NRSV ISAIAH 6:1-13
6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 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. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
12 until the LORD sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
13 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.”
The holy seed is its stump.
NRSV 1 CORINTHIANS 15:1-11
15 Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, 2 through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you–unless you have come to believe in vain.
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
We have this morning two passages of Scripture which appear to come to us from polar opposites. Isaiah recounts a meeting with God in the Temple, an occurrence deep in mystery and awe, and Paul talks about the resurrection and how important it was for that early Christian community to hang onto the faith in that remarkable work of God.
Two texts, same basic part of the world, one in 742 BCE, and the other around 55 CE. That’s a span of almost 800 years. Yet coupled with the Gospel reading for this morning – the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Peter’s fear and trembling before Jesus – and you get some common themes. Ones that touch not just those intrepid giants of the faith, but us as well.
They were scared silly. And they felt woefully inadequate.
Isaiah comes to the Temple, the great building that marks the meeting place between Yahweh, the holy name for God, and the people. He beholds there a vision of God in such a way that he is scared witless. No wonder. It says that “the hem of (God’s) robe filled the temple.” Considering that this building was their equivalent of the Empire State Building or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – at 2,717 feet the tallest structure in the world in our day – you get the scared silly stuff. Can you imagine anything dwarfing those magnificent structures? Yeah, that would psyche me out, too.
You might say that Isaiah was feeling the ‘awe’ of being in God’s presence. But even that term doesn’t completely get it, owing to the fact that this term has become way overused in our time. “Awe” used to convey a breath-taking, spine-tingling sense of utter amazement at the presence of something or someone greater than yourself. Of course that was back in the days before “awesome” became the term for anything that was cool or outstanding, a catch-all phrase for just about any experience that wowed you. “Awesome” was a 360-degreee slam dunk, or the most spectacular outfit on a Parisian runway, or the political views of that one candidate that totally matched up with our own.
And the rock gospel world didn’t exactly help. There are churches – quite progressive churches in fact – that use the song, “Our God is an Awesome God” as a kind of anthem. In fact, it is in our hymnbook, #616. We might sing it some time. It’s a nice song, catchy beat, not too many words, just sung over and over again. “Our God is an awesome God who reigns in heaven above…” and is full of wisdom and power and all that. Great stuff, inspiring stuff. Of course, it conveniently forgets that God shows God’s power most vividly on the cross in vulnerable, self-emptying love. Doesn’t sing about that. That is truly awesome. Beating up our enemies and giving us goose-bumps isn’t.
But while that song doesn’t get it, we do sing a song around here that does. It is just a part of our communion service, a part that you all are called on to sing, being the modern day seraphim that you are. It’s called the Sanctus, the song of holiness:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,
The whole earth is full of his glory!
It’s not as popular as that other song, but it is a song sung full of awe, full of wonder, full of mystery, which is the only response one can have in God’s presence. Isaiah hears the song, sung from the other worldly and frankly very scary looking seraphim, and he probably feels the awe more than ever.
As he recounted this event years later, this awesome vision came “In the year that King Uzziah died…” Maybe that is why he received this vision. Maybe that is why his people needed for him to have this vision. King Uzziah – not as popular as Kings David or Solomon, but his death meant a time of transition for the people of Judah, that little pocket around Jerusalem that was all that remained of the great Davidic empire. Uzziah was the last really powerful Judean king. After his death there would be other kings, but their reigns would be full of internal and external fights for faithfulness and survival. After his death the little country of Judah would need the presence of God in a mighty way, to keep them on the path to faithfulness and trust. It was not a path they would always stay on, but they needed someone to remind them that there was a way. Someone whom God would choose, because God cared that they would stay on that path, and the same God cares that we stay on that path in our days, even with our own feelings of fear and trembling and inadequacy.
Not surprisingly, Isaiah did not feel up to the task. Who would? He just blurts out, amid all the angelic singing and smoke and awesomeness, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Years later, another good and faithful Hebrew named Paul of Tarsus wrote to some friends in the Greek city of Corinth. He told them not about a vision in the Temple but about another vision, this one on the road to Damascus; a vision which changed his thinking, changed his direction, changed his life. His vision, just as much as Isaiah’s, was full of awe – and personal inadequacy. “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Interesting that he put it that way; not the church of Jesus Christ, but the church of God. He saw the Christ so closely connected to God the Creator that you couldn’t see one without the other, which is the way it is; but it needed to be made known to him in a vision, in a way in which there could be no mistake. In the memory of all that, in remembering who he was and what he had done, he considered himself every bit as unworthy as Isaiah.
We all know about that don’t we? We don’t know what it was like for Isaiah, living almost three millennia ago, or Paul, two millennia ago, both in places of the world which very few of us have ever visited. We have not had visions that struck awe into our hearts and minds and souls. But we know about the unworthiness thing. We know we have not always lived up to our calling as Christians. We know we are a people of unclean lips, even if we have never uttered a swear word or a nasty term for anyone. We know that just because we know we are human beings. We do mess up. We come in every Sunday and lift up our prayers of confession, and need that assurance that God has heard us and has forgiven us. Even if a little bit of doubt may linger in our minds that maybe sometimes we have stepped a little too far over the line.
Perhaps what leads to our feeling like that is the thought that it will never get any better. We know who we are, we know our weaknesses, our temptations, and we know that things will always be this way. The possibility of new life and new opportunities seem to be at a distance. I’m just too old, I’m just too dumb, I’m just not as sharp as I used to be, I don’t have anything to offer, I can’t do this, I can’t do that – we seem to dwell in the litany of brokenness rather than in the chorus of possibility.
And we feel it in other parts of our lives as well. We see brokenness all around – in the ways we feel about things, in the differences of opinion we have with others, with how things seem to be operating – or more appropriately not operating – in Washington, with political leaders in our own state being questioned about their desire to truly represent all the people when their past shows up to cause some suspicion. We come to accept our brokenness and the brokenness of the world as the way it is so there’s no use worrying too much about it. Just accept it, “it is what it is,” and move on and do what you can.
But we need to hear something else. For too long we allowed ourselves to be burdened under the theory of St. Augustine’s “original sin.” The theory that we are all subject to sin because of Eve and Adam’s eating of the apple in the garden, from the tree that God told them not to eat. The sin that oppressed Isaiah that day in the Temple, the sin that plagued Paul’s memories, the sins that haunt each and every one of us.
But what we forget is what modern day writer Matthew Fox has termed, “original blessing”: That before the apple, before the fall, even before the creation of human beings, God was moving to create a world full of blessing. If there is anything original in our lives or in creation it is not our brokenness, it is not our sins. It is God’s blessing upon the earth. God made everything, and everything was good. Everything is good.
It’s all grace. But sometimes it is a difficult grace. The reason why I read Isaiah’s words to the end of the chapter was to show that sometimes the call of God is for us to do the difficult thing, to speak the word that won‘t be heard, to give the vision that won’t be seen. Medical people know that – sometimes you have to give a hard word so that patients will take responsibility for their own care and do the necessary follow up. Healing doesn’t come only from a pill. Teachers know it – you have to teach some students differently than others, so they get it. We all know it – sometimes you have to speak the harsh word, do the difficult act, to get the message across.
But we give it anyway, because God loves us too much to let us stay the way we are. The message goes out through Isaiah because God loved those people too much to just let them stay in their wildernesses of self-infatuation. Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was a difficult one; they had a hard time latching onto the good news of what it meant to live into the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to trust that resurrection to lead them into a new life – at the end of this physical life, sure, but not just there. To live into the resurrection right now in this life.
That’s it right there: The promise of resurrection for them and for us means that things will not always be the same. We will not always be the same. That might sound like a difficult grace for us. We like things the way they are. But God is always on the move, always working through us stubborn, clueless, resistant human beings for resurrection, for ourselves and maybe for somebody else. There is always hope for new life. There is always the possibility of being made new, no matter how old you are, no matter how smart you are, no matter what your talents are. God is always working with a grace that is often difficult but also irresistible. God is always working with us to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with the Divine Love. We don’t always get it right, but God continues to call us on the way. So speak the word and do the act anyway, and trust that resurrection is always possible. Amen.