There is no surprise why this Isaianic text always appears in the lectionary for Trinity Sunday; the lectionary compilers simply cannot resist the infamous “trisagion” (Is.6:3), the thrice repeated “holies” issuing from those hovering seraphim while they zip around the throne of YHWH. This is, of course, imaginative, typological reading at its imaginative, typological best, though how ancient beasts howling “holy” at the top of their lungs should suggest the sacred Trinity of Christianity is well beyond me. What we have instead in this text is both a blueprint for myriad worship services as well as a mandate for public service to and for YHWH. However, what we do not have is a simple call to go and act on behalf of God; rather what we do have is a harsh and demanding summons for God’s service no matter the cost, no matter the reluctance, no matter the desire to serve someone or something else.
Worship services, especially in Protestant churches of whatever stripe, follow the path of Is.6 when they shape their Sunday gatherings. We are ushered into the presence of God (Is.6:1), and immediately join together in a hymn of praise (Is.6:3). We then offer a prayer of confession, both individual and corporate (Is.6:5), followed by a sign of divine absolution (6:7). We end with the call of God to us for service (6:8), which elicits from us our desire to follow God’s demand, “Here I am; send me!” That is the general blueprint for our services, albeit fleshed out in as many ways as there are churches that exist. All quite neat and tidy, don’t you think? However, I suggest, along with Isaiah, that we have stopped our reading of the text too soon; there are after all 5 more verses in the chapter, verses that put a sharply different and decidedly harsher spin on this business of God’s call.
We might be helped to better understand the necessity to read Is.6:9-13 by comparing two hymns, both based on this text, as they are found in the United Methodist Hymnal of 1989, the book still in common use in most UM congregations. The first is Dan Schutte’s well-known 1981 piece, “Here I am, Lord,” as adapted by the hymnal’s editor, Carlton R. Young. I have seldom worshipped in any church for very long before this folk-like tune is used and sung with great energy by the congregation. It is squarely based on Is.6:8, describing the many attributes and actions of God in the first person in the verses, followed by the hearty refrain that “I” (individually and collectively) answer with genuine fervor and delight. “I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart” (#593). I imagine that most of you as you read those words, were heisting the tune at least silently to yourself. It has certainly become one of the favorites in communities of faith that I know. Note, however, what the hymn suggests: once you know what God does and what God asks, you will surely follow God’s call to you. God’s works in the hymn include making the sea and sky, yet listening to people’s cry, fashioning snow and rain, yet hearing people’s pain, employing wind and flame, yet tending poor and lame, culminating in using God’s hand to save. There is a God who is worthy to follow, and I can readily sing with gusto, “Here I am, Lord!”
Compare that hymn with another one in the hymnal from 1970 by Fred Pratt Green (#582), using a tune from the 1753 Grenoble Antiphoner, as adapted by the famous English composer, Ralph Vaughn Williams. The words are clearly based on the same Is.6, but there is a distinct flavor here that is absent from the more triumphant “Here I am, Lord.”
“Whom shall I send? Our Maker cries, and many, when they hear God’s voice, are sure where their vocation lies, but many shrink from such a choice.” Ah, now here I find reality portrayed, perhaps because of a further reading of Is.6:9f. What follows Is.6:8 is something unexpected. When YHWH hears the shouted “Here I am; send me” from the cleansed lips of the prophet, God offers a command to go filled with disturbing content. “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, stop their ears, shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, or listen with their ears, and understand with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Is.6:9-10). However one is to understand these enigmatic verses, it surely must mean that no easy and facile preaching will be possible adequately to fulfill the call of this God. If people only hear what they want to hear, if they only perceive the world as they have long found comfortable and pleasant, if their world view remains safe and readily compliant with what they have always witnessed and enjoyed, then what that prophet is saying is deficient and feeble.
Green’s hymn continues. “For who can serve a God so pure (Is.6:5), or claim to speak in such a name, while doubt makes every step unsure, and self confuses every aim?” There is in this second verse a recognition of the plaintive vs.11 that Isaiah utters in reply to YHWH’s inexplicable demand of vss.9-10. “How long, O YHWH?” Indeed! How long are we to be charged with this disturbing demand to make the lives of our listeners uncomfortable, rather than to offer them comfort and peace, even, as Jeremiah so trenchantly puts it, when “there is no peace?” Green in his verse three, gives us hope in the midst of this disquieting summons from God: “And yet, believing God who calls knows what we are and still may be, our past defeats, our future falls, we dare to answer: Lord, send me!” Unlike Schutte’s notion that when we know well the God who calls us, we will inevitably follow that call, Green says that God knows all too well who we really are, our failures both past and future, yet calls us still, and in the light of all our doubts and fears, we “ dare to answer” Lord, send me. This is an echo of Isaiah’s anguished reluctance once he discovers more fully just what YHWH is asking of him.
YHWH’s answer to Isaiah’s fearful “How long” (he obviously hopes it is not long at all!) is little less than horrifying: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, houses without people, and a land utterly desolate” (Is. 6:11). Good heavens! I am supposed to leap at the chance to be God’s prophet in the face of these monstrous realities, these grim possibilities? Green in his verse four again offers a sliver of hope for us would-be God followers. “Those who are called God purifies, and daily gives us strength to bend our thoughts, our skills, our energies, and life itself to this one end.” The end is the work of God, the mission of justice and mercy and righteousness in a world too often devoid of any of those things. I find Green’s hymn better reflects the fuller context of Is.6 than Schutte’s far more popular and altogether too certain hymn. And in my judgment the tunes used match the tenor of the hymns. The Schutte is folk-like and urgently rousing with an especially resounding refrain, announcing the absolute certainty of our following the call of God. The Green ends low in the voice, offering a persistent uncertainty coupled with a hesitant resolve to follow God despite the weaknesses of all humans who would follow and the unchanging desire of God to call us nonetheless.
We simply cannot stop our reading of Is.6 at vs.8; it is not the full word that the prophet has for himself and for us. The true work of God is demanding, never easy, never altogether comfortable. No one may really follow this God and expect riches, fame, adulation, or personal glory. If such things occur, according to Isaiah 6, the call of God is not being answered at all.
(Images from Wikimedia Commons)