There are many details in this story that can be distracting. Who was King Uzziah? What exactly does a seraph look like? Why is Isaiah’s call to be a prophet happening six chapters in, instead of in chapter 1? All of these are good questions, but not ultimately what this short passage is about.
Isaiah is in the holy of holies, inside the innermost part of the temple. He is a having a vision or an experience, where the shapes on the Ark of the Covenant are slowly transformed until they are no longer carvings, but are revealing to him the activity that happens around the throne of God.
When Isaiah says, “Woe is me…” This is not a Charlie Brown-kick-the-dirt kind of grousing. It’s a gulp of terror. To see God, in Hebrew Scriptures, is to know that you are about to die. No one sees the face of God and lives. Isaiah has nothing to offer; yet what happens next isn’t based on what he can bring. It’s based on what God can do and how Isaiah responds.
God’s attendants come and purify Isaiah, giving him a real experience of forgiveness and grace in the presence of God… mercy when he expected to die, absolution without a sacrifice or offering, righteousness on God’s terms (not human definitions). Thus, Isaiah is so moved that when God converses with the heavenly host: Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?- Isaiah pipes up, “I’ll go! Send me!”- even before he knows what he will be asked to do or say.
Isaiah is so grateful for his life and for grace, that he’s willing to undertake a task from God- the details of which he does not know, but if he thought for a minute about prophetic history, he’d probably offer someone else’s name instead. Isaiah realizes that God does not abandon unclean people, but makes them holy, makes them ready, and invites them into the work that needs to be done. He says, “Send me”, not because he is an amazing prophet, but because he recognizes the grace in being involved in God’s work in the world.
How much of God does Isaiah see? Certainly not God’s face or even God’s hands- these are not visible. Isaiah only gets a view of God’s feet: “The hem of God’s robe fills the temple.” Only God’s feet… but it is enough. This experience, God’s feet and hem, an encounter with forgiveness, is enough to move Isaiah to gratitude and to action.
In the coming week, most of us will be considering the things for which we are grateful. We will listen to others around us say for what they are thankful. Almost in the same breath, as we speak of gratitude, we will think of new things that we want or perceive that we need. What if we stopped and just thought about the hem of God’s robe? What if we became absorbed, like Isaiah, in a vision of God’s activity in the world, in our communities, in our lives? And what would happen if we realized that all we are grateful for, all that we are able to perceive is just the hem of God’s robe?
It’s not the whole picture. It’s not even half. The grace that we are able to comprehend is just the tip of the iceberg. And yet it is enough. It is enough for us to know just this much and to not die. Let this be your Thanksgiving thought: all that you can think of to list as blessings in your life barely begins to list all that God has done for you.
So it is for all people and all creation. Having received more, and costlier, grace than we can comprehend through Christ, may God’s Spirit move our thanksgiving beyond “thank you” to “Here I am. Send me” – a thanksgiving response to the grace of in being involved in God’s work in the world.