Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
This has been a historic week by any measure. As we gather here on Sunday, after Tuesday’s election, we suddenly realize that the usual way of things—the predictable politics of the past—is no more. Whether you are dejected or elated over the results, we share in common the fact that none of us knows how the future will play out. Pundits, both professional and amateur, have been offering their predictions since early Wednesday morning, but if we’ve learned anything this week it’s that polls and predictions can be dead wrong.
I’ve seen a lot of Christians posting this week on how to respond to the election. Some are quoting Bible verses, some urging caution and kindness, others despairing, and still others are shocked with no clue as to what to do. I suspect most people are in that latter category. We don’t have a real precedent for this kind of thing—we’ve now marched off the map. We don’t really know what’s next.
As we learned from Jonah last week, running away from the situation is not an option. Jonah was turned around by God, barfed up on the beach by a whale, and sent to preach to the enemies of his people. Jonah didn’t want to do it—he would rather have kicked back on the beach in Tarshish and let God get somebody else to take the message to a hostile and confused culture. But God demonstrates that he loves even those who are far from him, offering mercy to all who would turn to him. We left Jonah pouting under a shriveled bush outside Nineveh; angry that God hadn’t rained fire on a people whom Jonah believed most definitely deserved it. Likely written during the exile, it’s largely a cautionary tale on how NOT to be the people of God in a confused and broken world.
Uzziah and Judah’s Game of Thrones
The Narrative Lectionary offers us a contrast this week in the person of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah’s call, like Jonah’s, comes during a difficult and uncertain time. King Uzziah has just died. 2 Chronicles 26 tells us that Uzziah had reigned for 52 years in Judah, which means that most people, except for the very old would have only ever known him as king. Uzziah had reigned long enough to establish a kind of stable world order for his people and by all accounts he was successful—he had a strong army with good success at suppressing Judah’s enemies; he strengthened the infrastructure of Jerusalem; he had a strong agricultural policy which led to prosperity and abundance for the people. These are all things you would hope for in a political leader and people got used to counting on the predictable pattern of life, security, and prosperity.
But at some point Uzziah became enamored with his own success, believing that he could overstep his bounds as king. He went to offer incense in the temple—something only the priests could do—and as a result of his pride and insolence, God struck him with leprosy, a terrible skin disease. He would die after five decades of rule—the world order people were used to was upset, the future uncertain.
Uzziah’s death naturally brought up questions of succession (always a problem for monarchy, sometimes a problem for democracy!) but there were serious outside threats as well. The Assyrians were encroaching on the territory of Israel and Judah—those same Assyrians to whom Jonah had been sent. The Assyrians were the most powerful empire of the time, with advanced weapons, deep supply lines, and a penchant for lopping off the heads of those they conquered. They were only a few years away from conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and Judah was next on their radar screen. While Uzziah had done a lot to bolster Jerusalem’s defenses, they would be no match for the Assyrian war machine. Meanwhile, refugees flooded into Jerusalem from the north in advance of the encroaching enemy. In short, things were looking pretty bleak.
But though the earthly kingdom was undergoing a transition of leadership, God reveals to the prophet Isaiah in a vision that the heavenly kingship is still secure. “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,” writes Isaiah. It’s a stunning vision—God revealed in glory as the king who is really in charge regardless of who sits on the throne in Jerusalem. God is flanked by “winged creatures” called seraphs. We’ve talked about the cherubim who guard the Garden of Eden and who flank the Ark of the Covenant, but the seraphs are perhaps even more terrible. In most portrayals they are winged serpents usually associated with fire—think dragons with hands feet and faces. They are terrifying heavenly creatures.
But notice that even these terrifying creatures hide their faces before God and give God the glory, declaring: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” Their shouts of praise are so mighty that the temple shook and was filled with smoke—the heavenly king doesn’t need the earthly king to bring the incense!
That title “Lord of heavenly forces” or “Lord of hosts” is important because it draws on the image of God as a warrior fighting for his people. If the Assyrians (or any other enemy, for that matter) think they are mighty, they have nothing over the Lord. But God’s warrior spirit has nothing to do with the conventional power of weapons, troops, or strategies—it is rather his holiness that rules the earth and brings all things into order. It is God’s holiness that will protect God’s people and it is God’s glory that extends beyond the borders of countries and empires to fill the whole earth.
Holiness is a word we don’t often hear any more, and yet it is a key word for understanding the nature and character of God. To be holy is to be set apart, to be “perfect in power, in love, and purity” as we sang in our opening hymn. It is God’s holiness that ultimately brings creation to judgment and order; it is his holiness that insures his goodness and justice; and it is his holiness that preserves his people, setting them apart for his purposes regardless of their circumstances.
Recognizing God’s holiness is a matter of praise, but it is also cause for confession. When we are confronted with the holiness, goodness, and power of God, we are also confronted with our own lack of holiness, goodness, and power. Isaiah stands before this vision of God and realizes he doesn’t belong there. “Mourn for me, for I am ruined!” he cries out. “I’m a man with unclean lips and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet, I’ve seen the king Lord of heavenly forces!” For an Israelite like Isaiah, seeing the face of God and his holiness meant certain death. Isaiah is wrecked by his encounter with a holy God, the world’s true king.
But then one of the winged seraphs takes a coal from the altar with tongs—a coal too hot even for a dragon to handle—a touches Isaiah’s lips with it. “Your guilt has departed,” says the seraph, “and your sin is removed.” Fire is a purifier—and it is painful. The cleansing of sin can be a painful process since it is so embedded in our speech, our thoughts, and our actions. But touching the coal to his lips purifies the prophet’s speech and prepares him for ministry. It is Isaiah’s words that will endure and become more powerful than any military operation. He will push people toward lives of holiness, that they may be holy and set apart among the nations.
Encountering the holiness of God, confessing his sin, and being touched on the lips then leads to the final question—this one asked by the king himself. “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” Notice that God wasn’t asking this rhetorical question in front of the new king, but rather in front of a quaking prophet with no power, no army, and no resources. Having seen the holiness of God, and hearing again that all the earth is full of God’s glory, all Isaiah can say is, “Here am I, send me.”
Unlike Jonah, who encountered God’s word and ran the other direction from danger, Isaiah’s encounter led him to volunteer. Jonah saw the prophetic task through the lens of work; Isaiah saw it through the lens of worship. It is Isaiah and not Jonah who would announce God’s redemptive plan to a people living in an upside down world. If Jonah is a cautionary tale, Isaiah’s story is a pattern to follow.
How do we move forward in the uncertain days ahead? How do we have hope when the order of things has changed, when leaders change, and it seems like the enemy is always at the gates? Isaiah invites us to join him in the throne room—he invites us to worship.
The Pattern of Worship: Remembering who is King
Every Sunday when we gather here as a church we follow the very same pattern of this story in Isaiah. We come out of a world of uncertainty and danger into a “sanctuary”—a holy place, representative of his throne room. We come here for many reasons, but the main reason we come here on Sunday morning is to encounter the holiness of God. We begin with a call to worship; we join the heavenly throng, including those seraphs, in singing of God’s holiness and glory, praising him with our voices and bowing our heads before him.
We then hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, like the seraphs proclaim God’s holiness. We are reminded again that no matter what is going on outside these walls, “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” It is his world, his creation, and no ruler, president, warrior, terrorist, pundit, or press report will wrest it from his control. We gather to hear the good news that God has dealt decisively with the forces of sin and death through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, the Messiah, the King; the Son whom Isaiah himself will predict—a prediction that absolutely becomes truth!
Having encountered the holiness of God and the truth of his word, our only response, like Isaiah, is to confess our own lack of holiness and our own disobedience to God’s word. It is in our prayer of confession that we join Isaiah in recognizing that our lips are unclean, that we live among a people of unclean lips, that we are ruined by sin and that we have no hope apart from God.
But then, having confessed our sin, we are touched on the lips—not by the pain of purifying fire but by the bread and the wine that represent the pain of the one who died for our sins. It is here at the table, through these means of grace, that we taste and see the goodness of the Lord and we are reminded that our guilt has departed and our sin is removed by the broken body and shed blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Having encountered the holiness of God, heard his word, confessed our sin, cleansed and made new, we then hear the call of God—“Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” The benediction sends us forth into the world—the world that we previously feared. But now we go knowing that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory—that no matter where we go or what we encounter, no matter the circumstances or the enemies that may await, God is already there and at work and we are to join him. The king is still on his throne!
This is the pattern we engage in every week. We don’t do it as a rote ritual, but rather as a ritual of revolution against a world caught in its own constant chaos. While the world waits, we worship. While the world worries, we worship. While the world wages war on battlefields and in the halls of power, we worship. We worship because it is in worship that we remember who really rules the world.
The local church is the hope of the world
And where do we worship? We worship here in our local church. Bill Hybels says that “The local church is the hope of the world” and I think he’s right. See, the solutions to the world’s problems won’t be found in Washington, or the ballot box, or in the marketplace. Real change won’t occur because of legislation, amendments, or Supreme Court judges. Those things come and go—what concerns us today will be a historian’s Phd tomorrow.
But the church will remain and God has invested the good news, the hope of the world, in these little worshipping communities like ours. I love how Hybels puts it:
“Nothing has greater potential to change lives and carry out [God’s] kingdom work in your community than your local church. There’s nothing like the local church when it’s working right. Its beauty is indescribable. Its power is breathtaking. Its potential is unlimited. No other organization on earth is like the church. Nothing even comes close.”
This is why I love the church—why I love this church. This is why I have given my life to it and why I answered the call to be a pastor. I was a warrior in my previous life, but when I encountered the holiness of God, I realized God had a different mission for me—to lead the church. I love what we do here. I love leading worship. I love watching the light come on for people when they hear the truth of the gospel. I love watching what happens when people hear the word of the God and it ruins them. It love watching people broken by sin and the hurts of the past come to healing when they encounter Christ. I love that we provide an opportunity each week for people to touch the sacrament to their lips and taste and see what God has done for them. I love watching people give their lives in service to others. I love seeing young people answer the call of God on their lives and their willingness to say, “Here am I, send me!” I love seeing old saints reach the end of their lives with no regrets, but with the peace that only people of faith in a holy God can know. I love every bit of it—even the days that are hard, even when I am exhausted. I love it because God is still on the throne and because of that, anything is possible.
Tuesday is over. The world is changing, but God is still king and we are still his church. You want some hope for the days ahead? Worship! You want to be part of what God is up to in the world? Invest in the church you love. We have the hope of the world and so we say with all the company of heaven:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts!
The earth is full of his glory!
May that be our constant cry. Amen.