The Sanctus and Metaphor Theory

I got to preach Isaiah 6 recently; a text I love in the midst of a sermon series devoted to the biblical images that shape our worship. You can listen to the sermon below, before or after you read the comments (or both), but the sermon brings up some interesting points of metaphor and homiletic theory.

See This Has Touched Your Lips

This sermon basically follows a Story Interrupted structure where the Biblical story is told, but in the midst of the telling, some kind of application is made. (For more on sermon structures, see David Schmitt’s excellent work here.) As the story gets retold in our current context, however, some dynamics of metaphor come into play.

The basic movement from the story of Isaiah 6 to the lives of the hearers happens in three stages that mirror three major developments in the text:

1. Isaiah encounters God (woe is me!)

1a. We encounter God (woe is me!)

2. God takes away Isaiah’s sins (see this has touched your lips …)

2a. God takes away our sins (see this has touched your lips …)

3. Isaiah responds to God’s call (send me!)

3a. We respond to God’s call (send me!)

When you put it like that, is looks a lot like a three point sermon: 1. Law, 2. Gospel, 3. Sanctification. What makes this sermon feel different, however, is the narrative flow. The story of Isaiah itself moves through Law, Gospel, and commissioning, so the sermon follows the flow of the story.

You could also see this sermon as a variation on Paul Scott Wilson’s The Four Pages of the Sermon. For Wilson, the sermon should deal with 1. The Trouble in the Text, 2. The Trouble in the World, 3. God’s Action in the Text, and 4. God’s Action in the World (not necessarily in that order). I have found a way to make it a six page sermon by adding 5. The Sending in the Text and 6. The Sending into the World.

The danger of the metaphor theory inherent in Wilson’s approach is the same danger I am trying to avoid in this sermon: allegory. By using the Biblical story as a kind of source domain from which to map onto the target domain of the lives of the hearers, we always run the risk of turning the concrete realities of the Bible (whether expressed in literal or non-literal language) into mere metaphor. Then the Biblical text is never allowed to stand on its own but rather always only points to something else.

We can easily allegorize Scripture so that the Biblical narrative no longer has meaning on its own but only in as much as it points to aspects of my life. Jeff Gibbs has a great section in his Matthew commentary called “The Stilling of the Storm: What Does This Not Mean?” By reading that narrative as if the storm on the sea of Galilee were an allegory for the “storms” I face in my life, we miss the point of Matthew’s story: this is YHWH in the flesh. The response of the disciples is not relief or comfort that God is in control, but marveling or even fear: who is this Jesus? Answer: God With Us! Inference: I am undone! (After the miraculous catch in Luke 5:8 Peter sounds even more like Isaiah: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” The inference structures in Matthew 8, Luke 5, and Isaiah 6 are all very similar.)

So how would we preach Matthew 8 (or Luke 5, for that matter) in a way that communicates the meaning (and perlocutionary force!) of the text yet avoids allegory? That’s the same challenge I faced when preaching Isaiah 6. I don’t want the burning coal to stand for communion, but the truth is, the Church has for centuries placed the Isaiah 6 text in the context of the Lord’s Supper. The Church has already establish Isaiah 6 as the source domain and the Eucharist as the target domain; my task was to help my hearers see why that matters.

Getting back to metaphor theory, I have suggested elsewhere four homiletic moves that flow from knowing how metaphors work:

1. Evoke the Source Domain

2. Map to the Target Domain

3. Explore with a New Lens

4. Test the Limits

Though you could preach a sermon structured by these four elements (see my sermon The Potter and the Clay, for example), you can also utilize these metaphor dynamics in the development of a sermon. So within the Story Interrupted structure, the moments of reflection are shaped by metaphor theory.

In this sermon on Isaiah 6, Evoking the Source Domain is accomplished with a multisensory description of the story in the text. Talking about what Isaiah might have seen or heard or smelled in worship not only creates a story world in the mind of the hearers, it also paves the way for the dynamics of the text to be recapitulated in the lives of the hearers. Evoking the Source Domain happens three different times in the sermon. Each time the sermon gives special attention to elements of the biblical story that will later map on to the Target of the lives of the hearers.

Mapping to the Target Domain takes place as the biblical story is interrupted and applied to our lives: Isaiah’s vision of worship invaded by the presence of God becomes our vision of worship invaded by the presence of God; Isaiah’s response becomes our response; Isaiah’s call, our call. Of course, there are many significant differences (we are not all prophets exactly, and I didn’t have time even to touch on the anticipated outcome of Isaiah’s call), but all metaphors map only a few of the many possible things in the source domain onto the target. The important thing is to get the narrative relationships right.

In Isaiah 6, there is a narrative relationship between Isaiah, sin, God, the live coal, and the prophet’s commissioning. Those relationships and their inference structures (like, “Woe is me!” for example) are mapped onto the target domain of worship in our current context. In this way, the sermon avoids allegory by utilizing the narrative dynamics of metaphor: the live coal doesn’t stand for the communion host. Rather, the consecrated elements at the Lord’s Supper fulfill the same narrative role or function as the live coal plays in Isaiah 6. The significant relationships between important actants like the burning coal, sin, God, and atonement in the Source Domain map onto significant relationships like the communion elements, sin, God, and atonement in the Target Domain. What maps (or even corresponds) in metaphor is not necessarily specific elements, but narrative roles and relationships.

Exploring with a New Lens happens in the last section of this sermon. Instead of telling the hearers what to do, I offer three brief scenes of real life people doing the kinds of things my hearers could realistically do. It’s a way of preaching sanctification that describes more than prescribes. In this case, this kind of development counts as serial depiction: I am offering a series of brief examples that work together to help the reflection of this section be meaningful for the hearers.

Notice that at this point I have moved away from metaphor mapping: I do not describe Isaiah and the people he is sent to and their response. Rather, I focus on my hearers and the people they will encounter as they reply “Here I am; send me!” Though I do not talk about how Isaiah is sent to hard-hearted people God already says aren’t going to listen, I do stress the hearers’ speaking rather than the response of those to whom they speak. I know more about the Source Domain than I am letting on in the sermon, but the Source Domain still shapes the application in the Target Domain.

Overall there is very little Testing the Limits in this sermon. In section 1a. We encounter God,  I note some of the dissimilarities between worship in Isaiah’s day and worship as we know it. But the admission of superficial differences merely underscores more fundamental similarities. Another place that Testing the Limits happens, but in passing, is in 2a. God takes away our sins. Here, I list briefly more than one way or attitude we can have as we approach the Lord’s Table. The point is to acknowledge a variety of other images for the Lord’s Supper while still retaining the focus on “Woe is me!” Other teaching and preaching will (and has) unpacked some of those other images; I just want to avoid the implication that this is the only (or even best) way to come to the Table. At the same time, Isaiah 6 is a very important way of understanding the Lord’s Supper, which is why the Church has sung the Sanctus at communion for centuries.

One final note: during the distribution that followed this sermon, I used not only the standard “take and drink . . .” but in addition mingled in the quote from Isiah 6: “See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.” I view that as embodying metaphor in practice.

In the end, I am not sure I actually allowed the dynamics of the text in its original context to have the ultimate say. But my starting point was the setting of the text in the context of communion liturgy. In that sense, I was preaching the Sanctus more than I was preaching Isaiah 6. But Isaiah 6 absolutely informs our use of the Sanctus at communion. In fact, that was the goal of the sermon (and of our Vibrant Worship sermon series): to evoke the Source Domain of the Biblical story in ways that help the hearers recapture why these texts are used in (or mapped onto) our worship in the first place.

So am I allegorizing the text? Or illuminating the liturgy? I welcome your feedback.

About Justin Rossow

Justin writes and talks at the intersection of Scripture, culture, and metaphor theory. As founder of Next Step Press, he helps people delight in taking a next step following Jesus.

3 comments on “The Sanctus and Metaphor Theory

  1. Yes, the key is “the same narrative role or function,” as you say: the touch of holy absolution through the holy coal, mediated by a messenger of the means of grace. Having preached on Isa 40:9, after the consecration of the elements (“the peace of the Lord be with you”), I lifted up the elements and said, “hinneh ‘eloheykem” (Behold, your God!).

    Do you sing “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending”? And then there’s the holy smoke!

    • I agree that is the key: you aren’t mapping from an object to an object or a person to a person, but from one narrative relationship or function to another. Otherwise it quickly becomes allegory.

      I love applying Isaiah 40:9 (…say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”) to communion and I love “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending.” Don’t even get me started on the Holy Smoke theme! One of my favorites!

      Thanks for the comments.

  2. […] If you would like to read (and hear) more about Isaiah 6 and the Holy, Holy, Holy (or “Sanctus”) that we sing during the communion liturgy, check out this post from justinrossow.com: The Sanctus and Metaphor Theory. […]

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