He was a learned man of principle and integrity and of deep humility. He lived in the eighth century before Christ and his prophetic message was primarily directed toward the Chosen People in general and Jerusalem, in particular, warning the people of God of the coming judgment on their sins. He was personally grieved that the people God had chosen were unwilling to repent because he had a vision of God that profoundly shaped his long prophetic ministry.
"Thus says the Lord," Isaiah always called out to anyone who cared to listen. "Hear, 0 heaven!" he shouted through scarred lips. "Listen, 0 earth! For the Lord has spoken."
Out of curiosity, people sometimes gathered to watch and listen. They found it fascinating that a man standing in a public place, shouting at the top of his voice, was addressing them. Though their intent was simply to gawk, Isaiah's audience was never passive or indifferent once they heard his message. How could they be?
"Sinful nation! Isaiah summoned them. "You are a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption!"
"Mind your own business, you self-righteous bigot," people freely shouted back. "Stay out of our lives. What difference does it make to you anyway?" "Do not judge us and consider your own life" was what the guilty cursed back at him.
But Isaiah was undaunted. He faithfully delivered his message of correction, promising God's judgment on the Jews if they refused to repent "Sion will be redeemed with justice, her penitent ones with righteousness. But rebels and sinners will both be broken and those who forsake the Lord will perish."
"Loudmouthed hypocrite!" is what he heard in response each day; day after day. "Judgmental old fool, they spit at him almost incessantly. But the prophet continued, seemingly impervious to their mocking. He knew this was his calling because he had been commissioned in a lifealtering way.
As a devout Jew, it was Isaiah's custom to make morning visits to the temple. For sixty years he went there to pray and seek courage and solace from God. One morning Isaiah arrived at the temple at an hour so early there were no other worshippers present. The sound of his sandals slapping against the stone floor echoed from the walls and timbered ceiling of the great structure.
Suddenly he saw something - something so remarkable that It would change him forever. There, in the temple, Isaiah saw the Lord God. He froze in his tracks. He could not believe his eyes. The sight of the Lord God in his glory was beyond his telling. The position of the Sovereign and Exalted One was high and overwhelming. The train of the Lord's robe spread out to fill the sanctuary. It was a compelling and overwhelmingly magnificent sight.
Isaiah stood motionless, taking it all in. Hovering over God were angel-like creatures, each with six wings, but they used only two of them to fly. The other wings sheltered their faces in wonder and covered their feet in humility. And like children hovering over a hedgerow, they called to each other over the Lord's visible presence: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty; heaven and earth is full of your glory." The sound was so powerful that the building shook and the doorframes and thresholds trembled at the volume of their voices, so blended they were as one praised the Creator God. His vision proved to be the inspiration for the heavenly worship of our Church.
Isaiah was stunned. He had spent his childhood learning of the Holy One, but of course, he never glimpsed his glory. He was amazed at the splendor of it all. Then the reality of his situation hit him, and his delight turned to terror. "What am I doing here?" he whispered. "What am I doing here?" he said again, repeating It over and again, crushed by his own shame. "Should I be here?"
"I have no business standing in the presence of the living and eternal God," he finally said. "I am a sinner ... an unworthy man, a man with a filthy mouth. How dare I use these lips to speak of this Holy One? And now I have seen him," he cried. "I am ruined, I am finished," he thought to himself. "How can I see what I see and live?"
At this one of the angelic throng, one among the heavenly bodiless powers flew to the altar and, with a pair of thongs, picked up a burning ember. The angelic power, the bodiless power of heaven flew toward Isaiah's face with his arm outstretched, the coal glowing and smoking as the air raced past its burning surface, causing it to glow much brighter, mixed as it was with pure oxygen.
The sight petrified Isaiah. Although he wanted to turn and shield his face, he could not. The angel laid the fiery coal against Isaiah's mouth, touching his lips. His head snapped back as the cinder hissed when it met his lips. The smell of burning flesh turned his stomach. The pain was excruciating, but he did not feel compelled to cry out.
Then the Lord spoke, "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away; your sins are forgiven." The pain of the flaming coal was quickly forgotten as Isaiah remembered his own sin, his own recognition of his unworthiness to stand in the presence of the all-holy and eternal
As the angel flew back to the altar with the smoldering coal, the Lord spoke once again. The sound of his voice was a beautiful blend of certainty and gentleness, of authority and kindness, of conviction and directness. "Whom can I send to the people?" the Lord asked. "Who will go?" "I will," Isaiah replied, almost eagerly. "I will go," he repeated. "Send me."
The people noticed the difference in the personality of Isaiah. Rumor had spread that he saw a vision in the temple that day. No one knew exactly what or whom he had seen, but whatever happened, Isaiah was a changed man.
What Isaiah experienced in the temple was one of history's most profound commissioning ceremonies, and because of its power, Isaiah's course in life was changed like a flood tearing down a river bank and dissolving it so that it might later be rebuilt and reformed land and
Isaiah had grown up on the right side of the tracks. His family was from the royal tribe of Judah. His pedigree and command of the language marked his stature and his message. After the encounter in the temple, for almost sixty years his assignment included ministry of service in the reign of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. So naturally Isaiah might have been tempted to hold himself above the people to whom he preached with such incessant sincerity. But because of the temple visitation, the preacher never forgot that he too was counted among the sinners. Just because he had been gifted and called to deliver God's message did not excuse him from the need for repentance. Just like the contemporary priest who issues a plea for intensive spiritual response, inviting his faithful parishioners to repent and seek forgiveness in the sacramental Mystery of Reconciliation, so, too, like Isaiah, today's priest must also himself repent, himself walk in a new path and recognize he likewise is called from among sinners, to better understand the joyful gift of forgiveness he himself receives so that with zeal he wishes to share it with his brethren and be an instrument of forgiveness to them as well.
Isaiah witnessed something very few mortals have seen before his time or since. He was allowed the privilege of seeing a glimpse of God's glory. The experience tore away any shroud of pride that may have covered him, replacing it with a sense of wonder and humility. It was as though the living God was saying to the prophet, "Do not forget who you are talking about, Isaiah. Never forget whom you serve. It is not your message you deliver, but mine!"
And there was the searing heat of the burning ember. Why couldn't God have just told me of my forgiveness? Why the hot coal? Why this pain? Isaiah must have wondered over the succeeding weeks as the scabs on his lips slowly healed. But God had a purpose in this too. He wanted Isaiah to remember the pain of repentance, the agony of confession, the absolute necessity of realistic self-accusation, the recognition that even he who loves the Lord, could very easily descend into the pit of miserable sin and alienation from God. Yes even the soul who was devoted to the Lord is still a sinner!
So God touched the part of Isaiah's body that he was using to represent the Holy One of Israel: his lips, his mouth. No doubt it was several weeks, perhaps months, before Isaiah could actually speak without physical pain. God' mission had been perfectly accomplished.
So now Isaiah's message of the people's sinfulness included the promise of redemption in the coming of the Saviour. "For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given ... and he will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace..." The sparkle in Isaiah's eyes did not come from a strident preacher who delighted in shouting condemnation, but the words of deliverance through the Son of God who would come to save the people from their sins, including the sins of a woeful but eager prophet.
"A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse" From the very beginning of his earthly life in the flesh, to whom is Isaiah referring? As he entered the temple to worship, Isaiah saw our heavenly Father and his glory with his own eyes. These verses repeatedly mention "the fear of the Lord" to draw our attention to an important message. What is the connection between Isaiah's vision and this fear? What does this word say about our attitude in worship?
Finally, the direct message of Isaiah where he minces no words when he tells the people that their conduct would result in complete destruction. But he also reminds them of God's freely offered grace because they are critical in the same learning occasion and lesson.
His legacy of promise is that there is great danger in telling the people truth about themselves. Lost people prefer entertainment to confrontation. But Isaiah was a truth teller. At the risk of ridicule and scorn, he was fearless in his delivery. Why? Because Isaiah saw the glory of God and heard his voice. The forgiveness that he received was also available to the people he was commissioned to preach to. Why again must our priests preach the truth and the reality of Christ's gospel not about what people want to hear, but with the zeal and conviction of repeating the truth of Christ so they would repent and live an Orthodox life. So, from his own experience, like a child playing hide- and seek, Isaiah told the people that God was on his way, "ready or not." The living God would reveal himself to him whether they wanted it or not. And the book of Isaiah tells us that this visitation, this revelation would be in the flesh, in the blood. It even predicted that John the Baptist would come right before the Messiah.
With enormous and astounding detail Isaiah would describe what we did to the Anointed One in literal detail, almost as if he himself were an actual witness to the last moments of Christ among us on earth.
Isaiah's encounter with God is one of the great moments of salvation history. It reminds us of our sinfulness, our call to serve, and most important, of the awesomeness of our heavenly Father. God gave Isaiah something he grants very few people - a glimpse of his glory. To our priests who celebrate the Divine and Holy Synaxis in the Body and Blood of the Saviour has been given a similar auspicious vision. To you who receive the result of common prayer and worship, the Body and Blood of the Son of God, has also been intimated the glory of heaven Thus we as priests must communicate how being in the actual presence of someone famous or powerful affects our conduct, particularly since it is the very Creator into whose company priests and their flock are invited, are called and have the privilege of serving.
Just imagine the impact of people in the world who really believe, who really see, who experience on their lips the taste of the life-giving God!
Consequently, along with Isaiah, we can also pray "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned."