Meeting The Other
Read your Bible: Isaiah 6:1–8
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.Isaiah 6:3b
I was raised in California by immigrant parents from Switzerland, and my Swiss heritage was a matter of deep personal pride for me as a kid.
Then the summer after I turned 16, I did an internship at a radio station in Switzerland. And something amazing happened.
I was surprised by a call from our station manager.
The President of Switzerland would be visiting our studios to broadcast his annual Swiss Independence Day message to the nation!
I was so excited, and dressed in such a hurry, that I forgot to put on deodorant — an oversight that turned out to really matter when, after his radio address, the President turned to me and asked me out to dinner with his family, right then and there!
I remember thinking, “Is this a weird dream? Is the President really asking me to dinner on the only day all year I have forgotten deodorant?”
But it was no dream. And believe me, I smelled terrible.
I said, “Yes.”
Then I started strategizing: “I’ll order fondue and blame the odor on the cheese!” For the rest of the night I moved my arms only from the elbows forward, pinning my underarms as tightly to my torso as possible.
That only meant that I proceeded to really stink up the place (a nervous 16-year-old boy with no deodorant! Imagine!) while simultaneously gesturing freakishly. I tried to keep my distance from the Great Man … but then… the President beckoned me to sit right next to his place at the table!
In that moment I was alternately more delighted and more dismayed than I’d ever been in my life: “The President is asking me to sit at his right hand! Yes! I smell like a pickup truck full of wet dogs! Nooooo!”
A jittery chef prepared our meals tableside while he took nervous glances at the president. For one of the courses the chef poured brandy over some fancy food item I did not recognize, the idea apparently being that he would then set it on fire to create a spectacular display. Only he was shaking so badly that he poured out a little too much, and when he lit the dish, a giant fireball suddenly whooshed into the air making me even more nervous than I was before!
Yet to put me at ease the President graciously asked me questions about my life the whole evening. I kept calling him “H-H-Herr P-P-P-President” until he insisted I call him “Kurt.”
Eventually, though I knew I did not belong in the picture, I was soothed by his graciousness and truly enjoyed my meal — and have been looking for openings to tell people about my brush with Swiss greatness ever since!
Meeting the Ruler of Everything
I think of that story when I read Isaiah 6, because something like that — but on an infinitely greater cosmic scale, of course — was experienced by the prophet Isaiah.
He was an advisor to kings who lived about 700 years before Christ. So, unlike me, Isaiah was used to being around heads of state. An aristocrat. Not easily intimidated.
Yet he falls flat on his face when he suddenly sees the throne of God. And what happens next gives great insight into the mystery of the Divine.
Isaiah realizes how much his sin must stink in the presence of such holiness. He despairs,
“Woe to me! 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
What prompted that kind of response?
Here’s what Isaiah saw: Seraphim (angelic beings), were calling out in temple-rattling voices:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
Why do they repeat the word “holy” three times?
Well, when the Bible reiterates a word, it’s like God is circling it, underlining it, highlighting it.
As Max Lucado says, “God is not just holy. Or holy holy. God is holy holy holy.”10
The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadosh, which means totally separate. It has two meanings related to God:
Other Other Other
First, qadosh means God is totally other. God is so different, so separate, so unlike you and me that He is other, other, other.
Why emphasize this?
Because although the Bible says God made us in His image, we’ve been trying to make God in our image ever since.
Go to a museum. Look at any ancient idol. It may have been crafted in sincere hope, but you always learn more about the people who made it than you do about God. The Egyptian gods look like Egyptians, the Sumerian gods like Sumerians.
And what about our God?
Garrison Keillor, famous for his Lake Woebegone stories, tells of an anonymous complaint nailed to the door of the local church:
You have taught me to worship a god who is like you, who shares your thinking exactly, who is going to slap me one if I don’t straighten out fast. I am very uneasy every Sunday, which is cloudy and deathly still and filled with silent accusing whispers.11
I need a God bigger than that. Bigger than your ideas of God. Bigger than mine.
In his classic book Your God Is Too Small, J. B. Phillips describes how the world sees many Christians:
If they are not strenuously defending an outgrown conception of God, then they are cherishing a hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of a Bible or between the four walls of a church.12
As Ana-Maria Rizzuto observed, “No child arrives at the house of God without his pet God under his arm.”13
That’s why I need to remind myself continually that the real God rattles the foundation of any church. I don’t have God figured out. Or tamed. He is not my pet. He is beyond any limitations.
This is a good thing. God is not constrained by my fears or my imagination. It is a relief to know: God is totally other.
Pure Pure Pure
Then there’s another level of meaning to qadosh: God is totally pure.
God is not contaminated by impurity or sin at any level.
He is pure, pure, pure.
What’s the point of that?
Again, look at the ideas of God held by other cultures during Isaiah’s time: You see deities infected by envy, pettiness, grudges, pride, lust… because if you create God in your own image you’ll magnify not only your powers, but your shortcomings as well.
The repetition of the word “holy” is meant to convey that God has none of those moral flaws.
So the word holy indicates that God is totally other and totally pure, the one who sets up all the rules, writes all the definitions, creates all the standards. Any true encounter with Him is always on His terms.
Isaiah declares that he is unworthy to stand before such a qadosh, qadosh, qadosh Being.
And he is unworthy.
God never says, “No, Isaiah, you’re the man! You’re totally my equal, absolutely worthy to stand alongside me.”
Instead… God cleanses him. What Isaiah needs is not a self-esteem boost. He needs pardon. Forgiveness. New life.
One of the seraphim flies to Isaiah with a coal from the altar which he touches to Isaiah’s lips as he says,
“Behold… your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.”
Then God asks for someone to be His ambassador to the people, and Isaiah, rejuvenated by the fact that God has cleansed him, immediately says, “Here am I. Send me!”
And God does.
The Rhythm of a God-Encounter
This is always the rhythm of any true encounter with the holy, holy, holy God.
First, there is an awestruck awareness of my own unworthiness.
Then there is a reaching out to me, from God. He is the one who extends grace to me while I am flat on my face, as good as dead.
Then I want to go and tell the world about what a great God I have met!
My message becomes all about God, not about me: I have received His grace and so I cannot stop telling others about my experience.
Kind of like the day I went to dinner with the President:
When you think of God you might become uncomfortable, aware of how much you must stink in His presence, even on your best day. I think that’s what people mean when they say, “If I ever walked into church, the building would collapse!”
That’s an understandable emotion.
But God is the one who says, “Now that you see my holiness, let me cleanse you. And then deputize you.”
After I encounter the totally different God, I am different.
The Pure One purifies me.
The Other One makes me into another.
Meeting the qadosh God makes me qadosh too.
God is… Other.
Questions For Reflection
How does the story in Isaiah 6:1–8 inspire you?
Summarize what it means to you that God is
holy holy holy.
Many people do not realize how holy God is, both in other-ness and in purity. Because of this, what unrealistic ideas do they have about God and themselves, and how do the two relate?