Sermon Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
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The following is the original manuscript for the sermon.
Last week, my family and I were on vacation on St. Simons Island. You might expect me, a pastor, to say this, but I really like going to church on vacation. Do you? Well, for me it’s a chance to sit in worship and not have to do anything, except worship, which is a nice change. But I’m afraid I like going to church on vacation more than my kids. They viewed going to church as an unwelcome encroachment on their fun time.
On Sunday my kids had a specific itinerary, which they called a “fun-genda.” They told us that the fun-genda for the day didn’t start until 10:45, when the church service was over. Not quite sure how I feel about that: their dad’s life’s work interrupts their fun-genda!
But I know how they feel. I’ve been there. Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you’re there now.
If so, I hope today’s scripture challenges us because notice that Isaiah’s profound vision of God and his angels takes place in the context of worship at the temple. Maybe Isaiah had been to the temple hundreds of times before; maybe he was a priest who served in the temple and this was, for him, another day “at the office”; maybe this worship service began like any other—just a part of his routine, and he wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary; maybe he was just checking off items on his particular order of worship.
And then, out of nowhere, something profound and profoundly unexpected happens!
I’ve heard pastors and others who lead in worship say that every Sunday they want something to happen that’s not listed in the bulletin—something that they can’t plan or script or control. In other words, they want the Holy Spirit to do something unplanned, unexpected, unrehearsed. I like that! Later on today, I want you to ask someone who went to church, “Did anything happen during worship that wasn’t in the order of worship? What was it? What did God do today that you didn’t expect or count on?” This is why, by the way, I think we should go to church even when we don’t feel like it—or feel prepared to go. Because we never know what God’s going to do for us once we get there.
No… What happened to Isaiah in today’s scripture was definitely not in the order of worship. What God did for Isaiah was to lift the veil separating our world of time and space from eternity, enabling the prophet to catch a glimpse of what is happening on the other side of the veil. Through this vision, Isaiah was reminded in a profound way of an important truth: In the same year that a beloved, faithful, and long-reigning king died—and suddenly Israel’s future and the future of God’s people were in jeopardy—Isaiah was able to see things as they really are: no matter what else was happening in this politically turbulent, violent, and uncertain world, God was still on the throne! God still reigned. God was still in control. Human kings and kingdoms, emperors and empires, nations and governments, wars, weapons of mass destruction, and acts of terrorism cannot threaten our King who sits on the throne.
What Isaiah gained through this worship experience was a much needed sense of perspective. And this sheds light on why we must worship. Left to our own devices, we human beings are not good at maintaining a proper perspective. Think of our ancestors who for millennia believed that the sun revolved around the earth. It seemed like the most obvious truth in the world. So much so that even today we still use the words “sunrise” and “sunset,” even though of course the sun is going anywhere; it’s the earth that’s moving. Through this worship experience, it’s as if Isaiah needed to be reminded that we orbit the sun; the sun doesn’t orbit us. We are not the center of the universe: God is at the center!
Worship is about reminding ourselves that God is at the center! Think about it: At any one time, there are so many things in our lives competing for and demanding our attention. Not necessarily bad things—but good and necessary things. The demands of work and school, family and friends. Things we want to do and things we have to do. Things we’re worried about. Things that stress us out. And if we’re not careful, we can turn these things into idols; we can let things that are less than God compete for an allegiance that belongs to God alone.
Imagine that a throne sits at the center of your life. Who or what is currently seated on it? Who or what is currently calling the shots in your life, dictating the choices you make? Who or what is controlling you or manipulating you? True worship has a way of placing God back on that throne. I mean, God is already on the throne anyway, but as with the earth moving around the sun, we can easily forget.
In addition to simply vacationing last week, on Monday through Thursday we had Georgia Pastors’ School at a Methodist retreat center called Epworth-by-the-Sea. Larisa and I were both there. We had class in the morning and worship services in the evening after dinner. And it was great! Worship was the best part! If only life could be like that! Church and worship were in easy walking distance—and there was nothing else that we had to do; nowhere else we had to go; nothing else expected of us. To feel so centered… to be so connected to our Source… Don’t you want that? I do. I need it! We all need it!
My challenge as someone who works in the “church business” for a living is to remember that church isn’t really a business at all—even though it has the outward appearance of business a lot of times—with its politics, budgets, deadlines, committees, phone calls, emails, and hassles of various kinds. It’s good for God to remind me of what’s behind the veil from time to time.
After all, on one level, church is just a bunch of us fallible and sinful human beings doing the best we can but still making mistakes, still failing to love like Jesus, still fighting with each other and failing to get along, still sinning… Church seems like a very human institution. Our eyes can easily get used to only seeing the part of church that’s in front of the veil, in front of the curtain. And if that happens, we can get disillusioned.
It apparently happened recently to Interview With a Vampire author Anne Rice, who several years ago experienced a re-conversion to the Christian faith of her childhood and has been outspoken in her love for and dedication to Jesus. She announced on Facebook last week, however, that she was abandoning Christianity; her faith in Jesus remained undiminished; it’s church and her fellow Christians that she’s giving up on.
Hey, I’m sympathetic; I get it, believe me. Jesus is great… We followers of Jesus are a mess. Church can sometimes be a disaster, let’s face it. The temptation to pick up your marbles and go home or go find a place where we imagine human sin isn’t such a big problem… I get it. A part of me is very sympathetic with Anne Rice. Except… As much as I may be disappointed by the Church and Christians, I also know that I’m part of the problem! Like Isaiah, I can say, “I’m a man of unclean lips who comes from a people of unclean lips!” If I give up on church, I may as well give up on myself! These Christians… this Church. This is me—a sinner! These people are my people—my fellow sinners. Moreover, if I gave up on church I would be giving on God, because I would be giving up on God’s ability to change me.
Because another reason we gather together in worship is so that God can change us. Worship enables us to understand that we are sinners who need to change. That’s true for Isaiah. When God lifts the veil and enables Isaiah to see God in a way that we humans can’t normally see him, the first thing Isaiah does is fall down in fear and beg for forgiveness—because he recognizes that he falls short of God’s glory. We all do.
I heard a child point out one time to Mike Cook, a native Englishman and member of our church, that he has a funny accent. Mike wisely said, “I don’t have an accent. You have an accent!” We only become aware that we have an accent when we’re surrounded by people who have a different accent. Similarly, we become most aware of our own sin and our need to change when we are in the presence of the One who is holy—and wholly unlike us.
It is only through sheer grace that any of us are able to encounter God and live to tell the tale!God is so loving—despite the fact that we are thoroughly sinful. “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And that proves God’s love for us.” In fact, God loves us sinners so much that God is unwilling to leave us that way. God forgives our sin, but God does not tolerate our sin. When we come into God’s presence in worship we must come prepared to change.
I wish that this change happened all at once—and that the moment we first taste salvation we could be instantly changed, and be perfect. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s process. It’s a journey—one that we’re all on. But worshiping God enables us to change.
Well, this sermon series is supposed to be about answering God’s call, and here I am, looking at scripture related to this “call” of Isaiah, and I haven’t even talked about his call. I’ve only talked about worship. But that’s not quite right: I want us to see the important connection between worship and calling.
It is through this experience of worship that God prepares Isaiah to answer the call. God asks, “Whom shall I send?” And notice that without even knowing where God wants to send him, he responds, “Here am I; send me!” May we leave worship every Sunday—every Sunday, this Sunday—prepared to say just that: Here am I; send me! And before we go to work tomorrow, we need to pray a prayer and say, “Here am I; send me!” And some of us will be starting school tomorrow and we need to say, “Here am I; send me!” And some of us will be job-hunting tomorrow, and we say, “Here am I; send me!” And some of us will be going through the routine of caring for children and family, and we need to say, “Here am I; send me!” Say that to God right now: “Here am I; send me!”