This sermon looks at the story of Isaiah’s call to ministry found in Isaiah 6:1-8. Here we see a cycle of three qualities that are necessary to form us into servants of God.
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I invite you to take out the insert labeled “What’s the Big Idea?” There is some background information on the text, some discussion questions for you to take home, and a place to take notes.
What do you think of when you hear the word service?
We take our car to the service station. We call to have our cable service hooked up. We attend a worship service.
The dictionary says it is the action of helping or doing work for someone.
A system supplying a public need such as transport, communications, or utilities such as electricity and water.
Now, what do you think of when you hear the word servant?
Here we see the service staff of Downton Abby, a sculpture of an Egyptian servant grinding wheat.
The dictionary says it is a person who performs duties for others, expecially a person employed in a house on domestic duties or as a personal attendant.
If we’re honest, our society has a strata, and the service positions are on the bottom.
This month we are focusing on the spiritual practice of service.
So, why is service such a big deal? Why would an intelligent, upwardly mobile, suburbanite want to focus time and energy on being a servant?
Listen to what Jesus said in
Luke 22:24–26 (NRSV)
24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.”
Service is at the core of our identity as followers of Jesus. The spiritual practice of service helps us put our life into perspective.
This is what I see in our text today. We jumped back onto the Narrative Lectionary last week when Pastor Mark led us through the story of an unlikely servant named Jonah.
Today, we jump over to Isaiah 6:1-8.
As I meditated on the text this week, it was marinating in both our theme for the month of service and a week in which we had presidential election. Framed between those two things, what I see in this text is the Making of a Servant. As we walk through this bizarre vision, we’ll see three qualities that make up a servant of God.
Let’s set the scene. This is Isaiah. We don’t know exactly who he was, but it is likely that he was a priest, since he was approaching the temple.
This is Solomon’s temple. I like to show it in the context of an American football field to help us understand its size.
The story starts out, “In the year that King Uzziah died…”
The year is 739 BC. The Empire of Assyria is moving west. This is the beginning of a serious military threat that will eventually bring about the downfall of the northern kingdom, Israel, the destruction of the capital city of Samaria (along with many other cities of Israel and Judah) and the deportation of large segments of the population. The Assyrians are on the brink of establishing the empire that will dominate the ancient Near East for over a century.”
The people of Jerusalem are afraid. Their king is dead. A terrifying enemy looms on the horizon. The nation is divided. What are they going to do?
This is the context for this moment when Isaiah enters the temple and has a dramatic vision where God is pictured as a king sitting on a throne. God is so large that the temple serves as a footstool.
Mystical creatures, called the Seraph (or seraphim, in the plural form), swarmed around God’s throne. The seraph was a fiery serpent and many ancient cultures depicted them as protectors of the gods. These seraphim, however, were protecting themselves from the glory of God. That is why they were covering their eyes and their genitals (the real meaning of “feet”). They cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy!” The three-part repetition means “beyond the ultimate.”
I see a three-part cycle in this passage that paints a portrait of what the qualities of a servant of God look like:
A servant is humbled. Notice that it is not that a servant is humble. That would be something that the individual does or projects from the inside. No, in this passage, and in life, a servant is humbled by exposure to the divine. We usually require a swift spiritual kick to the head to break us free of our myopic, self-absorbed agenda.
When we honestly encounter the divine, it has a way of piercing right through us. This usually happens when we encounter something that reminds us of how big the world is and how small our own perspective is. This past weekend I was at the annual conference of the Religious Education Association. There were speakers and scholars from around the world and from many faiths. I heard muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant men and women all talk about how to teach hope in our world. It was a humbling experience.
When you encounter God it is like a bright beam of truth shines into the deep corners of your soul and reminds you of how much fear and prejudice you still have inside. And it hurts, and it destroys you.
God must humble us before we can serve well.
The second quality we see is that a servant is forgiven. The grace of God is demonstrated beautifully in this story. God did not deny that Isaiah was a man of unclean lips, or that the people were the same. In fact, God had every right to incinerate Isaiah right there.
Instead, God cleanses Isaiah and makes him whole again. This is another act of humbling. We don’t earn God’s grace, forgiveness, and cleansing. It is a unconditional gift.
When I am confronted by my own fear and prejudice and anger, I am reminded that it is only by the grace of God that I can do anything. I stand before you today, not because of any great accomplishment or merit, but because I have been made clean and set free by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Think about that for a moment. Let that soak in.
You know who you are…who you really are when no one is looking. If God were to touch your lips with the burning coal, would you expect to burst into flames? I would.
And yet, God reverses the process and the fire purifies us.
What does that do to you?
If we really grasp the mystery of God’s love and grace, just like God demonstrated to the people of Nineveh last week, it sets us free, and it opens us up. A servant is open. Being undone in the presence of God, and then being redone by the presence of God has a way of changing one’s perspective. Whatever Isaiah may have been holding on to when he entered the temple–the fear of the invading Assyrians, the uncertainty of the country’s political future in the wake of the king’s death, the social unrest and violence in the streets due to the impending invasion–it fell away in light of this vision. His hands opened up to God and he simply said, “Here I am.”
I said this is a cycle, because it is difficult to be humbled if you are not first open to the possibility of it. The more closed you are to being humbled, the more severe the side-kick to the head needs to be to open you up. Perhaps Isaiah was desperate enough, and open enough that he was open to the vision in the first place.