Wednesday, November 18, 2020

God Sightings - Part 3

Sometimes ordinary words just won’t do, will they? Ordinary words can’t capture immense fear, the beauty of a magnificent sunset, or the love for a child. Ordinary words could not capture the experience of Isaiah when he received his call to be a prophet for Yahweh.

The time is roughly 742 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah had reigned in Judah, the southern kingdom, for more than 40 years. And by most standards, he had been quite successful. He had repaired the defenses of Jerusalem, reorganized the army, and secured many trade routes running through Judah. He was a strong king, but he died, as the book of Chronicles tells us, because he was punished by God for his proud power. It was in this same year, when the country was mourning his death and wondering what the future would bring, that Isaiah saw his vision. Found in the first part of today’s reading in Isaiah, chapter 6.

In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!
All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”

The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.

I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”

Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”

Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”

I said, “Here I am; send me.” --Isaiah 6:1-8 (CEB)

The place is the temple. We aren’t surprised by this - we expect things like this to happen in the temple - this magnificent building. We might not expect, perhaps, to see visions of thrones or winged seraphs - those fiery beings who sing about the holiness and the glory of God. We might not expect to experience the shaking of the temple’s thresholds or smoke rising to the height of this extraordinary building. These are not ordinary words that describe ordinary things. But ordinary words often cannot be used to describe one’s encounter with God.

Isaiah is standing in the temple, when he sees the vision of Yahweh sitting on a throne. Yahweh is high and lift up. The seraphs are singing to each other words that we have often sung: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord…” The building shakes. The smoke rises. Then, Isaiah speaks.

It’s not a response to God’s call that we hear, for God has not yet called Isaiah. Instead, his first words come in response to the remarkable vision he has experienced. So overwhelming that his first words are words of despair. “Mourn for me!” he says. In contrast to the greatness that he has witnessed, Isaiah feels small. In contrast to the glory and holiness he has experienced, he feels unworthy. That he has no place in the presence of One who is as awe-some as this.

This sense of fear and awe is not new to the Israelites. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures, they have asked the question, “Can one see Yahweh and live?” Yet, Isaiah seems less preoccupied with death here as he is with how he has lived life. He has unclean lips. He is part of a community with unclean lips.

It’s the seraph who first responds to Isaiah’s outburst. Immediately, it flies to Isaiah holding a live coal and touches his lips. Isaiah’s lips are not burned. Instead, his confession is acknowledged, his uncleanliness, his unworthiness is seared away. His guilt departs and his sin is blotted out. 

Perhaps you, too, have experienced something similar to Isaiah, when something you have done wrong, a mistake or a word you have said that has caused harm to someone, has been forgiven and reconciliation has happened. There is that life-giving moment when we exhale, recognizing that, despite our past, we can indeed begin anew.

It is then, after Isaiah has had this life-giving experience that he hears the voice of Yahweh. Yet, the words are not directed only to Isaiah - they seem to be directed to the community, to each and everyone who might we willing to hear them. “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” Were there others there who might have come forth to answer? Perhaps. But Isaiah has been prepared and made ready for his mission, even as it has yet to be defined. 

Without even knowing what God is calling him to, Isaiah responds, “Hineni. Here I am. Send me!”

What is it that happens between these two outbursts of Isaiah? He first cries out, “Mourn for me!” Then, later his cry is “I’m here. Send me!” One can only wonder if what happens in between is this remarkable transformation that we feel when we have truly experienced grace. Amazing grace.

Now, as your pastor and as a storyteller, it would be my choice, my easy choice, to end the story here. It is important for us to hear the stories of these courageous people - these men and women in scripture and in the history of the church who have, in their own lives, said, “Hineni. Here I am.”

But to be true to the story of Isaiah, we must continue on in chapter 6, beginning with verse 9.

God said, “Go and say to this people:

Listen intently, but don’t understand;
    look carefully, but don’t comprehend.
Make the minds of this people dull.
    Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind,
    so they can’t see with their eyes
    or hear with their ears,
    or understand with their minds,
    and turn, and be healed.”

I said, “How long, Lord?”

And God said, “Until cities lie ruined with no one living in them, until there are houses without people and the land is left devastated.” The Lord will send the people far away, and the land will be completely abandoned. Even if one-tenth remain there, they will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, which when it is cut down leaves a stump. Its stump is a holy seed. --Isaiah 6:9-13 (CEB)

To be true to Isaiah’s story, we must hear the overwhelming challenge that God presents to him. We hear Isaiah’s sadness as he hears the words the Lord speaks. “Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see or hear or understand and turn and be healed.”

Isaiah has been called to deliver a word that will lead people not toward life, but toward death. The words given to him to speak to the community were harsh words, words of confrontation about the emptiness and desolation of a people and a land that Yahweh deeply loved. To be true to the story of Isaiah we cannot end with the words, “Hineni. Here I am, send me!” We must hear the last words of Isaiah as he stands there in his frailty, completely forgiven, when he asks, “How long, Lord? 

Recently, I listened to one of Leonard Cohen’s last interviews where he spoke about one of the last songs he wrote, entitled, “You Want It Darker.”  Throughout the chorus of this song, we hear the very word that Isaiah spoke in response to God’s call. Hineni. Hineni. Here I am. 

When asked about this song, Cohen commented that we are all motivated by deep impulses to serve, even though we may never fully identify that which we are being called to serve. That this is part of our nature to offer ourselves at the moment, at the critical moment, when the emergency becomes clear. 

Perhaps this is our hineni moment. Perhaps God is calling us into a mission for which we do not know the ending, just like Isaiah. Who didn’t know the ending either, but knew that this was the moment. The emergency to which he was being called. And who trusted that God would somehow bring new life from the stump. The holy seed mentioned in the very last verse of this chapter. The stump of Jesse. From which would come an ancestral branch. A King. Upon whom the spirit of the Lord would rest. And from whom would come life and light for all people. 

As we wait in this time of transition and upheaval. As we bear witness once again to hospitals overflowing and increasing numbers of infected and dying - when all we want to do is to throw off our masks, emerge from our cocoons and hug our friends and loved ones - is it possible that, like Isaiah’s, this is our hineni moment? When we are being called into selfless service in this time of emergency? Not knowing how long or what is to come, but trusting that out of the stump, out of the holy seed, will come new life and new purpose for us as the remnant people of God?

How will you respond?

Preached November 15, 2020, online at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
24th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Isaiah 6, 1-13; Luke 5:8-10

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