Rev. Teri Peterson
Who Will Go?
13 November 2016, NL3-10, H2-5 (God Provides)
The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrian empire was expanding, conquering the northern kingdom of Israel and destroying much of the southern kingdom of Judah. Isaiah lived in Jerusalem, the only city relatively unharmed in this war, and he spoke primarily to the kings, priests, and their wealthy advisors. Isaiah insisted that being God’s people involved not only worshipping the One God, but also behaving in ways consistent with God’s plans—and that God’s concern was primarily for those outside the halls of power, without wealth or connections. Much of the first section of Isaiah is about God’s vision of justice and righteousness, and how the leaders of the nation fall short of that vision, and therefore both oppress their people and lead them astray. In today’s reading, the king has died and the nation is in turmoil. We hear about Isaiah’s vision of a visit to the throne room of God, where heavenly beings worship and where Isaiah receives the difficult grace of confession and call. The reading from Isaiah chapter 6 can be found on page __ in your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
In the year that King Uzziah died, he had been on the throne for 52 years. According to 2 Chronicles chapter 26, he became king at age 16, and he was faithful in seeking God with his tutor Zechariah for many of those years. He rebuilt cities, he went to battle with the Philistines, he built towers in the walls of Jerusalem, and neighboring tribes paid him tribute taxes. He became very wealthy and very powerful…and according to 2 Chronicles, when he became powerful he also became proud and arrogant. He stopped giving his attention to any but those who could advance his interests. He assumed he could do things on his own, so he left God out of it. He used people to build his projects and pay for shiny equipment for his massive army. And one day, he went into the Temple and tried to make an offering of incense inside the Holy of Holies, the room that only the high priest could enter, the room where God lived. Eighty priests followed him to try to convince him that what he was doing was wrong…and while inside, he broke out in an unclean skin disease and was banished from not only the Temple but also the palace and the town. He lived the remainder of his days in a camp, and his son reigned in his stead.
So in the year that he died, there was a complicated situation. He wasn’t allowed to be buried in the same place as those who were ritually clean. His son was already on the throne unofficially. And his arrogant ways had already affected how people lived and treated each other.
This is the moment—a very human moment in history—when Isaiah, who has already been a prophet for five chapters now, has a vision of the Temple filled with the hem of God’s robe and the heavenly host winging through the air singing. The Temple, where Uzziah had gotten into so much trouble at the pinnacle of his pride and power. The Temple, where Isaiah was not, apparently, among those who called the king out on his bad behavior. But now he stood there in this vision, practically touching the hem of God’s robe, and he realizes his need to confess: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
Today we might say it like this: I have said things I should not have said, and I have kept silent when I should have spoken up.
When the man full of pride and power used and abused people, I was silent.
When the man who accumulated the wealth of surrounding nations turned his back on those who had built his cities, I was silent.
When the man who believed his position allowed him to do anything actually did unspeakable things, I was silent.
Instead I spoke in generalities, I spoke to others rather than to him, I spoke of happier topics, I made excuses, I spoke in cryptic metaphors meant only for the few who were already in the know.
I said things I should not have said, and kept silent when I ought to have spoken. I am a person of unclean lips, and I come from a whole people who have used and misused their voices and allowed this turmoil to happen. We have lost sight of God’s kingdom and turned to our own instead, leaving behind the vulnerable, the different, the outcast, the poor, the immigrant, the minority, the veterans.
And then one of the heavenly host came to Isaiah with a hot coal, and touched his lips, burning away the cowardly silence and the haughty words. That would be a painful cleansing, a lesson that hurt…the way we use our voices matters, and it isn’t easy to undo. But afterward, with his mouth freed to try again, Isaiah can now hear the voice of God, cutting through the din of his own self-centered cries, and God says:
who will go for us?
Who will go…to the edges of society, where people are hurting?
Who will go…to the slums and the refugee camps?
Who will go…to the hospitals and prisons?
Who will go…to the protests and the rallies?
Who will go…to the Congressman’s office and the mayor’s town hall?
Who will go…to the social media feeds where we can hide behind a screen?
Who will go…to the places that need good news?
Who will go…to insist that there is no place for hate or exclusion in the kingdom of God?
Who will go…to comfort and protect those who feel unsafe and unwanted?
Who will go…remembering that good news comforts the disturbed AND disturbs the comfortable?
Who will go…to try new things in hope of seeing God at work in unexpected places?
Who will go…carrying words and actions of hope and challenge, living the vision of a new kingdom, a new way of being?
Who will go…to stand up for those who we think don’t belong?
Who will go…to speak up even when it’s uncomfortable, protecting the people God loves even when we don’t?
Who will go…to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and house the homeless?
Who will go…to ask our leaders why there are people who are hungry, naked, sick, and homeless?
Who will go…when it is inconvenient or difficult or painful?
Isaiah doesn’t hesitate. He already knows the cost of staying silent, or beating around the bush with excuses. This is his second chance, his moment to be renewed and re-dedicated to his task, to his community, to his people. He hears “who will go?” and he says “Here I am, send me.”
742 BC and today, the same is true: we know the cost of silence, and of excuses. We know there are people who need our voices to speak on their behalf, and people who need us to be quiet so their stories can be heard. There are places that need good news, and leaders who need to be challenged, and neighbors who need care. God provides us with a second, and a third, and a sixtieth, chance to examine ourselves and admit our failings, and then to live up to the call…and God asks: who will go? whom shall I send?
We give our answer in word and song, in prayer and action, in giving of time and resources: here I am, send me. And here we are, the body of Christ on the corner of Palatine and Rohlwing…send us.
May it be so. Amen.