1 July 1916, 7.30 am.
I am writing this one century later, virtually to the minute. The Battle of the Somme has begun, the worse day in the history of the British army.
What went wrong? Essentially the world of warfare had changed but no one, as yet, knew how to respond.
Modern technology had delivered a massive and mechanized killing machine. A soldier with a bayonet was obsolete and infantry formations irrelevant. However, communications were still Victorian so there was no effective command and control.
The result: 57,470 British casualties, including 19,240 fatalities, all for three square miles of territory.
We continue to live in fast-changing times, a sense of events moving so quickly and unexpectedly that the old familiar ways no longer work.
The largest mass movement of people across European soil since the end of the Second World War; Brexit and the ensuing trauma; Trump and the rise of protectionism; Le Pen and the resurgence of the far-right nationalists.
But we do have our Queen. She makes all the difference.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” This morning’s reading from BRF Guidelines: Isaiah 6.
In the Kingdom of Judah the King was everything – he was the state. His authority was the bedrock, his presence gave stability and direction.
Uzziah took the throne at the age of 16 and reigned for about 52 years. His reign was “the most prosperous excepting that of Jehoshaphat since the time of Solomon.”
He started well, a vigorous and able ruler, guided by the prophet Zechariah. Sadly pride led to his downfall, and he had to share his throne with his son for the last 11 years of his life.
Nevertheless the Bible writers assessed his reign overall as positive. “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, just as his father Amaziah had done.” (2 Kings 15:3)
But then King Uzziah dies. No doubt there will be succession crisis during a time of international tension. Judah is vulnerable, a small country wedged between mighty empires, menaced by the Assyrians a fierce and cruel nation who showed little mercy to those they conquered (2 Kings 19:17).
And Isaiah, who served in government high office, may well have had some responsibility in managing the new order. And no doubt he couldn’t remember a time when Uzziah wasn’t king. Clearly he was worried, very worried.
So he goes to the Temple, feeling insecure and fearful. And there in a vision everything changes. He sees God’s glory and majesty, he beholds the true King, the LORD high and exalted. Here is the Holy One of Israel.
In Hebrew there is no equivalent to our word ‘very’. Instead you emphasize by repetition. So the seraphim cry:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The Holy One of Israel becomes Isaiah’s main title for God. The phrase occurs 25 times in the book, but rarely elsewhere in the Bible.
This God of awesome holiness is Israel’s King. In him and in nowhere else is found security. No emperor, even one from Assyria, can match his power, rival his glory.
But the vision moves on. Isaiah is more than just stunned by this display of Shekinah, the very presence of God in his glory. He is challenged.
“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!’” (verse 8).
Isaiah is no passive bystander; he is charged with a mission and message by the Holy One of Israel. He is called to get involved, to represent God in the corridors of poor. And it is not going to be an easy ride.
It was the Scottish-born journalist, Bertie Charles Forbes, who founded Forbes magazine who wrote: “He who has faith in God has an inward reservoir of courage, hope, confidence, calmness, and assuring trust that all will come out well – even though to the world it may appear to come out most badly.”
As we sail over troubled waters, may we have this confidence and more, may God raise up for us leaders with the heart of Isaiah:
“Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Isaiah 1:17