1 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. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 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!"
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 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." 8 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!" NRSV
I have always loved this passage. Over time it just gets richer and richer.
Isaiah is busy in the temple when he encounters God. The NRSV Bible translates Isaiah’s response to this happening as “Woe is me! I am lost.” Other versions say “I am undone.” I had a professor once who had us envision the transporter beam from Star Trek (especially the visual effects from the original series.) He claimed the connotation of the Hebrew was “I am being dis-integrated.” God hadn’t said or done anything. Just his presence was enough to disintegrate Isaiah. Any illusions Isaiah may have had about his own character, and that of his community, were obliterated. He was dis-illusioned. His guilt and shame were made fully apparent.
Then the seraph, an agent of God, is sent to touch a live coal to Isaiah’s lips and he is freed from his guilt and sin. I find this imagery particularly powerful. The most fundamental building block of culture is language. Language shapes our very conceptions and deceptions about ourselves and our communities. The symbol of purging sin by touching the lips is intriguing as the mouth is the part of the body associated with language. Isaiah has unclean “lips” and has been shaped by a community of people with unclean “lips.”
Isaiah is now able to be in God’s presence. By God’s action, Isaiah has been reintegrated into relationship with God. Being in community, he hears God’s voice asking for a messenger. In response to his transformation, Isaiah offers himself. Notice he does not say “Here I am,” as in designating his location. He said “Here am I,” as in proffering a gift.
As the body of Christ, it seems to be that God has entered our presence. When we deeply encounter God we are disillusioned with ourselves and our community. Our false identities, individual and corporate, are disintegrated. I don’t believe this is a one shot thing but an ongoing dynamic of disintegration and reintegration. We are brought into community by God, through Christ, and experience God’s character. We become reintegrated into his character and desire God’s mission. We offer ourselves for that mission as the body of Christ. God in the temple with Isaiah, I suspect, is similar to the expectations God has for the body of Christ in the world, even as God is constantly at work disintegrating false identities in us to make us one in him.