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The Voice: Isaiah 6

"The whole earth is full of his glory"

I work in a small team one of whom, Malcolm Gordon, is a gifted singer/songwriter. I also work in a building that has a stairwell spiralling three or four stories. The acoustics in this stark stairwell is cathedral-esque. Sometimes Malcolm sits in this unconventional music studio and expresses his gift. The words “amplification” and “wonder” do not capture the experience of surprise, sound and spirituality that you encounter in this mix of song in a stairwell. Given its obscurity not many people find themselves in the time or place to be in the stairwell to hear a voice singing in the wilderness of spiralling concrete and steel; and more’s the pity!

My wife, Ruth, is a fan of Malcolm’s music and I have had a longstanding plan with Malcolm; someday I’d lead Ruth into the stairwell and for Malcolm to be singing. A plan is all it has been for a long time until the other day. Ruth was coming into the office unexpectedly on her way to another appointment. I had only a few moments and rushed into Malcolm’s office and blurted out “Ruth’s on her way. Quick! Stairwell! ‘Lazarus!’”[1] Malcolm had barely disappeared into the stairwell before Ruth arrived at the office. I said to her I knew she needed to be at an appointment soon, but I just needed four minutes of her time. I could see the struggle; she really didn’t have the time. But I was insistent. (To listen to the song "Lazarus", click on the video link below)

I led her into the stairwell and she looked a bit confused and there was the pressure to be elsewhere. Malcolm was out of sight at the very top of stairwell. Then soft chords began. She looked at me quizzingly recognising Malcolm’s art-form. The music intensified, and the lyrics began. Majestic. Mysterious. Words and music telling the story of Jesus defying death and dignifying humanity. Soaring, stirring spirituality in a stark stairwell. The tension in Ruth’s face was replaced by wonder. Her jaw literally dropped. The place was being transformed. She was being transformed. She silently mouthed to me “This is amazing!” And carefully and tentatively she crept up the stairs searching for the source of the sound. In the moment the need to be else-where for an appointment was supplanted by the desire to be where-else but here. An “on earth as it is in heaven” interruption that thrills the soul and calms the spirit.

The thing that struck me was seeing the effect of the experience wash over Ruth as she had her day interrupted by an unexpected presentation of the majesty of God.

This incident is a faint echo of the events of Isaiah 6; an unexpected interruption of a person’s life by the majesty of God. Isaiah 6 is well known; maybe too well known. Well, the first eight verses are well known. The remainder of the chapter is not often addressed in sermons on Isaiah 6. Mind you, Jesus wasn’t squeamish about using it; quoting it to explain the nature of some of his preaching (Mark 4 and Matthew 13).

One of the statements that falls from heaven in Isaiah 6 is the cry of the Seraphs (v 3b): “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Taking this theological claim as an invitation/revelation by which Isaiah and us can view the world – well – some days that takes some doing. Surely all the more reason to have our days interrupted by the presence and majesty of God.

The beginning of Isaiah 6 is a case in point (v 1). Isaiah might well have penned the event something like:

In the year full of the news that one of the longest serving and better kings of Judah died[2]; a king who started so well but ended so disappointingly and tragically . . . I’m confronted with the claim that the whole earth is full of the glory of the Lord. I’m confronted with the hem of his robe filling the temple, with the temple full of smoke and I’m overwhelmed by the fullness of my and my community’s guilt. Yet I’m full of the sound of the voice of God wondering who will respond. I’m full of a message (vv 9-13) that is paradoxically full of emptiness! In all this the heavenly conviction is that ‘the whole earth is full of God’s glory.’

. . . this surely takes some imagination and faith. Yet there it is. In all its glory. A world grieving, bustling, busy, sinful, hopeful. Some days it is hard to see and notice that the whole earth is full of the glory of God. Sometimes it feels like the only thing life is full of is a heavy emptiness. Some days it just seems like a stark concrete and steel stairwell devoid of song and Spirit. But I believe the cry of the Seraphs. I do. I believe that the ‘whole earth is full of his glory’ (v 3). However, attention span and my attention skills need help. I need interruptions to my day in the tradition of Isaiah 6. But how?

What strikes me about the landscape of Isaiah 6 are the contrasts and there are many. One contrast that arrests me is the dramatic and loud beginning contrasted with the small and quiet ending. At the start we have the immensity of God (vv 1-4) and at the end a whisper of hope: “The holy seed is its stump” (v 13). “The holy seed” – is this an expression of the whole earth being full of God’s glory? Seems so. Christologically speaking, obviously so.

The movement in Isaiah 6 and within Isaiah himself can be described as:

i. Isaiah sees God writ large (v 1)

ii. Isaiah sees himself writ small (v 5)

iii. Isaiah sees himself writ large (v 8)

iv. Isaiah sees God writ small (v 13)

And in and through it all this Isaiah’s life is interrupted and the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

I consider the oft-quoted Irenaeus saying, “The glory of God is a living man [sic]; and the life of man consists in beholding God”[3] Or as it is often paraphrased, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Especially and essentially alive in Christ.

By way of illustration and from a surprising quarter, I find the writings if Primo Levi revelatory. While not writing with Isaiah 6 in mind much less with Christian theology in view, in his reflection on his time in Auschwitz, Levi records a startling and relevant observation for our reflection on this text. “If I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of thought is to be seen.”[4] Thus this is akin to Isaiah’s cry of anguish as if the glory of God has departed from humanity. If you are looking for the polar opposite of Irenaeus’ vision is not Levi’s observation all of that? And the Seraphs cry out into the darkness. About a chapter later Levi describes his friendship with an Italian civilian, Lorenzo, who provided him with bread and the odd clothing item. Levi writes that he survived Auschwitz because of Lorenzo. But Levi makes the point that it wasn’t so much because of the material aid by which Lorenzo saved him but by his presence. Lorenzo reminded and modelled to Levi that “there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole.”[5] He continues, “But Lorenzo was a man; his humanity was pure and uncontaminated, he was outside this world of negation. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”[6] If you are looking for an example of Irenaeus’ vision is not Levi’s experience moving towards that? And the Seraphs cry out from the darkness.

Through divine interruption Isaiah managed not to forget his humanity even though initially it was in a form he would rather forget (v 5). But then the work and Word of the Lord revived his humanity, and he became custodian of a bleak message (let’s be honest about that) but one which led to reminding all that the whole earth is full of the God’s glory. Even though that glory was the size of a seed (v 13); humanly speaking.

I preached a sermon recently which had the reference to God’s glory. Someone questioned me afterwards: “But what does that glory look like?” This was not an easy question to answer. But I look to Isaiah, the temple, the Seraphs, the dialogue and movement of Isaiah 6, the promise of God and the “holy seed” in places of death. I look for evidence of the whole earth being filled with the glory of God; and consider that such a pursuit invites interruptions to my life. Interruptions which might involve being led into stairwells so that our desire to be else-where is transformed to where-else but here. And discovering that our lives having been best described described as a stump (v 13) demonstrates the glory of God in this: the Holy Seed has taken root and is flourishing.

And the Seraphs grow in volume . . .

Geoff New is Dean of Studies at the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership (Dunedin). He is a trainer for Langham Preaching in South Asia. He also leads Kiwimade Preaching. His doctoral research explored the impact of utilising Lectio Divina and Ignatian Gospel Contemplation when preparing sermons. 

[1] “Lazarus” is one of Malcolm’s songs. A personal favourite of mine and it soars!

[2] See 2 Chron 26

[3] accessed 30th October 2017. Quoting a translation of Irenaeus’ work “Against Heresies” (Book 4, 20:7).

[4] Primo Levi, If This Is A Man/The Truce (Little Brown Book Group: London, 2003), 101.

[5] Levi, Man, 135.

[6] Levi, Man, 136.