Have you ever felt out of place?
Have you ever found yourself in some situation where you just didn’t belong?
In fact it’s a fairly common human experience – to feel out of place in this way.
If you’ve ever moved to a new town, you’ve probably felt out of place.
If you’ve ever travelled to another continent or country, you’ve probably felt out of place.
If you’ve found yourself spending time with people of a dramatically different income-bracket – well, you’ve probably felt out of place.
No doubt each one of us can of a time when we’ve felt out of place – we’ve all had that sense of discomfort and unease – of being disoriented – that goes along with being out of place. “Uh, I’m don’t think I’m supposed to be here.”
Today as we looking at the call of Isaiah, it wouldn’t be completely surprising to hear Isaiah say those words: “”Um, I don’t think I’m supposed to be here.” This morning we find Isaiah in a situation where he feels utterly out of place – in a situation where he is totally out of his element. He’s in one of those situations where he just wants to disappear into the woodwork or blend in with the furniture.
This week we are continuing our sermon series looking at call narratives in the Old Testament – these narratives of encounter with God. We’re trying to get a sense of what it might look like, or feel like, as we encounter the living God. We began last week with the prophet Jeremiah – with his call to shatter worlds and build a new world with his words. This week we continue by looking at the prophet Isaiah.
We should notice this morning that there are, roughly speaking, two kinds of call narratives within our bible. The first is a call narrative that focuses on the word of God. That’s what we had last week with the prophet Jeremiah – it was a call expressed in these terms: “The word of the Lord came to me.” And again: “The word of the Lord came to me a second time…” We don’t know exactly how the word of the Lord came to the prophet. Was it somehow a direct word to the heart and mind of the prophet? Did it come through some kind of intermediary? We don’t know exactly. But in either case, the call of God comes through words – through metaphors, poetry, and language – in the similar way that the scriptural text comes to us through language. “The word of the Lord came to me.”
Now the second kind of call certainly includes an element of the word. But the second kind of call is centered in a theophany – in a dramatic appearing of God. That’s what the word theophany means – it is a visible manifestation of God – it is a vision of God. And that’s what we have here in Isaiah chapter 6 – it is a call or commissioning centered in theophany – in a vision or appearing of God.
The vision of Isaiah in chapter 6 is spectacular, to say the least. In his vision, the prophet finds himself in the throne room of God – a throne room that is elevated in the heavens, above the temple of Jerusalem. At the centre of the throne room is the Lord, seated on the throne. What does the Lord look like – we don’t know. But God’s presence is so substantial, so grand, that the mere hem of his robe, the smallest portion of his robe, is greater than can be contained within the temple of Jerusalem.
And this great and glorious God is surrounded by fantastical creatures – the seraphim. They have six wings. They are covering their faces with two of their wings, they are covering their feet with two of their wings – and with the remaining two wings they fly around the throne room of God.
Not only do these amazing creatures fly. They also sing. As they fly, they echo words of song back and forth to one another. They sing:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The depth and volume of the seraph’s voices is such that the sound waves shake the foundations of the earth. And along with the incredible volume of singing the council room of God is filled with smoke.
Does it comes as any surprise to us that Isaiah feels out of place in this vision? Does it come as any surprise to us that Isaiah feels uncomfortable, displaced, alienated in this moment. He is decidedly not at home here. He is merely human – and he is in the presence of fantastical and otherworldly creatures – he is in the presence of the Lord of the universe – it is more grand and holy than Isaiah can even bear.
His words words that express his alienation and displacement. “Woe is me. I am lost.” There is perhaps a two-fold lostness here. The first lostness is the lostness we’ve already been describing – Isaiah is in a place and a world that is foreign to him. He can’t get his bearings here. He is disoriented here in the heavenly council chamber. Out of place. “Woe is me. I am lost.”
But Isaiah is lost in another sense, also. “Woe is me. I am lost.” He adds: “For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
Isaiah is lost not only because God is so otherworldly and grand. He is lost also because God is holy.
God’s difference from the human is not merely a difference in being. It’s not simply that God is more powerful, more creative, more knowledgeable, or more glorious than a human being. In this appearing of God, Isaiah also discerns the holiness of God. Expressed negatively, God’s holiness means that that God’s life and activity are not marked by selfishness, or hatred, or envy, or sloth. Expressed positively, God’s holiness means that God is goodness and truth and beauty.
In the presence of this holy God – in the presence of this God of goodness and truth and beauty – Isaiah becomes profoundly aware of his brokenness – he becomes aware of the many ways that his life is not good or truthful or beautiful. “Woe is me, for I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips.”
“Woe is me, for I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”
Isaiah knows the failures of his people – he knows his own failures. These failures are outlined right at the outset of the book – in chapter 1. There it is all laid out.
In their business dealings there is corruption
In their business dealings there are bribes and kick-backs.
The power-brokers are hanging out with thieves.
The needs of widows and orphans have been forgotten.
The marginalized are being pushed further to the margins.
Many are preoccupied with their comfortable life, rather than with justice and worship.
“Woe is me, for I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” In the presence of this glorious God; in the presence of this holy God, Isaiah is lost, displaced, alienated. His failures – those of his people – loom large before his eyes.
What can Isaiah do but try and fade into the woodwork – what can he do, but slowly back out of the throne room of God. He life is to some degree defined by his failures – he’s no longer in any position to deny it. These failures aren’t things you can just walk away from, forgetting they’ve happened.
But before Isaiah can duck out of the room. Before he can fade into the woodwork, God acts. We read in verse 4: “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt ahs departed and your sin is blotted out’.”
Just over a year ago, I made a mistake in our kitchen at home. I had been experimenting with making red pepper jelly and I decided to try out a recipe for hot pepper jelly. I was up at Jean Talon market – I picked up some hot red peppers – and I made my attempt at the jelly.
Now when I was finished making the jelly, I hadn’t used up all of the hot red peppers and so I left a few cut up pieces on a little plate in the fridge. Perhaps see where this is going.
When Becky came home that night from a 12-hour shift at the hospital, she opened the fridge, and of course saw three nice pieces of red pepper there on a plate – wouldn’t be the first time there were left-over veggies on a plate in our fridge. And you might know how it is with peppers – when you eat them, you often don’t feel the heat right away. So Becky had chewed and swallowed one of those good-sized pieces of pepper before she realized that it was a hot pepper.
And so the burning started. My very first thought was, “oh, that’s funny, you ate one of the hot peppers pieces.” Ok, wrong first thought.
For Becky, the pain slowly became more intense – water, yogurt, milk – nothing would take away the extreme burning on her lips and in her mouth. It was at least 10 minutes before the pain began to ease.
When I read our scripture passage from Isaiah this past week – I thought about that intense experience of pain Becky had – pain on lips and in her mouth. “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it.” Imagine the burning pain of Isaiah’s mouth in this theophany as a red-hot coal is taken from the altar of God, and is pressed against his lips.
So physical. So real. So intense.
Within the Old and New Testaments, images of fire and burning often go hand in hand in hand with ideas of purification and judgment and renewal. As we are renewed in holiness – as we become true friends with God and with one another – as we begin to seek justice and live more simply – there is inevitably pain. For humans there is inevitably pain as we let go of old ways and old habits – it is invariably painful to break free of the old as we embrace the truly human way.
In the presence of the glorious king of the universe – Isaiah feels completely out of place and disoriented. In the presence of the holy God of creation – Isaiah becomes aware of the wrong-headedness of so much of his life. But before he can fade into the woodwork; before he can back slowly out of the throne room of God. God acts. God heals. God forgives. God purifies.
The word of God now comes to Isaiah:
Isaiah, in this burning is your renewal.
Isaiah, in this pain is your transformation.
Isaiah in this fire is your healing.
Isaiah, you are no longer defined by the past – no longer defined by your mistakes – you are free to be alive for the neighbour, for yourself, and for God.
We’re a long way into this sermon, and finally we come to Isaiah’s call. The call of Isaiah comes in the midst of the theophany we’ve been describing – and the call of Isaiah is distinct within the call narratives of the Old Testament. Isaiah isn’t called in the typical way.
Immediately after the coal has touched Isaiah’s lips – and immediately after the seraph has announced healing and forgiveness – Isaiah essentially overhears God in conversation with himself. God says: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
In this call narrative, unlike most others, God doesn’t come and say: “Isaiah, I want you to speak to my people.” Or, “Isaiah, go, now, and proclaim this message.” Rather, the narrative has God in this moment of reflection: “Ok, so who are we going to send to speak this work of judgment and hope to our people?” Whom shall I send?
And into the opening that is created by this question, steps Isaiah – he volunteers himself. “Here I am. Send me.”
It’s particularly interesting for us to look at Isaiah’s self-offering against the backdrop of everything that has just happened. One moment he is saying, “Woe is me, I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips.” The next moment he is speaking up confidently: “Here I am. Send me.”
Between his moment of fear and alienation on the one hand, and his moment of confidence self-offering on the other hand, is nothing other than Isaiah’s encounter with the God of judgment and grace.
And so it becomes clear that the judgment of God (the burning coal on his mouth) isn’t just some vindictive God being negative and judgmental. Rather, the encounter with the God of judgment and grace, is an encounter that sets Isaiah free – free for life, free for service.
“Woe is me, for I am lost.” Far from meaning his destruction, this encounter with God has meant Isaiah’s renewal. The glorious and holy God has not wiped out Isaiah’s personality with some onerous command or some vindictive judgment. The glorious and holy God has not belittled Isaiah and left him groveling in the dust. Rather, the glorious and holy God has brought Isaiah on the way from guilt and alienation, through pain and judgment, into the place of new possibilities for a fulfilled life. “Here I am. Send me.”
Are we open to such a theophany – to the appearing of this glorious and holy God?
Or are we hoping for a God who is more tame?
a God who will let us be who we’ve always been?
a God who doesn’t take us seriously enough to judge us?
a God with whom forgiveness isn’t even an issue?
Or are we open to encounter with the glorious and holy God – a God who would place a burning coal on our lips – a God who would lead us on the sometimes painful way out of our brokenness – a God who would bring healing to our lives – and in whose presence we might suddenly find ourselves free for life, for joy, for service. “Here I am, Lord. Send me.”