It is one of the most extraordinary visions of the presence of Divinity and prophetic calling to be found anywhere in the Bible:
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 NRSV
There’s plenty of smoke and fire, which are often in the vicinity when God is present (recall both the burning bush for Moses and how Solomon was forced out of the Jerusalem Temple on its dedication day). Add in some six-winged seraphim (the only place you’ll find them in the Bible, by the way) flying around and chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and the very throne of God–all in all, it’s quite a sight.
Isaiah hadn’t expected any of that, of course, when he showed up for his regular duty in the Temple that morning. Some days it’s worth showing up for work. And he certainly felt unworthy of playing even a minor, supporting role in such a grand affair: “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” But, no doubt much to his surprise, his sins were forgiven and guilt blotted out by the touch of burning coals to his lips.
As dramatic and incredible as this entire scenario was (keeping in mind, of course, that none of this should be understood literally–it’s a vision, after all!), there was a clear purpose, and it was neither for spectacle nor entertainment: “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!’”
This remarkable story of the prophet’s calling is paired in the lectionary with the familiar yet curious encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus:
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” –John 3:1-17
There’s a lot in this passage to unpack, but I’ll focus here just on the last verse: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Greek word translated as “saved” carries multiple meanings, including healed or made whole. Jesus challenged Nicodemus to accept the good news of God’s coming kingdom and go into the world he knew to do something about it. That challenge is ours, as well.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.