Holy, Holy, Holy

Isaiah 6 and Worship

Poor Isaiah.  He experienced what we all say that we want to experience in church on Sunday morning:  the undeniable presence of God.  It was not entirely pleasant.  Immediately, the prophet became aware of his unclean lips. Perhaps, seeing God “high and lofty” (Isa 6:1, NRSV) called attention to the inadequacy of the things he had been

saying about God.  Perhaps he recognized that God was much grander than he had ever thought. In any case, one might say that he became painfully aware of his condition, because to cleanse his lips, one of the seraphim, the winged serpents praising God, flew down to Isaiah with a coal from the heavenly altar to burn away Isaiah’s guilt.  No cheap grace for Isaiah!

It only got worse.  Worshipers today sing several hymns based on Isaiah’s apparently eager willingness to respond to God’s commission.  Given its continuation, it is difficult to imagine that the biblical account of Isaiah’s call intends to depict Isaiah as the model volunteer, however.  “Here I am, send me!” Isaiah said – before learning the nature of the mission.  God, it turned out, needed someone to preach to the people of Judah, even though God knew that they would not respond in faith.  Isaiah’s zeal quickly morphed into dismay.  He asked, “How long?” a question typically associated in the Old Testament with lament and complaint.  It might be palatable to preach with no hope of “success” if the commission were short term.  Alas, God explained that Isaiah was to preach until the unresponsive people had been decimated. If preachers assess the success of their ministries in part by how many believe their message, Isaiah was called to fail.

Poor Isaiah.  Isaiah 6:1 takes care to note that Isaiah had gone to the temple “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Uzziah had been on the throne for fifty-two years in a period of relative stability.  The text does not say so, but it implies, at least, that Isaiah may have gone to worship for some of the same reasons many people go today:  to find comfort, solace, and encouragement.  Instead, he became aware of his shortcomings, a flying snake branded his lips, and God called to him a futile task.

What ought to occur in worship?  What is its nature and purpose?  Is worship supposed to be soothing, comforting, pleasant?

Of course worship is a complex phenomenon.  The church at worship bears public testimony to its faith; the worshiping community strengthens its fellowship; individual worshipers seek guidance or courage or compassion.  These ancillary aspects of worship, while significant, derive from its basic character, however:  encounter with the holy God.  Thus, we often begin by acknowledging God’s presence through the invocation.  We think of the sermon, not as a lecture or a motivational address or a dramatic performance, but in some sense as a word from God.  We sometimes refer to the Lord’s Supper as Communion, a term that could well be applied to the entire service of worship because we mean it to be an act of communion, not just with one another, but collectively with God.

The notion that God is truly present in worship suggests that worship should ideally employ forms that are, insofar as possible and culturally pertinent, transparent media.  Their purpose ought to be, not to call attention to themselves or the liturgists, but to focus attention on God.  Similarly, forms of worship may be measured by whether they point beyond themselves to the holy God “high and lofty.”

Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1917) described encounters with the divine in terms of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the mystery at once terrible and fascinating.  Contemporary worshipers, like Isaiah of old, seem to want the second element without the first.  The attempt to make worship pleasant above all else risks depleting holiness of its power.  From Isaiah’s temple vision of the Holy God to the disciples’ fear in the presence of a carpenter/rabbi who commands storms, the Bible describes human awareness of God’s terrible holiness as a key characteristic of divine-human encounter.  Indeed, the Hebrew word often translated “to worship” can also be translated “to fear” in many contexts.

In my experience and perhaps in yours, these uncomfortable confrontations with the tremendum – the awesome, fearful mystery of divine presence, holiness in its terrifying beauty – have often been the most significant and definitive experiences of my faith.  They are themselves strangely attractive, fascinating, and always life-changing.  Dross is burned away, a commission acknowledged, a mission launched.