"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. 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. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 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!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 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!’" (Isaiah 6:1-8)
King Uzziah was, by most standards, one of the best kings of Judah - and certainly better than the ones in the kingdom of Israel, next door. He was no Prince Charles - took the throne at the age of 16, ruled a very long time. He beat up the Philistines, refortified Jerusalem - was generally a success. But he had a flaw.
Uzziah went into the temple and tried to burn incense himself there. Now, the king - however important he thought he was - wasn't allowed to burn incense in the temple. That was the priests' job. The king's job - anointed as he was - was to protect the kingdom, and let it prosper. The priests' job was to run the Temple.
According to the books of Chronicles, Uzziah got his comeuppance for his cheek. He was inflicted with leprosy for the rest of his life, and when he died, because of his leprosy, he was buried separately from the other kings of Judah - so as not to contaminate them with his uncleanness.
And that's why I think it's important that Isaiah gets his vision "in the year that King Uzziah died". The king had tried to raise himself up too high - had challenged the rules of God - and had paid. And the year a king dies is a bit, for the state of Judah, like an election year. Before a General Election, if the result looks close, the Stock Market falls. Afterwards, as the Government is formed, we wonder whether they're actually going to do the things they said. Or, if it's a new party in power, will they promptly stick up taxes, saying they hadn't realised how bad things were? So in Judah - as the king declines - will he succumb to insanity? Will his weakness cause a wave of assassinations of those who might want to push on the process? Will one of his sons stage a coup? When he dies - who is the new king? What are his policies? Will he align with Aram, with Assyria, with Egypt? The state is uncertain. But Isaiah gets to see - not the majesty of a king who ruled all the way to Egypt - but the glory of the King of Kings. The passing glory of the tainted king is contrasted with the eternal glory of the Lord.
There's no uncertainty here. When he sees the Lord in the temple, Isaiah knows exactly who it is. And he cries out something that - in our world where we sometimes see God as cuddly, as endlessly indulgent to us, may seem a bit extreme. But it's something that, if you've just seen the King of Kings, so great that just the hem of his robe fills the temple with glory, and you've seen terrifying angel after terrifying angel surrounding him, makes perfect sense:
‘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"
This passage is a source of that hymn which is sung on average every couple of hours, I believe, at every theological college, at licensings of Local Preachers and Readers and all sorts of church ministers: "I the Lord of Sea and Sky". Its chorus is rendered by my friend, Archimandrite Simon, "Here I am Lord - Look at me, Lord!"
It can have that feeling to it. The Lord, overcome by the worries of the Lord - hearing his people's cry, feeling their pain, realises that he is not up to the job. In desperation, he turns to the sad-eyed cherubim who were among the first born of creation, who watched in wonder as he made them and then the whole physical world from nothing. The one who lifted the Pleiades into the sky and weaves the rainbow looks at the angels amd said, this is too big a job for me. Whom shall I send? And the response from a tweedy little bloke or a fresh-faced young woman comes back, "Here I am, Lord! Is it I, Lord?" And God turns and says, "Roger!" Or, as it may be, "Kylie! Thank goodness you are here! We'd be lost without you!"
No. If you think God has no other hands than yours, that's not true. God made heaven of earth from nothing. God is incredibly potent. I don't believe God works in ways that are blatantly miraculous very often, but then if you created the laws of physics I don't think that you necessarily need to. And if the God who made the skies offers an invitation to you to join in the great mission on Earth then it's the trembling of Isaiah, not the easy self-confidence of the English middle classes, that you need.
The thing some of us can we can forget is that God doesn't fundamentally need us at all. There was a time before this world was created. It wasn't actually a time, and in a way it wasn't "before" - because both time and the concept of "before" only really exist in our temporal universe. But never mind. Let's push on. I am a woman of unclean lips and I can't express these things very well. But in the eternal Land of the Trinity, God is complete in Godself - Father, Son and Spirit being in a state of love given, received and shared.
And God doesn't create us to worship because God needs that. God isn't a 50s starlet, buying a poodle so she can have it sprayed pink and it can adore her. God creates out of the wonder of God's creative nature, so God's love can be shared even further - and reciprocated, sure. The Trinity, not so much closed in on itself as the sort of tight geometrical shapes we like to draw at Trinity, is open to created beings. When we fall, the Son comes hunting for us, opening God up to the experience of the world as a human being - sharing our world and taking out nature back to the heart of heaven. When the Son returns, the Spirit falls, pouring out new life onto the Church, ever restless, always seeking, always trying to bring women and men to God.
But when the One that makes all things is revelaled, God's glory is such that even seraphim have to hide their eyes so as not to see God's face. And if that's true for those sinless sons and daughters of heaven, when a scruffy Jewish bloke called Isaiah sees his vision, he does the right thing. He howls out a prayer, first up, of confession. "I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a nation of unclean lips."
Funny how it's his mouth he refers to when talking about his sin. He knows, as James reminds us centuries later, that so often it's what we say that causes the trouble. The arrogant talk, the hateful words, the spite, the lying - everything else can come after that source of all troubles.
And the Ruler of the Ages does something remarkable - makes Isaiah clean, puts a red-hot coal on his lips - so Isaiah can speak God's message.
So here we are. If you are going to serve God - as pastor or guide leader, as minister or admin assistant, as Archdeacon or Superintendent or whatever - you need to start with the knowledge that you're being called as servant by the Lord of Hosts. This isn't an act of grovelling - it is recognising your position. Like Garth and Wayne confronted with Aerosmith, you are not worthy. That's the place to be. It's also the place to go on from.
Isaiah's "here I am, send me" did not come out of a conviction of his own worth, out of any idea that he was just the sort of person God would be grateful for. It came, in fear and trembling, out of the knowledge that God was awesome and he was sinful. But that God made him clean to do what God commanded.
So we approach the throne of God in worship, in our lives, in service - knowing that we're never able to claim God's favour through our own natures. But confident that the One who calls us - though terrifying - is loving, giving and true.