Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Trinity Episcopal Church, Mt. Airy, NC
May 27, 2018 10:30 AM
וָאֶשְׁמַ֞ע אֶת־קֹ֤ול אֲדֹנָי֙ אֹמֵ֔ר אֶת־מִ֥י אֶשְׁלַ֖ח וּמִ֣י יֵֽלֶךְ־לָ֑נוּ וָאֹמַ֖ר הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי׃
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
Whom shall I send,
and who will go for us? (Isaiah 6:8)
Isaiah stood between heaven and earth. He stood there on the one day when a human being could stand there, holding a vessel of lamb’s blood to pour upon the כפרת, God’s holy throne, and with that blood to plead that the LORD would pardon his people Israel for all the unknown sins that nation had committed in the past year. Isaiah would pray that God and all the hosts of heaven would let the heavens and the earth continue for yet another year and would promise that Israel would seek the LORD’s favor this year more conscientiously than in the last. For the holy of holies was not just another parlor in Solomon’s old temple but was the place where the LORD sat enthroned upon the cherubim, the place on earth where heaven touched the mundane existence of ordinary mortals.
Legends and fables surrounded this mystical moment, when a priest entered the מקדש, the holy place, on that one day of the year, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Ha-Kippur, some said, the priest would actually be able to peer through the smoky darkness of the holy shrine to see the LORD seated on the ark and with the LORD, bright seraphim and cherubim leading the worship of the hosts of heaven with their anthems and praises. Others said the priest became a prophet at that moment, hearing at first hand the deliberations of the holy beings in heaven as they debated and planned the events of the upcoming year. And if Isaiah slipped behind the veil of the temple expecting vision and prophecy, he was not disappointed. He saw the vision of God, seated upon the cherubim with the seraphim flying about the throne, singing God’s praises; and if prophecy involved hearing the very deliberations of the hosts of heaven, he got that too.
So, in the year that leprous old King Uzziah died, Isaiah stood in the holy place between earth and heaven, seeing the God of all creation seated on the throne and surrounded by the heavenly beings with winged serpents circling above him chanting God’s glory. The smoke from the alter of incense, the odors from the tamid offering created an unrelieved gloom of the windowless chamber, yet the young priest could see the Face all Israel had not been allowed to see in the wilderness and heard the debates of the sons of God as they disputed the world’s fate. And as the heavenly counselors concluded their discussions he hear the Lord’s own voice for the first time, asking the most logical question of all: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Who will publish our decisions? Who will declare the heavenly wisdom? Somehow in that moment, Isaiah knew that this wasn’t a Netflix production but the real thing, knew that the opportunity to chose what he had been born to do and to be stood before him. That moment would not return. And Isaiah with two, short Hebrew words claimed his calling: הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי, “Here I am! Send me!” He belonged there. Heaven and earth had waited all the millennia they had existed to hear his answer, and he did not disappoint them: הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי, “Here I am! Send me!”
But you and I know about standing between heaven and earth. We too have stood between time and eternity even though none of us ever entered Solomon’s temple or stepped behind the heavy curtain that separated the holy place from the rest of the temple. We too have stood in Isaiah’s place before the king of the universe, though we may have called the event something else entirely. Sometimes we have stood there in joy and at other times in the midst of despair. Sometimes we knew we would have to go there, but at other times eternity broke into our lives unexpectedly and not always in a welcome manner.
One Sunday afternoon, I reported to the pediatrics ward of the North Carolina Memorial Hospital to teach the Sunday School class for patients, looking forward especially to singing gospel songs with little Alfonzo who was never content to miss a class even when he was feeling badly or had just suffered a painful procedure. But on that winter afternoon, a student nurse—who later became my wife—took me aside and with tears in her eyes told me that Alfonzo wasn’t coming, would never attend Sunday School again, would not be singing “Blessed Assurance” or “Jesus Loves Me” again on this side of Jordan. And we wept together; and we stood there on the edge of a gaping eternity where God’s face was at once hidden from us and yet God’s gentle arms embraced us as we cried.
On a bright afternoon, I awoke in an airport taxi after twenty hours of jet travel to find myself in front of the bright limestone elevation of the Sisters of Zion Hospice on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Dome of the Rock and within sight of the Gabbatha where Pilate condemned our Lord to death. And new as that corner was to me, for this was my first trip to Palestine, I knew that I had somehow returned home, returned to the source of my being, returned to everything I had studied over my lifetime, home to the City of David, the ancient Jebus, the very stones on which God had written the story of my life. And time and eternity, heaven and earth had no more meaning than space-time has in a Black Hole.
You’ve stood there with me and with old Isaiah too. You stood there perhaps when you knew, knew for certain that somebody loved you completely and would love you forever. You’ve stood there as you listened to the labored respirations of a parent or a spouse or a child come to a slow but inevitable end. You’ve stood there when you have had one secret or another of the universe made clear to you unexpectedly.
I remember one evening in Durham a half-century ago as some of us walked away from a Civil Rights demonstration, black and white together, holding hands not only to show solidarity but because we were frightened. Men in pickup trucks raced by us pointing rifles and shotguns at us, crying out every rancid racial epithet they knew. And I remember not only the fear but also how proud I was that God had let me be there, and I realized how much I loved the women and men on either side of my and the frightened racists that were spewing their hatred at us. I was privileged to be there with and for them all. That too was a moment out of time, a moment on the cusp of eternity. Thank God for that vision. Thank God for those precious souls—all of them—that played their parts in it.
Isaiah was a priest; but you are priests too. The work of priesthood is to stand before the Almighty in the holy place—wherever that holy place might be—to bring before the Lord of Creation all that makes human beings human, to bring ourselves, our loved ones, and our worst enemies before the mercy seat with the blood of the everlasting covenant and seek God’s face in the deep darkness where we find it so hard to find God at all.
But Isaiah’s call didn’t make him a priest. He was a priest because of birth within the holy family of God’s people, that royal priesthood, and within the priestly tribe. God’s call to Isaiah the priest challenged him to be something more, something new, to be God’s prophet, to tell what he had seen and heard and experienced. The test of Isaiah’s ministry wouldn’t come from saying the liturgy correctly or offering just the right kind of Kosher sacrifice but would come with his two words, הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי, “Here I am! Send me!” Before he said those words, he was just a glorified ecclesiastical post office worker. After he said them, Isaiah was God’s prophet, the soul that would resolutely stand before the new King Jotham and the new King Ahaz and dare to tell them God’s truth about Jerusalem’s sin and the danger of her enemies, dare to tell them what he had heard and seen and knew in his heart about their genteel corruption, their compromised loyalties, and their pseudo-integrity.
And if the stories about the ancient priests are right, every priest that steps behind that curtain into the smoky darkness where God’s world intersects our own, every such priest receives a vision and a call. So, that call belongs to you too, not just to Isaiah, and it belongs to me too. “Who will go for us?” Will you? Will I? Will we tell others about the God before whom we have stood? Will we declare what we have seen and heard? Or will we be content just to enjoy the moment, to meditate on God’s presence without dedicating ourselves to the God who calls us to go out and bear witness? Will we be content just to get it right: to pray the right prayers at the right time, to read the right scripture, to think the right thoughts and never do anything with what God has given us?
Isaiah the priest became Isaiah the prophet. God help me, and God help you to say those two words Isaiah first said, הִנְנִ֥י שְׁלָחֵֽנִי, “Here I am! Send me!”
 733 BCE.