Talk about having a “God moment”! Isaiah seems to take the prize for that one. Today’s Scripture tells us of Isaiah’s vision in his temple and his response to it. It reminds me a bit about a story I heard about a church in our area—it might have been St. Bruno’s or St. Mary’s, but I’m not sure. Anyway, a newly ordained priest was over in the church when he looked out and saw Jesus kneeling in the front pew. Shocked, he ran to get the older, wiser priest who returned with him to the church. The older priest, too, saw Jesus praying there. The young priest whispered, “What do we DO?” and the wise priest responded, “Look busy!” Look busy, indeed!
Let’s think a bit about churches. Of course, many of us call Emmanuel UCC our home, but I’ve been to the Christmas pageant at the magnificent Crystal Cathedral in California, and I’ve enjoyed the simplicity and quiet of the carefully reconstructed St. Joan of Arc Chapel on Marquette University’s campus. We witnessed the destructive fire that overtook Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and perhaps many of you have enjoyed services at beautiful churches around the world. And the first building where Jesus was adored was a stable in Bethlehem. But, as Isaiah’s description of God’s overwhelming presence suggests, a church building cannot contain God.
. . . I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”
If we were having worship in the parking lot, I could ask you to imagine that scene with the backdrop of all creation surrounding us—the trees, the grass and plants, the blue sky, the clouds, the birds, and all the insects that nature supports—all joining in a chorus of praise. But we’re not in the parking lot today, so let me ask you, instead, to envision God’s presence and majesty there where you are watching today’s service—for indeed, God is present where you are and is still asking for help to bring about the kingdom of God.
Let’s step back and consider Isaiah’s situation. It was the year 783 BCE, and King Uzziah had died. Uzziah’s nation, Judah, was being destroyed from its very foundations, and neighboring countries were gathering like jackals for the kill. It was not a good time to be a Jew. When the king died, fear and terror reigned in the streets, and it looked like the Jewish nation was going to lose everything—home, nation, security. The Jewish people had never been through anything like this before. It was in that environment that Isaiah found himself having a vison of God in the temple.
Let’s look at Isaiah’s response to this vision. He cries out that he is ruined, saying, “Woe to me! . . . I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty!” Am I the only one who sometimes feels unworthy or overwhelmed by God’s presence in my life? Twenty-eight hundred years ago God’s people were experiencing political and social disruption following the prosperity they had enjoyed under King Uzziah’s reign. The people were divided and the land was overcome. Today we are disrupted by COVID-19, and many of us feel isolated, lonely, depressed, uncertain and afraid for our future and the very lives of those we love. Where do we find the Good News of God’s love and the promise of God’s mercy in our world today? It is still there, and it is still offered to each of us.
Really? Yes. And here’s the neat part. Isaiah was made clean by the touch of the live coal. Can you see places where you have been helped by the touch of God’s spirit—not by burning coals, but maybe through the kindness of another, or by the comfort of a song, an encouraging word, the laughter of children, the welcome of a loving pet, or the contemplation of a beautiful day?
For me, one place I feel God’s spirit is in our Communion ritual, which in some ways parallels the angels’ coal, purifying Isaiah by touching his mouth. Even when we’re participating in Communion virtually, I feel our connection even more at that time. Although we remain socially distanced, we are spiritually connected, and knowing that, and feeling that, helps me with the struggles and hardships brought about by the current pandemic. With today’s many challenges, we are called to respond with love and tolerance—which, at least for me, are responses that are sometimes sorely lacking. But I try.
I know no one who has had a vision like Isaiah, yet I believe we all have eyes to see, if we only look for the visions of God in our lives. That is what can take away the fear of the future or regret over the past. It can help us focus on living today as we believe God would have us live. This is an unsettling time, but Jesus came for just such a time to say to us, “Peace I leave you. My peace I give you.” And with that promise of peace, we can say “Yes” to whatever challenges we face, because we are doing so with the grace of God and the fellowship of each other.
Last Sunday we heard about Jonah—the reluctant prophet—who went to desperate measures to avoid responding to God’s call. Jonah said a resounding “No!” to God’s request, and it landed him in the belly of a fish before he agreed to carry out God’s will. By contrast, Isaiah blurts out his commitment to God before God even asks!
In my own life, I was more like Jonah. When considering if I would cooperate with God’s will for me, I had a litany of “what if’s”—what if God wanted me to go to India and become another Mother Teresa, what if God wanted me to get married and raise children, what if God wanted me to join the circus? And so on and so on. A wise friend gently told me one day that whatever it was God wanted for me—and from me—wouldn’t be God’s will if it weren’t the best thing for me. And at that point, like Isaiah, I could say, “Here I am. Send me.”
The ways we experience God’s grace and callings in our lives are as varied as we are. Few, if any of us, will see six-winged angels and the splendor of the Almighty seated on a heavenly throne. But all of us will have small choices every day where we can remember that God has called us to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God. That was the bottom line for Isaiah 2,800 years ago, and that is the bottom line for us. God is still asking “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” God’s promise of a life more splendid than we can imagine is offered to us every day. God is closer to us than our own breath, and that is the Good News. God offers each of us new life. May we respond daily with a resounding “Amen.” Let it be.