The Temple is packed. It is standing room only. Everyone is decked out in their finest garb. The place is a buzz.
Isaiah, too, is there. He has joined his fellow citizens for the coronation ceremony of Israel’s new king.
The pageantry is awesome: a long, grand processional with priests and princes in resplendent garments. Colorful banners swirl through the air.
Israel’s best musicians have pulled out all the stops: the music is huge, triumphant and celebrative.
Just as the music reaches its crescendo, the new king appears. The audience gasps. Clad in crimson and gold, he is vigorous, strong and tall. He is the very image of a monarch.
With the music thundering and the people bowing and cheering, the new king marches up the aisle, head high. He ascends the crimson carpeted steps. As he mounts the great throne, his royal robes swirl behind him.
Packed into the Temple, the people are captivated by this drama and pageantry, enthralled by this fateful national act of king-making.
And then, something happens inside Isaiah. In the intensity of Isaiah’s spiritual absorption, he is suddenly transported. The music in the Temple dies out … the crowds around him fade away.
While his countrymen are absorbed in the making of a mortal ruler, Isaiah has entered into the presence of the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Holy One who, alone, shall reign forever and ever.
What is happening here, in this passage, in this sixth chapter of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, is the most detailed and vivid account in the whole Bible of the making of a prophet.
What Isaiah experiences is no ecstasy for ecstasy’s sake. This is ecstasy for God’s sake.
God is in the act of creating a prophet, a messenger of divine righteousness … a spokesperson who will speak God’s Word to the world.
What does Isaiah see? Like the Seraphim who shield their eyes from God’s glory, Isaiah never actually sees the Divine Being. As Moses learned centuries earlier, “No one can see God and live.” (Ex 33.20) What Isaiah does see is the divine throne, the royal robe, the heavenly seraphs or attendants. He senses the awesome presence of God in the shaking of the thresholds, in the clouds of swirling smoke and in the cries of praise emitting from the divine creatures.
Suddenly, Isaiah recoils. He comes to himself and is aghast at his own unworthiness. In contrast to God’s greatness, he is puny. In contrast to the divine holiness, he is dirty.
There breaks from his mouth a cry of self-discovery … of his own sin-stained self. ‘Woe is me!’
And then, notice, dear friends: Isaiah’s confession is hardly out of his mouth before God swoops in with forgiveness.
No sooner does Isaiah utter words of woe and confession than one of the seraphs wings his way to Isaiah, touches his lips with a live coal … and pronounces him forgiven.
And then, and only then, and not before, God’s voice booms out: “Whom shall I send?”
In a split instant, Isaiah knows both unimaginable grace and inescapable mission.
And, here’s the thing: the whole of Judaism and Christianity depends on this: that you believe Isaiah’s experience. (Not as a literal event. The account is described as a vision. Isaiah relates this experience in the language of poetry, in language that reaches for that which lies beyond the reach of words.) Judaism and Christianity depend on this: that Isaiah experienced God: the terrifying, awe-inspiring presence of God; that he heard God speaking and was in quick succession, forgiven and commissioned.
The whole of Judaism and Christianity depends on trusting that Isaiah—and not only Isaiah, but also Moses and Miriam, Jeremiah and Amos, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc.—experienced God; that these forebears knew God, not at second hand, not merely by reputation, but first hand … that God spoke to them and that, having spoken to them, God then spoke through them.
This whole adventure in which we are so deeply engaged—this work to which we commit our time, our money, our talents, our lives, our deaths—it all depends on this: that these who have earned a place in our sacred stories, in our stained glass windows and in our believers’ hearts … that these were in fact summoned by God to do good.
This is not ecstasy for ecstasy’s sake, but ecstasy for God’s sake.
Is it not for this that we come here week after week after week, year after year, decade after decade? Is it not for even a glimpse of the divine Presence? Is it not to train our hearing for the sound of God’s Still Speaking voice? Is it not to bow down, humbling our proud selves in the presence of the Holy? Is it not for a taste of God’s sweet mercy? Is it not to prepare ourselves to be the answer to God’s persistent, anxious questions: “Whom shall I send? Who will go for me?”?
Over the course of the past 340 years, Old South Church has strained to listen for God’s voice. Our record is mixed. We are frail and faulty, after all, but at our best, we have endeavored to summon our collective voice and, with fear and trembling, to answer in one strong voice: “Here we are, God! Send us!”
In decisive and divisive moments in this nation’s history this congregation has dared to speak God’s peace to a violent world; has dared to preach God’s mercy to a cruel world; has shielded the endangered, housed the homeless, visited the prisoner, bandaged the broken, placed our bodies and our reputations between the despised and the despiser, the enslaved and the master, the so-called witch and her accusers. Not least, over against the world’s vulgar tabloid headlines, we have sung out God’s shining Good News.
Surely, this is a decisive and divisive moment in this nation’s history. Is it not?
Do you hear God calling? Do you? “Who shall I send? Who will go for me?”