Friday, February 12, 2010

Out of the Mouths of Babes

Isaiah 6.1-8

Here's what some children said when their schoolteacher asked them to write about God:

  • Are you really invisible, or is it just a trick?
  • Instead of letting people die, and making new ones, why don't you just keep the ones you have?
  • I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions. (Actually, that isn't very likely, is it? Someone else reports that the boy who wrote this actually said):
  • I think the Play Station 3 is one of your greatest inventions. (I guess teachers just don't want us to know that.)
  • Did you draw the lines round the countries?
  • In school they told us what you do. Who does it when you're not there?
  • I do not think anybody could be a better God. I want you to know that I'm not just saying this because you are God already.
  • I bet it's very hard for you to love all the people in the world. In our family there are only four people and I can't do it.
  • On holiday it rained all the time and my Dad said some things about you which people are not supposed to say, but I hope you're not going to hurt him anyway. From Your Friend, (but I'm not going to tell you who I am).

I think some of the children were having a laugh, don't you? Writing essays like this can be very boring if you just stick to serious comments, can't they? My brother was once asked, in an English exam, to explain why the writer of a poem had described a mountain as being like a werewolf. Well, of course, he hadn't the faintest idea, so he wrote: 'I don't know why the writer says the mountain is like a werewolf. Sometimes, when I read things like this, I think the writer must be insane.' I know that's true because his teacher told me about it afterwards.

But actually, whether or not the children really believed all those things about God, Isaiah had some pretty funny ideas, didn't he? He had a vision, so it wasn't exactly for real. He didn't actually see God's robe filling the entire Temple. It just seemed like that. But in the vision God wasn't alone. He was surrounded by angels.

The word angel means 'a messenger' and at first the Bible talks about just one angel - the Angel of the Lord - who speaks to people like Abraham or Moses. And in these stories the Angel of the Lord, God's messenger, just means God's Spirit or the voice of God speaking inside us or speaking to us through other people.

But then the people who wrote the Bible started to think that maybe there were too many people who God wanted to speak to for just one messenger to be enough to get round them all. So they started to imagine a whole army of special beings whom God had appointed as messengers to fly around the world looking after people, and delivering messages to them and so on. Towards the end of the time when the Bible was being written they even gave some of these messengers names.

We're used to the idea that as time goes by people's ideas get better or more sophisticated. But in this case, I think the original idea - that God has just one messenger, his Spirit or still small voice - was the right one. Except that sometimes God can use other people, not special heavenly beings, to be his messengers as well.

And then we're told that Isaiah was afraid of God - like the person who wouldn't give God their name in case he came and punished their Dad. And, of course, we know there's really no need to be so afraid of God because Jesus showed us that God is love. But it's not uncommon for people to be afraid. Like the harmless country vicar - a few hundred years ago - who felt sure that when his little daughter died it was a punishment sent by God for playing chess on a Sunday! I suppose he was just feeling very sad, and his grief made him think the unthinkable. Because God doesn't get that angry over silly little things like playing chess.

Isaiah was afraid because he was a minister, too. He worked in the Temple and he was very aware that when he was preaching to people he didn't always tell them what God really wanted them to hear. At first he thought that perhaps the vision meant God was coming to punish him! But then he realised that the vision was meant to reassure him.

One of the messengers of God touched his lips with holy fire. Again, about the same time that the English vicar thought God was angry with him because he had played a game of chess on a Sunday, another preacher - in Holland this time - read Isaiah's story and forgot that it was a vision. He imagined it was totally for real. So he got the tongs from beside the fireplace, picked up a burning coal, and touched his lips with it to cleanse his speech and make him fit to speak God's message. Instead, of course, he couldn't speak any words at all for a month.

But Isaiah's experience wasn't meant to be taken literally like that. It was just a vision, and in the vision he felt that God was telling him that he was forgiven for anything he had ever done wrong and was preparing him to live the rest of his life doing what God wanted.

So, according to Isaiah, this is what we learn about God from his vision. God is someone who is wonderfully mysterious and totally beyond our ability to understand, and yet he's also someone who loves us, someone who knows each one of us, someone who wants to forgive us for the things we do wrong, and someone who wants to use our gifts to spread the good news of his love, to do good for other people we meet and to work for a better world.

This is also exactly what the first followers of Jesus found out about him when he met them by the sea shore. He too was a mysterious person, who seemed able to do very remarkable things, but he was someone who loved them, who knew them by name, and who wanted them to make a new start in life by following him and serving him.

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