Monday, July 24, 2006

Holy, Holy, Holy

This is starting to write down some of my thinking through of Christian theology, thinking specifically about the nature of God.

In Hebrew, and a lot of other languages, if you want to say "very tall", for example, you would say "tall tall". The repetition of the word emphasises and intensifies the meaning. There's plenty of examples of this in the Bible - the Holy of Holies, God as Lord of Lords and King of Kings. But there's one time, just one, in the Bible where the same word is used three times in succession. It's written by a prophet named Isaiah, describing a vision he had.

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Isaiah 6:1-4, NIV

God is holy. Not just holy though, or even holy holy. He is holy holy holy. Even compared to everything else that is holy or even holy holy (which only a few things in the Bible are), God is still awesomely holy above that. So what does it mean for God to be holy?

The word "holy" actually means something along the lines of "set apart" or "different". So God worked 6 days in the week, and the seventh one was different or holy. God is holy holy holy. If we were to make a list of every single thing that exists - dust, stars, galaxies, God, earwigs, people, nations, buildings, the whole universe, God, computers, angels, demons, etc, etc - and then we tried to split everything that exists into two groups based on how similar they were to everything else, God would be in one group, and everything else that exists would be in the other group. God is totally different to everything else there is.

OK, so how is he different?

There's a whole load of stuff been written about this, and to be honest, a lot of it might claim to be Christian, but owes a lot more to ancient Greek philosophy than to the Bible.

In the Bible, the key way in which God is different from everything else is that God can do whatever he wants. We can't. When filling in forms as part of applying for ordination training, there was an unduly intrusive medical form, which asked among other questions "Is your mobility restricted?" Now, I hate people using jargon when they are trying to communicate with people who actually speak a different language. So I figured I'd answer this one like a physicist. "Yes," I put, "I can't fly." Perfectly true. However much I want to, I cannot fly (unless I cheat by using an aeroplane or something). My mobility is restricted - I cannot do whatever I want. But God isn't like that. He can do whatever he wants to do.

This sheer awesomeness has dramatic consequences for the rest of the universe. It means that we cannot peacefully co-exist with a God like that. In the vision, even the awesome seraphs (which seem to be special creatures created by God, which never do anything wrong and spend all their time with God), even they can't look at God, Even they have to cover themselves from his sight. But it's much worse for us. Here's the next bit of Isaiah's vision:

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Isaiah 6:5

In the Bible, perfect things that are made by God are generally classed as "clean", which is a step down from "holy" (just one holy). Clean things can't cope in God's presence. But unclean things are things which aren't perfect either - people who have done stuff wrong, physically imperfect objects, etc. Isaiah is unclean, like us, he isn't perfect and so he can't possibly cope in God's presence. So his response "Woe to me! I am ruined!" is perfectly justified.

But that's not all. The vision goes on:

Then one of the seraphs 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."

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 6:6-8, NIV

Isaiah is cleaned up so that he can cope with the presence of God. It happens through a sacrifice, just as the perfect cleaning up so that we can cope with God's presence happens through Jesus.

He is then sent out - his realisation of something of how holy God is means that he has to go out and obey God.

That's a little of who God is, and how it should affect us.

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