Sermon May 31, 2015
When have you found yourself in the presence of the holy? Was it a magnificent storm? The sky on fire as the sun is setting? The spectacular color and texture of a cactus blooming? Was it in church? I actually really meant the last question. When have you encountered God in worship? Was it in an anthem or the singing of a hymn? Was it when our children and youth led worship? Did it happen when you were making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after church? Did it happen in a class? Maybe at the Annual Meeting when K.C. Quirk, Cory and Mandy talked about Crossroads for Women?
The reading from Isaiah takes place in the temple. It is clear that God is in the house and Isaiah is blown away by this encounter with the holy. It is powerful to come that close to God. The opening worship at the Festival of Homiletics in Denver took place in the Convention Center. There aren’t many churches that will hold 1800 people. I walked into the room and sat down. When we stood to sing and I heard those powerful voices come together and Nadia Bolz-Weber preach words of blessing, I knew that God was with us. I wanted to weep at the beauty and power of it. But I know from experience, that the beauty doesn’t just come empty handed. It comes with some texture and that texture is the call that accompanies it.
I have had more than one encounter with the mystery of God that left me speechless and awestruck. I think each of those encounters came with something more than just stunned silence in the face of the holy. Each came with a call and the call was to a deeper commitment to follow God.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but I want those holy God moments. I want to feel close God is when I pray. I want to feel God moving in Church every Sunday. I want to know God’s holy presence every single day. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?
But I must be honest and say that we don’t just get the holy presence of God. God doesn’t just show up and say, “bling (yes, bling!) I’m here. Isn’t life grand?” The pattern seems to be a bit more along the lines of, “I’m here. You’re here. I need you to do this. The world needs you. I’m hoping you will say yes.”
In the case of Isaiah, God showed up and Isaiah was stunned by the holiness of God and also confronted with his own inadequacy. He immediately confesses that he is sinful. There are many people who grew up hearing a lot about sin. They want to come to church and never hear that word again. We think we shouldn’t have to feel bad about ourselves. The reality is someone saying the word sin doesn’t make us feel bad about ourselves. We feel bad on our own because we know we sin. We know we hurt people. We know we ignore needs in front of us. We know we are selfish. We know. We sin. Being aware of God’s holiness means being aware of our own brokenness. It's not a bad thing to take an honest look at ourselves. It’s the only way we begin the process of healing and becoming whole.
Isaiah is surrounded by God’s bling and somehow it serves as a mirror to all that he is. He recognizes the way he falls short and he asks for forgiveness. God hasn’t come to judge him or make him feel bad about himself. Isaiah owns his shortcomings and by doing so, he is forgiven and freed for the next part. Yes, this is a three-part story. We have the holy bling. We have the forgiveness. Then we have the hard part…the call. When you hear the story, it doesn’t really sound hard. It actually sounds pretty easy. God forgives Isaiah and then says, “Who will go for us?” Isaiah throws his hand up in the air and says enthusiastically, “Me! I’ll do it! I’ll go!” Sounds simple, right?
It is curious that the story ends here. If we just read this part, we would all say yes. In the verses that follow, God tells Isaiah about the destruction that is coming. It’s going to be bad and Isaiah is the guy that gets to deliver the bad news and go with the people into the awful mess that lies ahead.
Remember all that sweet holiness a few verses ago? You know how the whole earth was full of God’s glory? Well, we have moved on to destruction. Saying yes to God’s call comes at a cost. Do not be fooled into thinking that you are walking into sweetness and light. It may begin in sweetness and light, but there are difficult days ahead. God’s call is never easy.
The Reverend John Buchanan retired after 48 years as a Presbyterian pastor. He remembers one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a two-year-old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan, following the directions of the Presbyterian prayer book, put his hand on the little boy's head and addressed him in Trinitarian language. He said, "You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever." Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, "Uh-oh."
It was an amusing moment and people in the congregation smiled, of course, but "it was [also] an appropriate response," wrote Buchanan, "... a stunning theological affirmation" from the mouth of this child. That "uh-oh" was a recognition that everything had changed, that this boy would never be the same. He did not belong any more just to his biological family; he had now been born all over again, this time into God's Trinitarian family. Now he would be called to live out in the world the kind of love and self-giving that goes on among Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit. He was being called in his baptism to live a different way in the world, God's way, a way that is sometimes met with rejection and scorn. No wonder he said, "Uh oh." Life would never be the same. (John Buchanan, "Beginnings and Endings," The Christian Century, Jan 25, 2012, taken from Tom Long’s sermon on Day 1: http://day1.org/3823-the_start_of_the_trail)
Our book group just finished Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders by Chris Hoke. Chris describes his longing to “give his life over completely to a holy love, a mystery much larger than us, serving others whom the world despises.” (p. 19) Throughout the book, he told of meeting the holy in a jail, in gatherings of drug addicts and ex-cons, and in the barrio of Guatemala. The holy was often in places that were dirty and unsafe. But the encounters Chris described followed the pattern of Isaiah – there was a profound sense that God was near, an honest confession of the ways they didn’t measure up, and a call to make a difference in the world. These men weren’t afraid to be honest about their sin. The love of God cracked them open and enabled them to own their sin. They experienced an inner freedom and a call to live differently. While there were tragic endings to many of these, the power of God’s blessing was palpable in the reading. There is incredible power in standing before God. If God’s call doesn’t leave us with an “uh-oh” response, we may not be hearing it right. Perhaps God is being gracious and allowing us to bask in the beauty of it for a moment. We can be sure that there will be difficult days ahead. Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about her experience of the holy in a book called Living with a Wild God. That sums it up for me. God will not be tamed by our need to domesticate and make things palatable, but what an incredible ride ahead of us when we say yes.
C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The lion Aslan symbolizes Jesus. Two girls Susan and Lucy are preparing to meet Aslan for the first time. Mr. and Mrs. Beaver are preparing them for this rare encounter.
“Is he quite safe?” Susan asked. “I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie,” said Mrs. Beaver. “And make no mistake, if there’s
anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re
either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe,” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said
anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe, but he’s good.”
God will not be tamed by our desire for safety, but God will lead us into the holy of holies where we can take a long honest look at ourselves. That same God will call us out into the world to be the voice of justice and compassion for all people. This wild God calls us to love without considering the cost. God does not promise safety, but we can be sure of God’s goodness. It is more than fair to call God the holy uh-oh. I don’t where this ride will take us, but I sure don’t want to miss it! Be on the lookout for this holy God whose call will set us free