2020 will surely be one of those years that will live on by simply saying the number 2020. It’s like saying “9/11.” Just say those two numbers together to any American and you will usually get a visceral response.
This is has been one of those years that has shaken us up with pandemic, violence in the streets, a nasty election season, deep political divisions. It’s a mess, we’re still in it, and, my guess is that you are still filled with a great level of anxiety about where it is all going.
It is one of those years. Remember 2020.
A year like this leaves me with two questions:
What is God trying to say to us in all this?
And, How am I supposed to be in all this?
Our story today speaks to these questions, and gives us a little bit of hope, even in the midst of a dark time.
We are continuing our series “People of Faith, Stories of Faith.”
Last week we met a prophet named Jonah who was very reluctant to bring the message of God’s grace and forgiveness to his enemies. We saw God’s faithfulness in the face of Jonah’s unwillingness.
This week we see just the opposite. We encounter a man named Isaiah who shows us a picture of faithfulness in the midst of a faithless generation.
This passage gives us one perspective and three positions that will help us know how to be in this year.
First, let’s look at the PERSPECTIVE.
It starts out in one of those years.
In the year that King Uzziah dies.
Oh, THAT year.
It means nothing to our 21st century ears, but that is the year that things started unraveling for the people of Judah and the city of Jerusalem.
Remember, David’s unified Kingdom split into two rival Kingdoms. Israel to the north and Judah to the south. In the year that King Uzziah died it was the beginning of the end for the people. That was the year that the Empire of Assyria made its first move into the northern Kingdom of Israel. Assyria captured a huge chunk of the Kingdom and took them captive.
Assyria kept coming. They captured more land. They slaughtered the people. They completely destroyed the Kingdom of Israel and laid siege to the city of Jerusalem.
It was a horrible time for the people of Judah, and it all began the year King Uzziah died.
Oh, that year.
Life was a mess. Everything that the people thought was right and normal was getting turned upside down. And, the immediate future did not look good.
It was 9/11.
It was 2020.
The entire book of Isaiah is a message that God was sending to Judah, through Isaiah, and it’s not pretty.
Here is a summary of Isaiah chapters 1-5, the section that immediately precedes our text today.
“OK, Judah. I called you to be my people to be a light to the nations. I planted you like a vineyard to produce the sweet wine of my love to all people. And you blew it. Now, you are too far gone. The consequences of your destructive behavior are coming, and I’m going to let it. You will be cut down by the invaders and all that will remain is a stump. But, someday, a faithful shoot will rise from the stump.”
It’s a harsh message, but it is because the people have forgotten who they are and what God had called them to be and do.
They had lost their perspective.
Here’s the key message:
Isaiah 1:16–20 (NRSV)
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, 17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. 19 If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
The people needed to readjust their perspective.
We see this in verses 1-4. God is seated on the throne. God is not contained within the little box of the Temple, but God’s glory is overflowing the Temple, and God’s feet are resting on it like a footstool.
Flying, fiery, six-winged serpents are flying around the throne crying out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts.”
In other words, this is the true commander-in-chief of all the world. God is not intimidated by the Assyrians or Babylonians, or controlled by the Israelites.
God’s got this, and this is not about political domination. It’s about God’s holiness and the mission of God to bring healing and light to all nations.
Here is the heart of the Kingdom of God. Every nation will be judged by God on one standard:
Did your system seek Justice by
rescuing the oppressed,
defending the orphan, and
pleading for the widow.
OR, did your system make the rich and powerful more rich and powerful at the expense of the weak.
This is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew when he tells the parable of the king separating the sheep from the goats. The standard was, “What you have done for the least of these.”
God calls Isaiah to spread this message.
To bring a new perspective.
How would you feel if this was your calling?
Isaiah’s response to this perspective shows us three positions:
The first position is face down.
When Isaiah is confronted with the holiness of God, and his perspective is realigned, it destroys him. He cries out,
“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
We might call this a position of confession, repentance, and contrition, or remorse over the ways that we have participated in the nastiness of our society.
The second position is heart open.
One of the freaky, flying serpents picks up a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips.
Can you imagine how much that must have hurt?
Yet, the fire did not consume Isaiah. It purified him. It burned out all the junk.
God performed open heart surgery on Isaiah.
Now, Isaiah, your heart is aligned with your perspective and you’re ready.
The third position is hands up.
The LORD asks, “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
Remember the message that the LORD has for the people. It’s not an easy message to preach.
It’s not a prosperity Gospel.
It’s not a “do whatever you want to do because God’s just a big push-over” Gospel.
It is a message that will call people to make hard choices.
It will challenge them to inspect their lives and evaluate if their perspectives are aligning with God’s perspective.
It will ask the political system to evaluate whether it is seeking justice by rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow. OR, is it making the rich and powerful more rich and powerful at the expense of the weak and marginalized.
Would you sign up for that assignment?
Isaiah had been on his face.
He had been purified by the fire of God’s holy, loving presence.
Now he lifts up his hands in surrender,
“Here I am, send me.”
2020 is one of those years.
It is so easy for our perspectives to get focused on fear, hatred, power, control. The convergence of events in 2020 has sucked the best of us into the worst of us.
We are all in this together.
My prayer is that this story of Isaiah will help us to remember the bigger perspective. As disciples of Jesus, we are not called to American political allegiances and petty turf wars. We are not called to the American Dream, whatever version of it you may dream.
We are called to the Kingdom of God, which is to remember that
we are blessed to be a blessing to all people.
We are forgiven and set free by the true King of Kings.
We are called to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
‘We are called to be the vessels of the sweet wine of God’s love for all people, no matter who they are.
What position are you in right now?
I tend to find myself moving through each position on a daily basis.
God uses something to remind me of the Kingdom Perspective and I fall on my face.
God uses these difficult circumstances to burn away the junk and open my heart.
Then, sometimes, when I take the time to get centered in God’s Love again, I can raise my hands and say, “OK, here am I, send me.”
Where are you today?