to me in a miraculous vision with a six-winged seraph flying around in a temple. I like what George Burns’ character said in Oh, God! — “I don’t do miracles. Too flashy. And they upset the natural balance.” If God appears to me, it’s going to be in a coincidence, an accident, a hint, a scrap of half-remembered music that sticks in my mind, a striking turn of phrase in an Israeli newspaper item — or a random thought that blunders in out of nowhere when I’m busy with something else. All I can do — the best I can do — is to be still and listen for it.
Matt Axelrod, “Hineni: A Prayer for the Ability to Pray,” My Jewish Learning, 70 Faces Media https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/hineni-a-prayer-for-the-ability-to-pray/.
Rachel Sharansky Danziger, “Praying Myself Into Action,” Times of Israel, March 2, 2022 https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/praying-myself-into-action/.
James Martin, SJ, “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps,” Word Among Us, Nov. 2007, quoted at https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2019/07/24/lectio-divina/.
Patricia Tull, “Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8,” Working Preacher, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota, May 31, 2015 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/the-holy-trinity-2/commentary-on-isaiah-61-8-5.
[Published March 23, 2022; revised and edited, April 12]