Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I’ve just got to tell you what writer Annie Dillard calls us church people. She says we “seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute.” Brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute.
Now, keep in mind, Annie Dillard is a church person herself, so I assume she includes herself in this dismal caricature. She says we don’t “have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares: they should lash us to our pews.”
Before we dismiss Annie’s comments as grand hyperbole, we need merely to open our Bibles to the 6th chapter of Isaiah, the story where a prophet of God showed up at the temple one day without any protection and barely lived to tell it. The scene that greeted Isaiah that day was overwhelming, but before we get to that part, I like to imagine Isaiah moments before. Just strolling casually to the temple, like normal, perhaps praying a little under his breath as he walked, perhaps just observing the world around him, definitely not expecting anything divine and dramatic to interrupt. Likewise, I suspect you traveled to church this morning just like normal—maybe you prayed a little on the drive over, maybe you cursed the other drivers on the road instead, or maybe you refereed a family dispute or maybe you sung along to the radio. But you certainly didn’t arrive here expecting anything divine or dramatic to interrupt your normal Sunday routine.
So you can imagine Isaiah’s shock as he entered the temple, and instead of his normal view, he saw something absurdly different. Something he should have brought a helmet for, but he hadn’t thought to grab any protective gear on his way out the door. Embarrassing, that a prophet wouldn’t know to plan ahead, but he strolled right into the temple bare and unprotected and there he saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, though you get the idea Isaiah couldn’t bear to look him in the face, because all Isaiah can seem to describe is the hem of God’s robe. Eyes downcast Isaiah cried out in response to the Great Majesty, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” Or, depending on the translation, “I am lost. I am undone. I am doomed!” It had been said that no one could look on God and live.
Even the heavenly beings in the story have to cover themselves! No special status to shield them from harm; even angels had to cover their faces. The text says they also covered their feet, which was an ancient way of telling us they had to conceal their nakedness. This Temple Vision is no Garden of Eden. It is hazardous to your health to stand before God, even for angels, and if they’d had access to helmets, I’m sure they would have grabbed one of those too.
The seraphs were calling out (from behind their wings), “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is filled with his glory,” and just the sound of their voices alone shakes the doorposts and the thresholds and fills the temple with smoke. Can you imagine what would happen if God were to speak?! The angels sound so powerful—you can see why the standard angelic greeting in the Bible is “Fear Not.” Isaiah’s senses must have went into overdrive, trying to take it all in or shut it all out: the smoke in his eyes and his lungs, the thunderous sound of angels’ voices, the sight of a robe that filled the whole temple, the unsteady shaking of the ground beneath his feet, the pounding of his heart telling him God Himself was seated there, if he dared to look up.
Imagine walking through our doors this morning and encountering that—and you, with no helmet, no shin guards, no knee pads, nothing. Isaiah’s whole scenario runs completely counter to what we’ve come to expect in religion. Take the bit about the angels saying the whole earth is full of God’s glory for example. If you look out at our world today, you are more likely to see a drought, a hospital full of people, a bickering family, a warring country. Very little glory to greet your gaze. Also, you will not walk into church and be assaulted with a choir of angels. No smoke, no visions, no earthquakes. Most every Sunday of your life, you’ve walked right in without a helmet and left an hour later your limbs still entirely intact, no collisions to report.
But bear in mind this awe-inspiring vision is not what Isaiah saw in the temple on a normal day. On a normal day, he saw the normal stuff—the candles, the altar, the praying people. But today he’s given a glimpse of the other side of reality—the glory of God that is always there but rarely visible. The presence of God that permeates every sacred space, like a hem on a robe so huge it can fill the whole room. It’s not like God suddenly decided to show up this one day out of all the days, while the rest of the time God gallivants elsewhere with “out of office” sign posted at the temple. God was always there, of course, but most people wouldn’t survive the shock of full, unobscured exposure.
So it is quite true that most days you will look out at the world, and you won’t see a whole lot of God’s glory beaming back at you. You’ll see a lot of darkness, a lot of disease, a lot of despair. Most days, you’ll walk right out of here without even a scratch. No battle scars, no scuff marks, no external proof of an inward collision with the Spirit of God. Very few us will walk away from worship with a legitimate limp like Jacob, having wrestled with God.
But that doesn’t mean nothing happened while you were here. The nature of the worshipper is that we believe in an alternative reality. Where the rest of the world sees hopelessness and despair, we see a God who hasn’t given up on humanity. Where others might see an empty building, sterilized of sounds and smells and sights, we see the very wonder of God alive and throbbing, and even on days we can’t see it, we know it is there all the same.
And if you ever did get a full, head-on, clear and unobstructed vision of what really is going on in this place, who God really is, and how present he really is, why, you’d be ruined. Lost. Undone.
Most of the time, you and I are ruined bit by bit, and not all at once like Isaiah. I imagine it might hurt too much for most of us, to see that much of God all at once, up close, like staring directly into sunlight. So we are allowed rays of God here and there, and even those can burn a little. William Blake wrote:
And we are put on earth a little space That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
It’s not the guilt that undoes you—that would be a dead-end undoing indeed. No, it’s the glory that undoes you, and it is the kind of ruin that sets you free. Isaiah did leave the temple intact, alive, empowered, even.
For when our souls have learned the heat to bear The cloud will vanish, we shall hear his voice Saying: ‘Come out from the grove, my love and care, And round my golden tent like lambs rejoice!
Though you were created in the image of God, it isn’t until you rub right up against the glory of God himself that you understand what that means—that you have a piece of that holy image inside of you, and boy oh boy have you have been hiding it, or hiding from it, whatever the case may be. That power, that holiness, that otherness is the very thing that gave you breath and life, and it will startle you speechless to realize you were created in the image of that. That this King is your Creator, and the King put a spark of himself inside of you. To see that will unravel all your self-righteousness in a flash. It will melt away your striving and undo your unholy self-perceptions. It will disentangle you from disillusions and you’ll quit grasping at other salvations. It will be a losing, an undoing, a disintegrating of so much you held dear, and it will be just the ruin you need.
You know you’ve been ruined when you’re able to hear the words, “Your sins, your limitations, your guilts, your shortcomings—these are no longer what define you. They are taken away and atoned for. Be free. Be undone and live. Be ruined and revived. Lose yourself in the bigness that is God and run wild and free in his abundance.”
And once you’re ruined like that, you take the beams of God’s glory and radiate them back out into the world, like someone sent by God. You start to speak prophetic words, like someone whose lips have been singed by the burning coals, whose ears have pounded with the sounds of angels’ voices, whose eyes have beheld the glory of the Lord.
My friends, may we be worshippers. Worshippers who believe in an alternative reality. Worshipping a God we cannot see, trusting, trusting, trusting that Love is More Real than Evil, that God is just beneath the surface if only we could see so deep, that the redemption of the world is underway despite all evidence to the contrary. May we live expectantly—like the divine and the dramatic could interrupt our normal routines any minute. May we be worshippers who feel the need for crash helmets. Amen.