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Mission of God will not always be easy

I love the vision presented to us today in our reading from Isaiah. Isaiah sees God high and exalted, seated on a throne. Yet all he describes of God is the train or hem of his robe filling the Temple, as he averts his eyes from this most holy sight. The Temple was the biggest grandest building that could be constructed at the time, and here just the hem of God’s robe fills it. I wonder what colour it was? Purple maybe, no expense spared, or a shimmering gold, or maybe a deep red hinting towards the future death of Jesus on the cross.

Unable to gaze upon God, Isaiah turns his eyes to the seraphim flying above him. These are described in detail with their 6 wings 2 to cover their faces, 2 their feet and the final 2 to aid their flight. They shout to one another Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory. The sound of their shouting causes the temple to shake and to fill with smoke. The holiness of God is so great it cannot be contained within the Temple and his glory shines out through the whole earth. These don’t appear to be the cute baby faced cherubim and seraphim we see on Christmas cards but terrifying creatures proclaiming God’s holiness.

And Isaiah knows within their presence that he is unclean and unworthy. He calls out that he is ruined, or in other translations that he is lost. The word used within the Hebrew can be translated in 3 different ways and each fits in some way into the context so it isn’t really clear which Isaiah meant. Maybe the Hebrew reader was meant to be left hanging, and Isaiah wants them to assume he means all 3 as they help describe the relationship between humans and God. The first meaning is I am destroyed. The second meaning is I am brought to silence and the third is I am made in the likeness of God. A sight such as this would be likely to bring the viewer to death. Isaiah calls out his unworthiness to see such a sight “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty”. The use of the word unclean is often taken to mean sinful and I am sure that in the presence of God Isaiah was acutely aware of being sinful, in much the same way that Peter recognises his sinfulness in the gospel reading. But unclean is being used in its ritual sense. Isaiah has not prepared himself to meet with God, he hasn’t carried out all the necessary rituals to be ready. God has arrived, early. In much the same way the disciples in the gospel reading were not expecting God to turn up. They were tired and dirty and disheartened. They had given up waiting to make a catch of fish. All they wanted to do was to pack their boats away and go to bed. When Jesus comes back and sends them back into the water. Beware! God does not always wait for you to be ready, before he is ready to meet with you!

So there is Isaiah stood in the Temple gazing at the bottom of God’s robes, listening to the seraphim declaring God’s holiness. Completely aware of his own inadequacies. When one of the seraphim flies over to the altar and using some tongs he picks up a live coal, burning hot, and brings it towards Isaiah. He touches Isaiah’s lips with it. Burning hot, it must have been painful. And the seraphim tells him that his guilt is taken away and his sin atoned for. How easily God forgives him. He has just been waiting for him to recognise his failings. Our God is a God of love and compassion. This is reflected in Jesus’ words in response to Simon Peter recognising his own sinfulness, as he responds “Don’t be afraid”. Or when the men bring the paralysed man to Jesus and drop him down through a hole in the roof asking for healing and Jesus tells him that his sins are forgiven, as which is it easier to say Your sins are forgiven, or just get up and walk.  God is seeking to dispel our sinfulness so that we can stand in his holy presence.

Isaiah hears God’s voice saying Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?

And Isaiah, with his sin atoned for, is able to reply Here am I. Send me.

What a great image. Here is Isaiah ready to carry out God’s mission. He has met with the living God, his life isn’t going to be the same again. We can sing the chorus of the song I the Lord of Sea and Sky with great enthusiasm

here I am lord, it is I lord

I have heard You calling in the night
I will go Lord
If You lead me

I will hold Your people in my heart

And to be honest our lectionary is a little bit deceiving to finish the reading just here. It would be very easy to create an air of excitement that if we are following God’s calling to go for him that things are going to be easy. A time of seeing people healed, the dead raised to life, hearing about the Kingdom of God in a way we have never heard it before, just as the disciples did all those years later.  But our reading finishes before the end of the chapter. God goes on to tell Isaiah what it is that he wants him to do. And it doesn’t seem very easy, or at first glance even very Godly.

God said “Go and tell this people:

Be ever hearing, but never understanding

Be ever seeing, but never perceiving

Make the heart of this people calloused

Make their hearts dull and close their eyes

Otherwise they might see with their eyes

Hear with their ears

Understand with their hearts

And turn and be healed.

How different this seems to be to the personal actions shown to Isaiah who in recognising his own uncleanliness has had his sin atoned for. Here God doesn’t appear to want his people to turn back to him and be healed.

Let’s take a step back and put the reading into historical context. It’s about 740BC. King Uzziah who to some degree has been protecting the people of Judah from invasion is dead. Israel is about to be invaded by foreign powers. These are dark times. The Jewish nation has fallen far from God. Their hearts are hard. It doesn’t matter what Isaiah is going to preach, it isn’t going to draw many of them back to God. He is going to be a lone voice calling out to the people to repent until they are carried off into exile.

But Isaiah’s encounter doesn’t end there.

He asks God how long this will continue?

And God replies

Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant

Until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged

Until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken

And though a tenth remains in the land

It will again be laid waste

 

But these words of devastation then end with a small note of hope

But, as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down

So the holy seed will be the stump in the land.

This isn’t going to be the end afterall. Something will be able to resprout from the remains.

I wonder if Isaiah thought of the words that Job used hundreds of years before whilst he was grappling with his own suffering

 

“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.

I had been thinking and praying over these words for a few days when we went to clergy synod last week and Bishop Jill read these words from Job as her vision for Wales.

“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.

The mission field that God calls us to will not look easy. But even if just a stump remains then touched with the breath of God it will bud and put forth shoots. Like Isaiah in the holy presence of God we need to recognise our own sinfulness, our own faithlessness and our unworthiness so that we can receive God’s grace and forgiveness, and we receive that grace in order that we can be sent in his power into a world that may not be ready yet to accept our message, but to ensure that a stump will remain, to ensure that the seed is planted ready for new life to start to sprout in God’s timing.

Rev'd Rebecca

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