Sunday, June 11

Isaiah 6:1-8

Why does it matter if you go to church? There are plenty of other things you could do on Sunday mornings. I can tell you what I’d be doing if I wasn’t here. I’d sleep until at least nine o’clock, take Deacon on an extra-long walk, brew a perfect pot of coffee, and curl up on the couch with the Sunday Los Angeles Times. At eleven, I’d listen to This American Life, my favorite radio show.

That version of a lazy Sunday morning sounds delightful. And I’m sure many of you can conjure up what you could be doing if you weren’t here. Maybe you’d play golf, or walk on the beach, go out for a nice long breakfast with friends. Maybe you’d do the same things you do every day, and Sunday would come and go without even the slightest sense of Sabbath.

But you didn’t sleep in or play bridge or make a run to the grocery store. You woke up today and did what you needed to do to be present with this congregation. You chose to spend an hour or so in this sacred space, worshipping God. Perhaps you are here out of habit. That’s okay— we all know how powerful bad habits are—and good habits have just as profound effect on our lives. Perhaps you woke up this morning and felt like you absolutely had to go to church, that the decision to gather with other Christians to hear the words of the gospel and to join in the sacrament of communion was literally a matter of life or death. One way or another, God called you here.

It matters that you are here, and not somewhere else. Because those other things we could be doing might be fun or relaxing, might help us check a few more items off our to-do lists, but they do not have the power to change our hearts and transform our minds.

You can certainly experience the presence of Christ on the beach or in the grocery store. But the intentional time we set aside on the Lord’s Day to gather as the Body of Christ, worshipping the Living God with our brothers and sisters, forms and transforms us. Here, as we offer sacrifices of praise and offering, as we greet one another with the Passing of Christ’s peace, as we pray with reverence and sing with joy, we are in the presence of God. And if we learn one thing from the Old and New Testaments alike, it’s that you cannot encounter the Triune God without being changed.

Our reading this morning from the Hebrew Scriptures tells us the story of Isaiah’s call to the difficult life of a prophet. Call stories come in many stripes. Moses was tending flocks, Mary was biding her time awaiting her marriage to a man named Joseph. But Isaiah encounters God and receives his life-altering call in the context of a divine worship service. He describes his experience in sharp detail. The hem of the Lord’s cloak fills the temple. Seraphs attend him, as in a heavenly court. They sing praises, proclaiming that God is Holy, Holy, Holy. Their worship cannot be contained. It is such a profound expression of praise the house fills with smoke.

Isaiah is encountering the full glory of God, a glory that we can hardly imagine, for even the most beautiful sights reveal only a sliver of God’s grace, a fraction of God’s love. His reaction to the experience is riveting. Seeing the Lord on his throne, and witnessing the jubilant worship of the angels, stirs something in Isaiah. By coming face to face with God’s holiness, Isaiah is overcome with his own brokenness. He recognizes the sinfulness of his people. He recognizes his own sinfulness. He doesn’t need anyone to call out his wrongs; the dark corners of his soul are simply reeling in the light of God’s glory.

Isaiah is so beleaguered by guilt that he does not even begin to ask for pardon. And so what happens next comes as a surprise. A Seraph takes a hot coal and presses it against Isaiah’s mouth, burning his lips but also imparting the gift of forgiveness upon him. Isaiah’s sin and guilt are taken away. He is cleansed, saved from the paralyzing effect of his transgressions.

This passage reveals something about the relationship between worship and guilt, the relationship between encountering the awesome presence of God and sin. There is a relationship. William Willimon, one of the great modern preachers, puts it this way: this scripture “demonstrates that sin is a byproduct of our being confronted by God.” He points out that “When we say “sin” we’re not talking about the result of natural human anxiety about the limits of being human, or occasional foibles and slip-ups. We are saying that face-to-face with the awesome righteousness of God, the holiness of Jesus, we fall to our knees. We have our noses rubbed in the great gap between who we are and who God is.”

Isaiah witnessed the glory of the Lord. He heard the excruciating truth that God is Holy, Holy, Holy. He could have responded with pride, arguing that he was just fine, that his lips were spotless and that his people had simply made some mistakes. But instead felt lost. He acknowledged his guilt, recognized his sin. And with the rustle of a Seraph’s wings, his shame was cast out.

I wonder how many people experience a rush of guilt and sense of sinfulness when they enter the Lord’s house. Even without the thrill of smoke and Seraphs, entering a sanctuary set aside for worshipping God can be frighteningly powerful. And that strong reaction, sometimes mixed in with a flood of grief and loneliness, confuses people. They don’t like the feeling, and can’t figure out why they have it. And while the church has a not-entirely-undeserved reputation for laying guilt trips on the faithful, I think the source of that powerful reaction goes far above and beyond the institutional church. Like Isaiah, when we face the Holiness of God, we are challenged to a deeper level of honesty about who we are. We are exposed. But God does not desire to reveal our brokenness so that we can sink into shame. Isaiah didn’t even have to ask to receive the gift of forgiveness. Isaiah may have stumbled out of awe for God’s great mercy, but that mercy also became the source of his redemption.

Isaiah met God in worship, and the experience changed him. When God asked that daring question—“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us,” Isaiah was ready to respond to the call. “Here am I, send me!” This man who one moment had proclaimed himself unworthy of seeing the King had been rescued from shame and transformed into a willing servant.

Anne Lamott, the author of Traveling Mercies, the book that some of us will be reading this summer, writes about her winding journey back to the heart of God. She recalls that she was first drawn into the sanctuary of her home church by the music. She would hear those songs of praise and need to be present to hear them. But she would always leave before the sermon. She kept the community at an arms length, and continued to privately struggle with the demons of addiction. But as time went on, God continued to work on her, even in the short snags of time she would hover in the back of the sanctuary.

Pretty soon she was experiencing the draw to stay, to let herself be known by the fellow worshippers, and to open herself up to the amazing presence of God. She is now a servant of Christ, ministering through humor and honesty to both her beloved congregation and to the countless people who have read her books. Her life is marked by grace.

Showing up isn’t everything. As the bumper sticker says, going to church doesn’t make you a Christian anymore than sitting in the garage makes you an automobile. But showing up is something. Making that decision to be here gives God the opportunity to shape you through the rhythms of worship.

God has a purpose for all of our lives. More than anything, God wants us to respond to his call with the courageous spirit of Isaiah—“Here I am Lord.” God wants us to witness his glory and be delivered from our shame. God wants us to be his children so much that he sent his Son Jesus to be our brother and our redeemer. God cares about us so deeply that he continues to send his Holy Spirit to bear witness with our spirits that we are sons and daughters of God.

Today, after worship, we will gather in the Church lounge for a potluck. The cause for our shared meal is simple—to celebrate our new members. Church membership is a funny concept. It isn’t part of the New Testament, but it is nevertheless an important concept for the contemporary church. To be a member of a congregation is to be in covenant, to be in relationship. By placing membership in this congregation, we commit to supporting the ministries of this church with our time, our energy, our gifts. But we also commit to gathering for worship, hopefully more often than not. We decide that we will join our voices with those of the Christians in this place to sing praises of our God. We link our lives up with the lives of the brethren gathered here, through prayer, through fellowship. And together, we approach the throne of the Lord of Hosts. Together, we open ourselves to the ways God is moving in our lives, offering us the mercy of forgiveness and calling us into deeper discipleship. Strengthened by our community, we can say boldly: Here we are, Lord. Send us out to do your work.”


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