A meditation on Isaiah 6: 1 -8
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church May 27, 2018
Dr. Leonard Fry, my high school Bible teacher, loved Isaiah 6: 1 – 8. He loved its beauty and mystery, its structure and style. It was the only passage of scripture we were required to memorize for his class. I do hope he never realized that our favorite line from those eight verses was the first portion of the fifth verse: “Woe is me! For I am lost!” Common English reads: “Mourn for me! I’m ruined!” which is also a good line…either way it’s an incredibly useful piece of scripture. I frequently raised my hand in both Calculus and Chemistry, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” In my defense, I wasn’t the only one lost in Chemistry class. Our teacher, a very lovely person, was a bit absent minded, often arriving late, and sometimes forgetting to show up at all. It made for an interesting learning experience.
“Woe is me! For I am lost.” That’s the middle of the story. It’s not where we begin, and it’s definitely not where we will end, but it is the beautiful moment of awareness upon which everything turns. Before the “woe” angels sing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” And after the “woe”? A humbled prophet will raise his hand and say, “Here I am! Send me!” when God asks for volunteers.
If you want to understand our worship service, it is laid out right here in these 8 verses. Isaiah enters God’s presence and acknowledges God’s power. A Call to Worship. In response to God’s magnificence, Isaiah is deeply moved, turns to God in repentance and receives God’s mercy. Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon.
Isaiah listens to God’s voice. The Proclamation of the Word. Renewed and restored, Isaiah is sent back out to carry God’s Word to the world. Benediction and sending. We’ve added a few things through the years…but the essence of our worship is contained in these simple movements: praise, repentance, restoration, word, blessing and sending.
So we don’t have six winged seraphim and lots of smoke…frankly, I’m okay with that. It would probably be a little distracting. And this was a vision, not a reality. What would life be without dreams and visions? What would the life of faith be without them? This vision gave Isaiah a glimpse of God’s enormity: God’s robe spilling over throughout the whole space. A God who cannot be contained by a temple. A God so enormous, and so generous that God desires to be in relationship… with us…
Us…with our unclean lips.
Unclean when they judge instead of forgive.
Unclean when they divide instead of unite.
Unclean when they shame instead of welcome.
Unclean when they stay sealed shut instead of crying out, “justice and peace!”
Unclean. Unclean. Unclean.
Woe is me, for I am lost. Me and my dirty lips.
Isaiah felt lost. He felt lost because he had seen God’s glory. He had seen God’s glory and lived! (So it must be a dream!) In comparison to God – love perfected and personified – Isaiah was overwhelmed with his own failings. But though we may feel lost, God always knows where we are and what it is we need.
Isaiah needs restoration. God sends one of the messengers, who carries a glowing coal from the altar. Not a cool, wet washcloth to gently scrub Isaiah’s lips, not a bar of soap to wash out his mouth, but a red hot coal. With this coal, the seraph touches the prophet’s mouth. Remember this is a vision, and in a vision, impossible things are possible. In Isaiah’s vision it is entirely possible for a man’s lips to be touched by a hot coal without wounding him. Isaiah doesn’t scream in pain. He doesn’t go running in search of the nearest aloe plant. This ember brings healing. Just as the Pentecost flames danced over the heads of Jesus’ shocked disciples, energizing them, renewing them and healing them, this flaming coal brings life to Isaiah.
It would be more rational to interpret the burning coal as punishment for those dirty lips. A glowing ember should burn what it touches and that’s what Isaiah deserves. He admitted it! “Woe is me! For I am lost!” But God doesn’t work that way. I believe God knows that being lost, feeling lost, is punishment enough. God knows more punishment won’t really help. When you raise your hand in chemistry class and say that you are lost, a wise teacher will know that you aren’t the only one. A wise teacher will guide you and all the lost ones forward, not cut you off.
Isaiah stands resolute, watching as that six winged creature flies towards him – or maybe he was just too afraid to move! Isaiah watches as that glowing ember, so hot that the messenger has to use tongs to carry it, gets nearer and nearer. Isaiah watches mesmerized, wondering what is going to happen with that burning coal. Then the coal touches his lips and instead of pain, he feels… relief. Because God does not punish God’s lost children; God restores them. Time and time again, when pain and punishment would be logical, God instead offers life.
Because we are human and God is God. Because God needs Isaiah. God needs a restored and faithful Isaiah. For the first time, we hear God speak. “Whom should I send? Who will go for us?” God says. Isaiah, like an energetic first grader so eager to please the teacher, raises his hand and says, “Pick me!!!” “Me!” “I’ll go!” Isaiah who doesn’t even know what he is being asked to do or where he is being sent, volunteers with all his heart. And I imagine, like any first grade teacher, God’s heart melted a little at the sight of such innocence and vulnerability and joy.
This “call story” is unlike any other in the Bible. God doesn’t usually ask for volunteers. God usually heads out with a specific person in mind. Noah the boat builder. David the shepherd king. Sometimes God has to go and beat the bushes and do a little coaxing and persuading. God calls people by name and calls people by name, and calls their name again.
God, needing someone to rescue enslaved peoples, called to Moses from a burning bush, and then did a crossword puzzle while waiting for Moses to run through his list of excuses. God had to wake young Samuel up from sleep three times before he realized that it was God who was calling to him, and answered “I’m here!” God spoke to Abraham and Jacob. God called upon the reluctant and grumpy Jonah, who finally did what he was told. God called to Mary, and she said, “I am here.” Though it sometimes took some coaxing, or the word of an angel, each one found God’s call irresistible.
This time, God opens up the invitation. And it is entirely possible that instead of a human volunteer, God was expecting one of the six winged creatures to step up. They are messengers; that is their job. Perhaps this whole vision is intended to anoint Isaiah with the courage he will need to do the difficult work ahead of him. Perhaps he held on to this vision, and played it over in his head, and watched again and again, as he raised his hand and volunteered for a job that was meant for a heavenly messenger. Which meant that the work for which he volunteered was holy work. Holy, sacred work of reminding God’s people to live in justice and peace. God didn’t pick Isaiah because he had special gifts, at least not that we know of. God chose Isaiah because Isaiah volunteered. Isaiah was present to God. Isaiah was healed and renewed by God. Isaiah was sent out by God to do God’s holy work in the world.
We can live with our unclean lips. We can live with our hands held down tightly by our sides when God asks for volunteers. Or we can show up. Raise our hands. Call out “pick me!” even when we don’t know what it is that God needs us to do…
I wonder if God, looking for volunteers, waiting for us to show up, ever feels like the economics teacher in the Matthew Broderick movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Remember Ferris Bueller, who fakes an illness and takes a glorious day off from high school?
Economics Teacher: [taking attendance] Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?
Other students call out “here” for Bueller as the teacher continues to stare at Bueller’s empty seat and to call his name.
Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?
(Student) Simone: Um, he’s sick. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious.
Economics Teacher: Thank you, Simone.
Simone: No problem whatsoever.
Economics Teacher: Bueller?… Bueller?… Bueller?
Let’s not wait for God to call our name…other people shouldn’t have to answer for us. God shouldn’t have to listen to our lame excuses either. Let’s show up. Who knows, you might just knock an angel out of a job.
Thanks be to God, who never turns away a volunteer. Amen and amen.