In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lift up; and His train filled the temple. Above Him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of Him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”

Isaiah 6:1-7

Several reflections ago we met the Prophet Isaiah, who prophesied between the 8th and 7th centuries B.C. at the time that the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Israel were under attack by the Assyrians and would eventually fall. The people would be exiled to Babylon. The book of Isaiah speaks about the brokenness and sinfulness of the people, followed by encouragement for their time in exile, and concludes with prophesies of redemption, hope and reward.

The prophets, just like priests, parents, professionals and so many people, were called by God to a specific task. In their specific instance, the prophets were called to be God’s mouthpiece of hope to the people. God inspired the prophets with visions which translated into words of inspiration for those who heard them.

In Isaiah 6, we read about a vision that Isaiah had in the temple. In it, he sees the Lord on a throne. Above Him are the Seraphim, one of the orders of angels, and he is able to see and describe them in detail. What a mind-blowing sight this must be—to see God and the angels. One might recognize Isaiah 6:3 as a hymn sung at the Divine Liturgy—“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” In our churches our choirs sing this hymn as we stand before the Holy Altar and are about to consecrate the Holy Gifts. Imagine the vision of the Prophet, to stand before God Himself and hear this hymn sung by the angels. Added to this, the foundations of the building shake as the voice of God is heard and the place is filled with smoke.

The reaction of the Prophet is not one of awe, but one of sadness, at his own sense of brokenness. He cries to God from the depths of his soul: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

The reaction of God is both powerful and comforting, showing the immense mercy and love of God. One of the Seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches the mouth of the Prophet, and says to him: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”  (6:7)

This is probably not the reaction that the Prophet was expecting. Not only does the Lord meet his lament of sinfulness without condemnation. Instead, He allows the Prophet to touch a burning coal with his mouth and it doesn’t destroy him. To the contrary, it comforts him. It releases him from guilt and loosens his sins.

I often feel like the Prophet—sad, lost, a man of unclean lips, in the midst of people of unclean lips. To add to my difficulties, my eyes see the Lord of Hosts in the Divine Liturgy, as I touch the Divine Gifts. I don’t know if you ever feel the same way. Even though you don’t touch the Gifts in the same way I do, you still touch them when you receive Holy Communion. And it feels awful to feel unclean in that moment.

In His amazing way, God still calls us to Him. He still calls us to Holy Communion. He still calls us to salvation. After a priest receives Holy Communion, he says the words of Isaiah 6:7, except in the first person: “This has touched my lips, and the Lord takes away all my iniquities and cleanses my sins.” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, 2015 translation of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, p. 73) This prayer is implied for everyone who receives.

The lesson for today is that we are all people of unclean lips, and we dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips. And yet God still wants us. God can still use us. I suppose that the Prophet, on seeing this vision in the temple, could have fled. He could have said “Woe is me” and then run for the hills. But he didn’t. He waited for the Lord’s response, which was one of mercy, compassion and love. And not only love, but intimacy. The angel took what was on the Holy Altar and gave it to the prophet. And what should have harmed the Prophet actually healed him. This is what God wants from us, and for us. Remember how He walked in the cool of the garden with Adam and Eve before the fall. God wants to walk with us by being in us. He wants us to carry Him within us wherever we go, unclean lips and all.

It is important to note that the response of the Prophet in the verses which follow was not one of ingratitude or complacency or entitlement. He didn’t receive God’s gift and resume his life of brokenness. He accepted God’s call to go and minister to God’s people. He allowed this incredible experience to change his life.

We are not likely to have a vision like Isaiah. We are not likely to become a Prophet like him either. One encounter with God is probably not going to cure our impure lips. However, each encounter should be a step in purifying ourselves. We should accept God’s mercies, as the Prophet did, and allow them to change our lives in ways large and small.

We all experience in some small way this vision of Isaiah each time we gather for the Divine Liturgy. We all experience the coal from the altar each time we receive Holy Communion. And we should all leave from the experience committed and motivated. Even if we fall, we should again return for this experience in order to be recommitted and remotivated.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
I have stained the garment of my flesh, O Savior, and defiled that which was made in Your image and likeness. (Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode One, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

God calls us, unclean lips and all. God can use us. God wants to be in us. Have the opportunity for an “Isaiah experience” at each Liturgy. Let us come with joyful expectation and leave with motivation to be more vigilant in purifying our lips and our lives.