Most evenings I take Jax, our dog, for a walk after dinner. We’re out for just ten or fifteen minutes, usually one lap or less up and down our street. I like these longer days, when we’re out during the daylight. Jax loves to sniff his way up and down Ellen Drive, checking out the smells of I have no idea what in the grass on either side of the road. Since it’s still daylight at seven or eight o’clock I can see where he’s sniffing. When it’s dark I have to use my flashlight to try and make sure he’s not sniffing his way into a snake or something else that might not appreciate being very closely sniffed.
But what I miss with the daylight walks is looking up at the stars. Our street is pretty dark, and on a clear night I like to look up and think, what’s out there? I don’t know my astronomy, but I do know that the little pinpoints of light are coming from stars that are a long, long, long way away. I know that when you start talking about other planets and our sun and everything beyond those, you’re talking about millions and billions of miles and measuring distances in light years. And despite all that we know about the universe, so much is still mystery. Assuming the big bang theory is right – the scientific theory, not the tv show – what came before the big bang? Why did it explode, or whatever astronomers call it, when it did? Are there other universes somewhere out in space? And of course the most intriguing question, is there life out there somewhere? The sheers odds would seem to say yes.
So much is mystery. And that’s where we begin today’s story from the book of Isaiah. It’s a great and strange story. It begins with mystery. Isaiah is in worship in the temple in Jerusalem. While there he has a vision. He sees God, in some way he doesn’t try to describe, sitting on a throne. Just the hem of God’s robe fills the huge temple. Around God are heavenly creatures with six wings. The building trembles and is filled with smoke. The description of the scene is meant to evoke mystery. Isaiah says nothing about what God looks like. He couldn’t, of course, because God could never be described in human terms. He just knows that God is there.
Ever had that feeling, that sensation, that God has somehow been very real, very near? I’ve heard such reports, but I’ve never heard anyone say, oh yeah, this is what God looked like. Except maybe in the book The Shack, but you have to read it to get that God was appearing in a particular way for a particular reason. Anyway, our faith begins with the mystery of God. It begins with questions like, how do human beings have any contact with God?, how can we be in relationship with God?, how do we experience God? The Bible and Christian tradition address those questions, but time and again we come back to mystery. Time and again we come back to a God we know only because God chooses to give us a glimpse of the divine every now and then.
When Isaiah realizes that he is in the presence of the Almighty, his first words are a confession: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” The consistent message of scripture is that we human beings cannot see God and live, because God is the Holy One, and we are all sinners. That’s what makes stories such as Moses seeing God’s “back side” and Jacob wrestling with God – maybe – so exceptional.
So Isaiah begins with confession. A lot of churches include some sort of confession in their weekly worship practice. The new Roman Catholic liturgy for the Lord’s Supper includes the sentence, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We don’t often think about God entering under our roof, do we? But what an interesting way to express the notion that God is very present with us and to us. I will admit that every now and then I sneak in some sort of confession into the call to worship. But maybe we do need to have a regular, every week confession built into our services. We always need to remember that God is God and we are not.
Then Isaiah receives cleansing. One of the heavenly creatures touches his lips with a live coal – ouch, by the way – and tells him that he is relieved of his guilt and sin. Hopefully, every time we partake of the bread and cup from the Lord’s table we remember that we are forgiven. That is one of the most fundamental and most important beliefs of the Christian faith. We acknowledge that we all fall short of being the people God wants us to be. But we also know that because Jesus the Christ has lived, died, and lived again, we are forgiven. Like Isaiah, we are relieved of the burden of guilt and the weight of sin. Somehow, in the mystery of God, because of Jesus, we have new life.
And that’s not a one and done thing when we are baptized and/or make our confession of faith. Every time we come to the table, every time we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” every time we stop and think about what we have done or what we are about to do and realize it is not the way of Jesus, we remember that we are sinners and we remember that even as we acknowledge our sin and ask forgiveness, we are forgiven. Every time.
Next Isaiah hears a voice, the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The “us” perhaps sounds strange to our ears, but in biblical times it was commonly believed that there were all sorts of beings with God. Recall, for example, in Genesis one God says, “Let us make humankind in our image.” In the story of Job, Satan is not the devil but a heavenly being, who has a conversation with God.
But Isaiah knows what is being asked. The very first line of the story is, “In the year that King Uzziah died.” We have that note because God needs someone to bring a word to the people now. God is active in human history, and in Isaiah’s time is need of a messenger, someone to remind the people of their relationship with God and what God expects of them in return for what God gives them. The people, as a whole, not just as individuals, have strayed off course, and God needs someone to call them back to faithfulness. So in Isaiah’s presence, the call is issued.
And Isaiah responds. He replies, “Here am I; send me!” He is willing to go and do what God needs done in that place and in that time. He is willing to step into the unknown, unsure of just what it is God would have him do and unsure of how his words will be heard. If he knows anything at all about God’s messengers, we call them prophets, and surely he does, he knows they are not usually well received. That’s because they tend to have a message that is difficult to hear, that God is not pleased and change, sometimes radical change, is what God wants. So – good luck Isaiah!
That’s often how it is when we’re doing what God calls us to do, isn’t it? Sometimes we try to help people and are met with a reaction we didn’t expect. The people we’re reaching out to don’t seem grateful. Or we wonder if they’re really deserving of what we have to give. Or we say what we believe needs to be said and find ourselves put down or ignored. Doing God’s work can be discouraging! Or we might even find ourselves in Jonah’s situation, where we do get the response God desires, but we don’t like it. Doing God’s work can be tricky business.
But the bottom line is, it’s ok to volunteer. We may well be taking a risk in doing so, we may be running the risk of the results not being to our liking, but it’s still a good thing to say yes, I’ll go, send me, when God calls.
When we go on mission trips, often we don’t know what we’re going to be doing until we get there. One of the rules of such trips is: be flexible! Sometimes all of us are working on the same site, and sometimes we are split up to work in different places. Sometimes we’re working in a church, sometimes a home, sometimes something like a community center. We might be doing flooring, roofing, drywall, painting, installing trim, building a new home or other building, putting together bunk beds. And sometimes we wonder, why this job? Is this the most important, most critical thing we could be doing in this place at this time? Sometimes we wonder who is making the decisions about what work is to be done where and when. We have to trust that those in charge are doing their best to help people recover from a disaster or make their home or community more liveable.
And when God calls us to whatever task, we have to trust that it is what needs to be done in that place and in that time, even if it seems strange to us. We have to trust that we really are hearing the voice of God – though it’s probably a good idea to check that out with other people. And we have to trust that God will equip us with whatever it is we need to get the job done. Even when we’re dealing with the mystery of God.
It’s ok to volunteer when we hear God call. It’s ok to say, “Here am I; send me!” It’s ok to recognize a need and move to respond, knowing that doing so is responding to the call of God. It’s ok to volunteer. Amen.