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Bible Study V:

Earth: The Sanctuary of God

by Norman C. Habel


Isaiah 6: 1-3


After the Second World War, the Australian government wanted to help the British, as one minister said, 'to keep the free world free'. So the government agreed that Britain, the so-called mother country, could test atomic bombs on mother Earth at a place in the centre of Australia called Maralinga. The authorities said it was 'empty', except for a few Indigenous people.

The government officials tried to evacuate all the Indigenous Australians living there before exploding the bombs, but could not locate them all. All life and lands in these areas was contaminated; Aboriginal Australians both inside and outside the prohibited zone were exposed to radioactive contamination and fallout. Some recall a 'black radioactive cloud' that brought sickness and death. The 'red sands', of which the people were proud and with which they had a strong spiritual bond, became 'poisoned' and grey. Sacred lands at the centre of Australia had been contaminated forever by that enveloping nuclear fire-cloud. According to the Indigenous people of Australia, the Earth is still crying out for justice.


The prophet Isaiah claims to have had a religious experience in which he sees God in the temple of Jerusalem. During his vision, he hears God's messengers announcing that the whole earth is full of God's glory. Quite an extraordinary announcement! Does that message have any significance in a world where lands have been desecrated? The relevant text reads:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.
(Isaiah 6.1-3)

Past Readings

Preachers have often used the story of Isaiah's call in Chapter Six to motivate Christians to follow the Lord's mission. They summoned us to reply just as Isaiah did, Here am I, send me. They read the text to mean that we should go into distant lands to preach God's Word. They did not stop and ask what the bold announcement of God's messengers might mean. They were concerned about saving souls for heaven, not about God's glory filling the Earth.

The Question

Our planet is facing great environmental crises. We are polluting and desecrating much of the Earth, just as the British desecrated sacred Aboriginal lands in the centre of Australia. So the question before us is What does this announcement mean for us today? What does it mean that the Earth is full of God's glory?

Exploring the Context

This question can only be fully appreciated when we trace the advent or coming of the glory of God in the Old Testament. In Exodus 16 the people asked for manna. But God also came as 'glory' for all the people to see. The people saw God's glory coming in towards them from the wilderness. This glory of God was so dazzling, it was veiled by a cloud.

The second time God's people saw God's glory is when it appeared on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24.17). On this occasion the glory is described as a devouring fire enveloped in a cloud. This same fire-cloud came again when the tabernacle was built and, as the text specifically says, 'filled' the tabernacle (Exodus 40.34-38). This glory was the visible presence of God filling the tabernacle. In the same way, the glory 'filled' the holy of holies in the temple that Solomon built (1 Kings 8.1-11).

Reading Our Text Again

If we return to Isaiah 6.3 and read the text closely, what do we discover?

The Lord of the heavenly hosts may be holy, but where is God's glory revealed? The glory may have seen in the past in sacred places on the earth, such as the tabernacle or the temple, but according to this cry, God's glory may be seen in the whole earth. God's glory was said to fill the tabernacle and the temple, ancient sanctuaries of God. In our text, God's glory fills the whole earth. The whole Earth, then, is also the sanctuary of God.

Meaning for Today

This text is proclaiming that the Earth is much more that a ball of water, dirt and air spinning through space. The Earth is, in fact, a sanctuary filled with God's presence. God's glory once appeared to the Israelites in the wilderness. Our text from Isaiah announces that God's glory has also come to fill the Earth. Yet how many of us look for God's presence in the Earth? Do we have eyes of faith to see beyond the clouds, forests, the rocks to discern the presence of God in the whole Earth--even the deserts where the British exploded atomic bombs?

The Earth is indeed God's sanctuary, God's holy place in the cosmos. To desecrate any lands of the Earth is to desecrate God's sanctuary. This desecration happens not only with nuclear fallout, it also happens when pesticides or pollutants destroy life on the Earth and hide God's glory. Can you hear the Earth, the sanctuary of God, crying out for cleansing?

A Confession: Two Clouds

From deep in the desert
the fire cloud emerged
and the glory of God was visible
to the people of Israel.

From deep in the desert
we drilled for oil
and clouds made of fumes
can still be seen.

High on the mountain
the firecloud settled and shone,
as Moses entered
to meet God face to face.

High over mountains
clouds of forest fires rose
as millions of acres were burned
in the Amazon and Indonesia.

Deep in the temple
the firecloud filled the holy of holies
and surrounded God's presence.

Deep in the daylight
clouds of polluting toxins
have filled the atmosphere
of God's sanctuary.

And we, God's people, once beheld God's glory.

Now we, God's people, have hidden God's glory
and desecrated God's sanctuary.
Forgive us and help us, good Lord.

Suggestions for Study Groups

  1. Reflect on the opening story about desecrating sacred lands in the centre of Australia. Share examples of places that have been desecrated.

  2. Read the texts of Exodus 16: 1-12, 24: 15-18; and 34-38, 40 and 1 Kings 8: 1-12 and trace the story of the coming of the glory of God. How is the glory seen on each occasion?

  3. Re-read the text of Isaiah 6.1-3 again. If the Earth is indeed full of God's visible glory or presence, where do you think it can be seen today?

  4. Are there places where you hear lands crying out because they have been desecrated and long to be God's sanctuary again?

  5. What are some of the ways we can help cleanse the Earth and once again revere it as God's sanctuary?



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