Magical Creatures

Isaiah 6:1–8, John 3:1–12, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on May 30, 2021

Alice and I are reading the Harry Potter series aloud. We’re just starting Book 5. The magical creatures that fill the wizarding world are a diverse crowd. Some creatures are extremely deadly, like the basilisk. Looking into the eyes of this huge green serpent brings instant death. The Boggart is a shapeshifter that takes the form of a person’s worst nightmare. Since Boggarts prey on human fear, they are repelled by laughter. Other magical creatures are dangerous and, at the same, a bit ridiculous, such as the Blast-Ended Skrewt, an aggressive crab-like creature whose head is a stinger and whose rear end shoots fire. Other creatures are useful, like Flobberworms, which are often called for in potions. The Phoenix, borrowed from Egyptian mythology, is an example of a magical creature that is noble and good. The tears of the Phoenix are healing. And when it dies, it is immediately reborn.

Seraphs—the magical creatures in today’s text from Isaiah—are six-winged beings who fly around the throne of God. In Hebrew, the name Seraph comes from the root that means “to burn.” Seraphs are, literally, the “burning ones.” The fiery seraphs and their searing coal remind me of the burning bush that Moses encountered in the wilderness. The fire blazed in the bush but didn’t consume it. This divine flame produced an inexhaustible, self-sustaining energy. It was awe-inspiring and frightening. And yet it did no harm. This fire inhabited the bush while also honoring the integrity of the bush’s own being. As Moses stood before the burning bush, God called him to free his people from slavery. Moses felt unprepared and incapable; at first he objected. Eventually, he said yes. It seems Moses came to trust that if God was calling him, God would also equip and empower him.

Isaiah, too, resisted the call of the fiery divine presence. Upon receiving a vision of God, he cried out:  Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” “Holy, holy, holy,” the seraphs sing to God. In biblical tradition, calling God holy means that God is set apart, means that the sacred exists in a realm distinct from our ordinary human seeing and knowing. So Isaiah, insisting that he was unclean, was not simply confessing his sin. He was acknowledging that God is different; God is other; God is incomprehensible and unapproachable. Isaiah was saying that he was not ready to meet God; he would feel safer keeping his distance.

And yet Isaiah’s vision of God has an unexpected twist, just like Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. The temple, in ancient Israel, was physically divided into two parts. God dwelled in the holy of holies, which was separated from the rest of the temple by a curtain. Only priests who had fulfilled all the necessary rituals of purity could enter the holy of holies, in their role as intermediaries between God and the people. In Isaiah’s vision, however, the hem of the divine robe filled the whole temple, obliterating the separation between the holy and the profane. And the temple, in the theology of ancient Israel, is a microcosm of the world. “Holy, holy, holy” the Seraphs sing, “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” So Isaiah’s vision is a paradox. God is holy, different, other. And yet God is not set apart and separate. God’s holiness inhabits creation; all beings participate in this holiness. God is a mighty inexhaustible flame burning in the heart of the world.

 This vision of holiness made flesh in creation is the same vision Jesus embodied in his life and ministry. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” There is, in other words, a re-birth, a spiritual transformation, that allows us to perceive the holiness of the world. Born of water and Spirit, we can see the bushes burning and hear the seraphs singing. Born of water and Spirit, we come to trust that we are not alone. God’s presence, though hidden, is never absent. God’s holiness is a part of who we are.

Last week, as we observed the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder, a piece in the Star Tribune by Myron Medcalf caught my eye. Medcalf comments on the actions of powerful white Minnesotans—our governor and mayor, as well as non-profit, educational and business leaders. He offers both encouragement and probing challenge. And he calls all white folks to recognize the responsibility and the power we have to transform white supremacy. He opens the piece with the following reflection:

Nearly 100 years before George Floyd was murdered, three African American circus workers were lynched by a white mob after they were falsely accused of raping a white woman, Irene Tusken, in Duluth. An infamous postcard from the scene of the lynchings shows proud white men posing with the bodies of Elmer Jackson, Elias Clayton, and Isaac McGhie. The photo, however, does not show every character. A white priest, William Powers, climbed the light pole that night and attempted to stop the lynchings, per Michael Fedo’s book The Lynchings in Duluth.

That remains the choice for white Minnesotans today complicity or empathy. Whenever I hear someone say, “George Floyd changed us,” I wonder whom they’re referencing. Because his murder one year ago did not change Black people’s understanding of our place in this state or this country. We’ve always known systemic racism could kill our dreams and end our lives. But I do believe Floyd’s murder challenged white people in Minnesota to make a decision about who they want to be.[1]

Our ancient prophets hold a heroic, mythical stature. They saw visions with magical creatures that called them to engage in herculean tasks—to free an entire people from slavery, in Moses’ case, and in the case of Isaiah, to speak God’s words of warning and comfort to a nation that had lost their way. Our call stories are not so dramatic, generally, our personal spheres of influence not so large. And yet the essence of the call that comes into our lives is the same. We are called to decide, as Medcalf puts it, who we want to be. Do we want to be numb, empty, and isolated? Or do we want to be full of curiosity and wonder? Do we want to be silent and fearful? Or do we want to sing, with boldness and joy: holy, holy, holy? Do we want to be complicit in the systems that lynch our neighbors and desecrate all that is sacred? Or do we want to engage in the hard and holy work that honors God’s glory in all beings? Do we want to play it safe? Or do we want to burn with the fire of divine love and justice? Do we want to be imprisoned by empire? Or do we want to travel the sometimes-dangerous path of liberation, trusting that God equips and empowers us?

Isaiah’s call story ends with yet another indication that the holy and the ordinary are no longer separate. It was only after the cleansing touch of that fiery coal that the prophet could hear God’s voice speaking to him directly. And what Isaiah heard is really quite interesting. God asked: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Us? I can only conclude that God was expressing solidarity with the world. God was looking for partners, co-conspirators in the work of giving flesh to the divine vision of holiness and wholeness. May we trust God enough to join our voices to that mighty chorus of prophets, to the song of fiery seraphs and burning bushes, to the brave whispers of ordinary saints in all times and places, “Here I am; send me!” Amen.