When I was at seminary in Philadelphia, one of my favorite activities was going for long walks, especially in the evening. But if we had a decent amount of snowfall the previous night, I might decide to change up my routine and go out in the morning. It was on one such morning that I ventured out into a landscape glistening with ice and snow. The whole world had been frosted with layers of confectioner’s sugar!
As I enjoyed the brisk chilly air, I encountered one of the elderly ladies from the Presbyterian Church across the street from our school. I often sat in one of the pews in “her” part of the sanctuary. I greeted her, and she acknowledged me, but not in the way one ordinarily does.
As she took in all that her senses were telling her about this magnificent morning, she seemed to be almost mesmerized, almost in a state of rapture. On that snowy sidewalk in Philly, all she said was, “There is so much beauty.” There is so much beauty.
I begin with my recollections of beauty and splendor because there’s someone else who has a little bit to say about it. Our Old Testament reading in Isaiah describes what’s usually thought of as the call of Isaiah the prophet. He mentions some celestial beings himself.
While in the temple, he has a vision of “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe [or “the train of his robe”] filled the temple” (v. 1). The Bible says that he sees “seraphim” (שְֹרׇפׅים). These are indeed celestial beings; the word literally means “burning ones.” The prophet says that they “were in attendance above [the Lord]; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew” (v. 2).
This is, to say the least, an awesome sight. I mean that in the truest sense of the word; it is an awe-inspiring sight, a fearsome sight. Here’s some of that beauty and splendor I just mentioned. These creatures call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3).
And if that’s not enough, in his vision, his trance—whatever it is—the whole place begins to violently shake and fill with smoke. In their purest state, beauty and splendor are actually quite terrifying to us mere mortals!
In the temple, images of the cherubim were placed above the ark of the covenant. No one really knows the difference between a cherub and a seraph—or if they’re even angels. It’s possible they’re beings even more powerful than angels, even closer to God!
Whatever the case, the prophet is in the temple, gazing at these engravings. And he sees them moving! He hears them singing! One of them even speaks to him, and he feels it touch his lips with a red hot coal!
You know, there are a number of hallucinogenic substances, as well as certain mental disorders, that could explain these events. (I won’t say if I’m speaking from personal experience!) Still, throughout the ages, there have been mystics and prophets with similar experiences. Look at what happens to the prophet Ezekiel almost two centuries later. (In chapter 1, some people say he saw a space ship!)
And a word on mystics: this isn’t some spooky reference to someone with magical powers. Rather, a mystic is one with what’s been called “a long loving look at the real.”
I think it’s safe to say that Isaiah lives a life in which he is more attuned to sensing and noticing things others miss. He lives a life in which he looks and listens for God. And in our scripture text, he is worshiping. It’s been noted that he is “hyperaware.” He is fully present to what is going on.
Recalling that Pentecost was last Sunday, we also have the ability to be present to what the Holy Spirit is saying. After all, that is the point of worship—to pay attention to God in a loving, expectant way. Having said that, if the figures in the stained-glass windows do not speak and make gestures, I think that would be okay!
There’s something we need to keep in mind regarding the prophet and his vision and his call, and that is: this isn’t just about him. Isaiah hasn’t been given this blast of enlightenment and wisdom so that he can reassure himself that he’s such a spiritual guy. This isn’t something he’s supposed to keep to himself, as he is painfully aware. (I’ll say more about that in a moment.)
In fact, with the first few words of verse 1, we’re already confronted with the larger community. When does Isaiah have this experience? When does he receive his call? “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Sometimes we’re told stuff like that just as a way to mark the date. This thing happened at that time.
But Uzziah (also known as Azariah) isn’t just any king. At the time of his death, Uzziah has been king of Judah for over fifty years. For most of the people, he’s the only king they’ve ever known. And now, he is gone. When a long-reigning leader leaves the scene, there can be a sense of uncertainty, even fear.
Uzziah is remembered as devoted to the Lord, but with limits. He builds up the army, and he defeats the surrounding enemies. Unfortunately, as often happens with militarily-powerful nations, their priorities become skewed toward the wealthy. And so we have Isaiah. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”
It’s often said of prophets that their job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. This is where we get to what I said earlier, about Isaiah’s knowing that he can’t keep his experience to himself—as he is painfully aware! He cries out during his vision, “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!” (v. 5).
In response to this business about unclean lips, the seraph has him kiss a burning ember. That’s some pretty fierce hygiene.
Isaiah is keenly aware of his unworthiness for what the Lord calls him to do. But this act of divine intervention comes with the reassurance, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out” (v. 7). The Lord huddles up with the seraphim and wonders aloud, “Do you have any ideas about who we should send?”
In a little while, we’ll sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord.” Isaiah volunteers for the mission—but what a mission it is. At this point, I need to interject something. This last part of the chapter isn’t in today’s lectionary reading. As I’ve mentioned / complained before, the embarrassing / troublesome verses are frequently omitted.
When we read it, it looks like Isaiah is being sent on a fool’s errand. Or maybe it’s a suicide mission! One thing’s for sure: this will not look good on his resumé!
What is this crazy assignment? The Lord tells the prophet, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’” Okay, not too bad so far. But then we hear, “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (vv. 9-10). Now this really is a troublesome one!
It looks like the prophet’s job is to make sure that the people keep going in the wrong direction! “Make sure that their minds are dull, their ears are deaf, and their eyes are blind. Otherwise,” God is apparently saying, “if they do wake up and repent, you will have failed your mission.”
Here’s how the Revised English Bible puts it: “This people’s wits are dulled; they have stopped their ears and shut their eyes.” Read this way, God isn’t commanding the prophet to confuse the people. It’s simply a statement of fact; it’s what they’ve done to themselves.
Still, there is a sense in which sharing the light with those in love with the dark will bring confusion. It’s even necessary. It’s not an act of punishment, rather it’s one of tough love, so to speak. Even those on the right path—those who love and seek God—sometimes experience what the mystics call “the dark night of the soul.” This is when there is no understanding, no light, no way forward.
In any event, it seems clear that Isaiah is aware of things the people around him are not. They have narrowed their minds; they’ve chosen to be narrow-minded. Where the people around him see (and participate in) the grim cynicism of the day, Isaiah is able to see glory everywhere. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Hearing that is a gift of grace.
On that snowy morning in Philadelphia, I don’t know to what extent my older sister was a mystic or prophet, but I do consider that moment in time to be a gift of grace. Her wondrous proclamation that “there is so much beauty” was, to me, a message from heaven.
Maybe it was even a kairos moment, a moment of timelessness, a moment from God.
What about us? Can we see ourselves as mystics and prophets? Or maybe I should put it this way: can we see ourselves living out our calling, our vocation, to be mystics and prophets? And what does that even mean? Does it seem too far-fetched, too unreal?
Judette Gallares talks about this in her article “Opening the Heart to Listen: Becoming Mystics and Prophets Today.” She says that the mystical, “prophetic task requires friendship with God, an authentic intimacy with God. It is in this intimacy when a deep friendship is developed in quiet moments and where one learns to share heart to heart with God and begins to see and hear from God’s point of view.” And like I said earlier, that doesn’t mean we have to see inanimate objects in motion!
If we sing the hymn, “Here I Am, Lord,” and live into it, then that requires action on our part—although it’s not the mindless, blind, and deaf action Isaiah criticizes. It requires taking a risk. Sometimes it is easier to say, “Here I am Lord…but please send somebody else!”
As mystics and prophets we must ask the difficult questions. Can we venture into the unknown, trusting God and seeking new opportunities presented as we live the life of Christ in community? The temptation is to wait—to play it safe. When we don’t answer the call to take a risk, we miss out on the glory everywhere.
Here’s the last verse of “Here I Am, Lord”: “I, the Lord of wind and flame, / I will tend the poor and lame. / I will set a feast for them, / My hand will save. / Finest bread I will provide / Till their hearts be satisfied. / I will give my life to them. / Whom shall I send?”
Isaiah enters deeply into prayer. He has a new vision. We have a new vision. When everything seems and is dark, we find glory everywhere.
 כְּרום cherub