February 4, 2007
“If you want a safe job, go sell shoes.” That’s what Senator Chuck Hagel told fellow Republicans last week as he chastised those who oppose Bush’s war but remain unwilling to vote against it.
This same advice could have been given to the Hebrew prophets: If you want a safe job, go sell a few sandals. Because this meeting God face to face business is anything but safe.
Most of us are well read people, knowledgeable about history. We realize that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures tended to suffer more than their fair share of persecution and execution. Paul and others who proclaimed Jesus as Messiah were not particularly well received by authorities.
Many of you have read Martyr’s Mirror and know that a lot of early Anabaptist prophets were, well, martyred. We know what happened to Martin Luther King Jr., to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to Oscar Romero.
Being a prophet is dangerous business. So it’s a good thing that we’re just regular Christians. It’s a good thing we can keep our safe jobs as shoe salesmen, or whatever it is that occupies our time.
Prophet is one job I would not sign up for, thanks anyway.
The problem is, I’m not sure prophet is a job you get to sign up for or not. According to today’s scripture, it’s a job that happens to you. At least it just happened to Isaiah.
And guess how it happened to Isaiah. He went to the temple to worship God.
Look around my friends. We too have come to worship God.
In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, the writer Annie Dillard asks, “Does anybody have the foggiest idea of what kind of power that we are dealing with here in worship?” She says, “It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church. We should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
When we come to worship, we are intentionally seeking the Holy God. And according to Isaiah—and Moses and the stories of Jesus and the list could go on—finding God is anything but safe.
In the case of this passage, the vision of God itself seems somewhat terrifying. The vast size of God, the flying fiery creatures, the earthquake and smoke. I doubt any of us have had visions of God that are this dramatic. But even the most subtle manifestation of God—if we really see and hear and know that it is the living God we are encountering—brings forth songs of Holy, Holy, Holy.
And however the holy is shown to us, our response to being in its presence remains the same today as it was for Isaiah 2700 years ago: “Woe is me. I am one of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.”
In the presence of the holy, our own lack of holiness, our sinfulness, becomes painfully apparent. It’s like when I need black socks and I find a pair of dark socks but I can’t tell if they are black or navy blue. I have to hold them up against something I know is black so that I can tell.
Isaiah probably looked pretty good held up against all of the other sinful people milling about. He does not have to acknowledge his true state until he is held up against the truly holy. And suddenly what he thought was black is clearly just navy blue—or maybe even a dingy gray.
Worship is dangerous in its ability to show us our sins. And you will notice that Isaiah first claims his own unworthiness before commenting on the sins of those around him. Today’s churches should take note of this. If we don’t want to follow Isaiah’s example here we can also go to Jesus who said something about taking logs out of our own eyes before we worry about the specks in others.
Now, without going too far off track here, let me make one more point about Isaiah’s “unclean lips.” When we hear the word “sin” in our culture, the first things that tend to pop into mind are personal “sins” like sleeping with people you shouldn’t sleep with or saying naughty words or cutting people off in traffic.
Isaiah might have done these things, but when he talks about “unclean lips,” I don’t think he means he’s been going around saying the “F” word—or its Hebrew equivalent. We’re at the beginning of Chapter 6. If we look back at chapter 5 we will find a tirade against economic injustice and the abuses of the wealthy.
When we meet God in worship, we should become painfully aware of how far we are from the peace and the justice God desires for this world. And our response is confession.
Now worship, as a whole I think, is a very countercultural act. I recently commented to someone about how truly weird worship is—and they agreed. All kinds of weirdness goes on here. For one you’re sitting in a hard plastic chair when you could be still in bed or watching the pre-pre-game Super Bowl coverage. For another thing we’re about to talk about eating a body and drinking blood. Weird.
But in our cultural context, possibly the weirdest part of worship is the time of confession. We are not a confessing people. We are people who like to look around and see who else we can blame for our problems. We are people who like to debate the irrelevant—like the meaning of the word “is”—rather than just admit we have done something wrong. This is a society in which we have to pass laws allowing people to apologize to each other. I read about a law like this a year or so ago. It assured someone that they would not be held legally responsible for an accident just because they said, “Hey man, I’m sorry.”
We are not a society of confessors. Yet we have much to confess. And worship is one of the last places that confession happens—uncoerced confession—on a regular basis. This friend and I, in discussing worship, decided that the world would be a notably better place if everyone regularly and sincerely confessed their sins.
And in the Christian context at least, we get to move beyond confession and experience forgiveness. Usually, at this church, the worship leader speaks words of forgiveness from the Bible. And frankly I prefer our method to having a hot coal pressed against my lips. Though even without the hot coals, there can be pain. Sometimes when you’ve been weighted down with a load for a long time, it hurts to stretch out and straighten back up. And the other painful part is that once we are forgiven, our excuses are gone.
But wait! We haven’t even gotten to the really scary, the really dangerous part.
If we follow this narrative of Isaiah, we see that after he is forgiven, he is able to hear the voice of God. And after hearing the voice of God, he is inexplicably compelled to say about the most stupid thing you could ever say to God: “Here am I. Send me!”
It’s stupid, that is, if he wants to be safe. If we’re content selling shoes, we have no business seeking to worship the living God.
The man who we now know as St. Francis of Assisi could have been content with his leisure and wealth, but instead he went looking for God. It is said that once in church an icon of Christ came alive and spoke to him, prompting him to sell many of his possessions—and some of his father’s—to raise money to rebuild churches.
Another time in church Francis heard a sermon where the preacher quoted from the book of Matthew: “Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts.” And guess what? He started walking around the countryside without any money or even a walking stick.
Worship is a dangerous thing—not just for what happens in worship, which can be terrifying enough, but because of what worship can inspire and empower us to do when we walk out the doors.
Like a man, maybe in his forties, fifty. A good Mennonite. A white Mennonite who wasn’t really prejudiced. I mean, not really. But he was comfortable being white and not particularly concerned with issues of racial injustice.
Then he went to worship. He had every right to expect it would be a nice safe worship service. It was at a national meeting of Mennonites. And everything was fine until it came time for communion. He was supposed to share communion with the person next to him, so with bread in hand he turned . . . and shared the bread of life, the cup of salvation, with someone who was not white.
Never again was he quite comfortable with his white privilege. Never again could he just let racist slurs and jokes slide by without speaking up against the prejudice.
Worship is a dangerous thing. We can meet the Holy. We can realize and confess our sin. God is ever-faithful to forgive our sin. And before you know it we may say something crazy like, “Here I am. Send me.” And sure enough, as Annie Dillard warns, “The waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”