Seven-year-old Brian Mulroney won the day for me at the royal wedding in Windsor a few weeks ago. I can’t resist watching a wedding in which the groom is named Harry, Prince Harry in this case. So much about that wedding was remarkable, not least the inspiring sermon on the power of God’s love by presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, Michael Curry. And the magnificent rendition of B. B. King’s “Stand by Me” by the Kingdom gospel choir. But the moment locked in my memory was of Brian Mulroney, one of the two boys who held the lengthy train of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. The camera caught his face as the trumpets began to signal the entrance of the bride, his eyes open like saucers, his mouth wide open, front teeth missing, the awe-filled look on Brian’s face was priceless. As a seven-year-old, all I can remember is wanting to be a major league baseball player.
There are moments in life than stun us. They are not frequent. My guess is that the most attentive of us have only a limited number of them. Those not paying attention to the wonder of life may end up without any, not because they don’t happen, but simply because they are not being attentive to God.
I had one a few summers ago in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. We had had a full day of sightseeing, including a number of sightings of brown and black bears, hidden waterfalls, and majestic mountains and glaciers. It was about 10pm and four of us were playing cards at an outdoor picnic table, it still being very light outside in that northern place. Others were chatting quietly, and some reading. Tired though we were, it was too beautiful to be inside. The gentle sound of a fast-moving creek was just behind a line of cabins. Suddenly a hush overtook the grassy area. We sensed that something had caught peoples’ attention. We put down our cards and silently watched several large elks meander across the grassy space, not thirty feet from us. The elk were oblivious to us, but we were mesmerized by them: their beauty, their size, their graceful slow gate. We were stunned into silence before magnificent creatures. We weren’t expecting it.
There are moments in life than stun and silence us. We can’t make them happen; we can’t manufacture them. These moments are best when they are unplanned by us. Isaiah had one. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” Isaiah didn’t plan this. It just happened in his very presence. Now give him credit: he was in a place where God might do something spectacular once in a while, but God isn’t limited to temples and sanctuaries. All of nature is God’s canvas. John Calvin said that. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of such moments:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;…”
Isaiah’s stunning moment leads to a response that teaches us how to respond to God in moments both ordinary and extraordinary. First, there is the overwhelming sense of humility before the glory of God. Isaiah doesn’t speak first, but listens. A strange heavenly creature breaks the silence. “’Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” In the presence of the Holy One, Isaiah is acutely aware of his unholiness. In the presence of perfection, Isaiah is acutely aware of his imperfections. In the presence of infinite glory, Isaiah is acutely aware of his finite gravity.
Second, God responds in abundant forgiveness. “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’” God loves to forgive. Our need to ask isn’t so much to activate God’s forgiveness, but to put us in the place where we are open to receiving what God so graciously gives us in Christ.
Third, Isaiah places himself at God’s disposal: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” Isaiah gets this right. Our response to need shouldn’t be, “I’ll go; I’ll fix it,” but “here am I, Lord; now direct me; send me; show me how you want me to serve.”
John has a similar experience, as God pulls back the curtain and reveals more of his Christly glory. But this Jesus doesn’t look like the one hung on the walls of Sunday school rooms. “The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing water. In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”
How does John respond to such a vision of Jesus? “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” There are moments that stun us into silence before the Holy One. John doesn’t get himself up; Jesus reaches down and lifts him. Jesus reminds John that Jesus holds the keys: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”
Annie Dillard, in “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” reminds us that something like that which happened to Isaiah in the temple and to John on the Lord’s Day might just happen some Sunday morning where we worship. “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … 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. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.” Or it might happen in a beautiful natural setting. Or it might happen in the ordinary stuff of daily life. Let’s be attentive to God, wherever we are, whatever we are doing. A moment that stuns us into silence before the grandeur and glory of God may be just a moment away.