Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 6, 2022
Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13) Commentary
It was the year King Uzziah died.
Or, it was the year President Kennedy died.
Or it was the year 9/11 rattled the world to its core.
Or it was the year the COVID pandemic began.
It was the year when things fell apart, when foundations were shaken, when the markets crumbled, when all that had once been familiar now seemed long ago and far away.
It was the year King Uzziah died.
It was a bad time, a shaky time, a frightening time. It was so for also Isaiah. But then suddenly Isaiah, probably as preoccupied by this world’s news and events as was anyone else in Israel back then, had his vision wrenched to heaven. On the one side was King Uzziah and the rest of what constituted normal, everyday life in this world. It all seemed large and important until he saw God high and lifted up, and suddenly Isaiah found all of his perceptions and priorities re-aligned.
Suddenly he felt unworthy, unclean. And when he looked around him at the rest of his society in the light that was streaming at him from God’s throne, he knew that the rest of the world was likewise unclean, messed up, tawdry, and sinful. So he confessed. He cried out the truth of his condition. And God forgave him. God cleansed him with fire and then gave him a job to do. It wasn’t the world’s happiest assignment, by any means. Isaiah had to tell the people they were done for. But God predicts up front that they won’t listen. They won’t listen because they refused to see their lives on the same scale as God’s grandeur. They refused to let themselves be made to feel small and lowly and tawdry.
We don’t reflect on it enough but such a vision is what we are supposed to encounter in worship each week. It is not something about which one can finally be very casual. There’s awesomeness here. There is grandeur here. And so worship makes room for times of awe-inspired silence and humility. Thus, most every week we take time for Confession and Assurance. We don’t do it to induce guilt. We don’t do it because it’s just something we’ve always done. Nor is it something which we would simply drop if some survey revealed that most people think it’s a downer which gets in the way of the kind of worship people prefer these days.
We take time to confess because when we glimpse the true God of all holiness and then look back at our lives in that light, we see things that are wrong, out-of-sync. It’s perhaps a little like someone’s asking, “Do I have any lint stuck to the back of my suitcoat?” Sometimes in answer to that you have to say, “I can’t tell–step over here into the light so I can see.” And when the person does so, then the lint you couldn’t see before shows up. So also here: once you step into the light, things show up no one had noticed before.
In Isaiah 6 it was the year King Uzziah died, but once Isaiah sees God on his throne, you don’t hear about old Uzziah again! New things have now literally come to light, new needs have been discovered, new priorities set. That is at least in part what worship should do for us. We don’t come to worship just to have our so-called “felt needs” met but also to find out just what our needs really are! We don’t come to chum around with the God we want but to encounter the true God in ways that make us into the kind of people God wants!
Our weekly time of confession is a way to acknowledge not only that we are not always as good as we should be. It is also a way to acknowledge the difference between God and us in ways that help us to aspire to live in God’s light. Our society, of course, is pretty good at making us feel unsatisfied. The entire advertising industry very nearly depends on its ability to make you feel shabby because your email connection isn’t digitally optimized for the fastest speed or because your lipstick isn’t shiny enough or because your car can’t drive straight up the rocky side of a mountain the way the newest Mazda SUV can.
We don’t mind having our TVs bombard us with reminders that we need to upgrade our lives. Oddly, though, in recent years some have resisted church services which include calls to confess our sins and so to become more like the God whose grandeur challenges us to become different people. Some today don’t mind if Revlon tells them they could look prettier if they tried, but they don’t like worship services that suggest the need for confession and so reform. But so long as we live on this side of the new creation, we cannot encounter God without some sense of Isaiah’s “Woe is me!” coming over us.
This is by no means the only feeling we experience in worship–it need not even be the dominant one nor the one that lingers when we go home after the service. But if it is missing completely, then one could legitimately wonder just what God is getting encountered in worship: the one Isaiah saw, high and lifted up, or the one we have fashioned for ourselves, low and manageable within the scope of our little lives on this earth?
If you have ever visited or lived in Europe for a while, you know how remarkably compact it is. When I lived in Germany years ago, it was easy for me to do things like hop on a bus in Essen, Germany, on a Friday evening, travel on the bus for a few hours, and then arrive in Paris, France, where I’d spend the weekend before going back to work in Germany as usual on Monday morning. Hop in a car in many places in Europe, drive in any direction you want for about three or four hours, and you may very well find yourself in a completely different country. Britain is smaller yet. It takes only a part of day to get all the way from London, England, to Edinburgh, Scotland.
All of that contributes to some humorous misunderstandings when European friends come to North America for visits. Occasionally Europeans spending the day in Chicago may propose that the next day they would like to pop over to San Francisco for a little look around, perhaps swinging through Houston on the way back to see what Texas is all about. British writer N.T. Wright used to experience this a lot when his family lived for a while in Montreal, Canada. They, too, had British visitors who would propose impossibly long trips in the mistaken impression that North American geography was as compact as Europe’s.
So Dr. Wright bought a map of Canada which had an inset labeled “England on the Same Scale.” That way British visitors could see that the whole of England was smaller than just about every single province in Canada. The vastness of all of Canada dwarfs Britain.
But just imagine the reverse, Wright once observed. Suppose you were in England with the same kind of map showing “North America on the Same Scale.” If you had a full-size map of Britain with a same-scale map of North America on the side, you’d have to fold it out and out and out until it filled up most of the room (and so dwarfed the map of England to which it stands in comparison).
Something like that happened to Isaiah one day. Something like that needs to happen in each worship service we hold, too. In many churches, the sanctuary may well be one of the larger rooms people visit all week long. But most church-goers are pretty comfortable in their own church–they’re accustomed to it, not blown away by its size or grandeur.
But as N.T. Wright notes, what if while we were casually looking around at one another in the sanctuary one week someone suddenly showed us “God on the Same Scale”!? What if someone could flip up half of the roof the way a child’s dollhouse may open up on a hinge so that we could glimpse the God of all glory, high and lifted up? Such a vision would likely unmake us, rattle us, make us feel small and puny and tawdry after all. That was Isaiah’s reaction. Everything else in the world, everything else in his life, everything else that had previously been occupying Isaiah’s mind shrank down in comparison to the vision he had of God on his holy throne.
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