“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
-from Isaiah 6
For absolutely no reason whatsoever, I’ve been thinking about the word apocalypse lately.
I’ve told you this before, but the word apocalypse comes from the Greek word meaning uncover. We tend to use it for movies like Mad Max, or in phrases like the zombie apocalypse, places where it gives a sense of the horror you would feel at the end of the world as you know it.
At its root, though, the word is no more scary than playing peek-a-boo with a baby. You cover the baby, then uncover it. That’s an apocalypse. It’s not scary at all.
Unless you’re the baby, that is. Think about this game from the baby’s perspective, having not developed object permanence yet.
The blanket drops, and the whole known world just disappears. Once, there was a smiling caregiver, now there is nothing but a pastel fleece wasteland: featureless, stuffy, unending, but with a familiar voice calling where’s the baby.
Then the apocalypse comes, the blanket is removed, the baby is uncovered, and order is restored to the world. The baby takes one more step toward trusting that the caregiver and the world don’t disappear just because they can’t be seen. The baby starts to listen for the voice.
Peek-a-boo isn’t a children’s game. It’s a baptismal introduction to what all of life is like.
Except as many of us experience it, it isn’t constant awareness and sight punctuated by occasional blanket drops. Rather, it’s life under a blanket, listening for a voice, occasionally punctuated by moments in which the blanket suddenly flies off and we see things for what they really are.
Such clarity is not always a pleasant experience. We talk about these moments as mountaintop experiences, sometimes, as though it’s a hike or a sightseeing adventure.
We forget that when people find themselves on the mountaintop, face to face with the world as it is and the glory of God and all the rest of it, they’re often not too happy about it.
Sarah straight up laughed at the announcement that she’d have a son. Moses tried to bargain his way out of going back to Egypt to lead the Exodus like his life depended on it. Last week, Jonah got the call from God and told God to pound sand.
Isaiah, on the other hand, he just gives up and decides that he’s going to die.
Isaiah’s just a regular priest, serving in the temple, arranging the flatbread and lint-rolling the draperies or whatever, when suddenly the strangest thing happens: God shows up. Right there in the middle of his own temple, of all things.
Quakers, of all people, ought to expect that sort of thing in worship- we set aside time just to wait for it. When it happens, though, it takes a body off guard.
And so it did with Isaiah. God was seated on a throne, and the train of his robe filled the whole temple up.
Angel-seraphs hovered above him, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew. And they called back and forth one to the other,
Holy, Holy, Holy is God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
His bright glory fills the whole earth.
The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke.
Isaiah is not, shall we say, overjoyed by this divine epiphany. Sinful people aren’t allowed to look at God and live, and he’s definitely a sinner, and this is definitely God, so Isaiah does the math. It’s doomsday, and he’s going to die. Those are the rules.
You can read the whole Bible as the answer to one question, if you like: how can God and the people of God live together?
We started this story in Genesis, in this perfect garden which immediately goes to pot such that Adam and Eve can’t stay there in God’s presence any more. With Abraham and Sarah, God decides to focus on this one family and make them agents for healing and blessing.
And in the desert, at Mt Sinai, the Hebrew people agree to a covenant. It’s a set of rules and liturgical stuff that will make them ritually pure so that God can live among them without all of them dying. The rules and the liturgies provide the people with a way to seek forgiveness when they’ve sinned and set things right, and a way to maintain ritual purity.
I don’t really want to get into any of those rules about purity, but here’s the gist of it: if you touch anything that has to do with death, like a dead body or someone with a disease or a scavenger animal, that makes you impure.
It’s not a huge thing, really. It happens all the time for one reason or another.
But, you have to have some way of coming back from your contact with death in order to be in God’s presence.
Death wasn’t part of God’s initial design for the world, so it can’t be in God’s presence- and if you have death on your hands, then you can’t be in God’s presence until you’ve completed the liturgy to wash it off.
So, that’s the thirty-second version of the book of Leviticus. It’s relevant here because in this story, both Isaiah and the seraphim add something interesting to the discussion.
Let’s look at Isaiah first. There’s really no reason not to assume that he’s a competent priest. There were special rituals that he had to do to be ritually pure, in order to be in the temple. He almost certainly did them.
I watch Craig absentmindedly hum Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star though, while he washes his hands. The song is a timer of sorts to make sure it’s a full 30 seconds of wishing, a practice he picked up working in a hospital.
I bet a priest could walk through purity rituals the same way, if it’s a regular thing. Everything gets scrubbed and you’re good to go.
But when the blanket is removed and Isaiah is suddenly face-to-face with the glory of God that surrounds us all, he’s not worried that he missed a step on a ritual. He’s worried, instead, about his mouth. He says,
I’m as good as dead!
Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted—
And the people I live with talk the same way,
using words that corrupt and desecrate.
And here I’ve looked God in the face!
The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!
They’re all using words that corrupt and desecrate. I’m not exactly going to say that it sounds like Isaiah just went through a presidential election, but I’ll leave that interpretation open for you if you like it.
I want you to see, though, that this sudden concern for pure lips rather than ritual purity is a theological jump. Isaiah’s hands are clean- he has washed away any contact with death. He’s good, as far as the law goes.
But face-to-face with God, Isaiah suddenly sees how death has crept into his own way of speaking. This isn’t just a ritual matter anymore. Isaiah realizes that the holiness of God’s presence offers an indictment of the whole way he has been treating other people.
If we’re going to be in God’s presence, then we can’t use words that corrupt and desecrate. Treating other people as less than human is just another version of death, and death and God don’t mix.
Sorry if that’s a scary thought for you. It’s a bit scary for me, when I think about some of the things that I’ve said.
Apocalypses are uncomfortable times pretty much by definition.
So, I said that both Isaiah and the seraphim added something interesting to tradition about ritual and moral purity. Isaiah adds this idea that the things that he says are as important as the things that he touches, when it comes to maintaining an awareness of the presence of death.
Here’s the other piece: all throughout the story, up to this point, holiness has worked in one direction. If something pure touches something that’s impure, that impurity transfers.
It’s a ritual representation of the feeling that you get when you touch something gross, like mold or bird poop or eggplant. You touched the gross thing, and now your hand is gross too.
Impurity spreads. If you sin or touch something related to death, you have to go through a special process in order to be made pure because that death transfers to you. That’s just how it goes… until Isaiah meets God.
Here, that direction of dirtiness is reversed. Isaiah recognizes himself as impure, but rather than going through a ritual so that he can be in God’s presence, God’s presence itself – through a coal from the altar – becomes the thing that heals and purifies Isaiah.
Then one of the seraphim flew to [Isaiah] with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
With it he touched [Isaiah’s] mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Under the old rules, if the coal from the altar was pure and Isaiah’s lips were impure, then the coal should have been made impure when they touched. Impurity spreads, right?
But when Isaiah meets God, he finds a very different truth: he’s touched by something pure, and he himself becomes pure.
All of this was very surprising for Isaiah, but it shouldn’t be for those of us who are familiar with a man named Jesus.
I mean, this is basically what Jesus was about, right? He carried holiness within him, just like the coal that touched Isaiah’s lips.
Jesus laid his hands on sick people and lepers and even a dead man, and he didn’t become impure. Their impurity didn’t transfer to him.
Instead, the lepers were healed. The sick were made well. Death was defeated and the dead man came back to life.
Holiness turned out not to need protection or any kind of separation from the world. People saw the face of God, in Jesus, and they didn’t die because they were impure.
People didn’t have to purify themselves in order to come to Jesus for healing. They just came as they were, and holiness flowed out from Jesus to transform the people who came.
It’s just like how God’s purity flowed out of the coal and into Isaiah, and how God’s love and justice flowed out of Isaiah and into his prophetic work in the world.
And it’s just like the work that we’re called to do. I gave the kids bandaids rather than smushing hot coals on their mouths, but the idea is the same.
We’re called to cross over the boundary lines and touch those we think of as not good enough. We’re called to take the holiness that we have and let it loose in the world.
We’re here to be agents of healing, Friends.
We’re here, not to shut ourselves away from the brokenness of the world, but to let the gracious power flow through us. We’re here to bind up wounds, to speak with compassion and a desire for justice, to be people whose lips and hearts and hands say let thy kingdom come.
That’s what an apocalypse looks like. That’s the mercy and the grace of God, uncovered. It looks like you, when you meet with God.
Isaiah, after all this – after the jolt of the blanket being removed, after the terror and the joy of God’s presence, after the recognition of his own sinful lips, after his holy encounter with the altar coal – Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And [Isaiah] said, “Here am I. Send me!”
What canst thou say?