When you go to the cinema, do you go for the realism films or the fantasy films? I do have a tendency for the former, because today most of the fantasy stories are about inter-galactic warfare, and I was never a great Star-trek Star-wars fan. You may be different.
It certainly wouldn’t do for us all to be the same. If you have a taste for the visionary, may the force be with you, then you will warm to the lesson we had this morning from Isaiah in which, in this baker’s dozen of verses, we get a microcosm of the whole of the Book of Isaiah.
It is the lead in to a great commission to be placed upon the head of Isaiah, and he was full of dread in accepting it, just as Jesus, many years later, was to ask if the cup placed before him could be removed. Both men knew that what they faced was a task that would push them to their limits and beyond. Just as Star-trek was an exploration into the unknown so we have the testing of men into realms they could hardly envisage, and never expected to.
Isaiah retreats into fantasy language. The Temple, he says, was filled with smoke by the three times holy God. Indeed this may have been literally true, as braziers of burning coals could well have been there to warm the place and onto which the incense would have been sprinkled to fill the space with pungent smoke and perfume.
Just like music can remind us of a person, or a place, or a time in our life, so can taste and smells … and for Isaiah the smoke and perfume of the incense brought him face to face with God and that filled him with dread and fear. He, of all the people present in the Temple on that day, was the one whose heart was full of shame for what Israel had become. A land and people that was so full of potential had given way to all kinds of desires and they had forsaken the God of their ancestors.
For him, it was a day of shame and dread and now, faced with God in the choking smoke, he wondered how he could survive his overwhelming sense of sin and unworthiness. What followed next was judgement. We think in these days of judgment as condemnation because we have watched too many films set in courtrooms with too obvious a criminal ready to be given his just desert but judgment is really about appraisal and decision making not sentencing to hell fire or death row. Judgement is a ruling based on the evidence. It is dispassionate fair and just. We do not have to argue our case, we do not have to plead either innocent or guilty though Isaiah thought the whole nation guilty — and he along with it. God would condemn them all, he was sure.
What he looked for was a word from God, an indication of what God might be thinking and he saw his answer in the form of a heavenly messenger, a seraph.
We have no idea of what really happened that day, though I have often wondered what took place. Maybe a priest, or some other Temple servant, took a coal from the brazier and took it round close to where the people were sitting. Maybe Isaiah, trembling and in a state of near abstraction as he fell into a trance leaned forward and kissed the hot coal as it passed.
Who knows? But he says that a coal did touch his lips and God pronounced that the guilt was gone and the sin was covered. The judgement was that the people would be cleansed and purified but the lesson had first to be learned by Isaiah and this lesson had then to be told to the people.
You might wonder why Luke’s story of the calling of the disciples was added to this story of Isaiah today, but if you think about it the reason is obvious. The Luke story parallels Isaiah. We don’t have a Temple to conjure up God in the smoke of incense, but, instead, we have the miracle of the fish to bring an equal amount of wonder and wondering.
If God is looking to bring Isaiah to the point of commission, so is Jesus bringing the fishermen to the same point of commitment as preachers for God. The remark that, from now on, you will no longer catch fish but men, uses unusual words in the original Greek. Catching men should really be capturing people alive. To catch fish is to bring them into an alien environment and kill them. The idea that Jesus had in his mind was not to catch people and then bring them into a world in which they cannot survive. The requirement was, and is, to liberate people and bring them into a new a more vigorous life, restoring their true and real life. Just like Isaiah, Peter is to be the mouthpiece of a truth he has himself in that moment experienced.
The commission that Isaiah is given, is to tell the nation that it will be like a tree that is felled and burnt. The stump now disfigured and ugly will, once again, put out new shoots and will live again. Paul takes up the same language. The tree that is cut down is at Calvary but on Easter Day a new shoot grows from it.
- OK, OK, great descriptions, wonderful playing with words but what has it got to do with us?
Well of all the places on earth, our church is a place that is constantly being resurrected from the old. Compared to just a few years ago, we are little more than a burnt out stump but I tell you that from this stump will grow again new shoots of hope and courage.
And so, too, in our own individual lives that from the low points of our lives will come the shoots of new and wonderful experiences. The truth that we find in Isaiah is a multi-textured reality that takes holds of our hearts and minds when we have God brought before us and his judgment cleanses and purifies us to be his messengers. The day that King Uzziah died was in 739BCE but the truth Isaiah recalls on that day is as vital as it was nearly 28 hundred years ago.
You and I, my friends, are being called to pass it on.