Isaiah 6 is a bit reminiscent of a “good news, bad news” joke about a conversation between a lawyer and her client. She told him, “I have some good news and some bad news. Which do you want to hear first?” Her client replied, “Give me the bad news first.” “The bad news is that the DNA tests showed that the police found your blood all over the crime scene.” “Oh, no,” her client mourned, “What could possibly be good about that?” “The good news is that your cholesterol is down to 130!”
The Scriptures contain both bad news and good news, both “trouble” and “grace” in the words of Paul Scott Wilson. Even most specific texts contain elements of both. So disciplined preachers and teachers look carefully to find and teach both. The Scriptures’ good news, after all, makes little sense until we recognize their bad news.
Our text’s bad news is that when the living God graciously stoops to meet us, we realize that we’re sinners. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once called the Christian doctrine of sin about the only self-evident doctrine we have. Basically he was saying that even people who aren’t Christian, even those who flunked their anthropology courses, recognize that we sin. In fact, adds Will Willimon, “human history is the history of sin.”
But is the bad news that is the doctrine of human sin really so self-evident? People can, after all, almost always identify someone who’s worse than we are. Not many of those who proclaim Isaiah 6 have committed mass murder or greedily triggered a financial meltdown. Perhaps few of those whom we teach and to whom we preach have abused our spouses or neglected our children.
In this week’s Old Testament lesson, a young Isaiah is in church, perhaps in a worship service, not so unlike most of the people to whom we proclaim Isaiah 6. In the midst of great national turmoil, God gives the prophet a vision that even now has the power to buckle our knees and “blow our minds.” After all, it’s almost as if God tugs the curtain between heaven and earth open just far enough so that the prophet can peek into the heavenly realm. In it he sees “the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted” (1), whom he also calls “the King, the Lord Almighty” in verse 5. Isaiah also hears heaven’s angels crying out to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (3). In verse 4 the prophet reports that it’s all enough to shake the temple almost to its foundations.
So how does Isaiah respond? Does he sing along with the seraphs? Does the prophet turn to his neighbor and say, “Wow, the praise band and accompanist are really on today”? No, Isaiah’s vision of heaven overwhelms him with a sense of his contemporaries and his sinfulness. When the prophet catches a glimpse of God, he sees himself as well as all people for what we really are: those whose sin has put our lives in danger. He, in other words, sees the bad news.
Isaiah 6’s preachers and teachers might invite their hearers to reflect on similar experiences. We come to church hoping to be comforted and encouraged. Yet we sometimes find that our time of confession, a song or message confronts us with the awful reality of our sin. And we find that its bad news makes us want to sink to our knees in pain.
Or perhaps it was during a time of personal or family devotions. We read a particular Scripture passage that spoke directly to our own disobedience. And it made us want to cringe in horror. Or perhaps God confronted those to whom we proclaim Isaiah 6 through a family member or friend who brought them face to face with the bad news that is the pain their sin caused someone. And they felt like crawling in a hole in misery.
That’s that context in which Isaiah 6 speaks its good news: sin doesn’t disqualify people from being God’s servants. In fact, it shows that God longs to make servants out of sinners, as it were. What happens, after all, when Isaiah says, “Woe is me!”? I am ruined”? Does the Lord, in fact, let him be ruined? Does God tell him to “Go to hell!”?
No, God wants to, in the words of one scholar, ruin the prophet’s ruination. So one of the angels touches Isaiah’s mouth with a burning but cleansing coal. God’s messenger then announces the good news, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (7). Yet even then God isn’t yet done. Beyond the part of Isaiah 6 the Lectionary specifically appoints for this Sunday, the Lord also commissions the forgiven prophet to “Go, tell this people …” (9).
God certainly wants Isaiah to announce judgment on Israel’s sins. That judgment is bleak. Yet while the warning about it is notoriously difficult to translate and understand, it contains a seed of great hope. While God mourns that all that will be left of judged Israel is an ugly stump, God also announces the good news that that stump will also be the seed of God’s redemption, a purified remnant that, like Isaiah, God will turn into something “holy.”
There is some overlap in the text’s precise delineation of bad and good news depending on how much of it preachers and teachers preach on. If those who proclaim it choose simply to reflect on verses 1-8, as the Lectionary suggests, they might see the text’s bad news as our sin, and its good news as God’s forgiving love. If those who proclaim Isaiah 6 stretch it to include all of it, they might see the bad news as Israel’s sinfulness, and the good news as God’s determination to bring something holy even out of that decay.
Charles Colson worked as a Special Counsel to United States President Richard Nixon between 1969 and 1973. He became known as the president’s “Hatchet Man” for his willingness to do his dirty work for him. Colson also was the first member of Nixon’s cabinet to be imprisoned for Watergate-related crimes.
In 1973, however, the Holy Spirit transformed Mr. Colson into a Christian. The forgiven former “Hatchet Man” heard and faithfully responded to God’s call to work on God’s behalf with and for prisoners. His Prison Fellowship Ministry arguably did more to raise Christians’ (as well as others’) awareness of the need for more humane treatment of people who are incarcerated.
Reflecting on his conversion, Colson later wrote (https://descant.wordpress.com/2008/08/25/chuck-colson-reflects-on-his-conversion): “I left [the Raytheon Company’s president, Tom Phillips’] house that night [of my conversion] shaken by the words he had read from C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity about pride. It felt as if Lewis were writing about me, former Marine captain, Special Counsel to the President of the United States, now in the midst of the Watergate scandal. I had an overwhelming sense that I was unclean.
“After talking to Tom, I found that when I got to the automobile to drive away, I couldn’t. I was crying too hard – and I was not one to ever cry. I spent an hour calling out to God. I did not even know the right words. I simply knew that I wanted Him. And I knew for certain that the God who created the universe heard my cry.
“From the next morning to this day, I have never looked back. I can honestly say that the worst day of the last 35 years has been better than the best days of the 41 years that preceded it. That’s a pretty bold statement, given my time in prison, three major surgeries, and two kids with cancer at the same time, but it is absolutely true.
“That’s because, for the last 35 years – whether in pain, suffering, joy, or jubilation, it makes no difference – I have known there was a purpose. I have known that I belong to Christ and that I am here on earth to advance His Kingdom.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 27, 2018
Isaiah 6:1-8 Commentary