On those occasions when troublesome things happen or big decisions are on the line or I am just acutely aware that things are beyond my control, I like to go to the chapel to pray and to listen. I expect this was Isaiah’s frame of mind on the day he went to the Temple and his life was changed.
What was on his mind as he went? Politics. He leads with it in his remembrance. “It was the year King Uzziah died.” As we well know, times of transition in political leadership are unsettling and anxiety producing. Uzziah had been king of the southern kingdom of Judah for 52 years. We don’t know Isaiah’s age, but I’d say chances are very good that Uzziah was the only king he had ever known. Uzziah’s reign was a period of stability, of prosperity, of military success and regional power. His reign was remembered in Israel as second only to Solomon in its glory, and was certainly the best period for Judah after the kingdom was divided. But Solomon’s glorious reign had also shown how fragile and deceptive such power can be, as the division of the kingdom came immediately after his death. The neighbors in the northern kingdom of Israel had endured frequent turnover of kings, great instability, and troubling weakness. Israel had formed an alliance with Syria to protect themselves from the Assyrians, and this alliance would eventually invade Judah. As these things were developing, Judah considered alliances with other regional powers such as Egypt and Assyria. Threats were pushing in from every side, and now a new king would be stepping in to make these critical decisions. An anxious time indeed, and easy to understand why Isaiah would go the Temple to look to God for help.
But what Isaiah learned in the Temple that day was to be less concerned about who would sit on Uzziah’s throne and more concerned about the one who sits on the throne to which we must all ultimately answer. The normal things he would experience upon going to the Temple – the figures of angelic seraphs, the fire on the altar for sacrifices, the smoke of incense burning – became props in a powerful conversion and call he experienced.
As he worshiped he saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty. Actually, he reports that just the hem of the Lord’s robe filled the Temple, which was a magnificent structure for its day. The seraphs came to life and served the Lord, proclaiming God’s praises: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” There was such power in these voices that the foundations of the Temple shook and it was filled with smoke.
Experiencing the power and majesty of God terrified Isaiah, and made his sinfulness glaring to him. “I am lost! I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips!” He saw clearly his own failings and the failings of the people he lived among, and he knew they all deserved to die.
But Isaiah experienced grace instead. A seraph went to the fire and took out a live coal and brought it over and touched Isaiah’s mouth with it, saying, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” The symbolism is of purification, of burning away the impurities. The effect is new life, another chance, the slate wiped clean.
Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds to the call of God: “Here I am; send me.” God accepts his service and explains the job. He is to speak God’s word to the people and call them to repentance unceasingly, but knowing that they will never listen and will never change a thing about the way they live. Isaiah asks how long he has to do this and the Lord replies, “Until cities lie waste without inhabitants, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until I send everyone far away and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” I can imagine that by the end of that you could hear a pin drop in the Temple and the euphoria of the call experience had evaporated and Isaiah was wondering what in the world had just happened and what had he agreed to.
What a difference from last week’s story. Jonah didn’t want to go preach to the Assyrians because he knew they would listen and God would change his mind and not destroy them. Sure enough, he went a third of the way through the city preaching one line, that in forty days Nineveh would be destroyed, and the entire city including the king put on sackcloth and ashes and repented, and God did not destroy the city. Isaiah is sent to his own people, God’s covenant people, and told that there is no way they will listen and that exile is inevitable, no matter what or how much Isaiah preaches to them. And sure enough, 39 chapters tell how Isaiah tried to call forth change and faithfulness in every way he knew how, but without success.
He preached to the people directly, saying, “Everyone loves a bribe. No one defends orphans or looks after widows. The haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day. The idols shall utterly pass away. It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” He told a parable, the song of the vineyard, about planting a vineyard and doing everything just right to make it productive, only to have it produce nothing but sour grapes. So he will dig it all up and let thorns grow up. In the same way, God’s vineyard is Israel and Judah. He looked for them to bear the fruits of justice and righteousness, but all he got was bloodshed and cries. God will use a nation from far away to execute judgment and take the people into exile.
There’s no future in a job like Isaiah’s. No friends. No respect. What is the definition of a prophet? Well, the Bible says it is one whose words come true. Isaiah preaching these kinds of things in a nation which was enjoying the greatest prosperity it had had in quite some time could not have had much credibility. Only years later could people look back and say, “He was right.” The defeat and exile of Judah still lay 150 years in the future. But the invasion and defeat of the northern kingdom of Israel happened while he was prophesying. He pointed to this and told the people of Judah that if they did not repent and change their ways the same thing would happen to them.
So this week I have a few reflections about Isaiah’s call experience. First, it came in a worship context at the Temple. This was not Isaiah’s first trip there nor would it be his last. But on this particular day, when he was anxious about the future of his country, he chose to go there and the Lord met him in a surprising way. In my experience it is frequently when we go through a very unsettled time in our lives that we are open to looking for how God is at work in it. We are frequently surprised at the answer to that question, as Isaiah was.
Second, our worship is structured similarly to Isaiah’s experience, and this is intentional. Mandy has done a nice job delineating this by putting verses from the reading at different points in the bulletin to mark transitions. We begin with praise and adoration: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. Experiencing the majesty and holiness of God leads us to awareness of our sinfulness, so we move to confession. I am a person of unclean lips, I am a sinner; and not only that but I am a part of a larger group which is also sinful. My sin is personal and it is corporate, so we confess both.
We are reminded then that God has done what is necessary to forgive us and give us another chance through Jesus Christ. Hearing this good news sets us free to hear the invitation, who can I send? And, lost in wonder, love, and praise, we are able to respond: Here I am; send me. Then we are commissioned to go and serve. Do we have an extraordinary experience in worship each Sunday. No. But in these rhythms of worship we tune our hearts to sing his praise and listen to his voice. We put ourselves in positions and create space within which God can speak a word to us. Not every week, but hopefully more than once in a lifetime.
Third, as Isaiah experienced, the euphoria of receiving God’s forgiveness and call is tempered by the daunting task to which we are called. Most people don’t receive such a bleak commissioning as Isaiah’s, but there are most definitely valleys and deserts to be encountering in fulfilling one’s call from God. It was gracious for God to let Isaiah know from the beginning that the visible results of his ministry would be minimal. Otherwise the natural reaction would be to see himself as a failure and quit. But God makes clear that he judges success in a different way than the world judges success – he judges it by faithfulness to the task.
That’s a great gift to every preacher and every Christian in the world. If I preach grace, peace, and reconciliation to the best of my ability and people still choose judgmentalism, enmity, and division, I have to be at peace that I have been faithful in what I am called to do. If you reach out to a family member attempting to be reconciled and they refuse, you are not a failure. If you invite a neighbor to church and are rebuffed, you are not a failure.
Lastly, though Isaiah is entrusted with a lot of bad news he is never left without hope. Even in that initial call when he is told about cities and homes becoming desolate and whatever is still left being burned, he is told there is a future in that last smoking, charred stump. He is told the stump is the holy seed of Judah. That’s the future. And based on that seed, Isaiah penned some of our most beloved Advent and Christmas promises which we see fulfilled in Jesus. “A woman will conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Immanuel, ‘God with us.’” “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness- on them has light shined. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Isaiah never gave up. He continued preaching his dissonant message through his life. His words were preserved and not forgotten, and when they fully came to pass a hundred or more years later he had disciples who picked up his message and were called by God to speak a new word to exiles, and then to people returning home from exile. His words continue to bring both dire warning and great hope today, and we would do well to listen intently to both.
On that day in the Temple, Isaiah experienced the fullness and majesty of God’s presence, though he could only imagine being able to see the hem of his robe filling the whole Temple. The experience sustained him. I’m sure every time he wanted to complain or look for another line of work, the wonder, love and praise came to remembrance and he knew there was no other cause worth investing his life in.
As another major transition occurs in the life of our country may we, like Isaiah, seek direction from God about the purpose God has in mind for us as we move forward. May we pray for each other, engage each other, forgive each other, and try to bring out the best in each other rather than continue on the divisive road to ruin we have been careening down. Cycles of violence, hatred, and revenge only end when somebody is big enough to say “Enough.” Here I am; send me! Let there be peace on earth and in America, and let it begin with me.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
November 13, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church