Sunday, June 11, 2006

Fighting fire with fire

In the first lecture I give to my students in the history of western civilization I ask them what is the fundamental difference between the way modern men and women perceive the world and the way ancient men and women perceived the world. For example, think of Hurrican Katrina. When it was approaching the Gulf coast, our televisions were full of talking heads telling us how fast its winds were, what time it would make landfall, and so on. But in the ancient world when natural disasters happened, people had little or no access to scientific information about hurricanes, earthquakes, and so on. Instead, they simply attributed these events to God or the gods. Instead of stockpiling water, medicine, and batteries, they prayed and offered sacrifices.

We are heirs to a scientific world view that promises us that reason can prevent or alleviate almost any event that befalls uss. It was not so in the ancient world. The ancient world understood the world in terms of myth, symbol, ritual, superstition, and magic. Is a volcano about to explode? Toss in a maiden!

There is much to be said for the scientific world view. Antibiotics, satellites, and central heat and air have transformed human life mostly for the better, but the scientific world view has limits. Human life (as Shakespeare said) is “rounded with a sleep.” We come from and are destined for mysteries that science cannot penetrate.

Isaiah takes us into the heart of such a mystery. We cannot know the exact nature of the experience that the Prophet Isaiah had, but he hints in the opening verse that his world had been shaken to the very foundations. Uzziah, the king of Judah, died in 742 BC, and whenever there is a sudden transition from one ruler to another, it can be unsettling, especially if there is an international crisis. About the same time that Uzziah died, the Assyrians were threatening Judah’s sister kingdom of Israel in the north, and Judah itself was very much at risk. So how did Isaiah respond? He could not read about it in the New York Times or turn on Fox News for a “fair and balanced” account of the situation. He did what ancient men and women did in such situations. He went to the temple..

Disasters have a way of opening us up. For a brief time after 9/11 churches and synagogues were full. When our world trembles, we realize our need for something more than our own strength, answers that satisfies us at a deeper level than reason.. Something opened Isaiah’s eyes quite literally, and he found himself staring into the very heart of the universe. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Isaiah felt himself small, weak, and inconsequential before this vast Being.

Amidst swirling incense, seraphim, the highest order of angels, swooped and flew. Don’t think of cute, pink-cheeked Renaissance angels. Some have suggested that the seraphim were actually winged-serpents. Whatever they were, these were terrifying creatures with not one or two but three pairs of wings. The presence of the seraphim emphasize the vast distance between God and humanity. The wings tell us that the distance is so great that they must fly through that vast space. They tell us that God is infinitely far above us. And they tell us that they do God’s bidding with great speed.

But the seraphim perform another function. Think of them as (in a sense) a heavenly Secret Service. But unlike the president’s Secret Service detail their job is not to protect God from us but to protect us from God. Not in the sense that God wishes to do us harm but in the sense that the divine energy will reduce us to nothingness if we approach too closely. Isaiah realized this immediately. “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!.” Isaiah was too close to the divine fire. He was at ground zero for a power greater than any nuclear explosion. The power that had shaken the temple to its foundations would surely reduce Isaiah to fine, dry powder.

What would you or I do in a similar situation? Imagine waking in the middle of the night and finding oneself face to face with the Power that spoke the world into existence. Imagine the heavenly beings swirling around that Power. Hear their voices chanting praises in unearthly music. Feel the neergy surging from the divine throne. What would you do? Take an aspirin and call the doctor in the morning? Run to the fridge and eat the rest of the chocolate chicp ice cream? Grab the telephone and call 911?

The remedy for Isaiah’s dilemma was strong medicine. One of the seraphim took a coal from the sacred fire on the altar and placed it on Isaiah’s lips. He was literally fighting fire with fire. To see God, to meet God face to face, we need some of the divine fire in our hearts. So God transmitted divine energy through the sacrificial fire and the seraphic hands to the prophet’s lips.

Imagine Isaiah’s thoughts at seeing one of the seraphim zooming down toward him with a handful of redhot coals. Nothing about this story is nice or safe. Isaiah went to the temple because of his fear that the Assyrians might destroy Judah, but in the temple he confronted a far greater fear: the possibility that he might be reduced to ashes in the divine fire. Some cures can kill. Isaiah’s only hope was that the altar fire might harden him to bear the divine fire.

We want a safe, domestic deity. We want the Good Shepherd of the 23rd Psalm, a kindly grandfather, an old, bearded, and slightly forgetful senior citizen. In short, we want Santa Claus without the list of who’s naughty or nice.. But the God of Isaiah and Paul and Jesus is not that kind of deity. Isaiah’s encounter with God left him with second and third degree burns. When he spoke with Nicodemus, Jesus employed the metaphor of birth. “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or again).” Think of that: nine months of pregnancy, morning sickness, and a long, painful, and potentially dangerous labor and delivery in which the lives of both mother and child may be at risk.

But what about Paul’s promise that the Spirit will unable us to call God Abba or Daddy? That’s certainly a comforting thought, but listen again to what Paul says before that: “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The Spirit only comes to us after we have “put to death the deeds of the body”, that is, all that separates us from God.

The poet Annie Dillard famously asked, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?… The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”(Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk)

Trinity Sunday is a good time to bethink about the “power we so blithely invoke,” because the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us of what a strange and incomprehensible God we worship. A God who is both three and one. A God who is a community of three persons who are identical in their nature and diverse in their functions. A God who came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. A God who dwells in glory incomprehensible and is without beginning or end and yet was born in a stable in Bethlehem. A God who dwells outside of time and cannot suffer but who died on a cross on a Judean hillside, was placed in a borrowed tomb, and rose triumphant on the third day.

The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God of prophets and seraphs, of new births and skeptical rabbis, is not somewhere else. This God does not dwell in the splendor of distant galaxies or in the vast, cold darkness of space. The doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that the God who commanded seraphim to sear Isaiah’s lips with coals of fire is right here among us.. There is no escaping this God, no place where God does not see and hear, no place where we cannot hear the seraphic song or be singed with the divine fire. Jesus told Nicodemus that the Spirit is as omnipresent and as unpredictable as the wind. It can be a gentle, cooling breeze or it can bring destruction on our cities.

When the children visit Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, they are told that only the great lion Aslan can free Narnia from the witches’ spell. “A lion!” Lucy exclaimed, “Is he safe?” To which Mr. Beaver replied, “Oh, no. He’s not safe, but he’s good.” Amen.