5 Epiphany C.22
Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
I expect many of us are hoping for a transformative experience when we attend worship; but I expect our desire for transformation is for something along the lines of a spa treatment—a facial which will make our faces glow brighter and erase the tired, anxious lines on our face. Goodness, if worship offered this we’d have to take numbers at the door. Even so, transformation is the hope—perhaps not of our face or figure, but of our hearts and minds instead. Yet, even if we long for a deeply transformative experience in worship, I expect that we’re not in the market for the kind of encounter confronting the prophet Isaiah as he worshiped in the temple of the Lord.
The reading from the sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah begins: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne….” It is the year 740 Before the Common Era. King Uzziah had reigned for an astounding 52 years. By all accounts his reign was long and prosperous, though by the end of his rule, Uzziah had drifted in his allegiance to the Lord and died a leper, unable to enter the temple of his God. Even so, his death would have been momentous—a turning-point in the life not only of the ruling family, but the people of Israel as well. It was a defining time—and, surely, a time of sadness and uncertainty. With all that we have confronted over the past two years in our nation and the world, I expect we know the feeling well.
And so, Isaiah goes to church—that’s what you do in uncertain times. I’m not sure what Isaiah expected to find in the temple of the Lord—but I’m willing to bet it was not a vision such as this. Isaiah’s vision warrants a bit of “unpacking”. He tells us: “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne…and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” The temple was the largest and most splendid edifice in Jerusalem. It was huge—think St. Peter’s in Rome, the kind of space that takes your breath away. And here, in this vast space, Isaiah tells us only the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. Just the hem. Imagine. Even the temple, the most amazing building that the chosen people of God could construct, cannot begin to contain the awesome power and glory of God.
Even though only the hem of God’s robe is in the temple, God is not alone. Seraphs are in attendance above him; each having six wings—and they fly. One calling to another and saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Seraphs, you should know, are not benign beings. They are monsters—think flaming serpents or dragons moreso than angels with multiple wings. The name “seraph” comes from a root meaning “burning” or “fiery,” and they are the heirs of a long middle-eastern tradition of great flaming monsters who lived “up there” and were poised to come to earth in terrible destructive wrath. But not here, not in this vision. Here they serve God, flying around and above the Lord on missions of service and praise. God commands even the monsters. Their wings cover their hideous countenances. Picture the scene. The hem of the robe of God fills the temple, the six-winged creatures fly and shout and they are so loud that the entire temple rocks with the sound, while smoke adds an eerie haze to the surroundings. It’s the kind of vision that has the capacity to buckle our knees and blow our minds.
But Isaiah doesn’t run in terror. Perhaps he can’t. Instead, he sees himself and the people of God for what they really are. He says: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” In short, he sees the bad news—the horrible reality—the terrifying present. He sees himself and his people for who they truly are; and if I had to guess, this is perhaps a more terrifying vision for Isaiah than fiery headed seraphs flying about the temple of the Lord screaming about the holiness of God. No longer can he content himself with the thought “we’ll get past this”; and “things aren’t as bad as they look.”; “There’s a brighter day around the corner.” Here is reality, staring him in the face, and he is rocked to the core of his being. Things aren’t simply as bad as they seem. They’re worse. Much worse.
And now, one of those creatures approaches Isaiah with a live coal taken from the altar and touches his mouth and says: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord (notice—he has not heard God speak until he is absolved from his sins). God speaks and says: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah says, “Here am I; send me!”
Here is the good news. Sin is no match for God. What’s more, sin doesn’t disqualify people from being God’s servants. In fact, this vision shows that God wants to make servants out of sinners. God wants to save these errant people who are rife with sin. Here, God offers absolution and hope. And we learn that the Almighty uses prophets such as Isaiah to speak truth to a recalcitrant people. Towards the end of the Book of Isaiah (59 chapters, in fact) the prophet speaks saying: “I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am” to a nation that did not call on my name.”
Isaiah didn’t always have comforting words to offer to the people of Israel—sometimes the words he was given to speak were harsh: “These people say they love me; they show honor to me with words, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13a). He told the people in no uncertain terms that they would be conquered. “Hear the words of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left.” (Isaiah 39:6) At other times the words God gave him to speak were hopeful. “I have called you by name, you are mine…you are precious in my sight”. These words were kept, to be spoken to subsequent generations--thousands of generations, even to ourselves. Think of it this way. This is a God who wants to be in relationship; who loves God’s people; who envisions for us a future better and brighter than we can see for ourselves.
In today’s Gospel Jesus calls the disciples. Following Isaiah’s vision in the temple, the calling of the disciples seems almost banal in comparison—despite the miraculous catch of fish. But, there is a similarity. Peter, who I imagine to be standing in the boat with hundreds of slimy fish cascading about his ankles, sees himself clearly for who he is: “I am a sinful man. He wails” Jesus, however, isn’t interested in Peter’s sin, he says: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” This is an invitation from a Lord more powerful than Sin, A God who commands monsters, whose hem won’t even fill the temple of the Lord; a God willing to die to save the people he loves from death. The scriptures tell us that the apostles left everything, and followed the Lord of Life. The question is, when called, will you do the same? In Jesus’ name. Amen.