When Carol Crane was in first grade, she mystified her teacher and her classmates when she asked why the number five, displayed in a row of other numbers above the chalkboard was yellow, when it should be green.
To Crane’s teacher her question didn’t make sense and was vaguely disturbing. From that experience and other similar ones, Crane learned to keep quiet about her baffling and perplexing sights and sounds. She didn’t know then that there were others like her for whom the ringing of a doorbell resembled a series of triangles, or a dog bark seemed like a circle with dots around it.
Today, however, she knows that she is afflicted, or perhaps blessed, with synesthesia (sin-es-thee-sia), a condition that affects about 1 in 25,000 persons. People with synesthesia tend to see sounds, smell colors and taste shapes.
For instance, when a synesthetic hears the sound of a truck backing up, making that beep-beep-beep sound, he or she might see the beeps as a series of red dots. In a string of numbers, the 5’s may be experienced as a different color from the 2’s. Circles perhaps smell different from squares, and sour foods sound different from sweet foods.
People like Carol Crane are hot-wired to join several senses together as altered building blocks of perception. The condition is seven times more common among artists, novelists, poets, and maybe prophets.
With this understanding, and having heard a unique passage of scripture, I can’t help by wonder if the prophet Isaiah was a synesthetic? After all, when God commissioned him to “Go and say to this people…” (6:9) he experienced an insurgence of sensations that triggered emotions of both fear and awe. Isaiah saw God “sitting on a throne” (6:1). He heard one seraph call to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (v. 3). He smelled the smoke that filled the house of the Lord, and felt the pivots on the thresholds shake (v. 4). He even tasted the live coal that the seraph put on his mouth to blot out his sin (vv. 6-7).
Granted, not a true experience of synesthesia. The voices of the seraphs didn’t appear to him as the shape of triangles, nor did the coal on his lips evoke a sense of sound—unless of course it was him screaming in pain.
But Isaiah’s experience of God lifted him into a heightened state of sensory awareness to such an extent that he contracted what we might call a case of synesthesia spirituality—which lead him to a vision of God unlike any vision he had had before.
This is clearly a more sensational encounter with God than most of us experience on a given Sunday in church. Our perceptions of God are usually on the level of quiet stirrings, not thundering spectacles.
But let’s not dismiss the experience of the prophet Isaiah as something beyond us, because at the end of the day Isaiah was still just a man, but a man who grasped new dimensions of God’s power and purity and grace and love through an expanded vision of God. And it is a vision of God that we are quite capable of having.
In our contemporary day and experience of God in worship or wherever, if anyone told us of an experience like Isaiah’s we would be immediately convinced they were having more a narcotic induced experience than a spiritual one. And the reason we would is because we have a contemporary problem. It’s not that we grasp too much of God, but that we experience too little of God.
In America today, God is seen as marching in step with our political parties, and with our national interests. God is understood to desire our prosperity, and to support— in the words of the Prayer of Jabez— the enlargement of our territories. God is perceived as a calming presence, a supportive friend, and a healing helper, all of which work together to maintain the status quo. That is what many Christians have reduced God to—emphasis on the term “reduce.”
Now granted, there is some truth to these characterizations, but they are not the whole truth. They certainly don’t match the experience of Isaiah in his vision of God. With his sensory perceptions racing on overdrive, Isaiah sees God who is holy, high and lofty— on a throne, lifted up. God is far above all political parties, and much more pure and perfect than any human institutions.
The one true God cannot be shoehorned into a particular earthly program, or forced to get in line with our personal or national interests. In fact, the opposite is true. God is not of this world and God is for all of God’s people. Therefore, our goal should always be to get ourselves in line with God.
For that to happen though, we need to have a synesthetic experience of God, we need to craft a new vision of God— one that may be baffling but blessed, perplexing but powerful.
So how do we have such an experience—how do we craft this new vision? Well, that’s where our text for today helps us.
Isaiah’s experience points us to the triune God. The use of “Holy, holy, holy,” (called a “Trisagion”) in verse three has traditionally been regarded as a theological marker of the triune nature of God. Through this verse and passage, a new, synesthetic approach to understand God can be to see God as a divine community of persons.
This understanding, argued by theologian Shirley Guthrie, preserves our perception of a single God, but in this case God is one single community of persons. Within this community, God the Creator, God the Savior, and God the Sustainer all work together to do the work of creation, redemption and sanctification.
Within this community, God can show both almighty power and suffering love; God can reveal God’s grace and truth in Jesus Christ, and God can offer inspiration and new life in the person of the Holy Spirit.
This view of God can not only craft a new vision of God, but it can expand our understanding of what it means to be the church today.
If God is a community, united in mutual love and shared purpose, then we can be a close-knit and cohesive community as well.
If God’s community is creative, then ours should be, too.
If God’s community is full of grace and truth, then these are qualities that we should show.
If God’s community offers inspiration and liberation and transformation, then we should do no less.
This was Isaiah’s new and unique vision of God, and his new and unique vision of God can be, and ought to be, our vision of God.
It should be noted though, when it comes to this new vision, the experience doesn’t end there—there is also an element of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a huge part of this triune community of God, and forgiveness sets us up for service. The voice of God called to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!” (v. 8)
Isaiah knew that forgiveness freed him to go in a new direction, not to return to his former ways. He believed that new life was being given to him so that he could serve God, and so he offered to go in whatever direction God would send him.
And in doing so, he became one of the greatest of the prophets, speaking God’s word to a troubled, corrupt and sinful society that was blessed and transformed because of his willingness to go.
Often we consider the question, “What does God need to forgive us for?”—which is a cruel way to get us to rehash and admit our deepest misgivings and sins.
So instead, consider a different question.
What do you think God has forgiven you to do?
What do you think God has forgiven you to do?
The world still needs prophets, courageous souls willing to deliver the message “Thus says the Lord” to a society that is quick to block out divine words.
The world still needs teachers and counselors, missionaries and evangelists, healers and helpers.
The world still needs people of vision and energy and integrity in every line of work that is being performed today.
The world needs…
Computer technicians with compassion.
Sales associates with Christian vision.
School administrators with a sense of discipleship.
Healthcare workers who seek to heal beyond the body.
Retirees with a word of hope.
Now maybe these qualities don’t seem to be an obvious or predictable fit—but that’s synesthesia, that’s the expansion of perception that opens us up to God and to God’s will for us. It is not only having a new vision of God, but it is also living it out.
The challenge for each of us is to practice this synesthesia spirituality—to truly live out this vision—which, sure, is easier said than done— but here’s the fortunate thing…
When you have a vision of God—especially one that is broad and clear, and inspiring—then you cannot not, do something.
Painters with a vision paint. Composers compose. Poets poet.
Christians, in like manner, “go and tell,” Christians “show and tell.”
That’s what we’ve been forgiven to do. That’s what we’ve been called to do. That is what we must do.
For Isaiah the progression toward this new vision of God is clear.
First, he saw God: “My eyes have seen the LORD of hosts!” Next, he saw himself: “Woe is me … I am a man of unclean lips.” And lastly he received absolution: ““Your guilt has departed; your sin is blotted out.”
It was, and is, a multisensory journey to spiritual wholeness that brought with it a new vision of God. In our cry for deliverance, our God of grace touches our hearts with coals of love and forgiveness and we’re never the same.
That is the vision of God that must be at the forefront of our faith, for when it is, then the everyday happenings of life become God centered.
Joy is more joyous, brokenness is less painful, hope is more powerful—all because in it we are more keenly aware, more capable of seeing clearly, God’s holiness, God’s grace, God’s presence.
So may we aspire for an Isaiah like sensational experienced with God. It need not be so dramatic or baffling or perplexing. It need only be faithful
And when it is, we will surely be given a new and life-changing vision of God—for ourselves, and for those around us.