The Tree Visions in Worship
Isaiah 6: 1-8
C. Welton Gaddy
The news drained the blood from Isaiah’s head and weakened his legs, leaving the usually strong, robust prophet numb, disoriented, and unsteady. “King Uzziah is dead.” The words had struck him like a bullet to the heart.
We all know such words. Just a few miles from here, on a Friday afternoon, I heard the words, “The President is dead.” United States President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas. Later a news bulletin came from a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been killed by an assassin.” Then there was a morning call, with a strange voice on the phone, saying, “Your father has died.”
What are the words in your life? “Your friend has betrayed you.” “You will not get the scholarship.” “Your best friend has betrayed you.” “Your mother has passed away.”
The Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, had pinned high hopes to the reign of King Uzziah. Now the ruler was gone.
As soon as his focus garnered a bit of clarity and a modicum of strength returned to his legs, Isaiah headed toward the temple. I wonder where you go when you hear words that cause disorientation with you or evoke profound sorrow. Isaiah ran to that place of worship to find the comfort that comes only from God.
All of us, at one time or another, have engaged in such a sprint of the legs and the spirit. The reason could be joy as well as grief. At other moments, we have traveled to a worship center so saturated with hurt and confused by thoughts that we did not know where else to go or what else to do.
*A lecture, delivered March 30, 2005, sponsored by the Reuben and Jewell Robertson Worship Endowment.
I always wonder why people attend worship. Oh, I know that you are here because of a requirement regarding your attendance in a specified number of convocations. But, is there any other reason? Meaningful worship can occur even when attendance the service has been required.
No sooner had Isaiah entered the temple than he saw God. Not really, of course--he did not see God in the same way that I see you--no one ever has actually seen God. The prophet’s vision was spiritual not physical. Everything in the temple-- architecture, the furniture, the symbols, the scents, the sounds, the other people present--directed Isaiah’s focus toward God and nurtured within Isaiah a sense of the presence of God.
That is the first vision in worship. A vision of God is the primary vision in true worship. Indeed, without a vision of God, there is no worship. When any person or thing other than God becomes the center of attention in worship or life, the potential for authentic worship wanes and the possibility of idolatry looms large.
Take note, if you will, of the first sounds that emerged in the temple in which Isaiah met God. They were not the words, “Isn’t that an interesting suit my neighbor is wearing today?” or “I wonder why my friend is talking so loudly this morning” or even “I feel better already.” No. Out of the mystery, silence and beauty of the moment of God’s palpable presence came vaulted sounds of adoration and praise--“Holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah saw God. Isaiah sensed God’s presence. When the division vision occurs, then or now, nothing can silence or delay eruptions of adoration and praise.
“The whole earth is full of God’s glory.” The words reverberated throughout the sanctuary, reverberating off the walls and intermingling with the noticeable mist of incense. Whether meeting in a historic cathedral, in a high-steeple church, around a campfire under the open sky, or in a gymnasium used as a worship center, the first moments of worship are always devoted to the praise of God.
Keep in mind that Isaiah had rushed to the temple bent double with grief, as hungry for comfort as a desert traveler is thirsty for water. Now, Isaiah was caught up in praise. The activity was as important as it was difficult. The prophet had not placed his grief on hold or decided upon a path of escapism. Worship is never escapism. Isaiah’s praise for God emerged from the grief that he laid before God. Similarly, our encounters with God elicit praise even when we are grieving and adoration even when we want to think only of ourselves.
Worship is serious business. To understand the nature of divine worship is to be made impatient with “worship light,” with gatherings in which individuals only want to “say a little prayer,” “tip their hats to the man upstairs,” or “spend a bit of time in church.” The entrance to worship engages us with holiness, an engagement that takes our breath away and begins to change our lives.
Standing worshipfully in the presence of God, we see ourselves as we have not seen ourselves before. This is the second vision in worship--we see ourselves. We look toward God with reverence and toward ourselves with honesty, all too aware of the differences between God and ourselves. “What am I doing here?” we may ask, thinking, “I should not even be in this place. I am everything that God is not.”
“Woe is me!” Isaiah blurted out. Look carefully. “Woe is me,” the prophet said, not “Oh, poor me.” “I have sinned; I am lost,” Isaiah declared. The words have the force of meaning “I am sunk!” “Knowing that I need God like I need nothing else or no other person in my life, I have been living as if God did not exist; I have been behaving in a manner that separates me from God. What a fool I am! This is my doing. I need forgiveness.”
Amazingly, slicing through the thickness of personal pathos came a moment of sheer grace. We should not be surprised. Grace is as much a certainty in divine worship as is praise. Pay careful attention, though, this is not cheap grace.
God lets Isaiah know that his self-critical analysis was correct but that his personal judgment about the future was wrong. “You are not sunk,” God says to Isaiah, “Things can change.” Look at the imagery. A seraph, a sign of God’s presence, a symbol of holiness, picks up a burning coal from the altar--notice “from the altar;” this is altar work, an activity of worship, interaction between the worshiper and the one worshiped--flies over to Isaiah and touches his lips with the chunk of fire. Grace meets sin. It is like fire on tender skin. At one and the same moment, Isaiah knew both the pain and exhilaration of forgiveness. Grace was not, and is not, a holy means of looking the other way when great wrong has been done. Neither is grace a confession of tolerance--“Oh, don’t worry about it; I don’t care what you have done.” Grace is like having a burning coal placed against our lips. When God’s astonishing goodness touches the stark ugliness of our wrongdoing, there is pain and there is promise.
“I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips,” Isaiah continued in his confession. Notice here the absence of any sense of social blame for personal wrongdoing. The prophet does not take a circuitous route to confession explaining “I would not be in this predicament were it not for the people around me. The pressures of my society have made me sin.” No the prophet went straight to the point of his guilt, taking full responsibility for the life that he opens to God in an act of contrite confession.
The third vision in worship is implicit in the second vision. Immediately after Isaiah saw God, Isaiah saw himself and envisioned God and himself among other people. Seeing God and seeing other people always go together. That vision births compassion.
Now, for the first time in his experience of worship, Isaiah heard the voice of God. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God was asking. The question emerges out of mystery to challenge the integrity of Isaiah’s confession, inquiring as to whether or not the prophet is serious about changes in his life. Immediately, Isaiah rose to the occasion, answering the divine question with “I will Go: here I am send me,” without knowing where he was to go or when. It didn’t seem to matter. Isaiah knew the people around him--the people whom he had described as people of unclean lips--and he knew the God beyond him--the God of compassionate mercy. That was enough. Isaiah was willing to serve as God’s representative among these people, sharing with them what they needed to know that he now knew--life can change, wrongs in our past do not have to define our future, God offers comfort to all who hurt. Isaiah said, “I’ll do it” before he knew that fidelity to this commitment would prove to be as painful as had his moment of forgiveness and equally as satisfying.
The third vision in worship changes the venue of worship from a sanctuary to the streets, from standing before the high altar in a temple to squatting amid the squalor that fills the lowest down places of life where people curse goodness and give up on themselves. Mercy would remain, but there was no assurance of success. Isaiah had already said, “I will do it.” And, the prophet meant it.
The work of worship brings into interaction a place of sanctuary and other places that are as unholy as they are ugly-- serving God means mixing it up in legislative debates, ladling soup into a bowl held in the trembling hands of a man who has not eaten for 24 hours, and working to bring about reconciliation between two people who are so angry at each other that both are likely to turn on the reconciler. Worship equips us for tasks from which we would turn away were it not for worship and fills us with the strength to do what we cannot do on our own.
Once was not enough for Isaiah--one trip to the temple, one experience of worship, was not enough. Isaiah would return to worship again and again; and so must we.
Isaiah’s experience of worship changed his life and impacted his ministry. This prophet’s work and the priorities within it were shaped by his experience with the three visions in worship.
One who needed comfort and found comfort in worship wrote, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” Isaiah writes, perhaps reflecting on the trembling, smoke-filled sanctuary of his encounter. “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” Isaiah asks. “The Lord is the everlasting God.” Then, the prophet becomes very personal. He is writing autobiography as well as theology. “God gives power to the fain and strengthens the powerless…those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
These are words from a person who had not just been to the temple, not just attended a service of worship, but a person who had met God. The experience for Isaiah was unique, but not singular. The same opportunity for vision, visions, is open to us every time we gather for worship.
In worship, the vision of God evokes from us that which should be most natural for us--adoration and praise. The subsequent vision of ourselves nurtures within us a level of honesty that catapults us into confession and an experience of costly grace that grants us a new kind of freedom and lasting peace. The vision of the world, laced with God’s call to service, draws us into a commitment that leads to a life with us discovering strength and power, feeling renewed, rising up with wings like eagles, enabled even the longest journey to walk and not faint.
Who could want more? Why would anyone dare settle for less? What do you see? How do you worship?