Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, M.O., on June 8 2009.
Isaiah 6: 1-8.
Most of us sit in church week after week, sometimes year after year waiting for something to happen – or have we simply given up our sense of expectation? What would it take for our eyes to widen in amazement and our pulse to quicken knowing God was in this place and we discovered, unbeknownst to our under-whelming expectations about worship, that we were sitting at God’s feet and feeling light-headed or unsteady because of the disequilibrium we felt? I love Isaiah’s phantasmagorical worship story because of the sense of utter surprise it describes.
But why is it so surprising? Honestly, we read this and the question should be, “Why doesn’t this happen every time we worship?” Where has our sense of heightened anticipation about what might happen in worship gone? Is it the way we worship, or is it what we bring to the table week after week? It works both ways, don’t you know?
Annie Dillard once wondered, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
When did we lose our fear of the awesome God who meets us on the cloud-covered mountaintop (or here on Sundays) and in whose presence we run the risk of losing ourselves in the mystery of God’s great kingdom?
Read between the lines of Isaiah’s vision and his response to this moment of absolute clarity about the grandeur of God was his clarity about his own sense of moral insufficiency of being in God’s presence. In the room where God was worshiped, to Isaiah’s utter surprise, God showed up! That was something he had never encountered before and it nearly overwhelmed him.
Isaiah entered the temple in the season King Uzziah died. That’s a reminder that we bring our issues of concern with us to church. Sometimes our burdens put us in a unique place where we are forced to live outside our overwrought sense of security.
As significant as Uzziah’s death might have been, that event alone was not enough to warn Isaiah of what was about to happen. Even if he had been more careful, even if he had the slightest notion of what might happen, Isaiah could not have imagined what the Sacred Other was about to do as he knelt down to worship. As he worshiped, there was simply too much God and nothing Isaiah could have done to slow down the flow of God in the moment.
The overflow of God superceded the sense of self Isaiah had available to him in the moment and he felt undone. These feelings of awe in God’s presence were beyond what could be controlled or predicted. It was what Princeton professor James Loder would call, “a transcendent moment.” That’s a phrase we might use when words fail us for how we might try to describe our encounter with God that’s beyond words. The word “transcendent” points us appropriately beyond ourselves, beyond what we might way in the moment that might describe what happened when words are not enough. Perhaps this has happened to you (some experience with God that you would want to describe but simply cannot); more likely it’s an experience you keep to yourself because attempting to talk about it to those who cannot understand is too much.
Without warning he beheld a vision of the invisible “I am.” Smoke was everywhere and the terrifying seraphim were everywhere. The temple began to shake and Isaiah wondered whether Solomon’s great temple might come down on top of him. Voices began to rise … “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” And out of the cacophony of sounds, Isaiah heard the Voice addressing him. Then he heard his own voice rising above the din, “I am a man of unclean lips.”
We cannot begin to imagine what God might do if we made the dramatic decision to come clean with God about our inner world. Our transparency before God can turn loose the power God wants to share with the world by using us in extraordinary ways. As you might guess, we are both declared clean and in need of cleansing. “There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” goes hand-in-hand with, “When we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Mostly it’s the grime we accumulate from the journey … simple really as we have dirty feet and dirty lips and we need cleansing.
Hearing his confession, a seraph performed a cleansing ritual by cauterizing his lips touching them with a live coal from the altar; the seraph also pronounced him clean. When we are transparent before God, when we can finally come to the point of agreeing that being human is part of the problem, and God can heal us and prepare us for use in God’s work in the world.
You realize we’re in a season of thinking about how we worship. In July and August, we’ll experiment with a unified worship service that we’ll call our summer schedule. We’ll gather for worship at 9 am and be in our BFG classes by 10 am. More importantly, we’ll be considering how to make our worship meaningful by gathering together in this inverted summer schedule that turns us loose early enough for most families to enjoy their Sunday afternoon adventures together. I hope you’ll share an enthusiasm about it. We’ll return to the two services the first Sunday of September and stay that way throughout the fall, winter and spring. Be sure to invite someone you know to join us!
Perhaps for the first time in Christian history, we’re befuddled about how we worship. When worship pastors talk shop together, the catch phrase is comfort zone because that’s a phrase we use about you. The sentiment seems to be that we should feel at home in worship – you know, so we can enjoy the music we like to hear and so we can either dress up or dress down during worship. When you begin to listen to what people want so it can be provided for them, we admit it’s our narcissism that’s running things. As one friend says it, “The church is sick. We’re like a stray dog at a whistler’s convention.”
Jim and Casper Go to Church is a book by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper, two unlikely partners traveled the country making on-site visits to 12 of the most well known churches in the country. What was intriguing about their partnership is that Jim is a Christian pastor and Matt is an atheist. Together they bring two very different points of view to bear on their visits and how they see the church together and separately offers a bluntly honest critique of what’s going on in the church these days.
What they discovered is churches clearly show their values in how they organize worship and how the accoutrements of worship are really mirrors to how they think and believe about themselves, not how they think God might come among them. It may look like something is going on when in fact it’s all smoke and no fire. It matters more about us in worship – what we are up to and how we are postured to the presence of God – than it matters what we do or what style of worship we contrive. In all honesty, it’s more about God than it is about us. Worship begins and ends with God and we’re the supplicants who slip off our sandals and admit we are sinners needing God to cleanse us from our sin.
The disservice of the market approach to worship is we might make God in our own image and rather than venturing up the holy mountaintop where we might encounter the God who thunders and showers glory upon those brave enough to worship, we might instead find ourselves dancing around the golden image of ourselves in sheer idolatry.
Isaiah’s description of worship jumps off the page because we’re hungry for something beyond ourselves! What we can learn is that God’s “gracious energy desires to be let loose in the world.” Isaiah happened to be in a place where he could overhear the divine voices in concert asking, “Who will go for us?” Worship becomes an exercise of listening in on what God is saying in the holy huddle of wonderment. The language of God is an energized language that moves to action and doesn’t stay stuck in limbo.
Parker Palmer describes this as “letting your life speak.” He writes, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you.”
Isaiah did just that. First he experienced God in ways too wondrous for words. Then he listened to what God might be saying. Finally, he answered, “Here am I LORD. Send me!”
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).