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In the United Methodist Church the process of ordination is very long
and involved. It begins with one’s candidacy, continues
through seminary, and concludes with the end of a probationary
For me, that was from 1986 to 1991. Each year there are reports to be filed and interviews to undergo with the district and conference boards of ordination.
And although the details may change from year to year and meeting to meeting, an ordinand can expect one question--or rather request--to keep popping up: “Tell us about your call.”
In fact, I heard this so frequently it almost became tiresome. But what it boils down to is this: “Why are you here? Why do you want to be ordained? What is it you want to do with the rest of your life?”
But it is helpful to be in seminary with others who are being asked the same kinds of questions; because we can share our own personal stories.
And one thing we learn very early is that our individual calls are usually not of a very dramatic nature. We are usually not, like Saul of Tarsus, struck blind on the road to Damascus.
Our experiences are usually far more subtle, more complex. And they are usually not comprised of a single story but of many woven together.
We may be able to identify a strategic “moment” of call, but the fulness of our calling is usually rather elaborate.
This morning I would draw your attention to one of the most significant calls by God recorded in scripture. It is the call of the one I would consider the most significant prophet in the Bible, the prophet cited most frequently by Jesus in his gospel teachings, the prophet Isaiah.
At the opening to the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, we read, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.”
We can place this somewhere in the vicinity of 738 to 742 B. C. E. Uzziah has been king of Judah for about forty years.
It is about one hundred fifty years before Judah falls to the Babylonians, but only about twenty years before the nation of Israel falls.
In Isaiah’s vision we are probably in the temple in Jerusalem. In the temple, in the inner sanctum, was a 15-foot-high throne. We know this from a detailed description of the furnishings of the temple in the sixth chapter of First Kings. Of course, what you will find there will be measurements in cubits, but a cubit was about a foot and a half.
And when Isaiah speaks of the hem of God’s robe filling the temple, he is simply attempting to convey a God too gigantic to be contained in the temple.
So we have here a mixture of the real and the mystical. The temple of Solomon was a real place; but within that context, Isaiah is having a mystical experience, a vision, of God.
“Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings; with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew.”
Now, if you’ve never heard of seraphs or seraphim before, that’s understandable. This is the only time we encounter them in the Bible. Because they were “in attendance above God,” we can probably assume that they were heavenly creatures, or celestial beings, or angels, or something of that order.
It is also suggested that they were serpents, or cobras, but scholars are in disagreement on that.
Most intriguing are the six wings. Because the seraphs have faces and feet, there are obviously human aspects to them. But what are the wings all about?
Wings to fly suggest our classical, traditional vision of angels. But why the other four wings? My guess is that the wings to cover the faces is so that the seraphs may not look upon the face of God.
You may recall that even Moses was not allowed to see the face of God. And the children of Israel were fearful that if they saw God, they would die. Finally, two wings to cover their feet?
Reference to the feet in Hebrew writings was frequently euphemistic in referring to sexual nakedness; which, in turn, if we recall Adam and Eve in the Garden, is a reference to sinful disobedience.
In a sense, we might say that the seraphs are hiding themselves from God. But in another sense, we might say that the covering of the face and the feet is an act of reverence of God.
“And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
It is like an announcement, like a call to worship. Angels have proclaimed the presence of God.
When I was in high school and singing in the choir--which was about forty-five years and two hymnals ago--after the choir had entered the sanctuary during the prelude and taken its place in the chancel, the service began with its singing, “The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
And the scene is almost set. But since we are talking about the call of God to Isaiah, I want you to notice some things. This is a physically, mystically located experience.
We have a throne, and the hem of God’s robe, and these strange creatures. And, you may be filling your mind with notions like, “so that is what it means to be called by God!” But if you are, let me assure you that most pastors I know have never had experiences like that. In other words, don’t believe that this is the ONLY way in which God calls people to service. Most of the time, it is a lot more subtle than this.
So what happens after the seraphs announce the presence of God?
“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.”
And it would seem that Isaiah is describing an earthquake. But were the voices of those who called, the seraphs, truly responsible for the shaking of the pivots on the thresholds? Or was it simply the presence of God?
In describing the events of the crucifixion and the resurrection, Matthew has written, in the fifty-first verse of the twenty-seventh chapter, at the point of Jesus’ death, “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”
And Matthew continues, in the fifty-fourth verse, “Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
And then, in the second verse of the twenty-eighth chapter, as the two Marys approach the tomb, “And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.”
But what are we to make of the house being filled with smoke? Well, I am reminded of how God manifested Godself to the children of Israel during their escape from Egypt. In the twenty-first and twenty-second verses of the thirteenth chapter of Exodus, we read, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.
“Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.”
So, what is Isaiah’s response?
“And I said: “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!”
Well, it sounds like a prayer of confession. But we may wonder, what is the significance of “unclean lips”? And I think we find our answer to that question in the gospel according to Matthew. In the fifteenth chapter the Pharisees are berating Jesus because his disciples do not observe the ceremonial hand-washing before meals. Jesus has a long response, but listen to these verses in particular.
In the eleventh verse, he says, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
And then, in the seventeenth through the nineteenth verses, we read, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?
“But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”
But to return to Isaiah:
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs.”
And it is read-between-the-lines time again. What motivated the seraph to fly to Isaiah with a live coal, so hot that it is being handled with tongs?
Well, take another look at what Isaiah has just said, and ask yourself, “Why did he say what he did? What was his motivation for that? Was he trying to send some other message about his “unclean lips”?”
Think back. When has something like this happened before? In the third and fourth chapters of Exodus, God has a long talk with Moses. God has a job for him.
And Moses tries every excuse he can think of to get out of doing that job. And in the tenth verse of the fourth chapter, we read, “But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
And after God blows that argument away, Moses is reduced to whining, in the thirteenth verse, “O my Lord, please send someone else.”
So do you suppose that maybe, just maybe, Isaiah might be trying to get out of being sent by God when he wails, “Woe is me! I am lost.”
So this seraph has this live coal, and “The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
And I think the message to Isaiah is rather clear: “You no longer have any excuses.”
In a corollary fashion, many of us pastors go through this kind of process.
We may never reach the point when we believe that our guilt has departed and our sin is blotted out; but we do come to believe that God finds us acceptable and useful for God’s purposes just as we are.
“Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
Actually, I think a more believeable response to such a question from God is, “You talkin’ to ME?”
But seriously, look closely at what God is asking; and the words are identical in the King James Version and the New Revised Standard Version. They have not changed in hundreds of years.
God is asking two questions. The first question sounds like God is in charge: “Whom shall I send?”
And it also sounds like a United Methodist question, when the bishops and the district superintendents sit around trying to figure out what to do with their pastors. And by the way, you’re stuck with me for another year.
But the second question is completely different. God is asking for volunteers! “Who will go for us?”
So which is it? Does God call us or send us? Or both? I’m reminded of the description of courtship: a man chases a woman until she catches him. And in our spiritual journeys, I believe that God is continually sending all variety of messages to us, wishing that whenever we do sincerely respond, we will do so voluntarily and with joy.
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