“Woe is me” … now you’re getting it!
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”
4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the Lord removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump. (Isaiah 6:1-13 ESV)
How awesome is our First Reading? Of course it is! The call of Isaiah gives us a window into heavenly realm and a window into ourselves. We hear echoes of this during the Liturgy of Holy Communion when we sing the Sanctus ‘Holy, holy, holy …”. We need to see and hear it clearly.
If only the Christian faith was that simple. Come in, come in – meet God and then of course, you’ll believe. Look through this magic window and get a glimpse and then you’ll understand. But worship is not like that – it’s awesome for some, boring for others, the preacher is too loud, the preacher is too soft, the music is too old, the music is too new – whatever is happening – God is not obviously present here. Why can’t God just be obvious? Plain and simple. No parables, mysteries, paradoxes. One visit and you believe. Why not?
Because we’re sinners and we couldn’t cope if God did exactly that. Such is the consequence of sin – the inability to see and understand things spiritually – where we take all sensory and thought processes and make them subservient to our own egos. Sin, by its very nature, blames God for its existence and always seeks to supplant God as the centre of everything. Luther described sinful humanity as ‘curved in on itself’ – we just don’t get spiritual things.
Even if God was to turn up as he is and come and shake our hands and say, “Look I’m God – you’re not – I do love you – live with me” – as obvious as that – human beings would only acquiesce or placate or rebel or something else in our attempts to reclaim the centre again. That’s sin. It also doesn’t help matters that sinful human beings would be destroyed if they came into the presence of God. Sin and God’s holiness is akin to petrol fumes and fire – whoosh – we’re gone. We have the problem – no life, cut off from God – but we don’t really care. God has the problem too – and he does care.
That is why Lutherans will emphasis again and again the hiddenness of God, the mystery of God, the paradox surrounding God – not to be clever or smart but to reflect the basic reality of all existence – all creation is ruined by sin and yet God loves the world so much … and he did send his only Son – to be sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21) – to die as a sinner being found in the likeness of sinful flesh (Romans 8:3) – the perfect sacrifice, sin offering, the Lamb of God – so that you and I and all the world can live! God uses means to come close to us that both reveal and hide him – if not, we could not live for a moment with him in this world.
Isaiah says that he sees the Lord on a throne and he also says that the temple was filled with smoke. His experience of the glory of God – note that this is not God shaking Isaiah by the hand – but God surrounded by the train of his robe, his angels, and smoke is the closest Isaiah gets to God safely and yet his first words are not ‘Wow’ but ‘Woe’ – “Woe is me. I am ruined.”
As an aside we find something similar with Peter and the big catch of fish. He doesn’t whip out his phone and take a selfie with his arm around the shoulder of Jesus and then send it on social media ‘me and the miracle worker’ – no, there’s something about this Jesus that screams at Peter ‘you’re in big trouble, mate’ and he falls down at Jesus’ feet and says, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”.
Isaiah was called to speak to the people of Israel. The Lord asked, “Whom shall I send?” and he said, “Here am I. Send me!” And his message was one that would make the people not understand – their hearts would be calloused, their ears dull, their eyes shut. Isaiah doesn’t then say, ‘Well on second thoughts …’ instead it’s “For how long, O Lord?” – and the answer is stark – ‘until destruction looks almost complete’. Human beings by nature are not those wanting to be saved. We’re not in shark infested waters eagerly scanning the skies for rescue. By nature, we’re blind to the bleedin’ obvious.
Yet God doesn’t abandon us in disgust. He keeps speaking to us – giving us himself – and one day things do make sense in someone’s life – whether young or old the message strikes home: Jesus is true – he did die for me – he is alive again – I can’t live like I’ve been living – Jesus is my hope – Jesus has forgiven me, even me. Such a reality breaks in at different stages in people’s lives – for many it’s a growing awareness – for a few, its dramatic – but it’s something that we can return to as it sinks in that God has rescued us in Jesus – he died for us before we were born – and he gives this new life to us in our Baptism – he’s already done the work! And many people just shake their heads when this truth dawns – how could I be so blind, so stupid?
Do you sometimes wonder just how people can be so blind about Jesus? You talk and talk and they still don’t get it. Don’t be surprised – that’s part of human nature – God won’t desert them and will keep his Word coming to them in various ways. So be patient, speak lovingly, serve them in Christ, and pray.
In our time and place we live in a Christianity saturated society full of symbols, hymns, catch-phrases and the like and many people thus think they know who Jesus is and what he is on about. Thinking they know Christianity, they say ‘Not for me’. Again, God doesn’t leave people to their errors, mistakes, false perceptions, or delusions but continues to speak through his people. And people still come to faith – God corrects mistaken ideas and brings people to the truth about themselves and him – “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” – and he does.
Another big problem is that generally in this world we have turned holiness into goodness, ‘saintliness’, peacefulness, even an inner calm and while people usually don’t want to be bad, they don’t want to be that good either, to be holy, to be saintly. That will cramp my lifestyle too much! And there it is again – always focusing on ourselves and forgetting that only God is holy and if a person is holy they are not God – or even good – in this world sin remains but their identity as a baptised child of God means that they are called ‘holy ones’ or to use the Church word ‘saints’. Christian living is about struggling to live up to our identity always knowing that God is not like us – he is holy and that can both terrify us and comfort us – or as we say in the catechism, “We should fear and love God …”.
God has gone to unimaginable lengths to get close to sinners – a cross, words, water, bread and wine, worship – he will be found only among sinners – and he loves us. That is a life worth living each day and a message worth sharing.
- Isaiah 6:1 - 13