February 10, 2019
All Saints’ Church
Think for a just a moment this morning about the holiest place you’ve ever been. At some point in all our lives, we find a spot that we absolutely know is hallowed ground, a place set apart from the rest. It could be a religious place—a church building or a site of pilgrimage. It could be a place in nature, somewhere where you were overwhelmed with the beauty of the created order. Or it could be a spot where something extraordinary happened, an event from the past that changed the world or that means something to you personally.
Think for a moment about this holy place. What does it look like? How did you feel there? Were you aware of something beyond yourself? Did it fill you with awe and terror? Did it inspire you and soften your heart? Did it make you want to fall down on your knees or to jump up or to scream out or to sit in reverent silence? Do you tell people about it, or is it a secret you keep to yourself because you don’t think people will understand? Do you try to go back there, or was it a once-in-a-lifetime experience? And most importantly, how has this place shaped you as a person? What has it inspired you to do, to say, to act differently or more fully, to turn back or to turn forward or to turn around in a circle--just because you knew in this moment, in this place that you were in the presence of God?
There is no denying the power of that place, of that experience of holiness. In fact, it may be one of the reasons you are here this morning—because you remember that time—maybe not necessarily in the front of your mind, but in your deep soul, in that part of you that holds the most important memories. Or maybe because you have a sense that such a thing exists and you want to feel it for yourself. Or maybe even because you have felt that holiness—right here in this temple.
If that’s the case, then we have no choice but to say, with the prophet Isaiah,
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.
The passage from Isaiah we hear this morning is a vision of that profound sense of the holy. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, like a king robed in glory. There are angelic beings flying around him, six-winged seraphim with sleepless eye. And the hymn they repeat to one another is nothing but a proclamation of the transcendent divinity in whose presence they exist.
Holy. Holy. Holy! Words so sacred we repeat them in our liturgy as we approach the mysteries of the Eucharist, echoing the words of the seraphim who surrounded the Lord’s throne.
Kadosh kadosh kadosh, Adonai tz’vaot m’lo khol haaretz k’vodo.
A hymn so hallowed it is recited at the heart of the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy, the Kedushah.
There is no mistaking that Isaiah is in the presence of God, and the sense of holiness is completely overwhelming. He is confronted with his smallness in the face of God’s complete holiness that fills the entire earth. He proclaims that he is a man of unclean lips, and in that moment, one of the seraphim touches his mouth with a hot coal from the fire at the altar. This is the sign that from now on, Isaiah will speak truth that has been given to him by God. His experience of standing in the presence of God’s holiness changes his life forever and equips him to become a prophet of the Lord.
Holiness is something that can never fully be defined. It is like Isaiah’s vision, in which he sees only the hem of the Lord’s garment, but not the entire picture. It is something that is felt and experienced, but can never be replicated or fully explained. And yet it is precisely because of all these reasons that holiness is such a powerful part of the human experience of God.
One way to think of our perception of God is on a sort of sliding scale. At one end is what we could call “imminence” or God immediately with us. This is the God of the everyday, God sitting beside you, God in your morning coffee. This God walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am His own.
The imminent God is comforting and intimate. It’s nice to have time with my God in the garden. But there’s a problem with this God. If God gets too intimate, then God is really nothing more than a good friend, one I can rely on in my times of need and share my personal joys with. This God leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Who or what created the heavens and the earth? Who makes the sun rise and set, the winds blow and the ocean crash? Who presides over wars and times of peace? We are here for but the blink of an eye—isn’t there some awesome presence that has been here from the beginning and will be here after us?
This is the perception of God at the other end of the sliding scale, the end that can be called “transcendence.” This is the way Isaiah sees God—clothed in splendor, seated on his throne in the Temple and attended by angels. There is no doubt that this God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. This is the God of holiness. This God’s kingdom stretches the length of the universe, and this God’s reign began at the foundation of time, which itself is God’s own creation. We are fortunate, like Isaiah, to catch just a glimpse of this glory, and when we do, it changes our lives forever. We may not be able to walk in the garden with this God, but a moment in the presence of this holiness will shake the core of the human soul.
Christianity proclaims the impossible. Our faith claims that the Jesus we worship occupies the entire scale between imminent and transcendent. It says that there is no way to explain the love of God other than to say that it is both with us all the time and towering over us like a celestial king on a throne. How else can you explain a savior who will walk with you in the garden but is also the Word from the beginning? This is what the early Christians were trying to do when they taught that Jesus is fully human and fully God, fully imminent and fully transcendent.
Peoples’ preference for one side of the scale or the other slides back and forth over time. Going to far to one extreme or another shuts out important parts of our understanding of God. For most of history, we thought of God as more transcendent than imminent. And here’s the thing: we happen to be living in one of those odd times when the understanding of God may have skewed just a little bit too far to the imminent, the God with us side of the spectrum. 21st century American Christians seem to be pretty comfortable with the idea that God is extremely and intimately interested in the minutae of our lives, that our prayers for every little thing are heard and answered. There’s something nice and comforting about that. This preference for imminence is reflected in the way Americans worship, our casual, everyday way of approaching God. I was shocked the first time I encountered a church with movie theater seating and a coffee bar in the lobby. Our music, worship language, and even the way we dress looks and feels far more like our everyday lives than they did for our forebears—even for Episcopalians!
But the danger comes when we skew so far toward the imminent that we lose the awe of the transcendent. When we lose the memory of the Lord on his holy throne, we discard the otherness of holiness that reminds us that our place in God’s creation is actually very small. When we forget that Jesus is as much God as he is human, we ignore the fact that he belongs to everyone and not just me. You may have seen that the White House press secretary recently said that God wanted Donald Trump to be president. This is a theological statement that forgets God’s transcendence, that God’s concerns aren’t necessarily my own, and that, believe it or not, God belongs not just to the victor but to the vanquished.
It seems the pendulum might be swinging back, that people are searching for the holiness of otherness in their lives. If you follow writing about Christianity, you might have noticed a steady trickle of articles about people drawn to formality, not comfort, in worship. The Church of England has seen an uptick in attendance at cathedral Evensong services, where the beauty of music and words hovers inside ancient buildings. It may just be that something is stirring within our collective spirit, calling us back to this transcendent God.
Regardless of our own tastes, God is looking on, looking down from the great high throne. Those holy places are still out there. You may even be in one at this moment. And if you’re ever in search of such a place, just listen for the song of the seraphs:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord. The whole earth is full of his glory. Amen.