A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr B ~ Pentecost 1 ~ Isaiah 6:1-8
In case you missed it in the first hearing, or just to paint the picture even more vividly, let me start by retelling the passage from Isaiah 6.
It begins with an overwhelming image of the profound greatness of God. Isaiah has a vision in which he can only really see the hem of God’s robe which utterly fills Temple. Surrounding God’s throne in this vision are some Seraphim. Contrary to how many translations of the bible and artists depict them, a Seraph is not an angel – well, at least not a humanoid angel. The word Seraph in Hebrew literally means a serpent – a fiery, multi-winged creature.
What does that sound like? A dragon!
A dragon with six wings who sings out praise for God singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” A dragon that sings so loudly that it shakes the very foundations of the Temple. It’s a fantastic and mind-boggling vision establishing God’s awesomeness and glory – God’s beyond-ness, God’s transcendence.
Then in verses 5-8 there is an interaction with this otherworldly vision that is so this-worldly that there is even physical contact.
In verse 5 Isaiah says, “Woe is me! I am lost [undone, brought to silence], for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Think about unclean lips for a minute. Your lips have no agency. They can’t do anything on their own. They do and say what your mind and heart tell them. So if you have unclean lips then by extension it means unclean speech, but it’s really revealing that you have an impure heart. Remember Jesus makes a big deal about how it’s not the stuff that goes in your mouth that’s impure it’s the stuff that comes out of your mouth that shows what you really think. You can follow all the rules and still be impure – in here [heart].
I’ll leave it to you to wrestle with this at home: what do your lips reveal about your heart?
Isaiah is undone because God’s awesomeness made Isaiah’s exceedingly less-than-awesomeness seem foul.
The Seraphim’s lips reveal “Holy, Holy, Holy!”
Ours? Not so much!
Well, we certainly try, but I worry that too often the best we can manage is to pay lip service to that holiness.
And even as Isaiah realizes the depth of his fallen-short-ed-ness he notices that his eyes have seen God’s holiness, God’s presence! It’s a profound, transformative moment of awareness, and conviction, and awestruck wonder. And it changes him!
A Seraph brings a live hot coal (burning stone) from the altar – a gift from the table! – A gift of the fire of the Spirit of God direct from the Presence of God. The symbolism is a connection – a communion – with God that is as direct as a human could possibly imagine. That the coal is hot is also symbolic of its power and its holiness.
With that ultimate holy power the Seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth and says, (paraphrasing v.7),
“Behold! The power and presence of God has touched the deepest parts of you that make you think you’re not worthy of God’s love, and all that self-condemnation, and guilt, and whatnot is wiped out, it’s gone, it’s forgotten, it’s set aside, it’s not in play.”
And then, having had the scales fall from his eyes, having had the barrier smashed through, having had that which he thought was separating him from God removed, having been redeemed, renewed, reanimated, reawakened, and reoriented – our hero is finally able to hear God’s voice. Not just the Seraphim’s voices. God’s voice! He couldn’t hear it before.
And what does God say once we can hear God’s voice?
v.8 “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And how does a reborn heart respond when the very voice of God asks such a question?
Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!”
But wait a minute.
This is a fairly remarkable turn of events!
In the bible, time after time, when someone is called by God to do something the typical response is, “Oh no, God, you couldn’t mean me – I’m not worthy – send someone else!”
But not Isaiah!
Nope, Isaiah is more like that annoying kid in the classroom who knows the answer and is jamming their hand up in the air saying, “Oh! Oh! Pick me! Pick me! Send meeeeeeeeeeeee!”
And that’s where the lectionary reading stops. And it stops there because the next couple of verses are mind-bogglingly confusing.
See, this isn’t Isaiah’s call story – it’s Isaiah’s volunteer story!
Now let’s hear what this eager beaver volunteered to do!
Isaiah 6:9-10 (MSG) (a continuation from our scripture reading this morning…)
And God said, “Yes, go, and say to this people, ‘Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing.’
Harden the hearts of these people. Plug their ears and shut their eyes. That way, they will not see with their eyes, nor hear with their ears, nor understand with their hearts and turn to me for healing.”
Confused? So was Isaiah! He asked how long this would go on.
God said until the land was utterly devastated and there was nothing left but stumps.
But in those stumps would be a holy seed.
The first five chapters of Isaiah outline how the people of Israel have been paying lip service in their worship and prayers but have not followed through with any action and changes in their lives or ethics. That’s what lip service means – to say you’re committing to something but not following through on it.
(Again, I’ll leave it to you to ponder how you’re doing on that.)
So the first five chapters of Isaiah are about how God is very angry and disappointed with the people.
That makes Isaiah’s experience and encounter with God a really special thing. Isaiah was apparently judged not just to be giving lip service, comes to the realization and confession that he and the people have fallen short, and he’s forgiven in a very different kind of “lip service” as the Seraph touches his lips with the burning stone and renews him.
Then, God asks who will put their lips into service for sharing God’s message? God asks, “Instead of just giving lip service, who will give LIP SERVICE?”
And Isaiah leaps into the fray.
And God says, “Ok, go ahead, but you’re just going to beat your head against the wall until they’re really, really at absolute rock bottom and there’s nothing left but a holy seed.”
So we’re faced with a harsh reality.
What do we do if we aspire to more than lip service, want with all our hearts to give LIP SERVICE, but realize that we’ll probably end up frustrated because it seems like absolutely nobody’s listening?
What do we do?
Shrug our shoulders and call it a day?
No – we speak anyway. Just like Isaiah did.
And maybe we need to be kind of sneaky or creative like he was?
Instead of just sharing God’s love and getting cold water poured on him Isaiah used the old reverse psychology on them. I’m paraphrasing, but instead of saying ‘Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing’
– he said “I saw the Lord, and God told me to tell you, ‘Listen carefully, but do not understand. Watch closely, but learn nothing.’”
Tricky eh?! It’s like he was daring them to listen.
“God told me to tell you, ‘Listen carefully, but you won’t understand. Watch closely, but you’ll learn nothing.’ I guess God knows that you’re just not ready, or capable. Sad, really. Maybe when you mature some?”
And the people would go, “Oh yeah? Tell me I can’t listen or understand! I’ll show you! I’ll listen extra hard and watch and learn just to show you!”
Because that’s human nature!
Just tell us we can’t do something and we’re all over it!
In these days communication is a complicated thing. I think both God and Isaiah are absolutely correct.
People aren’t ready or in a mood to hear things straight up – they won’t hear there’s another path until the path they’re on is completely gone. We’re so convinced of our own wherewithal and self-sufficiency that usually there’s no telling us anything until we’ve utterly exhausted all our own resources and are left defeated.
But Isaiah is also right in that while straight ahead logic or persuasion may not work there are all sorts of ways to get attention and have people take note of your narrative.
I take two great lessons from this reading today. The first is this:
Even when you think you’re speaking to a brick wall. Speak.
Speak truth. Speak justice. Speak equality. Speak ethics. Speak faith. Speak peace. Speak a higher standard.
Speak in favour of things that respect that everything and everyone on this planet is sacred, and valuable, and worthy of love – and speak against anything that disrespects the sacredness of people and creation.
Speak even if it’s costly – even if it costs you money, or status, or privilege, or even so-called friends.
Speak with courage.
Speak with conviction.
Speak with passion.
Speak with love.
Speak even though you think you’re not being heard. Speak.
Use your lips in service of God’s kingdom of loving sacredness. Because you never know what might actually get through to someone. You never know if your little bit of speaking love might be the proverbial straw that tipped the balance for someone, might be the glimmer of light that actually catches their attention and imagination and opens them to wonder.
The other lesson I take from Isaiah today is this: be ingenious, creative, and even a bit sly or wily when you speak!
I mean, the scripture reading today started with a vision of a ginormous God with flying six-winged dragons and hot coals cleansing unclean lips as an inspiration for transformation.
What do we usually offer to persuade people?
“Jesus teaches us to be nice and respect people. You should be nice too!” (Yawn!!!)
Sure, it’s absolutely true. Being nice and being respectful are good things.
But talk like that is never going to capture anyone’s imagination.
We’re living in a world where people have unending entertainment and distraction in their phones.
Bake sales, turkey dinners, and a half-hearted “Jesus loves you” doesn’t stand a chance at making even a blip on the radar of most people.
If we want to speak – and speak we must! – then we’re going to have to learn how to do it in creative, ingenious, and even sly and wily ways, and we’d better learn in a hurry.
If people are plugged into the world and distracted through their devices then doesn’t it make sense that we ought to be marshalling our efforts and focusing our speech via those media?
In other words, if they’re plugged-in to their phones we need to get on their phones.
If they’re plugged-in to YouTube, and Facebook, and Snapchat, and Twitter, and whatever the next social media thing is that’s going to pop up next week, then that’s where we need to be speaking.
And not with our usual speech.
We need to tell it, but not tell it straight. Like Isaiah did we need to tell it slant!
Like the poem by Emily Dickinson:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Tell all the truth but tell it slant!
We need to get more creative, and wily as we seek out ways to communicate this love and Presence that has transformed and is transforming us.
We need to speak to people where they’re listening.
And when we do, we need to tell it slant.
Maybe even with dragons!
It’s time to leave our lip service behind, and engage our lips in some seriously ingenious service!
Speak my friends!
But tell it slant!