During some downtime a week or so ago, I was scanning the television channels for something interesting to watch.
I parked on the History Channel for a few moments … for once it wasn’t a show about pirate treasure off the coast of Nova Scotia … or a pawn shop in Las Vegas … or about a couple of people rooting through someone’s shed.
It was a show about making bladed weapons in a competition.
Four participants are given materials to create a specific weapon from scratch.
They pound the metal into a shape … heating it in a propane or a coal forge … make it pliable and to remove impurities in the metal. They would then grind and sharpen the blade … create a handle and hilt … and do all this within a specific timeframe.
After each step, the weapon would be judged and those that didn’t pass inspection were removed from the competition.
In the final part of the show, the two remaining participants would test their blades by cutting or stabbing a variety of objects … such as a box filled with sand or a pig carcass. The person who got through the obstacle course the fastest … and whose blade didn’t break … is declared the winner.
If any weakness or impurity went unrecognized at the beginning of the process, then the blade would have trouble accomplishing the task ahead.
Today’s passage from Isaiah is about preparing for the task ahead.
It is an uncertain time for the people.
The king had died and the Assyrians are closing in …
The most-feared army of the day had already conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel and had destroyed most of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
In Jerusalem, where Isaiah is located, there is a sense of insecurity … uncertainty … and fear … over the days ahead. The city is filled with refugees from all the conquered territories.
The sense of fear must have been palatable … people wondering when will the city be over-run? What will happen to the people if the Assyrians breach the walls and take the city? Are they being punished by God?
Now, in the Temple, Isaiah dreams that God sits on a throne … apparently ready to render judgement on the people for what has happened during Uzziah’s reign.
Isaiah insisted that being God’s people involved not only worshipping the One God, but also behaving in ways consistent with God’s plans—and that God’s concern was primarily for those outside the halls of power, those without wealth or social connections.
It is the people’s unwillingness to fully live into their relationship with God that Isaiah fears will end in a bad judgement.
In the dream, Isaiah is confronted by God’s holiness.
Isaiah describes the wondrous sight of God … although he can only see the hem of his robe that flows downward into the Temple. He describes the winged seraphs – covering their mouths and their private areas as the soar around the scene.
Isaiah encounters God in this vision and through the experience encounters who he is.
In this encounter, Isaiah recognizes his own shortcomings … the mistakes he has made … the acts that fell short of God’s expectations … his sinfulness … his uncleanness.
He recognizes the moments when his actions or words were inconsistent with the call to serve.
And as he stands before God, Isaiah truly feels unworthy.
He declares as much:
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!”
After Isaiah’s admission … God acts … cleanses the guilt Isaiah feels and blots out his sins by sending the seraph with a hot coal to touch Isaiah’s lips. The hot coal purifies Isaiah’s lips … frees his heart from shame and guilt … and allows him to hear God speaking.
Lutheran scholar Craig Koester says that today’s passage, “is one that takes us into the mystery of God … and what it means in the encounter with God … to discover something about we ourselves and perhaps a sense of vocation that comes out of all of it.”
Isaiah’s admission allows him to take the next step in his vocation.
After this cleansing, that Isaiah feels worthy to embrace God’s call to serve.
“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God asks.
Isaiah answers, “Here I am.”
Even though this passage is known as the calling of Isaiah … the prophet is never truly called … he volunteers.
Still, the first thing Isaiah said was “Here I am.”
After this passage, Isaiah goes out into an uncertain world … facing an uncertain future … and uncertain of the response his faith-filled actions will receive … to do remarkable things.
Isaiah’s self-awareness and willingness to own his shortcomings is something we are each called to emulate … to recognize our own shortcomings and realize that despite our brokenness … God through his love … forgives us … and calls us to serve by sharing that love.
Like the fire in the forge in that television show … like the coal placed on Isaiah’s lips … our experiences … our own brokenness … informs us … prepares us … tempers us … to proclaim and share the grace we have received … to do remarkable things during an uncertain time and to do them with integrity.
Sharing the gift of grace from an open and authentic heart is especially important as Covid makes its presence known with greater frequency and impact in the life of the community.
It is a time when people can find themselves reeling in fear … uncertain of the time ahead … uncertain what the coming weeks will bring or what the world will look like after the pandemic has swept through.
But it is also a time when our faith community is called to serve … when we can reflect upon the brokenness within ourselves … name it … loosen its hold on us and purify our hearts like a coal from a forge.
And through this act of confession … the act of atonement … we are better prepared to connect … to listen … to heal and to comfort … to serve.
To do … as Isaiah did … remarkable things during uncertain times.