Isaiah 6:1-8


I have no frame of reference for this story, do you?   No way of looking at it that gets me into this scene or event.

            I have tried to think of some awesome moment, when God seemed particularly close and powerful to me, but everything I could think of fell far short of Isaiah’s experience. 

            When I sense God near, it is usually comforting, or it has been emotionally supporting, or a sense of peace that I could trust in.  I haven’t had that doorpost shaking, scared spitless encounter with God.

            So then I tried to think of some artistic renderings of this scene.  Sometimes the eye of the artist has power to convey things that words cannot contain.  

            But I have to confess that such visions did not convey the terror or mercy or power that is evident in Isaiah’s words.   Pretty pictures, or descriptive scenes, but not the kind of art that conveyed the power of the event.

            Hollywood has no depictions of this scene in film, but plenty of attempts at rendering the raw power and fear of God.  From “The Ten Commandments to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” there is no shortage of attempts to convey the power and majesty of God, but the more I looked at those attempts the less “awe inspiring” and the more “neat” they became.  It was all about the special effects and not about the God they intended to portray, and the more you look at them the more unreal the situation became.

            So here is my conclusion about Isaiah’s call.

            We really can’t connect with it, and maybe that’s o.k., because really this is Isaiah’s call, and not ours.

            This is what it took to get Isaiah to answer the call of God upon his life.

            It took the death of King Uzziah.  

            It is a time of great turmoil for the nation, after the long and stable reign of a largely faithful king.   The times are changing, and perhaps the shaking of the pivots on the threshold are more than just the voices of those who called “Holy, Holy, Holy.”   Clearly there is something afoot in the nation as Isaiah enters the Temple.    Maybe foundations are shaking for the them all, as Assyria threatens to the North and the fall of their northern brothers and sisters stings.   Maybe a sense of “we’re next” that drives Isaiah to the temple.

            This is what it took to get Isaiah to answer the call of God upon his life:  it took recognition of Isaiah’s own unworthiness to the task.  Confronted with the Holy, Isaiah cries out that he is a man of “unclean lips who lives among a people of unclean lips.” 

            That is not an overwhelming affirmation of either yourself or your community.   Maybe this is the classic sense of looking upon the Holy is to die, or maybe it is also a wondering about the whole.  “Why would God want anything to do with me?  With us?”

            That’s a place where I can start to enter the story, because it’s a place where I dwell.   That sense of personal unworthiness to the task before me.  

            I grew up on the farm.  I can have unclean lips when I get frustrated or when the hammer swing goes amiss.  

            I live in a world where colorful language seems to permeate every sphere, and where euphemisms for intimate human physical activity pepper daily speech.  (Where f**k is dropped like, well, like “like.”  Not that I could do that from the pulpit, but it works in print.)

            I wonder sometimes why God would want anything to do with us really, haven’t we disappointed God enough?  

            Haven’t we been petty enough?   Pursued our own self interest at the expense of others enough?

            Once again Palestinians hurl rockets at Israel, and Israel responds with targeted attacks, as if nothing has changed since the days of Cain and Abel, Abraham and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. 

            The same old feuds of brother against brother.

            The same earth crying out for vengeance over the spilling of blood.  

            Oh, I’m with you on this one Isaiah.  I disparage of the human race on regular occasion.  Enough so to throw up my hands and want to wash them of the whole stinking affair!

            Isaiah would, I suppose welcome dismissal and an excuse.  His confession might have prompted a reminder to those Seraphs.  “Oh you’re right, get away!  Flee!  Die!

            But that is not the action taken.

            The searing ember from the altar is sent to touch the lips.  It is a painful cleansing.   No doubt about it, yes you do have unclean lips but here, but be purged by this action of God. 

            There are no excuses for you to be dismissed, or sent away, or utterly destroyed.  Instead God takes the action that makes Isaiah ready for response when God calls.

            I wonder what action God will have to take with me?  With us?

            I doubt very much that you or I will have a holy coal from the altar pressed to our lips to make us ready to speak on the part of God. 

            That was what it took for Isaiah.

            But if that Holy Coal is any indication of what it will take, you can be assured that it may be just as painful for us as well. 

            It will take some action that burns on our hearts and our lips.

            It will require some action that we witness that causes the heat to rise in us, of righteous indignation or horror, or just plain fear. 

            It will take something that we can no longer let pass silently.

            In our days of great upheaval, what will prompt us to respond?

            I do not know.

            I do know this.  Isaiah’s call is difficult for us to comprehend because this is what it took for him to finally say, “Here I am, send me.”

            And after he said it, it is not an easy message he has to bring.

            It was a message of ruin and remnant.

            A message where awful things would happen, but God would not abandon completely.

            A message that said the world is changing.   Judah’s days of being on top are at an end.   It would  be message of exile and of learning how to trust God in a foreign land where everything familiar to the faith had evaporated or been taken away except the words of scripture themselves.

            It would be a message of an eventual return for Judah to what would be a very different promised land, a very different political reality, a life where they were no longer in the majority or in power but had to learn how to navigate under the authority of occupying forces.

            That is what Isaiah will have to proclaim to ear that will not hear and hearts that will not perceive.

            And yet, when God asks who should be sent, Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me.”

            I have no frame of reference for Isaiah’s call.  The events make no sense to me at all.   I can’t imagine them happening to me.

            But I can imagine God calling.

            I can imagine Isaiah’s burned and bleeding lips forming that response.   “Here I am, send me.”

            Can you?

            If so, then ask yourself this question.    “What will my call look like in these trouble times, when government seems so unsteady and when the very doorposts of the church as we have known it seem to quiver and shake under a changing world?”

            What would it take me, and take my lips, to form those words to God’s call on my life, and the world’s need for one to speak on God’s behalf?

Jonah and Veteran’s Day.


Jonah and the whale.  No children’s bible story collection is complete without it.  Somehow it just seems suited to children.   The fantastic misadventures of a prophet who tries to run away from God’s call and command, and who ends up spending time in the belly of a great fish, contemplating whether you can really run away from God or not?   

            But the story often told to children has multiple levels to it, and where the part that interests children leaves off, the larger questions with which we as adults have to consider begin to come into focus. 

            What do you do with your enemies?  

            Or more appropriately put, what will God do with our enemies?

            In that respect it’s not a bad story to lift up and consider on this weekend, as we celebrate another holiday that has to do with the call to service and devotion and what to do with the enemy.  

            It is Veteran’s Day, and celebrating a national holiday within a church service always leaves me a little ill at ease. 

            It is not that I am not patriotic. 

            It is the fact that history sometimes has a short memory.         

            People will sometimes be indignant that an American Flag is not proudly displayed inside their church sanctuary on a day like today.  But perhaps we have forgotten that one of the first actions of the National Socialist movement in Germany in the days leading up to WW2 was to inject patriotism in every sphere.   That included the government order that the Nazi Party Flag be prominently displayed in all churches of the Reich. 

            It was an action of blurring the lines of devotion, of where one puts one faith and trust, that Lutheran pastors like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Kaj Munk in Denmark gave their lives to speak against. 

            Lutherans have a long held suspicion of tying nationalistic movements to worship spaces.  Partly because of the guilt of what we failed to do in pre-war Europe, and partly as a remembrance of what we allowed to have happen, that creep of influence that ultimately robbed the power of the symbol from the Cross and gave it to the Nation.

            We do well on Veteran’s Day to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, who perhaps had to face the difficult prospect of what to do with “the enemy” more than any other leader.   When goaded about whose side God was on in the Civil War, Lincoln prophetically proclaimed, “My concern is not with whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

             So on Veteran’s day we consider now this seemingly simple story of Jonah, and his growing understanding of what Mr. Lincoln meant, and about what God will ultimately do with our enemy.

            Jonah knows, or has a sneaking suspicion what God will do, and that’s why he won’t go to Ninevah, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire.  

            It was Assyria that swept down like locusts and decimated the ten northern tribes of Israel in 722 B.C.E.  The Assyrian policy was to show no mercy.   Nations were wiped out, cities destroyed, and the surviving population was carted off as slaves, put like fish on a stringer with a hook through their jaw or lip as they were marched into exile.

            That was Jonah’s enemy, and there was none more savage, although history from then on will be replete with new savage regimes and practices to rival Assyria.

            What Jonah finds out is that it is God’s intention to have mercy on those whom he calls “enemy.”

            It is God’s intention that the people of that great city Ninevah should come to know about God. 

            It is God’s intention that they be given the chance to repent of their actions and come to worship God. 

            It is God’s intention to bring healing and forgiveness and grace to the hated, to the enemy… but before that can happen a word of Judgment must be spoken, someone must go and call them to repentance and tell them about this God who longs to forgive. 

            That task falls to Jonah, and he will have nothing to do with it.

            He will not be complicit in the redemption of Israel’s most despised enemy.  

            Jonah will not deliver the word that will spare Israel’s enemy from God’s coming wrath and judgment.   That is the response of Jonah to have mercy on his enemies.  Let them go their own way!  Let them perish!   Let them go to hell!  I will not speak of my God to them!

             Avoidance.  Self centered avoidance, that’s what Jonah does as he tries to flee from God.  That’s how you deal with the call of God when you don’t want to go, you do the opposite!  You go out of your way to make sure you don’t end up where God is calling or leading. 

            That is a tactic we still try to use to this very day, don’t we?    

            Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on old Jonah, because the truth is this lesson is still a hard one for us to learn today.  You really can’t run from God and that you can’t keep God from showing mercy on whom God chooses to show mercy.          

            Oh, I may not be as active an avoider as Jonah.  I haven’t run or jumped on any ships lately, but I am an avoider still.

             Most of us are.  I am Jonah, and so are you.

            In fact, avoidance tops my list of the ways that we as the people most often deal with God’s call in our lives. 

            Sometimes the avoidance is just not paying enough attention to the moment.  We meet the person we haven’t seen for a while in the grocery store and exchange a few words, “How is it going.” we say, and in response instead of the polite “just fine” out comes a short and bitter recounting of all their troubles.  

            This is a moment of opportunity to speak of faith.  

            But my ice cream is melting and the kids need to be picked up, and so with a briefly condoling word of “I hope things go better.” we leave without calling into that situation the God who can turn things around.   

            When an opening to speak of the faith comes up we just miss it, avoid it.   

            But avoidance also comes in the Jonah variety for us.  There are people that we won’t give the time of day to, let alone share our faith with.   Personal enemies, societal enemies, people with whom we believe we share nothing in common, and so would never dream of inviting to worship with us.   

            We claim that God loves all people, but it’s tougher for us to do that, and so we avoid telling those undesirable others about our God and figure we won’t have to deal with them.

            Jonah knows the character and nature of his God.  He is perfectly aware of what he is doing.  And in that respect the Jonah text is also a stewardship text, for it has to do with what he does with the gifts that God gives to him.

            Here are the gifts given to Jonah.  He has a word to speak, a word that God has guarenteed will be heard if he will but speak it.  

            He has the capability to carry that word where it needs to go.  He is fully mobile, robust, even able to withstand a few days in extreme conditions.  No excuses of health or inability to travel.

            He has the assurance of God’s presence with him.  He knows that.  He can sense God’s presence, and flees from it. 

            This is a stewardship text! 

            It is a story about what you do with what God gives you. 

            At first what Jonah does is try his best to get rid of God’s gifts to him.  He flees from the presence of God.  He tries to keep from delivering that word of God.  And, he tries to get rid of the gift of his own life and health, first by getting thrown into the sea and then by sitting in a funk under the hot sun. 

            It is a stewardship text.  What do you do with what God gives you?

            If you are an adult in this room, you can tell a Jonah story. 

            You know someone, knew someone, who had all kinds of gifts and talents, and who just threw them away.

            There are no sadder stories.  

            Some of you live them still, in family members, in high school or college classmates.  The people who in the yearbook had these glowing notes written to them:  “You’ll go far!”   “Here’s to the best debate team captain we ever had.”  “Hold on to your dreams and don’t forget who you are.”    You know those gifted people and know the pain when the gifts others saw in them are not put to use, or are denied or wasted. 

            So on one level this Jonah story is a stewardship story.  What will he do with all those things God has given to him?   What will we do?  Use them?  Flee from them?  Sit on the hilltop and brood about them?

            But on another level, this is also a story about just what you do with the enemy, and this ties us back in to the other celebration for this day.

            Veteran’s Day, or “Sunday after the most contentious election I can remember” day.

            Maybe they are one in the same.

            The sad irony is that the last lesson one learns in war is this.   When it is all said and done, when you have your “winner” and your “loser” and waste has been laid to individual lives as well as nations, economies, and ideologies, what you have to do is the very thing you should have done before war ever broke out.   You still have to learn how to get along, how to work together to rebuild, and how to live together into the future.

            From his perspective above Nineveh, Jonah watches as God makes good on God’s promise.  

            God has mercy.

            And you have to wonder, if Israel had done a better job of being that blessing to others that God had intended from the start, would the animosity that led to the wars that devastated them have ever been waged? 

            Maybe this is the best legacy we can derive from Jonah, and the best promise we can make to those who have served every nation, and every cause, and gave their last full measure of devotion in every age.

            God has mercy on whom God chooses to have mercy.

             In the end even if we win, and especially if we lose, what we will still have to do in the years to come is learn how to live together, and how to work together. 

            Perhaps, on this Veterans Day, and After Contentious Election day, we should muse, if we were as relentless and reckless in mercy as we are in insisting on our own way, would the world be changed?

            I leave you today with the words of another Pastor, Kaj Munk, Danish Pastor who was martyred for these words.

           

            “Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature… we lack a holy RAGE – the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity.

            The ability to RAGE when justice lies prostrate on the streets and when the lie rages across the face of the earth… a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world.           To RAGE against the ravaging of God’s earth and the destruction of God’s world.     To RAGE when little children must die of hunger, when the tables of the rich are sagging with food.

            To RAGE at senseless killing of so many and against the madness of militaries.   To RAGE at the lie that calls threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace.      To RAGE against complacency.

            To restlessly seek that recklessness that will change and seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.

            Remember the signs of the church have been the Lion, the Lamb, the Dove and the Fish, —-but never the Chameleon.”