I know a lot of people that cannot leave their front door without putting on a pair of sunglasses. I’m part of the crowd that seldom wear sunglasses, mostly in my case because I can’t find them. Eventually I remember that I have a little compartment on the ceiling of my car for just such things and when I check, voila, there are my sunglasses! Well whether you wear them or not, sunglasses would not help you if you were Isaiah as they would not be enough to reduce the glaring light that he was facing. Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple, built by Solomon and very much the central focal point of the Jewish faith. His dad was one of the priests and Isaiah probably knew the temple fairly well. The temple was the place where everyone came together inside to worship but outside to sell and trade in the market and even to discuss interpretations of Scripture and no doubt the politics of the day. On this day, however, Isaiah experienced a vision of God and the vision was so bright, so overpowering that even sunglasses would not have helped.
While living a life quite similar to those around him, Isaiah experienced the blinding light that comes with the knowledge of God. Compared to God, Isaiah’s life presented a study in the contrast of opposites. In that flash of experience Isaiah knew, in the very core of his being, that he was a man of unclean lips. Unclean lips in the presence of the God of wholeness and light. Isaiah heard the angels singing Holy, Holy, Holy, and sung not in the way we sing the words of our once most favourite hymn in the United Church. Whenever scripture repeats words like that the words are understood to be gaining in power, in force, and in meaning. Each word is a progression from the last and brings new power and dynamism to the word and the intent of the word. Holy. HOLY. H O L Y! The angels, Isaiah and all those in the temple stood before a god that was filled and consumed with the task at hand. This was not a tame god. There was wildness in this God. If you remember C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” this god was like Aslan, the Lion: untamed, untameable, but good. God is a greatness that cannot be contained.
Standing in the presence of that God, Isaiah was confronted by the incredible gap between his life and the way of God, between the person of God and the people of Isaiah’s time. Seeing the vastness of God, Isaiah could only feel the smallness, the incompleteness of humanity. Whatever they were, Isaiah’s people were certainly not God. Shocked by this discovery, Isaiah was at a loss for words until God had an angel touch his lips, we are told with a burning coal, and Isaiah then experienced what it means to stand before God and to be accepted, to be forgiven. Suddenly Isaiah moved from saying ‘woe is me’ to ‘here am I, send me’. In these few verses of scripture he went from utter despair to hope, from a terrifying fear of God to a profound commitment for service of God, from miscreant to missionary of God’s word and way.
For Isaiah and his people life had been pretty good. Unlike the northern kingdom we heard about last week when we read the story of Jonah, Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom which lasted at least 150 years longer than their cousins in the north. Yet over that time they had domesticated God, assuming that their way of life was the way God wanted them to live. Isaiah’s vision, Isaiah’s call, would change all that. God refused and refuses to be domesticated to our whims, our view of life. When Isaiah realized this he first felt despair and then felt passion, for not only did God’s presence show him the deprivation of the world, it also showed healing for that world and hope for those that would be open to God’s way – to God’s call. There is a place for everyone in God’s way and we are invited to respond to God’s call as Isaiah would say: Here am I, send me. Isaiah’s story teaches us that we are not transformed for just ourselves, we are transformed for others. Here am I, send me.
If you watched the Remembrance Day Service from our nation’s capital this past week you would have heard the Chaplin General of our Armed Services quote from the message sent to all Canadians by our Sovereign, Elizabeth II, to mark Remembrance Day. She encouraged Canadians to look at those who are serving others and to find in their generosity of self a sense of the hope that we need for this year in which so much seems have gone and is going wrong. First there was COVID, then a struggling economy, then parents became teachers and teachers became online technicians. Our neighbours endured the most bitter political campaign ever and even now those who should lead by example are showing just how low they have sunk, and are willing to sink, to hold onto power and status. Where once our own political leaders had a unified front to address the challenges of this year of COVID now our individualism as provinces begins to take us in directions that benefit neither ourselves nor the whole of the nation.
Yet in the midst of that somewhat now gloomy picture we find people and communities who are doing unprecedented things to make sure that we do not go down a road of despair. We saw it first and most noticeably in the lives of the medical people and first responders who cared for and continue to care for all of us but especially COVID patients…often risking their own lives to do so. We saw it in the grocery store clerks who isolated themselves from their own families in order to come to work and ensure we had food to eat…often risking their own lives to do so. We saw and see it in the continuing and countless acts of kindness to be found in neighbours and strangers who take time out of their own lives to live thoughtfully for others. They help neighbours learn to log on to computers, rake their leaves, pick up some groceries for that person we all know really should not be going out to buy their own. They phone just to keep in touch and to listen to a friend’s stories of being shut in and shut out of the normal routines of life. Or, as in my recent experience as a recipient, they drop a card in the mail just to say thank you, thank you for what you do. Acts of selflessness, all. Acts of kindness, all. Acts of hope, all. Hope is indeed found in that service of others and the incredible thing is that we are each able to do something, something that when God asks who shall I send allows us to say, Here am I, send me.
We even find hope in our life together as a congregation as our response to support the Massey Centre left us with such a large volume of donations that Massey Centre could not take it all. We have now been able to take the surplus to the New Circles Community Services, a centre for people new to Canada and our communities. That meant work by members of this congregation gave hope to others, people we will never know. Your continuing support of the work of Parkwoods plus the Mission and Service Fund as we saw acknowledged earlier in the report from Marilyn Manners gives hope to others here in the congregation but throughout the United Church and with partners at home and abroad as well.
Isaiah realized that compared to God, he had little to offer. The gap was too much, essentially debilitating, until that day when Isaiah realized that this God was not here to punish him, nor to find him unworthy, but to claim him as one of God’s own people. God’s arms were not used to strike but to embrace Isaiah and the Hebrew people. Knowing that he was accepted and forgiven Isaiah had the courage to say, Yes I’ll work with God, not because of who I am, but because of who God is.
God may be a greatness that cannot be contained, but God is also a greatness for the here and now. God is experienced not just in blinding visions such as Isaiah experienced, but also, and more frequently, in the blessing that comes from one person sharing with another. When communities experience justice, when the poor are fed, God’s greatness just bubbles over, flows without ceasing. It is not bottled up or locked away in a cupboard. God’s greatness is with us from our first breath to our last breath. We live in the full light of God’s greatness and experience it as an abundant and gracious greatness.
How can we, even if it is only by overhearing a conversation of God’s relationship with someone else, not also say “Yes, I want to respond to the call of this God.” How can we break bread and share wine that is a symbol of God’s great mercy and not also say Yes – I want to respond to the call of this God. I want to be part of this story of God and the work of the people of God that remains unfinished. Of course I’m ready, here am I, send me.