February 13, 2022 ~ Rev. Beckie Sweet
Reveal yourself, Gracious God, within this time of worship.
Speak to us through songs we sing, prayers we speak, words we hear.
Reveal yourself, Gracious God, within your family here.
In our speaking and listening, tears and laughter, love that’s shared.
Reveal yourself, Gracious God, within these coming days.
In places we live, the lives we live, in the people we meet. Amen.
Barbara Dunlop-Berg, a UM Communicator, penned an article last week titled, “Stop yelling! I still can’t hear you!” She opens the article with a story. “Last evening, I walked into a restaurant to order takeout. I had so much trouble understanding the properly masked employee that she finally interpreted by pointing to the menu.
“A few minutes later, my husband stopped by to pick up the order. He explained that although I had not left my name, I had mentioned my difficulty ordering because I could not hear. The employees knew exactly which order was ours.”
Many of us suffer from hearing loss as our age advances, or as we have been exposed to damaging noise in a variety of settings. I don’t know about you, but I typically turn the volume down on the television when watching sporting events, as the crowd noise makes it difficult to hear announcers, and even to think inside my own head. I anticipate decreasing the volume for hours as the Super Bowl plays out this evening!
The ability to hear is precious to us in every setting. But sometimes we have to make adjustments in our lives in order to focus on the important things around us. It wasn’t all that long ago that Verizon aired a whole series of commercials with the theme, “Can you hear me now?” We heard a great deal about the cell phone carrier claiming to have the best coverage, fewest dropped calls, and of course, providing the technology for hearing every caller.
But, we have to admit that in situations where the volume is good and the background noise low, we don’t always focus on hearing, or really listening, even when it is our precious God calling us.
Isaiah was in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died—about eight centuries before Christ. King Uzziah’s death was a part of a transition from decades of independence, peace, and prosperity to one of domination by the Assyrians. In the midst of this transition, while in the temple, Isaiah had an awesome experience of the Holy. There is no other way to describe it. The room was filled with smoke, and the foundations shook. There were fiery, winged creatures in attendance, worshiping the Almighty. It was overwhelming—the holiness, the divinity, the awesomeness of God.
I read this Scripture first as a kind of judgment on us. How many of us come to church on a Sunday morning expecting the unexpected? How many of us really say, “Well, I’m entering the house of God. Anything can happen”? “I may be seeing the same people that I usually see here, but God may speak to me today!” We have things planned out, ordered, and rehearsed; and there is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes the holy breaks in, and all of a sudden we are dealing not with our plans, programs or priorities, but with the One who has created all that is.
“I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty,” Isaiah said (vs. 1). Imagine you are sitting at home eating lunch on a Sunday afternoon, and as you swallow the pasta salad, one of your children says to you, “I saw God this morning on a throne, high and lifted up. And there were these giant creatures, and smoke filled the room.” Maybe there is a bit of silence. Maybe you are thinking, If this keeps up, I’m going to have to call for professional help!
Of course, this indicates our need for control, and the good news—or the bad news, depending on our perspective—is that we worship a God who cannot be controlled. And so, an experience of God always comes as a surprise to us in the everyday stuff of life—even in the messiness of life.
God interrupts; God intervenes. And at this point everything stops. In a sense, coming into this sanctuary is one of the ways we stop to listen for God’s voice, God’s call. Taking a day (or even an hour or so) for Sabbath and worship is one of the ways we stop to listen for God. Sometimes we do stop in an intentional way. Sometimes we are stopped, because we have crossed some boundary—driving too fast, doing too much work, feeling too much stress, eating too many Buffalo wings and pizza during the big game. What comes next?
Isaiah was in the temple. He stopped. And even there, God caught him by surprise. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (vs. 3). God’s glory is there as kids play on a basketball court, or as people sit in a Memory Care Unit, or as a choir sings. Our response, of course, is to be more aware, and that can happen only if we are willing to stop and pay attention.
Once Isaiah was aware of God’s interrupting intervention, he looked around and within. Isaiah was a religious person. He was in the temple, but he knew something was wrong. He said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5). One way of knowing we are in the presence of God is the strong connection between God’s holiness and our humanity—God’s strength and our weakness. God is holy, but I am a sinner. The closer we get to God, the more we are aware that we have fallen short, that we have missed the mark.
I was in my twenties and serving two churches in a rural area. A middle-aged couple was a part of one of those churches. They seemed to have it all together: good jobs, a beautiful home, the respect of others, a couple of young adult children who lived in larger towns. The wife called me one afternoon and said, “Beckie, you need to help us do something…We need to go meet with our son. He is in trouble.” Their son lived a couple of hours away. We were going to drive there, spend some time with him, and drive back. This wasn’t on my calendar for that day. But before I could say anything, she continued, “We’ll be right over to pick you up.”
Their son had an excellent position with a large company, but as the story unfolded, it seems that he had been caught stealing. The surveillance camera recorded the whole incident. And so, we were going to meet their son at his apartment, and they were going to bring him home. And then we would figure out what to do next.
Looking back, I am so grateful that they included me in all of this, and that they didn’t give me the opportunity to refuse. It is so easy for us to be pretty superficial with each other, as if everything is okay. But of course, sometimes it is not. That’s what confession teaches us: I’m not OK, and you’re not OK; but God will make us OK.
We knocked on the door of his apartment, and he answered. He was suddenly in the presence of the two people who love him most in this world, and yet he had done something for which he felt deep shame and guilt. The three of them melted into an embrace with tears and loud groans. Their pain and his pain had become one. “I am a human of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5). It helps us to say these words, because they are an invitation to God, to this Holy One who is so unlike us and yet who embraces us in our weakness. The winged creature takes a piece of coal heated on the fire of the altar, places it on the mouth of the prophet, and says, “Your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out” (Isaiah 6:7).
That is the heart of the scriptures, and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven. The prophet has an intense experience of God. The foundations of his life are shaken. Some of us know what that feels like, too. Two parents and their adult son knew what that was like that afternoon many years ago. There was confession and forgiveness. I remember that as we joined hands and said a prayer, it truly felt like a death had taken place.
When we are in the presence of God, when we confess our sin, it is like the death of an old life. When we look at ourselves, each of us could point to areas of our life that need to die: anger, prejudice; grudges, resentment, destructive behaviors. We look at our lives and confess our sins. We open our eyes, and we see clearly the One who takes away our guilt and forgives our sin.
Then we must listen. Isaiah, in the temple has confessed, and has been forgiven, and then he listens. “I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’” (vs. 8). This is the call of God. If we listen, tradition tells us, God will speak. And there is a call for each of us. God spoke to Isaiah in the temple. Jesus enlists the disciples and invites them to fish for people. These are reminders that God calls us to engage with the community on God’s behalf.
I distinctly remember one moment in that long and awkward afternoon when I went with my parishioners to visit their son who had been caught in the act of stealing. We had finished saying a short prayer, and just stood in silence. There was not a lot to say. Everyone was exhausted, and then the mother placed her hands on the face of her son and said to him, “We love you. Don’t ever forget that. We are your family.” She was calling her son into a deeper experience of Christian community.
Maybe God is calling you into a deeper experience of Christian community. Are you listening? Maybe God is calling you to share your life with a group in this church, even if it is one you start yourself. Maybe God is calling you to mentor another pilgrim on a journey of faith.
That mother was saying to her son, “You cannot do this alone; you were never intended to do this alone.” Maybe you have been struggling with something. Maybe a voice within is speaking to you this morning, saying, “You cannot do this alone; you were never intended to do this alone. Will you let me do this with you? Because I love you!”
That afternoon I was in the presence of the Holy. God had interrupted all of our lives. Our plans, our programs, our priorities were put aside. God had burst in unannounced. There was confession and forgiveness. It was messy. And there was a call to a new life.
God is beckoning, “Can you hear me now?” We need someone in our lives who will get our attention and say to us on God’s behalf, “I love you. Don’t ever forget that. We are your family in the love of Christ.” Perhaps we are the ones to say to others, “I love you. Don’t ever forget that. We are your family in the love of Christ.”
I heard someone say recently that God does not demand our expert capability when calling us to some form of ministry. God wants our availability, and then God will make us capable. God wants us to be like the child that is eager to volunteer for anything, anywhere, any time. And then God will lay out the plan and give us the gifts to accomplish the ministry. God is asking, “Can you hear me now?” How will you respond? Amen.
UMNews.org February 4, 2022.
John Ackerman, “Stop, Look and Listen: A Way To Come and See,” Weavings, January/February, 2004.
Ted Wardlaw, “News From Our Forebears: The Calling Voice,” Journal For Preachers, Lent, 2003.