At least once a month someone asks me the question, “how’d you decide to become a priest?” And that’s a hard question to answer because I don’t believe I did. Honestly, I don’t. I really believe that God chose me for this work. I’m not so sure that I decided to become a priest. I’m not saying that I’m a puppet or that God is just pulling the strings. But I don’t think I’m here right now because of a decision that I made. I think I’m here right now because of a decision that God made. I think I’m chosen for this work. And you know what’s weird? I don’t think I’m special. I believe that God is invested in your life, too – just like He is in mine. I honestly believe that tonight I am speaking to a group of people who are also chosen for God’s work. I honestly believe that you are called.
And so tonight, I’d like to do something a little bit different, and that’s start with our bible reading to talk about being called or being chosen. Our reading comes from Isaiah.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! ‘Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
In order to talk about being chosen, I’m going to give us four C’s to help guide our minds – context, confrontation, conversion and call.
Hearing God’s call doesn’t happen in a vacuum. We all have a context, a history, and a background. The call of Isaiah does not begin with a vision. It begins with a context. What is that context? “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Uzziah’s death – that is the context for Isaiah’s call.
If you haven’t heard of Uzziah, he was a remarkable king and he did a lot to bless his people. He was a military genius, building an army of over 300,000 soldiers. He also fortified Jerusalem, which meant that under Uzziah’s rule, the people of Israel were finally safe. Uzziah was an economic guru, a spiritual leader, and a pillar of the people. With the exception of David and Solomon, Uzziah was remembered as the most stable, wise, faithful and powerful King that Israel ever had. But more than that, his reign lasted 52 years – that’s more than Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and both Bush’s combined. Imagine having a president for fifty-two years with a 100% approval rating. In the land of Israel, Uzziah is all that they knew and they depended on their king. Their king was their refuge. But then one day – their refuge dies.
Question – what do you do when Uzziah dies? For their whole life, Uzziah had been on the throne. He was their anchor, their source of strength, their refuge, their king. But now he’s dead.
Here’s what I’d like to suggest. The death of our anchor, the death of our king, is the context for hearing the call of God. Our Uzziah dies. We come to see that our anchor can’t hold us and that we need a new one. We come to see that the source of our strength is either gone or inadequate. We come to see that our king – whatever that is or whoever that is – is mortal and subject to death and that we desperately need a king that is immortal, a king that can never die.
Now, the death of Uzziah is different for each of us. It could be an earth-shattering event – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or the end of a relationship that we were fully invested in. Or, our lives can just unravel. And that unraveling can be dramatic – a panic attack or a meltdown. Or, that unraveling could just be a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo – a realization that the source of our strength, whatever that is, is fleeting. But death – that’s the context for hearing the call of God. Uzziah dies. We come to see that what we were relying on or who we were relying on cannot save us and that we need a new anchor.
Our second “C” is confrontation. Isaiah is confronted with the presence of God. And notice the irony. King Uzziah is dead, which means that the throne is now empty. But then Isaiah looks up and where does he see God? Sitting on a throne. Isaiah turns his eyes from the throne of man and beholds the throne of God. Knowing Uzziah to be dead, Isaiah comes to know that God is alive. Isaiah is confronted with a vision of the Living God.
And the reason I say confronted is because Isaiah comes to see that the Living God is holy. According to Isaiah, even the angels cover their faces. The angels can’t even look as they cry holy, holy, holy, over and over again. And as a side note, repetition is the bible’s only way to emphasize something. There aren’t any capital letters or exclamation points in the Hebrew language and so the only tool for emphasis is repetition. Now, a lot of words in the bible are repeated twice but only once does an attribute of God get repeated three times. And what is that attribute? It’s not “loving, loving, loving” or “compassionate, compassionate, compassionate.” Of course, God is most definitely loving and most certainly compassionate. But only holiness is repeated three times. This is significant. Holiness gets to the core of who God is.
Now, most people hear the word holiness and think about moral purity. But holiness is much more complicated than that. The Hebrew word qadosh means set apart and refers to someone or something that is totally different. To say that God is holy is to say that God is totally different. It’s to say that God is different in a way that is wonderful and mysterious and terrifying and exciting. And that “total difference,” that holiness, leads Isaiah to our third “C.”
“And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
After seeing the truth about God, Isaiah saw the truth about himself, and he spoke the truth about himself – I am lost! Seeing the truth about ourselves is rare. We tend to downplay our sin and our weaknesses. We minimize the reality of our sin, the cost of our wrong choices, and the damage we’ve done to ourselves and to each other. It’s like we’re born wearing special sunglasses that darken our perspective and keep us from seeing the truth. But then we’re confronted with the great and terrifying holiness of God and that confrontation makes us ripe for conversion. It rips off our sunglasses, or perhaps I should say our sin-glasses. After seeing God for who He truly is – holy – we see ourselves for who we truly are – people of unclean lips.
And notice, Isaiah says something incredibly profound. “I’m lost.” Another translation of the Hebrew word is “ruined.” “Woe” is me he says. Woe is a word of judgment that the prophets typically spoke on other people. But the prophet Isaiah speaks woe on himself. Because in the light of God’s holiness, Isaiah is undone and he comes to see that unless God’s grace intervenes he will be utterly ruined. Fortunately, God’s grace does intervene, though perhaps not in the way we usually imagine. Here’s how it happens.
An angel takes a live coal and holds it to Isaiah’s lips. This is Isaiah’s image of grace. In fact, the coal is so hot that the angel of God has to use a pair of tongs. The angel can’t even use his hands, but Isaiah has to allow the coal to burn one of the most sensitive parts of his body. And this tells us something important about grace. There is real pain – a real sting – that comes with conversion. We often assume that grace means the absence of pain. But according to Isaiah that’s just not the case. Deep, deep grace – at least initially – can make us feel a deep, deep pain.
You see, the goal of God’s grace is to change us, which is what I mean when I say “conversion.” The goal of God’s grace isn’t to spare us from pain but to redeem our character, and I hate to say this, but pain can do wonders for our character. After all, it’s painful whenever our Uzziah dies. But it’s still grace. It’s painful when we’re confronted with the reality of our sin in the light of God’s holiness. But it’s still grace.
One of my favorite writers – Brannan Manning – is an alcoholic and he writes a lot about how God’s grace allowed him to hit rock bottom. He writes about how in order to change, he had to see the wasted years, the ruined relationships, the devastating lies, and the utter selfishness. It was God’s painful grace, he says, that allowed him to see the truth.
A lot of Christian mystics tell us to pray for the gift of tears. And if you’ve ever read their writings, you come to see that they all prayed, on a regular basis, for a broken heart – what they called the gift of tears. That was their prayer – for God’s light to penetrate their souls, to reveal the presence of sin, and to bring them to tears. When’s the last time you prayed for that? I’ll be honest – it’s been a while for me. But God’s painful grace is something we should be seeking. It is a good thing to feel lost because it opens us up to the power of being found, which moves us to “C” number four.
Our life is found in the call of God. God doesn’t heal Isaiah for his sake alone but so that he can live out his prophetic call. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” That’s God’s question and for the first time Isaiah is ready to respond. “Here am I. Send me.”
If we asked Isaiah “how’d you decide to become a prophet” what do you think he’d say? Who knows, but I imagine it’d be along the lines of “I didn’t choose God, God chose me.” But you know what’s weird? I don’t think Isaiah is special. I believe that God is just as invested in the lives of the people in this room as He was in Isaiah’s. And I honestly believe that tonight I’m speaking to a group of people who are chosen for God’s work. I honestly believe that you are called. I guess the only question is – to what?
Well, I think that you and I are ultimately chosen for the same thing. And since not all of you are called to be priests, that mean’s my primary call is not to be a priest. My primary call, your primary call, is something else. Our primary call is to be holy, like God is holy. Our call is to be transformed so much in the depth of our souls that we become totally different in a way that is wonderful and mysterious and terrifying and exciting. In a world of hate, we are chosen to be set on fire with love. In a world that is selfish, we are chosen to be surprisingly selfless. In a world full of dull sameness, we are chosen to be different. Just like God.
Jesus put it like this in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Think again about our reading from Isaiah, where even the angels had to cover their eyes in the presence of God. But then along comes Jesus, who knew the Book of Isaiah backwards and forwards, and says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” I think that’s our common call. To have a pure heart. Just like God. So that one day, we can see Him. So that we don’t have to cover our faces.
Does anyone know what the Greek word ekklesia means, which is where we get the word church? It means to be “called out.” If we think that we’re not called to anything than we’ve misunderstood Christianity. We are all called out. Not one of us is special, and yet every single one of us is special.
I’m sure you’ve been told that you’re made in the image of God, which is true, but tonight I want to tell you what that means. In biblical times, kings would strategically place their image all over their land. For example, kings would put up statues of themselves and stamp their image on coins. Coins were made in the image of the king. Statues were made in the image of the king. This was the king’s way of reminding the people who was in control.
In the same way, each of us is called to be an image for our King. To a world that mourns the death of Uzziah, we are chosen to represent the King that cannot die, to remind people that there is One seated on the throne of heaven and that he reigns over us all. The king of heaven has strategically placed you all over His land. Our call is to be so loving and so selfless and so different that people are reminded who the true King is.
We may or may not hear it but God is asking each of us – whom shall I send, and who will go for us? In other words, who will represent us?
What a blessed thing it is to feel God’s painful grace, to stop mourning the death of Uzziah, to see a vision of the King eternal that cannot die, and then to respond with the words of Isaiah.
Here am I. Send me.