"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 fro