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.”
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?