Sermon for May 30, 2021
Last week we heard of a mass-casualty shooting in San Jose, California. News sources say gun violence has increased during the pandemic. The shooter in this case hated his workplace and apparently targeted the nine men he murdered before killing himself. As investigators searched for motive, they also found derogatory racial comments on his computer. How do we respond to such hatred? The governor of California said, “There is something wrong with this country”; and then continued, “There is something wrong with us.”
The governor’s comment reminded me of what Isaiah the prophet said in the first reading this morning: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Reading a little background Isaiah served as a prophet for a long period of time, well over 40 years. He had dealings with four kings during that time span. We read that in the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah had a powerful vision. He saw the King of kings, the Lord Almighty. Well, at least Isaiah saw a portion of the Almighty. The vision’s location was the Temple in Jerusalem and just the hem of God’s robe filled the whole Temple. The very size would indicate great power. Strange creatures called seraphs were in attendance. These are not cute and cuddly angelic figures. They fly around with six wings, and the very name means fiery. On top of that the study Bible says they were snake-like in shape. This is not a comforting vision. The seraphs continually say “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The effect of such a vision is not to picture God as a kind, grandfatherly type with a long, white beard. This is a scene of God’s dangerous holiness, a holiness that cannot be fooled and from which sinfulness cannot be hid or overlooked. In the thought of the Old Testament sinful human beings could not see the Holy God and live. No wonder Isaiah thought this was a vision of doom not only for himself, but the entire nation.
A first impression we may have of Isaiah’s vision is to “fear the Lord.” We may not like that idea. We prefer a faith without fright. Actually the phrase “Fear the Lord” has more to do with faithfulness than fearfulness. The words “fear the Lord” call us to deepest respect before our holy God, and also gratitude for God’s goodness, our Creator. The text reminds us of the meaning of holiness. It means awesome and complete purity and so it was thought one could not approach God because of human sinfulness. So a faithful fear of the Lord is to humble oneself before God and confess like Isaiah, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips. And I live among a people of unclean lips.” It is important for our worship to begin with a personal and group confession of sin. It is a time to humble the self before God, and not take God’s grace for granted.
What are we to make of “unclean lips”? A basic meaning is one properly prepared to come and worship. This does not mean we follow a checklist before we come to church: are my clothes clean, have I brushed my teeth or cleaned my dentures—that is another meaning of ‘clean”. Here it is the condition of the heart and recall the famous prayer of the psalms, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” If you read the preceding chapters of Isaiah, the prophet saw the people faithfully keeping times of worship, honoring the festivals, and offering the ordered sacrifices as was the custom of the time. But the prophet saw a problem in society. The orphan and widow, those most vulnerable to oppression and poverty, were not only ignored but exploited. The prophet saw people more concerned about the latest fashions that about true faith. The prophet used the comparison of a vineyard. A wonderful vineyard was planted. When the grapes were harvested, they looked good. But the wine they made was horrible, you would want to spit the taste from your mouth. So we get the picture: religiously the people put up a good appearance, but it was all for show and sin abounded with society rife with unfairness, injustice, and cruelty. In the famous diagnosis of the prophet, “these people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” This reading from Isaiah calls us to a healthy fear of the Lord, not a frightful chaotic God, but our Creator who made us in God’s image. Are we honest and humble before God, does our worship and faith lead us to live by God’s will, or is our worship only for show or for one hour on Sunday which will not fool the almighty God. The words of the Confession cause us to think, “We question your ways, O God, when they differ from the ways of the world in which we live.”
In his vision one wonders what Isaiah thought when one of the strange creatures, the fiery seraphs, flew toward him with a live, hot coal taken from the altar fire. I was tempted to bring in the grill with hot charcoal briquettes so you could feel the heat. The seraph touched the mouth of Isaiah-in the vision-with a red hot coal. My first thought was “OW!!” But instead of burns Isaiah was blessed, “Now that this has touched your lips, you guilt has departed and your sin blotted out.” From the altar came the forgiving, cleansing power of God. Guilt, the consequence of sin has departed. And there would be no record of sin, it has been forgiven, deleted from the Almighty’s computer, and remembered no more. We see here another meaning of God’s holiness: God’s glory is not with retribution but with reconciliation.
Every Sunday as we worship God continues to come to us, not with burning coals, but with the burning love of Jesus. The baptismal font ever reminds us of the love of God through adoption, adoption as sons and daughters of God. Instead of scary seraphs flying around, the sacred Spirit, the Holy Spirit comes to remind us to call God not “fearful One”, but Abba, the child’s term for “Father.” The Holy Spirit is bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God, joint heirs with Jesus, called to suffer with him, that is to put away the desire to serve ourselves, but to serve and follow Jesus. The Gospel reading today contained the familiar John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that he gave us Jesus, so that everyone who believes and trusts in him will not perish in boredom or an unfulfilled life, but will enjoy eternal life, life with God where one is affirmed and loved beyond measure. If we ever succumb to the temptation that we are without worth the Holy Spirit brings us to the cross. There we see Jesus, who came down from heaven not to condemn the world but that you and me, and the world, be saved through him.
Karl Barth was a Swiss Bible Scholar who wrote many books. One time someone asked him for his opinion as to the greatest word in the Bible: what would you guess, love, peace, grace, faith? He said none of those. He gave a strange sounding answer, saying-for him-the greatest word is ‘uper’. You might think “WHAT??” Well, ‘uper’ is a Greek preposition that means “in behalf of’ or “instead of”. This little preposition gives us an awesome proposition of grace: because Jesus was lifted up on the cross in behalf of our salvation, because Jesus took on the powers of sin and death and devil instead of us, we have a vision of our own. We have a vision of God revealing the holiness of his glory: to be present among us in forgiveness, mercy, and love. We are not lost in our sins, but rescued by Jesus, who loves us and gave up his life for us. No longer are we condemned to say “Woe is me” because of our uncleanness, our sin, but now the Holy Spirit testifies so we are not terrified, but worship God in triumph, we are beloved children of God. Many of you know the name of Mickey Mantle, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. After his baseball career, Mickey’s life was beset by trouble including alcoholism that necessitated a liver transplant. But Mickey’s health was severely compromised. When his health was failing, a teammate of the glory New York Yankee years, Bobby Richardson would visit. Richardson was devout Christian and shared his faith and sought to lead Mickey to faith in Jesus Christ. When death was getting closer he was asked if he was afraid. He said, “I am not afraid, for I have the best medicine now, John 3:16.” He trusted Jesus to never forsake him, only to forgive him, and lead him to his heavenly home.
At the end of the reading from Isaiah, he heard the voice of God asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Now we heard Isaiah say, “Here am I; send me!” Isaiah volunteered, volunteered for what? He volunteered to go among a people of unclean lips to share the Word of God, not a message of woe, but a word of grace, life-changing forgiveness, forgiveness to facilitate change, to live a life devoted to God’s will of justice, love, and mercy.
The governor of California, in response to terrible violence wondered “What is wrong with this country and what is wrong with us?” Is that just a rhetorical question and as a church we shake our heads confused and fearful? Jesus has come among us today to bless us with his peace, and to touch our lips with his body and blood, so to create within us new and clean hearts. May we individually, and together as a church, stand up and live the way of God and facilitate healing. As Isaiah found out, if you read in later chapters, and we have found out, it will not be easy. But still we can say to God, “Here am I! Send me!” because we have God’s promise of grace and help, as the Psalm today prayed, “O Lord, give strength to your people, give them, O Lord, the blessings of peace.”