This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, June 18, 2012

We Don't Need Leaders.


Ezekiel 17:22-24

I.
            When Ezekiel was about 30 years old, his country lost a war to the Babylonians.  It was their policy to keep their conquered nations under control by bringing some of their best and brightest to Babylon, more or less as hostages.  Ezekiel and his family were forced to travel over the desert to the east, to the great city of Babylon.  He would live the rest of his life in the ghetto there with the young King Jehoiachin and the other transplanted Jews. 
            Ezekiel would receive God’s call a few years later as he is meditating on the banks of the Chebar River in Babylon.  His ministry would last through the somewhat ambiguous decade in which he and some others were already in Babylon, but many of the Jews still in Judea were planning and executing a rebellion led by Zedekiah.  This would bring on the final catastrophe, when Jerusalem was utterly destroyed in 586.  Ezekiel was trying to forestall this disaster by encouraging his people in Judah to cooperate with the Babylonians and not attempt to get free by violence.  His words, of course, went unheeded.
            He was telling the leaders of his people what they did not want to hear, which is what the prophets seems to be doing most of the time.  The people in those days, like people today, believed in the notoriously un-biblical notion that God helps those who help themselves.  Nothing could be further from the Spirit of the Scriptures.  But still we seem to think that God is somehow our assistant, who responds positively to our agenda, and works to make what we want to happen.
            Ezekiel is called by God to make it clear that God will not deliver the people in any way that restores or vindicates the former regime in Jerusalem.  Human action will not save the people.  But still the people should not lose hope or abandon their faith.  God will deliver them.  It will just be done in God’s way and God’s time.             
            The kind of redemption the people want is that the political and military machinations of those left in Judah succeed.  They had ideas like making an alliance with Egypt, or simply rising in armed rebellion.  Ezekiel advises them to forget about these approaches.  Any deliverance that gives credit to human leaders is bound to fail.  And revolt will only make the Babylonians more angry, and more violent in their repression of the people.  Which is what happens in 586.
            This part of Ezekiel’s book sort of sums all this up.  Chapter 17 starts with a complicated parable, which is basically a warning against resisting Babylonian power.  Ezekiel agrees with his predecessor, Jeremiah, that Judah made a covenant with Babylon which cannot be broken; and that in any case it is God’s will that the people be subjected to Babylonian rule for a time.  It was the consequence of the people repeatedly falling into injustice, which was the result of following the tempting gods of economic growth, like Baal, which the other nations around them worshipped.

II.
            But verses 22-24 are sort of a re-configuration of the parable indicating the promise that God will redeem and liberate the people.
            Back in the first parable, in verses 3 and 4, the top of the cedar tree represents the exiles, led by the king.  The exiles were the top of Jewish society.  Their conquerors cut them off and took them to “a land of trade,” “a city of merchants:” Babylon.  They don’t figure in the parable after that.
            Here in the second parable, though, we find out that this top of the tree will be planted back in Jerusalem, which is “the mountain height of Israel.”  In other words, the exiles will return.  And of course, they do.
            But the new planting that emerges from this topmost sprig from the old tree will grow and “become a noble cedar.”  Now, this is evidently no ordinary cedar.  Ordinary cedars cannot grow roots from a cutting, and they don’t bear edible fruit.  This is a special, God-blessed and super-endowed, symbolic cedar.
            It will “bear fruit,” meaning that it will not be just majestic and beautiful, but it will nourish people.  It will be a source of wisdom.  This may be said to have happened as well.  The exiles returned to Jerusalem and reestablished Judaism on a new foundation of the newly edited and completed Torah, and the spiritual disciplines of keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath.  They also built synagogues in every village so the people could gather and study God’s Word.  And they would eventually rebuild the Temple as well.  In this new regime people could be spiritual fed much better than before.
            This super cedar tree would also provide a home for “every kind of bird,” and “winged creatures of every kind.”  What this tells us is that rather than stay a parochial religion for one little nation in the Middle East, the new manifestation of Judaism is supposed to embrace and welcome everyone.  It will be a fulfillment of the promise God gave to Abraham way back in Genesis, about how his descendants will be a blessing to all nations.
            Unfortunately, although God does perform a stupendous miracle and the Jews do go back to Jerusalem, this part of the vision did not happen when the exiles returned.  In fact, the restored nation and religion was arguably even more closed and limited than the earlier version.  They made it their business to be pure and separate, even to the point of oppressing the people of the land, many of whom were non-Jews shipped in by the Babylonians to occupy the land.

III.
            It would take another 500 years for this part of the prophecy to be fulfilled, and it would be fulfilled by two more Jewish prophets.  Their names were Jesus and Paul.  In fact, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming that the time is fulfilled, that is, the time that has had to elapse before this part of Ezekiel’s prophecy, and other prophecies, could be fulfilled is now over. 
            Therefore, we Christians hear this passage as referring to Jesus the promised Messiah, who finally does come and welcome all people into the family of God.  He becomes the final revelation of Ezekiel’s great cedar tree that becomes a source of wisdom and a home for all peoples.  And he becomes the final revelation of God’s inexorable plan for turning human systems and projects upside down.
            “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”  And in Jesus this of course is exactly what happens.  It is prophesied again by his mother, when she sings that famous hymn about how God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
            This is the part the returning exiles didn’t get.  They thought they had to impose righteousness and justice on the people by coercion and regulation.  But after 500 years of this strategy Jesus comes along and points out what a failure it has been in making people good. 
            What the leaders don’t realize is that true greatness emerges from the low tree, and true life shines from the dried up and practically dead tree.  I think Ezekiel is saying that the new, reformed version of Judaism will not have leaders like the kings before.  It will not be about these high trees that lord it over people anymore.  Neither will the people be led by the prosperous green trees.  In other words, power and wealth are not sources of authority in the newly reestablished faith.  Rather, authority will emerge from the low, the poor, and the excluded, even the diseased, the suffering, and the dead. 
            Because if Ezekiel learned anything from his experience dealing with military commanders and their plans, it is that this kind of power corrupts and separates someone from the God who lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud.  When left to their own thinking they engage in suicidal rebellions that cause the deaths of thousands.  Ezekiel sees that God is giving up on trying to work through kings and powerful, wealthy people.

IV.
            But for Ezekiel, and later for Jesus and his apostles, it is all about God.  God is a God of miracles.  God does the unlikely and the impossible.  It is God’s amazing and unexpected action that brings the exiles home, not the self-serving and disastrous rebellions of their leaders, which only drew down horrific suffering on the people.
            Ezekiel’s vision has yet to be fully realized, even today.  We’re still choosing our leaders from the wealthy and powerful, even in the church. 
            Lately I have had occasion to reflect a good deal about the nature of leadership.  I have been increasingly astounded and disappointed by the leaders I have known in society and in the church.  Those who make themselves high trees of power and/or green trees of wealth have mostly shown themselves to be corrupted, disastrous leaders.  Too often they preach a message intended to stoke our fear and anger, and we blithely and even enthusiastically follow them into war, debt, injustice, inequality, ecological catastrophe, and economic collapse… and then we get to pay the price!
            The church, after simple beginnings where leaders were chosen based on God’s call, eventually degenerated into an institution dominated by often corrupt, monarchical bishops.  Today we’re still trying to get over the “CEO” model of ecclesiastical leadership, which has been instrumental in snuffing out the work of the Holy Spirit for about 60 years now.
            But around the edges of the church something else has been happening, an alternative understanding of leadership that listens to the low trees and the dried up trees, the people at the bottom who do the work and with whom God identifies in Jesus Christ.
            Jesus insists that this is what the Kingdom of God is like.  It is like seed scattered on the ground that somehow sprouts and grows seemingly on its own.  “The earth produces of itself,” he says.  There is no central executive office telling seeds what to do.  There is no seed-king giving orders that the seeds have to obey.  There is no command-and-control hierarchy for seeds.  They just know because that’s the way God made them.  This knowledge of how to live and grow is embedded and encoded within them.  Just as he says the Kingdom of God is within us.  It is God who brings the growth, emerging from within us.  We mainly just have to get out of the way. 
            Just as with seeds, God places within each of us the ability to grow in the Spirit.  This law, says Paul, after Jeremiah, is written on our hearts.

V.
            The days are coming and are now here when we will not need leaders.  The only leaders we can use now are those who will continually remind us that we do not need leaders.  We will realize that Jesus Christ is our only leader, the only Head of the Church.  Compared to him we are all on the same level.  We all look to him to lead us, by his Word and Spirit in the gathering of his disciples.  We have different gifts and different responsibilities in the body of Christ.  But we have only one Lord and one Head.
            The Protestant movement of the 16th century will have at least one lasting legacy and that is “the priesthood of all believers.”  God gives each follower sufficient authority to be a follower.  Our access to God is direct.  We have no need of leaders to function as “middlemen.”  God works in and through the gathering of these different perspectives and gifts.  If an institution appears to require someone to take special charge over others then it is probably too big to be faithful.
            Under Jesus’ vision, which is a development and fulfillment of Ezekiel’s vision, it is up to each individual believer to find within themselves the presence of the Kingdom of God.  We each have to find our own specially calling from God and identify the gifts God has given is to fulfill this calling.  This happens when we gather together in community to hear and respond to God’s Word, Jesus Christ. 
            This community necessarily reaches out to and welcomes and embraces every category of person.  It does not exclude or reject anyone.  In fact, like Jesus, it makes a point of locating and drawing in the most unlikely and different people.
            And there is a responsibility here for each one to listen for God’s Word by reading Scripture, and participating in the Sacraments, and praying regularly, and gathering with other disciples to discern God’s will together.
            For in the end, we are the noble cedar tree.  We are the ones who bear fruit and grow.  We are the ones who were low but now have been lifted up.  We are the ones who were dried up and dead, but now have engaged in new life.  Ezekiel prophesied about us.  For Jesus Christ is the top-most branch that now blooms and grows, and spreads its blessings across the whole creation.  And we are the heirs of his promise, his family, his body on the earth.
+++++++   
           
 
             
                 
    


           

Thursday, June 14, 2012

It's All Good.


Genesis 3:8-15

I.
            This is a story we all think we know so well.  Let’s recap what took place just before they two humans hear the Lord God walking in the garden.
            First of all, remember that at the end of chapter one we are told; “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”  So the whole creation is good.  God did not make anything that wasn’t good.  It’s all good, as they say.
            We proceed through the story of how human beings are created, and we get to a point where there are two individuals in the garden of creation, a man and a woman.  The serpent, which is one of those beings that God made and declared very good, was also made “crafty.”  That was one of the virtues with which this particular life-form was endowed. 
            Later interpreters felt that some alien evil power must have taken over the serpent’s body, because it was incomprehensible to them that part of God’s good creation would suddenly start challenging and contradicting the Lord’s warning about what will happen if the people eat the fruit of this tree.
            The serpent promises them that if they eat this fruit, their eyes will be opened, and they will be like gods, knowing good and evil.  This is the first suggestion that there is anything evil in the creation to know.  Which we already know there isn’t.  The serpent latches on to the idea of evil, then says that the people don’t know about it because it is something only gods know.  So in one crafty sentence, the serpent has given the humans two fatal and false ideas.  One is that there is such a thing as evil, and the other is that the people are somehow imperfect, inadequate, and incomplete as God created them.  They need an upgrade, they need to become like gods.
            The serpent says their eyes will be opened; but what actually happens is that their eyes are closed when they disobey God.  This is the bitter irony of this whole passage.  The people don’t become wise; they become delusional because they think there is this thing out there called evil.  Instead of seeing the good creation as it is, they start imagining around everything these dark shadows.  Instead of seeing the whole place and themselves as good, complete, and perfect, they start to imagine that there is some better thing they have to strive to be: gods.  They have started to interpret themselves as inadequate failures living in a dangerous and fearsome world.
            And they start to act this way.  Imagining that they are somehow bad and imperfect, they decide to hide or cover themselves by making rudimentary clothing out of fig leaves.  Back at the end of chapter 2 there was no shame in their lives because they knew themselves and the whole world to be good, holy, blessed, and perfect.  Nothing needed to be covered up and hidden, least of all the people themselves.  Now, 7 verses later, after this conversation with the serpent and their decision to eat the fruit, they think there is something wrong with them that needs to be kept hidden.

II.
            Instead of becoming wise, they become stupid and delusional.  Instead of their eyes being opened, they become blind to the deliriously beautiful spectacle of divine goodness all around them.  Instead of becoming like gods, they imagine they are defective, incomplete, failures.  Instead of knowing good and evil, they lose their knowledge of goodness by choosing to believe the lie that there is evil in the world at all. 
            The only thing the serpent was right about is that they did not immediately drop dead when they ate the fruit, which God had warned them would happen.  But they do now eventually die. Having invented evil out of their own imaginations, they now basically bring death into the world, too.
            This is where we pick up the story for today.  The people hear God walking in the garden (and in iconography, by the way, the Lord is Jesus), and they hide, because now they think they are imperfect.  And they are also guilty for their disobedience.
            So the Lord says, “Hey, where are you guys?  What’s going on?”  And the man answers, presumably from behind a bush or something: “I heard you walking in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 
            In addition to the accomplishment of inventing shame, he has also just invented fear, by the way.  Two more things he completely made up as a response to this new deluded, false understanding of the world they live in.  I mean they still live in the Garden of Eden, for crying out loud, and they’re acting like they’re stuck in a dangerous jungle where there is a threat behind every tree.  They have chosen to live a monstrous lie.
            Then the Lord asks this wonderful question of them.  “Who told you that you were naked?”  Where did you get this idea that there is something wrong, incomplete, defective, shameful about you?  I made you perfect!  When did that change?  Who told you that what you are isn’t good enough?  Who said you have to be something better?  Why are you believing these lies?  Look around you!  Look at yourselves!  You’re still the people I made you! 

III.
            You can just hear the Lord’s disappointment.  It would be like having a daughter who becomes obsessed with the idea that she isn’t beautiful, and begins to hate and punish herself for it.  It would be like having a son who gets it into his head that he is bad and stupid, and decides he has to act that way.  We are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, folks, and if we for whatever reason tell ourselves lies then we will live in those lies rather than in the truth of God’s love and goodness.
            The Lord God is crestfallen and brokenhearted here.  These children have chosen to embrace and live in a colossal lie.  They have chosen to turn this wonderful, fantastic garden into a desolate wasteland.
            And no amount of objective data is going to convince them otherwise.  They have willfully blinded themselves to the truth, convincing themselves that only now do they finally see clearly.
            So God kind of deflates and says: “You ate the fruit of that tree, didn’t you?  The one in the middle of the garden.  The one about the knowledge of good and evil.  The one I warned you about.
            To which the man replies: “It’s not my fault!  It’s your fault, since you put her here!  She gave it to me.  How was I supposed to know?”  (Of course, back in verse 6 we see that he was standing right there when she had that whole conversation with the serpent.)
            The Lord does not challenge the man’s evasion of the blame.  It’s like the Lord doesn’t even care about the blame.  God is just trying to get to the bottom of how much damage has been done here.  So God looks to the woman, and she says: “It’s not my fault!  It’s that serpent that you made and put here.  He tricked me.  How was I supposed to know?”
            So this whole little community commences to fall apart into mutual recrimination, as each person seeks to avoid blame by blaming another.  Having lost their perception of the truth that we are all one in creation, they accept the lie that they are all enemies, separate and unequal. 
            Instead of life being a perpetual “win-win” where each member of the system shares in the growth, prosperity, goodness, blessing, and joy of the whole, where there therefore are no deficits, no inequalities, no scarcity, and everyone is fully provided for, now we have people throwing each other under the bus to save their own skin.  All because they have chosen to believe these lies.

IV.
            Finally, God looks at the serpent.  If the serpent followed the pattern established by the two people, we might expect it to in turn blame the devil!  But it doesn’t.  The serpent is apparently done talking.  God pronounces that the serpent will be cursed by having to slither in the dust of the ground, and that there will be permanent enmity between humans and snakes.
            Indeed, there will be hostility now between the humans and all creatures, and each other, because the humans decided this was a more perceptive and wise way to live.  Now they imagine they know evil, and proceed to inflict evil on other creatures, even though evil isn’t real.
            To imagine that there is good and evil is itself evil because you are dividing up what God created as a unity.  God made the whole place good, but we have decided that this part or that part isn’t.  We’re going to decide that this part is evil.  We have to hate it, control it, kill it, or hide it.
            To imagine that we are not good and perfect as we are, that we have to attain to some imaginary god status, that we have to push ourselves to some additional perfection, that we have to earn or deserve grace by our actions or our opinions… all this is delusion.
            But now this has become all but real because we have built civilization upon these very premises, these lies.  They have a semi-quasi-apparent reality because we are so thoroughly indoctrinated into living like this.  We figure that if everyone else sees things this way and acts accordingly, it must be true.
            And whenever someone comes along and suggests otherwise, we decide they are either possessed or insane.  This is what happens to Jesus.  He comes into the world, positively glowing with the goodness and blessing of God.  He starts liberating people from these corrupt and false ideas and ways of acting, gathering people together in equality, and what do the powers say?  “He has gone out of his mind!”  “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons!” 
            Be afraid, be very afraid! 
            Our original ancestors dreamed up a divided and hostile world.  Jesus comes to heal by showing that this division, this dividedness, is false and therefore suicidal.  It cannot stand.  It will always and perpetually fall.  We have always and perpetually been falling ever since.  That’s why it’s called The Fall.
            The only way to solve this mess is to address, immobilize, bind up the “strong man.”  That is the only way to plunder his property, which is to say, get the resources hoarded by a corrupt system out of the house of the strong man and spread out among the people as God intended.  Inequality means some have more and others less; the remedy for this is to take from one and give to the others.  In order to do this you have to tie up the strong man.

V.
            The strong man represents, well, literally the strong men who use violence to take what they want and enforce their will on others.  They take advantage of our belief in evil and in our own imperfections, and use these ideas against us to put them at the top.
            The strong man therefore also represents the mentality we have been talking about from Genesis 3: the imagination of evil and the delusion that we are imperfect creatures, the notion that we really see things as they are.  The strong man represents the grip this way of thinking has on our lives. 
            When Jesus calls for “repentance” the word he uses is “metanoia,” which means gaining a different way of thinking.  It means changing our minds and altering the way our minds process information.  This bears fruit in new kinds of actions, of course.
            In other words, we have to stop thinking that we are imperfect, incomplete, defective, flawed, and inadequate creatures, and recover the memory of Genesis 1 and 2, which says that the whole creation is good and so are we.  We don’t have to be gods.  We don’t have to be super-human.  Not only is there no shame in being human, there is great blessing!  In Jesus, God the Creator becomes human!  What greater affirmation do we require than that?
            Secondly, we have to stop thinking as if evil had any actual reality.  God didn’t create it.  You can blame it on Satan, or on our own foolish choices.  But evil isn’t real and need not exercise any power over us at all.  Whatever power it has is what we, by our fear, shame, and anger, have given it.
            And finally, we have to realize that we are blinded by our delusions about who we are, what the world is, and who God is.  Somehow we have to open our eyes and see what is really here.  The most effective way to do this is to look at Jesus Christ, the Word of God, and through him study the Scriptures and the whole creation.
            We have to follow – not our own prejudices, habits, desires, fears, standards, and feelings – but Jesus Christ, God’s Word, and his commandments.  Then we shift our membership from the fallen gang of isolated individuals, perpetually at war with each other, to the gathering of God’s people, Jesus’ family, in the Kingdom of God.  We shift our allegiance from lies to the truth, from darkness to light, from death to life.  
            “Who are my mother and my brothers?” calls Jesus.  He looks at those gathered around him, and says: “Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
            God calls us, in Jesus, back into that blessed and holy relationship we had before we decided that we needed to be better.  God calls us into the new, restored family, where there are no strong men, where there is no finger-pointing, no hiding and no shame, and no fear.  Only a holy community of equality, blessing, goodness, and joy.
+++++++

Glory.


Isaiah 6:1-8
I.
            Worship in Jerusalem in the 8th century before Jesus was somewhat different from our worship today.  It took place in Solomon’s Temple and it involved a prodigious amount of incense.  (This was still the case in Jesus’ time, as we see from the experience of Jesus’ grandfather, Zechariah, in the Temple.)  The interior of the Temple was designed and decorated with various symbols, representing the created order, earthly and heavenly.  In fact the Temple at the same time represented the whole of creation, and the heavenly throne-room of God.  Which is to say that God’s creation is God’s throne-room.  We hear this in several Psalms, the Psalms being the prayerbook/hymnal of the Second Temple.
            One of the purposes of worship in the Temple was to produce a kind of altered state of consciousness.  People – priests mainly – went into the Temple, at least in part, to have visions.  Sometimes those visions actually get written down, as here with Isaiah.
            Now, visions of God’s glory were existentially terrifying experiences.  The few we have accounts of are almost indescribable.  They are pretty harrowing, and no one who has had one is ever the same again.
            Isaiah the prophet is in there and he has a vision.  It is the year of the death of King Uzziah, who has been king for 52 years.  He was one of the few kings of Judah who gets a passing grade from the writers of the biblical history.  But now it is a time of transition. 
            The nation’s years of relative stability are over.  A war was breaking out in which the northern kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram, or Syria, were about to invade the southern kingdom of Judah because Judah refused to join them in an alliance against the powerful Assyrians to the north.
            In his vision, Isaiah sees the Lord on the throne.  The throne was the lid of the ark of the covenant.  And he also sees seraphs, which were monstrous, winged, fiery, serpent-like heavenly beings.  There were two large, carved seraphs in the temple; maybe Isaiah saw these spring to life!  They sing the hymn: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 
            The “holiness” of God refers to God’s otherness, or transcendence.  God is above and beyond creation; God is separate; and yet a the same time they sing: “the whole earth is full of his glory.”  So God, or at least God’s glory, is also right here as well.  This idea, that God can be both infinitely distant from the creation, as well as at the same time somehow intimately embedded within it, is an insight the eventually led to the Christian understanding of the Trinity.

II.
            You can see that there is a liturgical structure here as well.  The first response in coming into God’s presence is praise.  And even today, praise is the beginning of our worship experience every Sunday. 
            The second response on the part of the worshiper is, well, terror.  The prophet is so overawed and overwhelmed by this experience of God’s glory that he has to confess his own unworthiness.  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  God’s holiness, goodness, size, and power are overwhelming, and the only reaction is a recognition of how small and imperfect and vulnerable we are by comparison.
            In other words, he realizes his own sinfulness, and that he does not have adequate language to describe or appropriately praise this awesome God.  His “unclean lips” refers to this inability to communicate anything accurate about this God; God is beyond language, our words all fail.  And his people, who make it their business to praise and obey God, have the same problem.  God is beyond words; our words don’t cut it.  In fact, Any language about God is necessarily idolatrous when compared to the real thing.
            There is no encounter with God in which a person does not gain the conviction of being completely out of their depth and a veritable bug, liable to be completely annihilated by God’s sheer hugeness, goodness, and power, that threatens to simply blast you to pieces by its tremendous light.  In an encounter with the living God your first, only, and most heartfelt hope is for survival.
            Then comes the third part of the liturgy.  One of the seraphs, these spirit-monsters, takes a hot coal from the incense altar.  It uses tongs, less to prevent it from being burned but to protect the prophet from being touched by a seraph.  And the seraph touches his mouth with this red-hot, live coal as an act of purification.  His flesh is not burned, but the effect is to take away his sin and guilt so that he will be a worthy vehicle to serve the Lord and speak the word of the Lord. 
            God’s Word cannot issue forth from unclean, sinful, guilty lips.  It is the most presumptuous thing in the world for someone like me, or even a great prophet like Isaiah, to stand here and attempt to bring God’s Word to people.  It would be like trying to push multiple gigawatts of electricity through a small piece of copper wire: it would vaporize in a second into a puff of ozone smoke.  God purifies the ones whom God chooses to deliver the Word.  You have to have your sin burned off of you first.

III.
            Then comes the final part of the liturgy, the sending.  God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  And the prophet replies, “Here I am; send me!”  Isaiah, once he is purified, feels he is ready for this task.  He raises his hand.  He volunteers.  He is clearly overawed and swept away by the experience, because in his normal mind he would have known that to volunteer for this job was absolute insanity.  To become the spokes-person for the Lord basically to attempt to do the impossible and have everyone hate you for it.  Nevertheless, he volunteers; which is a good thing because when God calls you there is no saying no anyway.
            So, he then receives his orders.  He is to preach to the people even though they will not listen.  Indeed, God prevents them from listening; God hardens their hearts so they can’t understand and obey, even if they wanted to.  God’s plan is too big for their participation.  They’d only muck it up.  Jesus says the same thing, by the way.  He says he speaks in parables so people won’t get it.  Because when people of unclean lips think they get something they really don’t. 
            Isaiah is going to be sent into the maelstrom of middle east politics, which was at least as much of a quicksand of duplicity, violence, ambiguity, and contradictions then as it is today.  He is going to bring God’s word to the king and give him explicit advice about foreign policy… and the king, of course, is going to have none of it.  He will ignore God’s words and do what he wants.  The consequences for this will be terrible… but they won’t happen for nearly a century, when the nation is all but destroyed by the Babylonians.  And seventy more years after that unspeakable catastrophe, God is going to start over, like a new sprout emerges from the burned stump of a cut tree.
            The entire book of Isaiah needs to be read through the miraculous experience recounted in chapters 40-55, the people’s deliverance from exile in Babylon.  Just as Jesus’ entire life circles towards his crucifixion and resurrection, the entire history of God’s people is moving towards the exile and restoration.  And it is all a repetition of the original pattern of bondage and deliverance we see in the exodus story. 
            The meaning of our faith and the faith of the Scriptures and of Jesus the Messiah may be summed up most briefly in the affirmation that God brings people from darkness to light, from bondage to freedom, from sin to redemption, from disease to healing, and from death to life.  This is the underlying trajectory of the whole creation, which originates when God brings order out of chaos by the Word and Spirit, and is fulfilled in creation’s renewal and transfiguration at the end.
             
IV.
            This movement, perhaps, is the way we experience the glory of God.  The whole earth is full of this glory, after all.  Isaiah’s vision is of the Lord’s pervasive presence within creation.  It happens in the Temple, which represented creation; and the seraphs specifically sing about the whole earth being full of God’s glory. 
            The question becomes one of how do we participate in what God is doing in creation.  For we are also people of unclean lips in the sense that our words are inadequate and generally get in the way, even when they are accurate and accurately understood, which is almost never.
            The burning coal that takes away our sin is Jesus Christ.  God gives him to the world out of love so that when we trust in him, believe in him, our relationship with God and creation is restored and purified.  In him, by the power of the Holy Spirit he gives us, God’s justice and love become our way of life as justice and love come to characterize our life together.
            When that happens we also find ourselves sent out into the world with a message.  It is a message that we preach in words, certainly.  Words are important; they indicate whom we are obeying.  At the same time it is a message that we live with our actions and show in our relationships.  It starts by the way we exhibit justice and love together in the gathering of disciples, the church.  And it extends into the way we relate to others in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, shops, and other community places.
            In the end, even though Isaiah has a lot of bad news to deliver, the final resolution is good news:  there will be a new sprout that emerges from the burned stump.  God’s people will be redeemed.  They shall not perish forever.  For in the end God sends this message to Isaiah, and God sends the Son into the world, and the Son sends us into the world… not to condemn the world, but that the world might have life through him.
            We have now to be emissaries of that life.  We have to be examples of that life.  We have to show that whoever trusts in the Lord Jesus and lives by his example and commandments, will not perish but have eternal life.  That eternal life begins here and now.
+++++++