"Vocations, Responding to God's Call"
“VOCATION: Responding to God’s Call”
(a sermon based on Isaiah 6:1-12)
Rev. Dr. Paul A. Lance, Minister
First Congregational United Church of Christ
201 South Second Ave., Alpena, Michigan 49707
August 30, 2020
The Bible story that Jay Kettler read for us is the most vivid, detailed, and dramatic account given in the Bible of the “calling” of a prophet -- the “making” of a prophet. It shows us the background motivation for Isaiah’s subsequent life of service to Israel’s God.
I would think the only more famous (or more familiar) story of a “call” from God would be Moses’ encounter with the Burning Bush that Charlton Heston made famous in the movie “The Ten Commandments”.
And, of course, the Apostle Paul tells of his own dramatic (life-changing) call by Jesus’ own voice direct from heaven when he was on the Road to Damascus. You may recall that Paul was blinded by light and heard the words “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” We’ll get into that story of Saul’s conversion two weeks from now.
But let me tell you right up front that in 37 years of ordained ministry, such a dramatic visual or verbal encounter with God has never happened to me! Not even at a youth rally. Not even during a hyped-up, happy-peppy community worship service with Pentecostal preaching and an amplified Praise Band leading the singing. Never.
Now, I certainly feel that I was “called by God” to do the work I’ve done for my lifetime – I felt called by God to be a minister ever since I was at Thunder Bay Junior High right here in Alpena. But a dramatic vision like Isaiah, or Moses, or Saint Paul had? No, never.
And, frankly, I don’t know what a congregation would DO if God suddenly appeared in our midst as happened to Isaiah in the Jerusalem Temple.
Yes, Isaiah’s vision (his dramatic experience with God) takes place in the Temple. It arises while he is going about his task as a Levite (or priest) attending the altar. In Jerusalem, the altar was a huge bowl of fiery coals not unlike your backyard barbecue grill. (!) It was said that God, who dwelled inside the Temple, enjoyed the smoke of the sacrifices and burnt offerings. And on this particular day, young Isaiah gets a look “behind the curtain” (so to speak).
What Isaiah describes (and Jay read for us) is a soul-shaking, almost terrifying, experience of the reality of God – inexpressibly “high” and exalted – whose holiness and glory (“shekinah”) was so radiant that even the angels attending the Throne hid their faces! This is the God who had led the Hebrew slaves through the wilder-ness in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night. (!) This is the God who had dwelt in the Tabernacle Tent in those early days -- whose presence in the Ark of the Covenant was so powerful that anyone who touched it (who was not an authorized Levite worker) would be struck dead! That’s real “fear” of the Lord!
Confronted there in the Temple with a vision of God’s grandeur and holiness, so high and lifted up, made Isaiah feel nothing but low … humble and helpless … less than nothing! He reacts without thinking: “Woe is me! Alas, I am undone! I am as good as dead!”
I can imagine that Isaiah feels “blown away” by this vision. Especially since the Levites had been telling the people (ever since the days of Moses) that “No one can look upon God and live!”
“Woe is me,” says Isaiah, “for I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
It is tempting for me to digress at this point to speculate on what Isaiah means by “unclean lips”. Has he eaten something that was forbidden? Or, like Georgie Porgie, has he “kissed the girls and made them cry?” Is it possible that Isaiah had been telling lies, or made promises that he never intended to fulfill? Since we are in the midst of a rancorous election season, I can’t help but think about lying politicians and people who make sleazy backroom “deals” to get more power or money. But to imagine what Isaiah’s “unclean lips” might have meant gets us off track. You see, his history (& whatever guilt Isaiah carried from it), was eliminated by God at the get-go.
What I want to focus on is the pattern of Isaiah’s call: namely, when he sensed that he was in the presence of God, Isaiah felt (1) his own unworthiness, followed by (2) the cleansing of his guilt, which gave him (3) the assurance that he would be up for the job that God had in mind for him.
In his case, his calling was to be a prophet of God in Israel. In my case, it was to become a preacher of the Jesus Gospel and to serve 37 years as an ordained minister. In your case, God called you to another occupation or setting in life.
A moment ago, we sang: “Did you ever hear God speaking to you, saying ‘I’ve got a job to do; and I’ll sure be needing you if it ever gets done’. ... Well, I have heard God’s voice, and I’ve made my final choice. I’m gonna sing God’s song! Won’t you sing along?” (lyrics by Sonny Salsbury © 1968 by Sacred Songs, Waco, TX 76703, used with permission CCLI#1117-0235)
I think God “calls” each one of us in some unique way to become all that we can be for the good of the world and to the glory of God. But it seems to me that most folks who have “sacred” moments like this – moments when they sense the presence of the Holy Divine, the Spirit of God – they are hesitant to expose that part of them-selves to others. Even if that experience (when we have it) is as indelibly vivid as Isaiah’s, we don’t tell anyone about it.
I would think that is especially true when the details are so un-worldly, extra-terrestrial, super-natural, and incomprehensible as Isaiah’s vision was in the Temple that day. We might be concerned that they’ll think we’re “crazy” – or at least wildly imaginative – and not take us seriously.
Maybe that’s why Isaiah waited until the sixth chapter of his book to tell of his initial “call” into prophetic ministry. He wanted to be sure the significance of his very public social critique and religious commentary was taken seriously by his audience. (!) He didn’t want the surreal mystery of his direct experience of God to undercut his testimony… simply because other people had not had a life-changing encounter like his.
You get the sense (as he tells it) that Isaiah was alone with God in his vision – that none of the other worshipers that day were even aware of it! The earthly scene faded and the sound of the Jewish congregation (singing or chanting) died away, as the smoke rising from the burning altar there in the Temple became an “incense” cloud… revealing the Divinity who was actually present. (!)
The priests thought that they had “domesticated” the Almighty through their rituals and religious rules -- boxed the Lord up in a royal Temple, where God could be managed and “mediated”. But Isaiah realizes that God is still God, able to erupt out of the box where they imagined God dwelt, and able to “color outside the lines” of their legalism and religious traditions. God is still outside & beyond us all!
Isaiah is quite detailed in recounting the setting: the angels (the six-winged “seraphim”, which means “burning ones” in Hebrew… which distinguishes these angels from the “cherubim”/cherubs, who are thought of as “living beings” who serve God in heaven). Seraphs, who had guarded the Ark of the Covenant earlier, are now the angels who receive the burnt offerings from the altar and bring them to God!
One of the seraphim plucks a hot coal from the altar by a pair of tongs and uses it like a “refiner’s fire” to cauterize and cleanse the lips of the prophet, so that he might speak the truth to the people.
Isaiah gives us great detail of the content of his commission from God. Jay did not read that part, because it makes for a long Scripture lesson, and we only have twenty minutes for the sermon to unpack it!
Isaiah tells us about his thoughts and his response to this extra-ordinary encounter with God Almighty. But he is circumspect about describing the “Holy One” who is on the lofty Throne. All he tells us is about God’s garment: “His train”, he said -- that is, the hem of the robe -- filled the Temple… The rest of God must have been outside the box!
But even that “little” exposure was enough for Isaiah to become tongue-tied – feeling like a “sin-stained” dwarf at a loss for words in the presence of such radiance of holiness.. and purity.. and power.
“Woe is me! I am lost! ... for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!)
I would like to propose for your consideration that this over-whelming sense of UN-worthiness that Isaiah felt was the first step in the making of a prophet, a true servant of God. Isaiah’s reluctance to see himself as worthy of God’s attention – let alone to be put into God’s service, to be “authorized” to bring the Word of God to the king and to the people and to the power-brokers of his day – is echoed in many other famous occasions in the Bible.
Jonah, for example, was a very reluctant prophet! You may remember that when the Word of Yahweh came to Jonah, saying “arise, go to Nineveh, that wicked city”… that Jonah got on a boat and headed out to sea to run away from God’s calling, rather than go inland across the desert to confront the Assyrian Empire. He bolted!
Moses, too (you may recall), answered back to the Burning Bush: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the people out of slavery?” Moses even went so far as to propose to God that his older brother “Aaron” might be better suited for the task, since Moses stuttered and stammered and got tongue-tied too often. Surely Aaron would make a better priest than Moses, and his older sister Miriam might even make a better prophet since she knew how to sing and dance and tell stories in song!
In the New Testament, you might think of the Apostle Peter, who Jesus encountered while he was fishing on the Sea of Galilee. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus gets into Peter’s boat and uses it like a pulpit as he teaches the people who are on the lakeshore. Jesus then asks Peter to put out into the deeper water and let down his nets, and when he did, it enclosed so great a shoal of fish that their nets were breaking and it nearly swamped their fishing boat! Simon Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees and said: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” But Jesus said to Peter: “Do not be afraid. Henceforth, you will be catching men.” (Luke 5:3-11)
It seems to me that when God calls a person to a task of utmost importance, the initial reaction is to say: “Who, me?” … “No, not me!”
I tend to be suspicious of people who think they know-it-all and can do-it-all, who imagine themselves as “God’s gift to humanity” … No, give me a humble person who does what’s right without fanfare simply because he knows it’s the right thing to do in God’s eyes… for the common good and the flourishing of others, not only oneself.
Well, Isaiah’s confession of his un-worthiness (and his sense of sinfulness) is hardly even uttered before forgiveness is on its way! Forgiveness that Isaiah has not even asked for! His sense of “wrongness” is apparently of no concern to God because Isaiah receives a free gift of Grace from God in the form of a purifying flame of forgiveness that cauterizes the wound that sin has made, and makes whole again that which had been broken.
God’s Holy Fire cleansed that which had been impure. That’s God’s gift… for Isaiah… for Peter… for you, for me, for all of us!
I want you to see these first two steps in the process: The recognition by Isaiah of his need (step one) brings immediate repair by God’s grace… unearned, undeserved, not even requested! (Step two: forgiven). The “refiner’s fire” (in Isaiah’s experience) consumes the dross while purifying his essential heart of gold. And I believe we’ve all got one – a heart of gold in our essential core – as he did.
So, if the first step in responding to God’s “call” is to recognize one’s own shortcomings, and to further recognize (as Isaiah did) the way those habits of heart are reflections of the social setting in which we find ourselves – “I am a man of unclean lips, who lives among a people of unclean lips” – then the second step is to receive God’s forgiveness.
First John 1:9 says: “If we confess our sin, God (who is faithful & just) will forgive our sin and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.”
I believe that Isaiah was able to speak to the people about their sins and shortcomings – the errors and injustices of their society (the systemic stuff, like racism & sexism & homophobia, the idolatry of wealth, militarism, consumerism, materialism, you know… all the stuff that’s in the news) as well as individual sins – because he first admitted, and redressed, those things in himself. We have to own up to our mistakes and our own wrongheadedness before we start to point fingers at other people. Seven centuries later, Jesus put it this way: “Take care of the log that’s in your OWN eye, before trying to point out the splinter that’s in the eye of your neighbor.” In other words: deal with your own sin before preaching to others about theirs! If we would do that, I think we’d change the world!
No matter how clearly and passionately Isaiah pointed to the failings, faults, and falsehoods of others, he knew from first-hand experience that denunciation and words of judgment would always and immediately be matched by an unequivocal offer of Divine Mercy… which would bring hope and the possibility of change. It’s very simply the process of “repentance” followed by forgiveness of sin. Isaiah could “talk that talk” because he had “walked that walk”!
Let me be perfectly clear: there is no Grace (no Gospel/Good News) in denunciation if you leave it at that. Calling people names -- blaming them and shaming them -- like thunder and lightning, does not cause growth! The terror of judgment (the “fear” of the Lord) does not lead to a relationship of love and grace, goodness, divine guidance, or even basic trust. (We’ve got to get beyond that!)
It is only the reassurance of forgiveness -- of divine mercy, the clearing of the slate, the “rebooting” of the program -- that brings hope, and health, and a future dedicated to the betterment of oneself and one’s society. That’s what Isaiah went through in such a boldly poetic & dramatic vision when he was called to be God’s prophet.
“And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send?’ And ‘Who will go for us?’ … Then I said,
“Here am I! Send me.’ ”
I don’t expect any of us to have an experience like his, but we will have occasions to feel that God is calling you to do something, to be something. It is your “vocation” and I hope you say “Yes” to it.
I gave this sermon the title: “Vocation: Responding to God’s Call” because I had intended to talk about my own sense of “call” into the vocation I chose: ministry. The word “call/calling” (“voce” in Latin, from which we get the word “voice”) refers to any vocation, not just to ministry or prophecy. I was going to share my sense of God’s call and claim on my life; and my subsequent commitment to live it expressly in a public setting as a church minister. Unfortunately, my time is up. (!) We’ll have to come back next week. God bless you.