Sunday’s sermon: A Promise in Action

Text used – Isaiah 6:1-8

  • I want to share a picture with you this morning. It was taken by Romain Bréget (found on Wikimedia).[1] If you’re joining us via Facebook Live this morning, I posted this picture right before church, so it should be on our page.

  • Isn’t this a beautiful spot? A beautiful, secluded, natural spot? Well … sort of natural. You see, this is a picture of something called a holloway or a sunken lane. While it looks like a natural little ravine, this is actually an ancient road of sorts.
    • Not the kind of paved road we’re used to today or even the paved roads that the Romans erected centuries ago
    • More like a local path that has been worn down and worn down and worn down by centuries worth of feet – human and animal alike
      • Holloway in this picture = from the site of a WWII battle in La Meauffe, France
    • Article from website Atlas Obscura: “Appearing like trenches dragged into the earth, sunken lanes, also called hollow-ways or holloways, are centuries-old thoroughfares worn down by the traffic of time. They’re one of the few examples of human-made infrastructure still serving its original purpose, although many who walk through holloways don’t realize they’re retracing ancient steps. … You’re most likely to discover a holloway where the ground and the stone below are soft, such as places rich in sandstone or chalk. No one ever engineered a holloway — erosion by human feet, and horses or cattle driven alongside, combined with water then flowing through the embankments like a gully, molded the land into a tunneled road. It’s hard to date them, but most are thought to go back to Roman times and the Iron Age, although in the Middle East some are believed to stretch back to ancient Mesopotamia. They even have their own ecology, such as the spreading bellflowers that enjoy the disturbed earth.”[2]
    • I find holloways fascinating things because they have literally been born out of human habit – century upon century of people going the same way, literally walking in the footsteps of those who came before them. They’re not marked and named roads. They’re not going to appear on any map (not any conventional map, anyway). And they certain don’t change direction. They may get deeper, but the wandering ways of these sunken roads were set centuries ago. They are long past the point of change.
      • This morning: contrast the unchanging nature of holloways with the ever-changing, ever-unexpected nature of God’s call in our lives
  • Scripture reading this morning = perfect example of the emphatic and unexpected way that God calls us to action → This is the story of Isaiah’s call to be God’s prophet in a troubled time.
    • Background for Isaiah
      • Isaiah the BOOK
        • One of the major prophets (along with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and the book of Lamentations in the Bible)
        • Almost certainly the work of a few different editors à distinct linguistic, stylistic, and thematic differences in 3 different sections of Is (1-39, 40-55, 56-66)
        • Certain historical indicators that seem to point to those different sections being written down in different centuries → But remember, much like many other languages, Hebrew was an oral language long before it was written down. Important stories and elements of the Hebrew culture and faith were passed down from one generation to the next through stories, poems, songs, and so on. When we keep that in mind, it makes more sense that the various parts of Isaiah were eventually recorded by different people.
          • Not too unlike the 4 different accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings that we find in the 4 gospels
      • Isaiah the PERSON = prophet in Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah
        • Time of prophecy spanned the reign of a number of kings → started at the end of the reign of King Uzziah (as per our text this morning) and went through the reign of King Hezekiah
          • Starts somewhere in the middle of the 8th BCE
        • Time of prophecy also covered the Babylonian exile → Jerusalem conquered by Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar who razed the city, then took all the best and brightest Hebrew politicians, scholars, artists, craftsmen, entertainers, teachers, priests, and so on and brought them back to live in Babylon for an entire generation → Isaiah was part of that group that was taken into exile.
    • But before all of that happened, we begin Isaiah story with his call from God – text: In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. They shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!” The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting and the house was filled with smoke.[3] → Clearly, God wanted to get Isaiah’s attention! This is some next-level call action here! Being in ministry, I have the privilege of hearing a lot of different people’s call stories.
      • Stories of calls to ministry
      • Stories of calls to other professions
      • Stories of calls to particular experiences (mission work, international placements, volunteer experiences, etc.)
      • And every single call story I’ve ever heard has been beautiful and different and powerful in its own way. To be frank, I don’t think any story of God reaching down into the heart and life of an individual and saying, “My beloved child, I have work for you to do” could be anything but powerful and eye-opening. God is so much bigger, so much greater, so much more than we are, that any brush with the Holy like that feels wild and frenetic and teeming with possibility and the unexpected. I will admit, though, that I’ve never heard a story quite as over-the-top as Isaiah’s!
    • Isaiah’s response to God’s call feels appropriately overwhelmed – text: I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”[4] → two interesting little bits to note here
      • First: Isaiah’s immediate reaction to God’s call = repentance → Isaiah doesn’t even ask for forgiveness or mercy from God. He simply names his flaws, laying bare the least pleasing parts of himself (according to him, anyway) before God.
    • Second: just how tied all of this is to speaking and silence
      • Isaiah’s confession = “I am a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips.” → Heb. “lips” could also be “speech/language”
      • Some of the first words out of Isaiah’s mouth = “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” → Heb. “ruined” could also be “silenced”
      • I find this fascinating, especially as we live in this culture where it feels like words become cheaper and cheaper every day. If anyone lives in among a people with unclean lips, it is us. How easy it is to shoot off an angry email or write a nasty, intentionally argumentative comment on Facebook or some other online forum. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to parrot the soundbyte that we heard on last night’s 2-minute news story without investigating the context or actual facts behind that soundbyte. How easy … and how unclean. How easy it is to take the latest bit of gossip that we heard and pass it on quickly through a text blast or Facebook or even a quick phone call without considering the person at the center of that gossip. How easy … and how unclean. Truly, Isaiah’s dilemma has not changed much in more than two millennia, has it?
    • But as the saying goes, those whom God calls, God also equips, and in keeping with the rest of this odd and fantastical call story, God equips Isaiah in a spectacular fashion. – text: Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.” → When I was growing up, there was a row of stained glass windows in my church that depicted various scenes from Scripture: the birth of Jesus was one. So were the crucifixion and the resurrection. Moses and the Ten Commandments was another. And so was this scene – this strange, other worldly scene with Isaiah on his knees and the many-winged angels around him with one of them holding a coal to his lips.
      • Fascinating scene to see depicted in stained glass
      • Fascinating scene to imagine
      • Fire has long been used as a tool for refining things … for good and for ill. Fire refines precious metals to their purest, most precious and costly forms. Fire was also used throughout the Inquisition as a way to try to “refine” the heretical Protestantism out of people to try to get them to return to the Catholic Church, the “true” church.
        • Fire of the burning bush refined Moses’ call[5]
        • God was present in a pillar of fire as the people of Israel fled Egypt[6]
        • God was proved in the fire that came down from heaven when Elijah challenged Jezebel’s 400 prophets of Ba’al[7]
        • Jesus spoke of God’s judgment in terms of fire burning away the chaff and leaving the refined wheat[8]
        • So while God’s use of fire in Isaiah’s vision here certainly has the weight of precedence behind it, it is no less shocking … no less attention-grabbing.
    • Which is exactly what it’s supposed to be because following the burning coal touching Isaiah’s lips, we get to The Point of this story – God calling Isaiah. – text: Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” I said, “I’m here; send me.”[9] → And there it is: the crux of the matter, the moral of the story, the whole point in four simple words. “I’m here; send me.” Not surprisingly, this is a popular verse among pastors. Many have it hanging on the walls in their office or their homes in some form – as a sign, as artwork, as an undeniable and constant reminder. Many others actually have this phrase tattooed on their bodies (some in English, some in Hebrew) as an even more permanent reminder and commitment to that call. “I’m here; send me.” You see, friends, we’ve been talking about God’s promises as we’ve been winding our way through God’s Grand Story of Faith with the Narrative Lectionary this year, and this single verse contains everything that we’ve already talked about.
      • First half of the verse speaks to God’s promise to the people that God will, indeed, remain their God → God is seeking someone to go out among the people and remind them who they are and whose they are. God is seeking someone to speak God’s own words of chastisement and judgment for the actions that have drawn the people away from God, but behind that reproach is love. God isn’t looking for someone to call the people out just because God wants to give them the ultimate public shaming. God is looking for someone to call the people back to God because God loves them. God longs to be in that holy and sacred relationship with the people once more – that relationship promised and renewed and promised and renewed time and time again throughout Israel’s history. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us? Who will help the people remember me? Who will help the people find their way back to be? They are my people, and I yearn to be their God again.”
      • Second half speaks to the relational nature of that promise → Throughout Scripture, God works with people and through people. God doesn’t force people to choose God. God doesn’t force people to worship. God doesn’t force people to pray. God continues to work with these crazy, frustrating, broken human beings that God created. It is God opening the way for people to continue in this relationship that God promised to us. And it is one powerful, moving example of one of those crazy, frustrating, broken human beings saying, “Yes.”
  • Modern-day calls take on any number of variations and forms … but just because it doesn’t look dramatic and charismatic like Isaiah’s call doesn’t mean God’s call in your life is any less real, any less potent, any less packed with potential and unexpected possibilities. God calls us first to faith, but as part of that faith, God also calls us to action. Over and over again. In big ways and small ways. In easy tasks and difficult tasks. With people we love and with people we find it difficult to love. God is calling you to action. “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” “I’m here; send me.” Amen.

[1] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_Meauffe_-_Chemin_creux_1.JPG.

[2] Allison Meier. “Holloways: Roads Tunneled into the Earth by Time” from Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/holloways-roads-tunneled-into-the-earth-by-time?fbclid=IwAR3at6jqjT-dPVWZzDZT2cB0igdovqnFzPJz1h8IVIWDWzny7ywGSp6sKz0. Posted Sept. 25, 2014, accessed Nov. 15, 2020.

[3] Is 6:1-4.

[4] Is 6:5.

[5] Ex 3:1-12.

[6] Ex 13:17-22.

[7] 1 Kgs 18.

[8] Mt 13:24-30.

[9] Is 6:8.