Encountering God in a New Way

I’ve always been enchanted with Isaiah’s vision that we heard described in our reading today. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,” he writes. In that year when things changed a great deal, Isaiah had a vision of the living God sitting on a heavenly throne high above with the bottom of God’s robe spilling down and filling the entirety of the temple like Princess Di’s long train on her bridal gown back in the day. In that year when a major shift happened in the political realm, God showed up in a new way.

A sermon based on Isaiah 6.

First, the historical context. King Uzziah ruled over Judah for 52 years, according to 2 Chronicles. A quick reminder that under kings Saul, David, and Solomon there was a single kingdom of Israel consisting of all 12 tribes of the Israelites, but after Solomon the kingdom split into two parts. There was the kingdom of Israel to the north and the larger territory with 10 tribes, and Judah to the south around Jerusalem and the smaller kingdom of only two tribes. Uzziah’s rule in Judah was prosperous and a time of development. However, we read in 2 Chronicles 26, “When Uzziah had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction.” He began to think it was all about him and not about the goodness of God—something to keep in mind for any who are called to leadership positions—and so God struck him with leprosy forcing him to live in isolation away from family and the temple until his death.

And when he died—this king who began as faithful to the Lord before he became too full of himself—well, that’s when the prophet Isaiah saw the Lord in all that divine radiance. The Prophet sees the six winged seraphim, covering face and feet with their wings because of the overwhelming majesty of the Living God, and these angelic beings give voice to God’s intrinsic holiness. Holiness is “God’s Godness,” as author Frederick Buechner once put it, the awe-filled presence of God in all that radiant majesty and beauty and terrible loveliness. I am reminded of the description often attributed to Aslan the Lion in CS Lewis’ Narnian Chronicles in which Aslan is described as not being a tame lion, but one that is powerfully good and upright.

So it is clear why Isaiah’s first utterance in the midst of this worship of God  is “Woe is me!” Or “Oh dear, dear me!” or some other expression of fear and dismay and the like. It’s all a bit much to see the Lord full on in all that resplendent glory, and if the seraphim that worship God cannot look at God’s presence, covering their eyes with their wings, how can a mere human being like Isaiah. It’s likely, of course, that he’s also recognizing the nonchalance with which old King Uzziah had responded to God in thinking that it was all about him rather than the Creator of the Universe. So Isaiah says, “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips!” while bowing down low trying to avoid eye contact. That’s when a seraph picks up a burning coal from the pot of smoky incense with some tongs, and brings it to Isaiah and touches his lips. “Now that it has touched your lips, you are cleansed and purified from your sins in order to be in the presence of God.” 

That’s when we finally hear the voice of God. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” asks the Lord of Hosts. “Here am I, send me,” responds Isaiah. And he has no idea what he is getting himself into.

You see, what’s been left off from this amazing call narrative this morning is the rest of the story. Isaiah’s work on behalf of God was to go and tell the truth. In the portion we didn’t read this morning, God continues speaking to Isaiah: “Go and tell this people to keep listening even though they do not comprehend, to keep looking even though they do not understand. For they will not look or listen or comprehend, they will not turn from their ways in order to be healed.” “How long, O Lord, must I do so?” asks Isaiah. “Until their cities lie in waste, and the holy seed is merely a stump.” In other words, God isn’t pleased with how things had turned out under Uzziah when God was forsaken for the comfort of the world. God will bring ruin on the people of Judah, and Isaiah’s been chosen to declare that message. 

Now it might be easy to think about this from the lens of the rector being called to a new role as bishop in which he has no idea what he’s gotten himself into, which is fairly accurate from what I can tell. But I wonder about shifting the events of the last week from being about my call to be seen instead as a catalyst event like Uzziah’s death. What if we were to begin, “In the year that Phil LaBelle was elected bishop, I saw the Lord in a new way.” Because then it moves from a call happening to me, to a potential more pressing call happening to you. In other words, you cannot just absent yourself in this narrative thinking God doesn’t have a call on your life. Isaiah it seems was minding his own business when the vision of the Lord came upon him. 

Or at least minding his own business while he was worshipping God at the temple in Jerusalem. Because that’s there in the text. Isaiah had made his way to the house of worship in order to praise and give honor to the Creator of the Universe. In other words, he showed up. He knew that what he did at the temple was important both to him and to God. Sometimes perhaps we think our own worship of God doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and yet I’ve seen again and again that it is one of those places in my life where I consistently experience that which is transcendent. In worship I encounter God. Not all the time, mind you. Sometimes I just show up and say my prayers and head on my way. But there are times when my socks are knocked off. And I don’t know which one of these I’ll encounter on any given Sunday, so it’s important to show up more regularly than not.

On that particular day, Isaiah was overwhelmed by all of who God is. Which is in fact the appropriate response when faced with God. To become profoundly aware of our own humanness and sinfulness. To think that we could never be in the presence of God surrounded in all of that holiness. And when we notice this to rightfully say “Woe is me for I am unclean.” Which is a reminder of why we say the general confession during our worship services. We pause as we come before God’s presence to consider both those things which we have done and those things which we have not done which displease God. The way we were short tempered with those we love, or the way we ignored responding to a person in need. We bring all of those things before God to say that we are sorry, that we are unworthy, that we have failed.

God’s response when we approach with a humble and contrite heart is to forgive. God sees us for who we are, and then offers to cleanse us so we can be in the presence of God. God washes us through and through—changing up the metaphor a bit—so that we might be clean indeed. And when we approach God in that way, we can encounter the living Ine.

And in those encounters, God calls us to act. “Yeah, but I’m not called to be a truth teller,” you might say thinking of Isaiah’s predicament. What then might you be called to? What work is God giving specifically to you? Because there is plenty to be done in our world to share the abiding love of God. Maybe you are called to feed the hungry, or brighten the day of someone who feels forgotten. Maybe you are called to help love a little one who is having a difficult time in life. Perhaps you are called to work for justice, to help promote change in our society that benefits the marginalized and poor. Or maybe you are called to offer cold water to the thirsty, or to build houses for those needing a home, or to visit the ones who’ve found themselves imprisoned, or to befriend someone who is lonely. There is so much to be done, and we come here week after week and God says, “Whom shall I send?”

Friends, it isn’t just me whom the Spirit is prompting into a new way of being. I firmly believe it’s each of us. In this year when our community is shifting in what feels like a pretty seismic way, can we see the Lord in a new way? Can we acknowledge the ways in which we’ve been too concerned with our own lives and seek forgiveness? Can we hear the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send?” and might we be bold enough to respond “Here am I send me.”  That’s the life we’re called to embrace as disciples. That’s the life we welcome Jack into today as he is baptized. A life of dedication and willingness to be open to the voice of God and to offer ourselves in dedicated service to the world in God’s name. May we be so bold as to step forward and to give ourselves in loving kindness for the world.

Image by Antonio López from Pixabay.

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