| Isaiah 6
|Sun, February 8, 2004
Rev. Ed Searcy
|We have history with this text. We are not coming to it for the first time. It first came back into our consciousness through a new hymn that has become beloved. The proper title of the hymn is “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” but we all know it as “Here I Am, Lord”. Barely two decades old, this hymn has made its way from its Roman Catholic origins into the new hymn books of the Protestant church in North America. We love to sing it here. So much so that when Bill Taylor died - Bill Taylor who was the Principal of Union College from 1948 and the first principal of VST in 1971 - we included it in the funeral service because it had become one of his favorite hymns. And Bill knew a lot of hymns! Sure enough, the chorus of #509 in our hymn book repeats the refrain of Isaiah’s willingness to be dispatched as a messenger of God: “Here am I, send me”. It is little wonder that this hymn and text are regularly chosen for ordination services. This seems the ideal scripture for the sending of ministers into a lifetime vocation as apostles - messengers - of the good news. And the verses of the hymn promise a richly blessed ministry. Take the second verse, for example:
“I, the Lord of snow and rain, I have borne my people’s pain,
I have wept for love of them, they turn away.
I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my word to them. Whom shall I send?”
With this kind of invitation one can easily understand why some are willing and eager to respond “Here I am, Lord, I will go Lord, I will hold your people in my heart.”
But there is a problem with this lovely hymn. It doesn’t actually tell the whole truth about the mission that Isaiah is given. The problem is that the hymn makes it sound so promising, so enticing, so hard to resist. The version that we find in the Bible is, to say the least, less promising. And this surely explains why the lectionary suggests stopping at the end of verse eight with Isaiah’s “Here am I; send me!” To be fair, the lectionary does indiciate with brackets that the final four verses of the chapter may be read. However, I suspect that few congregations will actually hear God’s marching orders to Isaiah this morning. I should know. I did not have the courage to allow God’s call to Isaiah to be read aloud in worship until this same Sunday in the lectionary cycle, three years ago today. That was a hard Sunday for me and a hard sermon for you. I called that sermon “Stumped” because I admitted to you that I was stumped by this inexplicable text.
Did you hear the text? This is a terrible calling that Isaiah is given: “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.” So much for that beloved hymn’s promise: “I will break their hearts of stone, give them hearts for love alone.” God commands Isaiah to speak in such a way that the people will not understand, will not see, will not hear in case they might turn and be healed. Imagine that - Theological Education Sunday arrives and we hear God’s announcement that theological education is intended to shape preachers who will purposely confound the church. This runs so contrary to our understanding of the good news and of the reason for the church and of the nature of God that we find it necessary to stop reading the text. Since we are sure that God cannot possibly send a prophet to intentionally keep the people from turning and receiving healing we feel no shame in silencing God. We simply stop reading at verse eight. By doing so we are assured of being able to leave worship unperturbed by this strange, rude God. Instead, we sing a hymn that promises the kind of God that we prefer, a God who brings healing and wholeness through, guess who, us.
Now, if memory serves me, we did not sing “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky” three years ago when we read the sixth chapter of Isaiah. It was the first time that we had failed to do so when reading Isaiah’s call. We didn’t speak about leaving this beloved hymn unsung that day. But those of us who planned the service found ourselves struggling to move from a reading of these troubling verses into the hopeful cadences of “Here I am, Lord”. I expect that some of you have looked ahead in the order of service and have noticed that, in fact, we are about to sing this very hymn. To be honest, I am not sure that I know exactly how we’ll get from the text to the hymn. Nor am I sure that we will actually be prepared to sing that we are willing to be sent on the impossible mission that God has in store for Isaiah’s descendants in the faith. But I am sure that the strange, unexpected and demanding call of God is slowly dawning upon us as a people. I even dare to imagine that the “I” in this text and in this hymn is a collective one. This is not the kind of a calling that a lone ranger, a single individual, can undertake. We as a people are the “I” that is being called as one body as a messenger from God.
Well, of course, there are some who would want to dispute that. After all, Isaiah was called by God in the 8th century before Christ. Surely this peculiar God is not the God of the New Testament, the God of Jesus who comes to speak of God’s love and compassion. Except. Except that this hard text is quoted in reference to Jesus in the gospels of Matthew (13:14-15), Mark (4:12), Luke (8:10), John (12:37-43) and in the book of Acts (28:26-27). This is an extraordinary occurrence. I can think of almost no other Old Testament passage that is quoted so frequently in the New Testament. It is clear that the early Christian community found in these hard words the truth about the call of Jesus to bring the good news to us. To be honest, I am still struggling to comprehend how this call to failure is the truth of what God is calling us to here and now. But I am not willing to hide these verses from you any longer. I think that the church deserves the opportunity to hear God out without me trying to correct God in order to make this strange voice more palatable.
And there is another reason that we are chewing on this text today like a dog with a bone. In May I am to travel to Sackville, New Brunswick. There I am to speak, with your blessing, to the annual meeting of the Maritime Conference of the United Church. Our sisters and brothers have asked me to speak about leadership in the church in this time of decline and fatigue. We have been working over the phone and by email to shape the presentations I will make. In the midst of that planning I received word from the Maritimes that the youth who will be meeting at Conference had already given their gathering a theme. Those planning the meeting of the whole conference asked if I would mind if we adopted the title chosen by the youth. You will perhaps by now have guessed that title. Yes, that’s right, it is “Here I am, Lord”. So, to be perfectly honest with you, this morning is a bit of a dry run. I am pondering just what kind of leadership God expects from a people who know that the calling of Jesus takes its shape from the strange, hard call of Isaiah.
Then my friend Doug sends along a quotation on leadership from Martin Buber, perhaps the 20th century’s most famous Jewish theologian. Buber says that “the Bible knows nothing about the intrinsic value of success. On the contrary, when it announces a successful deed, it is duty-bound to announce in complete detail the failure involved in the success .... This glorification of failure culminates in the long line of prophets whose existence is failure through and through. They live in failure; it is for them to fight and not to conquer. This is the fundamental experience of biblical leadership.” Here is the reason that we cannot fathom God’s call to Isaiah and to Jesus and, could it be, to us. We live in a world that knows that leadership necessarily leads to success. Failure is not an option. We simply rule out a God whose purpose includes failure. And that, of course, is the reason that we regularly try to rid the gospel of Good Friday. Oh, we keep the cross, but we do our best to make it sensible. We turn it into Jesus’ success story. It becomes the capstone of his career as Messiah, the highpoint of his ministry. But it is not. It is the culmination of his calling to fail and to be overcome and to be defeated. When Peter drops his nets by the sea and follows he doesn’t know it yet but he is about to be led into failure.
Dare I carry such a message to the youth of Maritime Conference? And what about the church’s leaders - lay and clergy - struggling with dwindling supplies of energy and hope? Does the good news really begin with the awful ending that is Friday? By now you are getting to know where this sermon is headed. At our ‘Text to Sermon’ gathering this past Wednesday, just as we were feeling our heads throbbing and hearts aching with the trouble that this text was causing us, we heard Bill Buck blurt out “But we’re getting it, we’re getting it.” Margaret pushed him, saying “We’re getting what, Bill?”. And Bill said with some passion, “It is Friday and then Saturday before Sunday”. The gospel is first the announcement of endings, of failure, of the death of our hope and our projects and our good works. And then the gospel is a long period of waiting, of absence, of silence and of grief on Saturday. It is Isaiah asking God “How long, O LORD?”. It is God’s answer “Until ... until the cities lie waste, until the land is desolate, until the LORD sends everyone far away.” Even the remnants of life, even the shreds of hope will be burned again, leaving nothing standing but a burnt, dead stump.
This feels very hard to preach. I expect it is equally difficult to receive. I would love to announce some other way to Easter, some other message of hope. But, friends, this is the deep shape - the necessary figure - of the gospel. As Walter Brueggemann says of Isaiah’s call: “There are no easy healings. There are no ready turnings. The healings are not readily available, and the turnings are too demanding. There is no easy gospel, no cheap grace, no good word that gives assurance to those who drop by hoping for a quick and comfortable deal.” To be honest with the church in North America we must simply tell the truth. Faithful leadership in this time of God’s judgement upon the church and upon a culture of wild excess must announce that it is all coming to some kind of hard ending. And this announcement can only be met with disagreement and disbelief. No one wants to hear that Easter lies on the other side of dying to our satsifying addictions and our convenient certitudes. But just because we don’t want to hear it is no reason to silence the truth of God’s good news.
For there is good news. It is glimpsed in three Hebrew words at the conclusion of Isaiah’s call. There the text says “something about holy seed from stump, something about impossible possibility of new life from deep failure” (Brueggemann). This is a poetic vision of life seeded long after all hope is dashed. This is the deep and inexplicable seed of hope that is the life blood of Jewish and Christian faith. For us, gathered here, this amazing hope is rooted in the burnt out stump of Good Friday that sits dead, rotting through a long Holy Saturday until, beyond all possibility and rationality the God who sends Jesus into failure raises him to life. This is the reason that we dare to sing “I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry”. We dare to sing such hope even knowing that our call must take us into deep failure because we are becoming practiced in the figure that the story of the cross makes in our lives. God’s answer to the cry of the people is not the one we expect or want. We do not choose to be called to lead into Friday and Saturday. We would rather only lead on Sunday, thank you very much. Like Peter we flee from the trouble with the cross. But, with Peter, we discover that we cannot flee from the Risen One. It is finally Jesus, the One who has pioneered the path through failure, who gives us the voice to sing “Here I am, Lord” and then to follow.