We are more massively pathetic compared with God than we could ever comprehend and God is more mercifully personal than we would ever dare to dream. To say that it’s like the difference between the scalding winds of a tornado and the genteel smoke of a candle would be an absolute gag, for God is infinitely beyond the difference between a tornado’s wind and a candle’s smoke. Yet were you to put that tornado within a millimeter of the candle, the smoke would be completely unharmed.
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The red flowers on our table were a welcoming bright spot against the brown wall. They were for our neighbor, who needs some encouragement as the New Year begins. My wife put the cut flowers in a vase until we could deliver them. They were so beautiful, red petals surrounding a yellow center.
But I could not get over the irony of the cut flowers. On the one hand, they were so beautiful and exemplary of life, but on the other hand, they were dead. Yes, they would look pretty for a few days, but soon it would become obvious that they had been cut off from the life source. The vibrant petals would fall off and the whole thing would shrivel. It was only a matter of time.
We are surrounded by cut flowers, existing in a world of lifeless life. Around me I see traces of life and energy, but really they are hollow. I see beautiful forms and shapes, but they have no substance to them, no everlasting center. The natural world around me, so ravishing and fierce, is just a shadow. It will not last. The accomplishments that drive me and give me a sense of worth are totally empty. People in my life, whom I love and who love me, also will not last. Whether people, pleasures, power, accomplishments, or beauty, everything has been cut off from its life source, and it’s now only a matter of time before every last petal falls off.
Nothing lasts. Try giving your heart away to something of this world, and it will be broken. Why? Because everything dies. Nothing here can stand the weight of a human heart, with all of its profound longings and needs.
Life carries a little of the beauty and energy of the Source, just enough to keep us coming back for more, but never enough to quench our thirst. The Germans have a word for this intense longing, sehnsucht. Sehnsucht is an intense form of missing something. But what?
I love how the frustrated book of Ecclesiastes puts it, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2). The writer goes on, “What does mankind gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). The answer, of course, is nothing. No matter how hard we strive, we’ll never find anything that lasts or that satisfies. Everything is vanity or meaningless or empty.
Empty. That is a good word to summarize the irony of the cut flower. And it is a good word to bring to another chapter of the Bible, Isaiah 6. Here we witness the powerful cries of the fiery beings as they encircle the throne of God. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” To repeat a description twice in Hebrew meant that it was not just comparative, but superlative. To repeat a description three times was to put it totally out of reach. We’re to understand that God is not just superlative to us, by completely beyond us. He is holy, holy, holy.
We’re meant to carry our cry “Vanity, vanity, vanity!” to the throne of God in order to hear the answer, “Holy, holy, holy!” for that is the cure for our search, the life-source itself. To be holy is to have weight and substance. “Holy” indicates the stuff that will last, everlastingly. When we arrive at the throne of God, we arrive at the unbroken source of life, our true home, where everyone longs to return.
Until then, we strive with the leftovers here on earth. We lay in beds of cut flowers, waiting for that day when nothing dies.
Yet the only way to make it to that day, is to make it to God himself. And to do that, you have to have a Mediator, someone on whose merits you might travel. Our Man for the job is Jesus Christ, who was driven out from the presence of God, that we might be driven in. He stripped himself of his merits and left them to us, that we might have something to bring before our King.
He became a cut flower, that we might be grafted in.
© Samuel Kee, 2012
The king had reigned for 52 years, ending with his death. We are told that “darkness and distress” flooded the land. That’s when it happened, when Isaiah finally saw the Lord. As we begin to enter into Isaiah’s vision of God in chapter 6 of his book, we need to understand that it all started in despair. It started with death.
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne” (Isa 6:1). To sit meant to rule. Right away, we’re to know that God is in charge, even in the face of political uncertainty and national unrest. The throne is the seat of power and the helm of the ship, from which the cosmos is directed. Furthermore, the Lord was “high and lifted up.” We’re to understand that God is not like us. He is higher than us, on a different level. If we’re going to know anything about God, he will have to stoop down to us. There’s no way that we can make it up to God on our own, no matter how hard we try or what merits we cling to. Our merits are rubbish and would never lift us up to God, much like the wings of a hummingbird would never cause an elephant to fly.
We must get to the place where we understand that we are mere creatures, puny and pitiable, in the face of our Maker. It’s more than the difference between a tornado and a feather or an Army tank and an ant. We have to stop playing games with God, treating him like the ant, while we trample all over him with our pride and sense of entitlement. We are nothing. Nothing, compared to God. He is transcendent and to be feared. We deserve nothing from God, not even our next breath; even our mere existence is owed completely to his loving generosity and volition.
To give you another visual, we’re to see the ark of the covenant in the holy of holies as God’s footstool, with God sitting on his throne above it. We are to see just his feet, resting on the ark-footstool, as his mammoth throne rises above it. The earth is merely the place where God rests his feet (Isaiah 66:1).
“And the train of his robe filled the temple” (1). The imagery gets more and more startling as Isaiah’s vision unfolds. God is so glorious that Isaiah cannot look to anything but the bottom on his robe, the train. Though God is spirit, he clothes himself in order to accommodate to human eyes. Presenting himself in visible form, God’s train spills out everywhere from his throne, in every direction, filling the temple.
The temple was built to be a microcosm of the world. To grasp this, think about a planetarium, which is supposed to be a “world in a room” as the cosmos is displayed on the ceiling. You can see planets and constellations and moons on the ceiling of a planetarium, making the room look like the whole sky is right above your head. The temple was supposed to be like that—a representation of the cosmos in a single building. In the temple you’d find elements that represented the seas (multiple, huge water basins), the planets and stars (seven flaming lamps), the sky (the blue, purple, and scarlet curtain), animals (the oxen statues), etc. The temple was supposed to be a microcosm of the cosmos.
So when Isaiah sees the train of God’s robe filling the temple, we’re to understand that God’s glory fills the entire cosmos. God is everywhere, in other words. He’s not just at church or he’s not just in the beautiful moments, but he’s in the middle of the Pacific Oceanand in the ugly moments, too. There’s no escape from God, his glory floods every inch of creation, from the lowest valley to the skies above. That’s why the seraphim cry out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (3).
I can think of at least three implications from this text in Isaiah 6:1. First, I am not as “holy” as I thought. The wiser I get, the more I realize the distance between me and God. Second, I am not as alone as I thought. God’s glory is constantly invading my life and my space. His glory fills my life, whether I take time to see it or not. His glory wraps around me and my life like a robe. Though we cannot lift ourselves up to him, he has come down to us, penetrating our world with the divine. Third, nothing is ordinary. Everything is a showcase for God’s glory, including you.
© Samuel Kee, 2011