May 27th, 2018 “A People of Unclean Lips” Rev. Heather Jepsen
This morning is Trinity Sunday, one of those lectionary holidays that we would prefer not to celebrate. Like Christ the King Sunday, this is a Sunday built on an idea, rather than a Sunday built on a text. The idea of course, is the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The “three-in-one”. The one God in three persons. The holy mystery of the divine self. Good luck finding a scripture that will explain it, (hint: there isn’t one!).
I don’t have a lot to say about the Trinity, as I myself continue to be a student of its wonders and would not claim to have understanding of its mysteries. And so, as we turn to our text for the day, the call of the prophet Isaiah, I think we shall focus on holiness instead. For what is the trinity after all, if not humanity’s feeble attempt to describe the indescribable, the holy wonder of God?
Isaiah begins his story by giving us a marker in history. All these things happened in the year King Uzziah died, around 740 BCE. King Uzziah’s death marks the end of the independent reign of Judah and from now on they will fall under the power of the Assyrian empire. It’s not a good time for the people of Israel.
Isaiah is a priest, and when he is in the temple performing his priestly functions he has a vision of God. The temple was the place where the power of God connected with the earth, so it makes sense that it happens there. It’s almost like Isaiah was able to see up into the invisible second story of the building, the throne room where God resided.
What Isaiah sees is terribly overwhelming and frightening. The Lord is on the throne and the hem of his robe fills the whole temple. There are sexual overtones in this imagery; God’s power is real big. The Seraphs are in attendance, and these are six winged angels of fire. This is where we get into those crazy Bible images of God that you won’t find in any Thomas Kinkaid paintings. Isaiah sees fire angels with six wings; two that cover their faces to hide themselves from the power and glory of God, two that cover their nakedness (that’s the feet), and two wings to fly with. So, Isaiah sees God with a big robe, and naked fire angels.
Plus, everyone is singing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And their voices are so loud that they shake the foundations of the building. Plus the whole place is full of smoke. Could be incense, could be the altar, or it could be those naked fire angels. Whatever it is, the whole scene is so frightening that Isaiah is lucky he doesn’t pee his pants.
Instead of losing control of his bladder, Isaiah just assumes he is going to die. No one can see God and live, and whatever he has just seen, he figures he wasn’t supposed to see. Even though Isaiah has lived within the elite priestly class, following all the rules of cleanliness, Isaiah is fully aware of his sinful state. “Woe is me!” (Translate as “I’m gonna die!”) “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!”
Now that he’s yelling too, Isaiah gets noticed by the heavenly hosts, and a naked fire angel grabs a hot coal off the altar, (who even knows what’s on fire over there!!) and touches Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal. Talk about being set on fire by the Holy Spirit! The angel tells Isaiah, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” (I guess that’s one way to do it!)
Now Isaiah hears the voice of God, not talking to him, but talking instead to the others gathered in this heavenly throne room. “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Notice the plurality there, “us” and not “me”. That’s why we read this on Trinity Sunday. Isaiah is feeling the Spirit, and he just had his lips burnt off, his dirty mouth washed out with heavenly fire, and so he cries “Here am I: send me!”
The lectionary stops here because this is a great place to stop. We can easily connect with the wonder and awe of God in this story. God is so big, God is so holy, and God is actually pretty frightening. When we are faced with the power of God, we will cower in fear. And yet when we confess our sinfulness, God offers us forgiveness. We are cleansed from sin, and are free to answer God’s call to service. That is an awesome sermon. Too bad it doesn’t hold up.
If we keep reading, we find that Isaiah probably should have kept his mouth shut until he heard what the assignment was. God tells Isaiah to “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
“Wait a minute, what?!?” What is going on here?? God is asking Isaiah to tell the people not to understand, to tell the people not to see, to tell the people not to notice God. God is asking Isaiah, to help the people turn away from God so that they cannot be healed. It is a horrible request, it’s offensive. And Isaiah’s not happy about it.
“How long, O Lord?” How long will Isaiah have to spread this awful message?
God answers; “Until the cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it; it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”
This is not good news. Isaiah is to help keep the people turned away from God until the people are all gone. Until the land is desolate and abandoned. God might have promised never to destroy the earth in flood, but God certainly seems intent on destroying the people of Israel in this reading. I am sure Isaiah was heartbroken. No one wants an assignment like this.
It’s hard to find a hopeful place to hang on a sermon on with this text. It’s hard to understand who this crazy super powerful, super holy, kind-of-mean God is. When God is done talking to Isaiah, there is one line left. The text says “The holy seed is its stump.” It doesn’t have that part in quotes so it doesn’t look like God says it. Almost like this is the line of the narrator. Like whoever wrote this down was also bothered by what it said, and needed to find a kernel of hope in the story. The holy seed is its stump. God will burn it all down until there is nothing but a stump left, but the holy seed is in that stump. Things will get worse before they get better, but there is new life in that stump.
You know, King Uzziah’s reign was marked by economic prosperity for the nation of Israel but the people had turned away from God in their pride. Isaiah will spend years preaching against the nation he is a member of. He will accuse the nation of political arrogance, of spiritual pride, and of economic injustice. The voice of the Lord will call the people to task, for all the ways that they have failed.
When I look at our world today, I know I am a person of unclean lips and I am certain I live among a people of unclean lips. We are mired in sinfulness and corruption. We are full of spiritual pride. We are so busy worshipping ourselves and each other, that we don’t have time to worship God. And don’t even get me started on economic injustice, let alone the political arrogance on display in our country today. Oh boy, I am sure Isaiah would have some choice words for modern America.
Some days I get a vision of hope, I see God in the ways we carry each other through this life. But other days I am overcome by our sinfulness. As a nation, are we getting better or are we getting worse? I sure hope we don’t have to burn all the way down to the stump before we can find our holy seed.
Isaiah was overcome with a vision of the holiness of God. And he responded willingly when called, totally unaware of the near suicide mission he was going on. God cleansed Isaiah and sent him on his way, to preach death and destruction to the people of Israel.
Like Isaiah, we look around at our world and ask, “How long O Lord?” Let us hope that God’s answer isn’t until we reach the point of utter desolation. Let us pray “come Lord Jesus”, root from the stump of Jessie. Holy seed in the burnt out stump. Help us Jesus to open our eyes, help us to open our ears, help us to look with our eyes and listen with our ears, and understand with our minds, and turn and be healed. Please, God, let us turn and be healed. Amen.