I find that the writer Fred Buechner is often able to describe Biblical stories with such freshness that I get a new understanding and a new feeling for the text after reading his interpretation. So I begin by sharing with you his telling of the call of Isaiah:
“There were banks of candles flickering in the distance and clouds of incense thickening the air with holiness, and stinging his eyes, and high above him, as if it had always been there but was only now seen for what it was (like a face in the leaves of a tree or a bear among the stars), there was the Mystery itself whose gown was the incense and the candles a dusting of fold at the hem. There were winged creatures shouting back and forth, the way excited children shout to each other when dusk calls them home, and the whole vast, reeking place started to shake beneath his feet like a wagon going over cobbles, and he cried out, ‘O God, I am done for! I am foul of mouth and the member of a foul-mouthed race. With my own two eyes I have seen him. I’m a goner and sunk.’ Then one of the winged things touched his mouth with fire and said ‘There, it will be all right now,’ and Mystery itself said, ‘Who will it be?’ and with charred lips he said, ‘Me,’ and Mystery said, ‘Go.’ ”
“Mystery said, ‘Go, give the deaf Hell till you’re blue in the face and go show the blind Heaven till you drop in your tracks because they’d sooner eat ground glass than swallow the bitter pill that puts roses in the cheeks and a gleam in the eye. Go do it.’ Isaiah said, ‘Do it till when?’ Mystery said, ‘Till Hell freezes over.’ Mystery said, ‘Do it till the cows come home.’ And that is what a prophet does for a living and, starting from the year King Uzziah died when he saw and heard all these things, Isaiah went and did it.” That is from the book Peculiar Treasures (p. 55).
The year that King Uzziah died. The year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The year the twin towers came down. The year your first child was born. The year you met the love of your life. We remember some things so clearly that just a couple of words locate it all for us. “In the year that King Uzziah died” – that’s all Isaiah has to say about his call and the people know. In the year they killed Martin Luther King, Jr. – you know. You know even if you weren’t yet born. You know the year I’m talking about. You know what was going on; you know the struggles and the culture. Collective memories get burned into a national consciousness. Uzziah had been a good king, a faithful man, loved by the people. He called the Israelites to accountability; he united them during uncertain days of transition, he gave them vision, he governed with a righteousness born of a meditative faith. And when he died, a generation felt it had come loose at its moorings. Spiritually and ethically, it was adrift. And now their neighbors, the Assyrians, were a darkening threat. We remember where we were on 9/11. They remembered where they were when they heard that King Uzziah had died.
In that year, when King Uzziah died, Isaiah had a wild vision of God, the kind that come to those being called into service as a prophet. Isaiah was in the middle of worship at the time – he was praying in the Jerusalem temple with a lot of other people. He may have gone into the Holy of Holies – the area by the altar where the Ark of the Covenant was kept and where people believed that heaven and earth meet. I would very much like to know what the others at prayer in the temple thought. Have you ever had a powerful religious experience – loud or quiet? Maybe it was in worship, receiving communion or having your heart pierced by the Spirit during a prayer. Maybe it was at a concert, perhaps while singing – such a profoundly spiritual practice for some. Your heart swells, the universe shifts, you are lifted up and floated along the stained glass windows then set gently back in your seat – and everyone’s just… sitting there. Listening to the concert, or the prayer, or (God forbid!) the sermon. The whole universe paused for a moment, or knocked the wind out of you, and everyone else is sitting there. Oblivious. Were Isaiah’s fellow worshiper’s oblivious? Could they tell that Mystery was fully present? Did they sense a thing? Did Isaiah’s vision shake him clear out of his seat? Did they notice that? When the service had come to an end, did a friend turn casually to say something to him and notice that his cheeks were pink or that his lips were singed and peeling?
In the throes of his vision, Isaiah is sure he will die, for his naked eyes have seen Mystery, creator and ruler of the universe. How can he, a humble person, survive the sighting? Centuries later a young man in a fishing boat will be among the first human beings in a new age to realize that his naked eyes have looked into the face of Mystery; pure holiness is standing by his side. In that radiance, the fisherman is struck to his knees by the weight of his sin, cast in such bold, crushing relief when face to face with Mystery. “You’d better get away from me!” the fisherman says to Mystery. “You’d better come with me,” is Mystery’s reply.
“If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” we read in I John 1:8. We are human beings, and so yes – we do sin. Some Christians live with so profound a sense of their sinfulness that it overshadows their spirit, makes them think they are bad, makes them feel unworthy. To them, God is not love, as we read later in the First Letter of John. God is rolling the eyes and putting up with us anyway. At the other end of the spectrum are those who may think that sin isn’t a concern – they’re good people, they try hard, they say sorry when they mess up. For some of us the balance can be hard – to acknowledge and address our sinfulness, while walking in the light of the God who is love, and in that love who waits eagerly to forgive, encouraging us forward, clothed in mercy.
Isaiah, finding himself in the presence of Mystery, actually doesn’t say, “I am sinful.” He says, “I am unclean.” He had not performed his ablutions, the ritual washing that would bring him anywhere near the state he thought appropriate to find himself in God’s immediate presence. What good news there is here for us: even when unclean, no matter what state our body or soul, we are always still in God’s image. We are imago Dei, in the image of God, not because we have noses, not because we are without imperfection, but what? Because we have something of Mystery in us? Because in our souls, there is a reflection of some of the wonder and holiness of God Almighty? No matter how unclean or how sinful we may know ourselves to be, we are always the image of God. This is a wonderful thing to remember, no matter what we think of ourselves, no matter what others may say to us, no matter how the world may see us. We are still and always the image of God. The coal that is extended to the lips of Isaiah is a metaphor for forgiveness - forgiveness of all in us that is unclean or sinful. It comes from the coals on the altar in the Holy of Holies – that is, forgiveness comes from God alone. Yes, we ask for – and hopefully receive and extend – forgiveness from the individuals we relate to – that is ours to give. But the forgiveness for our spiritual wrongdoings, the ethical lapses, the compromises we make to our callings while we call this progress – the matters of the soul are what we ask God to forgive. Isaiah reminds us that forgiveness is not ordinary, it is supernatural. And we see here, too, that God does not wait for us to get our acts together before making outrageous claims upon our lives, before calling us to servanthoods writ small or very large. Wherever we are in our lives, in our walk of faith, in our certainties or great doubts, in the midst of plans that are half-baked or well under way, God may very well insert God’s self into our lives. We may not think we’re ready or good enough, but Mystery doesn’t come to us on our schedule, but on its own.
Simon Peter is in his boat, looking into the face of Mystery and sure he is receiving a call for which he is not worthy. In fact, he is going to blow it again and again. And he’s still worthy. He will get into trouble. He will regret many things, the greatest of which will be denying his Lord three times. He will also blurt out truths that other mortals could not yet grasp. Mystery will ask, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s eyes will fly open, his heart will race, and his mouth will say before his brain is even aware, “You are the Messiah.”
We have no excuses, including our sinfulness. We are indeed worthy to be deployed by God for those ministries God has in mind. Our mere humanity is no stumbling block, for God has the coals of forgiveness kindling always. Letting go, then of our excuses, what do we hear? Minus our alibis and rationalizations, what has God been calling us to do and be? What has Mystery been whispering to you? You are worthy, you know.
Beth Tenner, “Isaiah 6: 1-8 (9-13),” workingpreacher.org, 2/7/10.