July 22, 2018 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
Isaiah 6:1-8 (CEB)
“In the year of King Uzziah’s death…” That little segment of the opening sentence of our reading is easy to overlook. In moments we are caught up, swept away, in Isaiah’s wild vision. There is a throne, and the hem of God’s robe filling the space. There are these winged creatures flying about, and most translations of the passage don’t want to completely translate the word ‘seraphim’ which is something like winged snakes! So these winged snakes (with feet, maybe dragons?) are flying about covering their faces and their feet and crying out ‘holy, holy, holy.’ The place is shaking. It is filled with smoke. A burning coal is placed on Isaiah’s lips. It is easy to breeze past that first little segment about some king we don’t know dying. It’s sad someone died…but did you see the flying snakes?! However, this passage intentionally starts with the opening line about King Uzziah’s death. It is not incidental. Before Isaiah experiences this call—or this renewing of his call with a new direction—we need to know what has precipitated this call, and that is King Uzziah’s death and the narrative that goes with it. Before the throne room and the shaking ground and the burning coal and the flying snakes, there is the story of King Uzziah.
Uzziah is a ‘son of David.’ He is of the house and lineage of beloved King David, the 11th generation. Uzziah took to the throne at the ripe old age of 16 years and reigned for 52 years. For many in Judah, he is the only king they have ever known. He co-reigned with his father at the beginning and with his son at the end, a good way to transition leadership. King Uzziah was a good king. His reign brought stability to the land. Both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) speak of Uzziah. They say, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.” This is high praise for a king in scripture! High praise. But then, it began to fall apart toward the end. Corruption began to rise up in the leadership and the land. The king overstepped his authority and thought he could take on the role of the priest, offering incense in the holy of holies. Uzziah was ‘struck ill.’ Chapters one through five in the Book of Isaiah detail the rising problems in Judah. The people have forgotten and forsaken God. Their worship has become empty, going through the motions with no connection to the heart and life. Corruption is seeping into the nation’s leadership, including the king. Unchecked greed is creating greater and greater injustice. The empire of Assyria looms on the border, threatening not only with larger armies, but psychological warfare. People are afraid. And then, King Uzziah died and the last visible sign of stability died with him.
In the very year that King Uzziah dies, Isaiah sees the Lord. This wild vision of Isaiah says some very powerful things about God. It conveys some purposeful emotions and feelings regarding God in the midst of national turmoil. It reminds me of the praise song from the late 80s and early 90s that the Church sang everywhere…and I mean everywhere; “Our God is an Awesome God.”
Our God is an awesome God.
who reigns from heaven above,
with wisdom, power and love.
Our God is an awesome God.
This vision proclaims that God is the true ruler of all—heaven and earth. Though Jerusalem’s throne seems precarious, God sits securely on the throne of the universe. God is so ‘big’ that Isaiah can only perceive the hem of God’s robe. God is bigger than Judah’s kings, bigger than the people’s faithlessness, bigger than corruption and greed. God is bigger than Assyria. The world is in turmoil but God is steadfast. God leads the heavenly forces and Assyria’s armies can’t hold a candle to them. Our God is awesome! Did you see the flying snakes?
In the face of such a gift, such an overwhelming assurance of God’s presence and majesty and power and holiness, Isaiah’s response is absolutely appropriate. It is similar to our response when someone offers us a big compliment or heaps praises upon us in front of other people. We become uncomfortable, embarrassed…feeling unworthy. Isaiah is feeling this but 1000-fold more. “God, I am not worthy of this gift, this experience! I have said and done things I’m not proud of. I have tons of problems, lots of weaknesses. And my people…well, they aren’t exactly stellar. There are so many people who are stronger, more holy, and more gifted…just better suited to stand in your presence.”
God’s response is to burn it all away, to burn away the shame and the pain and the sense of unworthiness. God burns away all that makes Isaiah believe he shouldn’t stand before God, burns away all that has tainted Isaiah’s sense of goodness, his sense of Tov. Isaiah is made in God’s holy image. Like all people, all creation, Isaiah carries God’s goodness within himself. He is so Tov. God burns away Isaiah’s ‘unclean-ness’ for the love of Isaiah and for the love of the people. The problems of the nation and of the people must be addressed. Someone must speak God’s word into the empty worship of the people. Someone must speak God’s word into the corruption and greed. Someone must stand before the fear of the Assyrians, no matter what may happen with the Assyrians, and proclaim, “our God is awesome!”
If God had asked God’s question earlier in this vision—“who will go”—Isaiah probably would have stayed silent. He would have started to examine his feet and shift uncomfortably, waiting for someone else to answer. But God burned away all that stood in the way and then asked “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, with lips still stinging, palms sweaty, and his heart in his throat, raises his hand and responds, “I’m here. Send me.”
It is critically important to reclaim that opening segment, to put Isaiah’s bizarre vision in context. Only then can we see that Uzziah’s story happens all the time! Corruption sneaks into life all the time! God gets forgotten and worship becomes empty all the time. Greed causes injustice and fear seeks to reign supreme all the time! Who hasn’t experienced those moments when stability seems to fall away and life becomes precarious? Uzziah’s story happens all the time and we are Isaiah!
We are here in God’s house…which is all of creation! God’s presence fills everything if we open ourselves to experience it. We can come into the throne room of God by opening ourselves to that almighty and holy presence. But…God is going to seek to send us on God’s behalf, even though we may feel unready, unprepared and unworthy. God will seek to send us even though we are sure God should send somebody else. God needs you! God needs me! God needs us!!! Here, right now, the fire of the Spirt moves and commissions. She seeks to burn away all that would get in the way, all those doubts and fears. She seeks to burn away all that taints our sense of goodness and love, all that gets in the way of sharing that goodness and love with others and with the world. Day by day, week by week, the Spirit works in us and through us to transform the world into God’s glorious kingdom.
In this year where, as every year, King Uzziah’s story plays out in and around us, we encounter our God, holy and majestic and powerful and Awesome! God asks us: “Whom shall I send? Who will go?”