Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Vision of God


What does God look like? It's a question as old as humanity. One of the distinguishing characteristics of our tradition--our Jewish heritage--is the rejection of any and all images of the divine. The leaders of Israel knew that the human desire to make real, tangible, and physical that which is holy, mysterious, and totally other meant that any picture, image, or statue of God would become an idol that was worshipped in the place of God. So they rejected the practice on a matter of principle. God doesn't even have an effible name much less a caricature.

That principle leads to some other important theological conclusions, including the belief that no one is allowed to see God and live. Anyone who saw God, whatever God looks like, might attempt to reproduce in mind or physical form that which she or he saw. To see God was a death sentence. Even Moses, who was said to talk with God "face to face" wasn't actually allowed to see the face of God--only God's hindparts. In Sunday's lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 6:1-8, we hear the prophet's words of woe at having been given a glimpse of the Almighty: "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!" It's interesting that the prophet, whose words would define him, choose "unclean lips" as the way of describing his unworthiness, and it makes sense, then, that having had his lips purified, the one who had seen a vision of the Lord would be the one empowered to speak the Lord's word.

The prophet was given a vision--a strange, mysterious vision of the Lord. God was seated on a throne, high in the heavens, but the hem of God's robe--the hem!--filled the whole of the temple. Above God were angels, who flew about and called to one another, singing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" So powerful was their cry that the building was shaken to its foundation, and the entire temple was filled with the haze of smoke. It sounds like a pretty cool dream.

Who are we to approach the Lord? Who are we that the Lord would approach us? There is powerful mystery in these words. The prophet, terrified that he has seen what no human ought, is called into ministry and mission from this mysterious encounter. Isaiah encounters that which he cannot know, that which he knows that he is neither allowed nor capable of apprehending, and he begs for mercy. God, of course, has revealed God's self in this way to fill Isaiah's mind and heart and words with awe of the divine, an awe that will fill his prophecy. The instructions he gives to his people, therefore, are in adoration of the unknowable God. How much of our preaching comes from a similar encounter?

I don't know many Christians who actually worship--i.e. fall down in subjection to--an idol, statue, or image. But we've lost our sense of how powerful the desire to make specific that which cannot be narrowed down. Idol worship isn't only about false gods. It's about losing one's awe for God. This Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we have an opportunity to be in awe of God. Nothing is easy this week. The collect is wordy, the proper preface is wordy, St. Patrick's Breastplate is wordy. Don't go cheap and easy. God is bigger, richer, holier than any analogy you might use. Dear Preacher, let us stand in God's indescribable presence and give us space to be in awe. Then, we, a people of unclean lips, might be filled with wonder and hear again our call to worship, follow, and serve the Almighty.

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