Saturday, February 6, 2010
Cleansing and Calling
I like to imagine this scene the way it might be directed in a film. The opening seems so familiar to me. A young man, looking a little tired, a little lost, mostly just aimless and disinterested walks into a cavernous, empty cathedral. The camera is high and way at the back, so really he enters the picture from the bottom. He kneels before he enters a pew, revealing his history with religion, even if his present status is more ambiguous. The young man slips into a pew, simply looking for anonymous place to pray, a place to be with himself, a place to be with God.
The scene doesn’t stay empty for long, though, at least not in the telling of Isaiah’s encounter with God. A sudden awareness of another presence forces Isaiah to look up where he sees the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne. Actually, he doesn’t see the Lord, because the Lord is too big and too dangerous to see. Even the seraphs, the six-winged angelic creatures attending to God, had to cover their faces with their wings in the presence of God’s glory.
God is so big, in this vision physically and as a divine presence, that Isaiah can only see the hem of his robe which completely fills the temple. The temple fills with smoke, the accumulation of offerings made to God for centuries, and as the seraphs call to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory,” the thresholds shook violently. Isaiah knows he is in the presence of majesty and power, holiness and perfection, righteousness and purity.
And suddenly, in the presence of that purity, Isaiah is acutely and shamefully aware of his own imperfection, his own impurity. He cries out in confession, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” He realizes the incongruity of a sinful, imperfect human being dwelling in the presence of the King, the Lord of hosts. Seeing the righteousness of God, Isaiah becomes much more aware of his own unrighteousness. Standing in the presence of perfection, knowing God’s desire for him to serve, he sees even more clearly is own imperfection.
I see two possible responses that human beings often have to this realization of imperfection. The first is the response of making excuses. I trust that I am not alone in the making and hearing of these kinds of excuses.
You know this is really not a perfect time to encounter you God, to worship you. It is certainly not a perfect time to serve you. I am really busy with the kids. My career is just beginning to take off, and in a few more years I’ll have the status and position in which I can be more flexible with my time.
Or, the kids are gone and the nest is empty; once we spend a little time re-connecting with one another we’ll re-connect with you, God.
Or I’m too young, God. There isn’t much for me to do in your service at this point, but I promise that I’ll be ready to serve you someday when I’m old enough to do something that counts. The other side of that coin is this -- I’m old God. I have served my time and done my duty. It’s someone else’s turn to pick up the torch of service and carry it for a while.
If “place in life” excuses don’t feel quite right, what about these: I’m not good enough. I’m disorganized. I don’t know enough. I’m not faithful enough, Christian enough, or sinless enough to serve you God.
We make these excuses in the hopes that it will turn the asker away. We hope that will convince God that we can’t possibly serve, and God will move on to ask someone else, at least for now, and maybe for good. We will point out to God all that is imperfect in God’s choice and the burden of the call will be lifted as someone else is tasked with the call that was first made to us.
Sometimes we even make these excuses in full faithfulness because we intend to fix ourselves; we intend to make ourselves perfect and ready for God’s service. New Year’s resolutions are a perfect place to hide our excuses. They are a sign of our wonderful intentions to make ourselves better people so that we can live better lives. Yet even one month later, how many of us are still so resolved to make these changes in our lives?
The problem is that we can’t make ourselves better. We can’t make ourselves perfect and pure and whole and completely ready to serve God and God’s people. We do not have the ability to make ourselves holy and put ourselves in a state that is worthy of receiving and following God’s call. Not one of us will ever be ready on our own accord to dwell in the holy presence of the divine, to serve God’s purposes, to fulfill the Lord’s requests.
Isaiah realizes this. He realizes his own impurity and inability to make himself ready and perfect, and so his response is the one which God desires. Heartfelt and faithful, it is painful and difficult to do in private and even more so in the presence of God and a community. Isaiah confesses his imperfection to God. A man who is called to serve God with his words and his speech confesses that his lips are unclean. The most important tool he has for answering God’s call is the very source of his momentarily crippling imperfection. He confesses his impurity and lays it before the holy one in faith, for despite this impurity, Isaiah proclaims, I am seeing the King, the Lord of hosts!
Notice, though, how when Isaiah confesses his uncleanliness he is not told to come back later when he is clean. God does not send him away to go fix himself and rid himself of this impurity and imperfection. Isaiah is not off the hook because of his confession. God does not respond with a dismissing, “Oh! Well, nevermind. You’re lips are unclean. I’ll go find someone more perfect and more ready to serve for this task.”
Instead God essentially agrees with Isaiah. Without saying a word God tells Isaiah, “You’re right. You’re not clean. You’re right. You’re not holy, not perfect, not ready to serve me.” But with the actions of the seraph God’s full message is delivered. “I will cleanse you. I will make you more holy. I will get rid of your imperfections. I will make you ready to serve me. Only I can do it, and I will because I long for your service and your worship.”
God’s response comes in the form of a cleansing, purifying fire coal taken straight from the altar of God. Touching the coal to Isaiah’s mouth, the seraph declares that Isaiah’s guilt has departed and his sin is blotted out. That which separated him from God’s holiness has been taken away by God’s holiness. It is then, in this momentary experience of holiness that Isaiah fully hears the voice of God, not just the angels, and he hears God calling for one to be sent. Cleansed from his unworthiness and impurity, Isaiah is ready to follow God.
In Isaiah God did not call a perfect man to deliver a divine word. God did not wait for Isaiah to get his life in order and learn more and believe more and understand more and develop his gift more. God did not expect this servant to be the perfect package from the start, but God knew how to use him anyway. God knew how to take an imperfect human, confessing his faults and his impurities, and clean him up, purge his sin from him, and use him for a greater service in God’s own time, not according to his own calendar and sense of preparedness.
Not one of us lives in the perfect condition, worthy of serving God who calls us. But in calling us, imperfect men and women, young and old, God makes us ready for that service – cleansing us and forgiving us when we confess our imperfections, clearing our ears and preparing our hearts to answer the calling willingly and enthusiastically, “Here am I; send me!”