Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Grateful Response: Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8

Scripture passage can be found here...

It is the year 738 BCE. The place is Jerusalem, the capitol of the southern kingdom, Judah, the Temple Mount, often called “Zion” in the psalms. You are Isaiah, son of Amoz: probably you are the son of a priestly family, someone with a reason to go into the temple, at any rate. Uzziah, the king of Judah, has just died. And as you look around you, as you look at the kingdom, and its people, and the ins and outs of its wanton ways, all seems lost. You describe what you see in angry, bitter terms. You say,

“Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged! Why do you seek further beatings? Why do you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they have not been drained, or bound up, or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate, your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence aliens devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners. And daughter Zion is left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city” [Isaiah 1:4-8].

And then, you enter the temple.

This first temple, the one built by Solomon, is not large by 21st century standards. At 180 feet in length, it is dwarfed by the likes of the Crystal Cathedral (at 415 feet), or Saint John the Divine (at 600 feet).  But the exterior of the temple is imposing and majestic from its vast quantities of beautiful stone, and the interior of the temple into which you walk is fragrant with the scent of fine wood, cypress and cedar. And in the innermost part of the temple, the sanctuary that contains the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, you walk into a fiery glow that comes from the walls being covered with an inlay of pure gold.

It is here that our passage begins. With the terrible destruction you see all around outside, you, Isaiah walk into a space that is filled with, not only the beauty of craftsmanship and costly materials, but with the true presence of God on earth.

“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne,” you would later say, “high and lofty. And the hem of his robe filled the temple” [Isaiah 6:1b]. No one can literally “see” God, scripture is careful to tell us. But what you see is the very tail end of God’s glory, God’s hem, this tiny fragment of something too enormously holy and gorgeous for the likes of a human being to really apprehend.

You try to describe the angels. “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.” Seraphim us a Hebrew word meaning “fire.” You see beings that are made of fire, yet they are also made of wings, and the oldest representations of them show us, they are made of eyes—they are covered with eyes, every winged fiery inch of them. They are monstrous. They are holy.

And the fiery winged eye-covered monsters are crying out to one another, “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, Yahweh Tzabaoth.” “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” This does not sound remotely like our hymn this morning. This is a cry of distress. Even to these fiery winged beings, God’s holiness is distressing, it is too much, God is way too holy. To be “holy” in the Old Testament means to be other, completely foreign and incomprehensible and unreachable. They are horrified. They are in awe. They cannot stop singing it, in strange tones that hurt the ears as much as the vision hurts the eyes. The temple is shaking with the noise. It is filled with smoke.

You, Isaiah, react in a way that makes sense. “Woe is me!” No. No. No. “I am lost.” The Hebrew word really means, not lost, but “stilled.” Made silent. I am silenced “…for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…”  Yet, I have seen you. I have seen the Lord. [Isaiah 6:5].

Well, you can “see the Lord” in scripture, as it turns out. However, most often, this experience leads to death (for example, Exodus 33:20).

OK. You are not Isaiah any longer. You are… yourselves. And I won’t ask you, I’ll ask myself: when is the last time I had an experience of God that was not simply… comfortable? And reassuring? And kind of normal and maybe even a little boring?

Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, writes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[i]

We have tried our best to tame God, to domesticate God. And I think I understand a little of how that happened. I think there was a time—the phrase “sinners in the hands of an angry God” comes to mind—in which the focus of the church was so strongly on God’s wrath, God’s power to smite, God’s absolute intolerance of sin, that we forgot almost entirely the truth about God’s character: in the words of the star of last week’s sermon, cranky northern kingdom prophet Jonah: “You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” [Jonah 4:2b]. And over time, as the church refocused its message on that essential truth about God’s nature, we did that oh so human thing wherein the baby and the bathwater go together down the drain.

Except, they don’t. They never can.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil[ii]

Ask someone who’s stood at the lip of the Grand Canyon. Ask someone who’s been out to sea, or in the middle of a Great Lake when a squall comes up. Ask someone who’s held a newborn infant in his or her arms. Ask someone who’s stood in awestruck wonder at the beauty of a sunset, or the sight of a tree turning itself into a pillar of flame, or the crystalline silence of an early morning snow that is as yet undisturbed by human intervention.

Ask someone who’s known himself to be utterly unworthy, a sinner to the bone, but who nevertheless understands himself to be forgiven. Ask Isaiah, whose lips forever after burn with both the memory of the glowing coal and his commission to action. Ask Isaiah, who, in the end, understands that God has said to him, in essence, “Things are hopeless out there, But you are my hope.”

You are my hope. When all the world is every bit as dark as Isaiah experiences it, God says to a flawed human being, “You are my hope.” And the first five chapters of Isaiah tell us how very dark the days are. They tell us of worship that has grown meaningless to God, because it is not made authentic by hearts that are moved with compassion. They tell us of kings who care only for power, and people who care only for wealth. They tell us of people who are abiding injustice, oppressing the powerless, ignoring the orphans and the widows right at their doorsteps.

And yet God sends Isaiah out into all of it. God commissions him, a flawed but forgiven man, and Isaiah’s answer is a firm “Here I am; send me.”

As creations of God, beautiful and flawed, we forget. We forget the grandeur of God, the mountains and the oceans and the storms and the stillness that all arose from the very breath of God. We forget how fearsome and terrifying the power of God is. And we forget, too, the essential nature of God as kind and merciful, slow to anger and overflowing with rock-steady love. We forget it all.

Gratitude begins with remembering.

There is something about Isaiah’s response that speaks of a grateful heart. A heart that has remembered, been confronted with the truth about God and the truth about himself, and who has lived to tell the tale. Maybe he’s just grateful he survived. That is entirely possible. But he has also experienced that burning coal, and in so doing, has experienced something else, too. The God who is holy, holy, way too holy—other, foreign, unreachable, unapproachable—has for some reason chosen to bridge the gap. God who is wholly mysterious has chosen, by virtue of that purging touch, to connect with Isaiah, to say, You are a part of my equation. And I can only see Isaiah’s response as the response of one who suddenly knows that he matters, that he can make a difference. Even to God. Even for God.

We are so great at taking days of remembrance and turning them into something else entirely. But one day we seem to have figured out and that we seem to be able to carry on with some connection to its original intent is Thanksgiving. We gather around a table with loved ones—friends, family, friends who have become family—and we know the purpose of the gathering is to acknowledge that we are blessed. The purpose of the gathering is to remember. Gratitude begins with remembering.

You are not Isaiah, but you. And you remember. You remember the God who created the Finger Lakes and the grapes that grow along their banks, who created the thousand shades of green that cover our hills and valleys, and the clouds and the endless varieties of beautiful configurations with which they cover our skies. You remember the God who designed both the patterns of frost you saw on your car this morning and the opposable thumb, and who placed you in the body you now inhabit, and surrounded you with loved ones or with the ceaseless longing for genuine connection.   You remember that God looks at you, and looks at the beautiful and broken world all around you, and says, “You are my hope.”

And because you remember, you can be grateful. And because you are grateful, you can say to God, “Here I am. Send me.” All praise and thanks be to God. A

[i] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1982).
[ii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985).

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