Holy, Holy, Holy

by David Baer, November 13, 2016

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Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

The nation of Judah was going through a scary time. Their king, Uzziah, had committed an outrage. He violated the Temple sanctuary, burning incense on the altar, which was something only the priests could do. He was struck with leprosy, and because of this was forever excluded from the Temple and forced to live the remainder of his life in isolation, turning his day-to-day duties over to his son (see 2 Chron. 26:16-21). Today’s story takes place the year Uzziah died—before or after, we don’t know. But it’s a time when, in recent memory, the king had committed a shocking public act that crippled his ability to lead.

And this was a time when God’s people needed a capable leader. The mighty Assyrian empire was on the rise in the north. We heard about them last week—it was their capital city, Nineveh, where Jonah preached God’s message. But this rising superpower would soon annihilate the northern kingdom of Israel and lay siege to Jerusalem, the capital of tiny Judah. The very life of their little kingdom in the hill country was at stake.

At this fragile, anxious time, Isaiah son of Amoz came into the Temple and had a vision of God sitting on the throne, attended by seraphim with six wings crying out, “Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh–Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts!” Their voices shook the entryway where Isaiah stood, and thick smoke filled the room.

Holy, holy, holy, they cried. Last week I spoke to the children (and all of you) about the word “saint,” how it means “special, set apart.” That’s the meaning of the word “holy” too. Isaiah sees the hem of God’s robe—the rest of God is hidden somewhere else. The smoke adds to the mystery, veiling and unveiling from moment to moment even that small part of God Isaiah is able to glimpse. God appears here as a God of awesome unseen power that fills and overflows the world we inhabit, so that we can never fully perceive or comprehend. God is big—bigger than sight or even imagination.

By contrast Isaiah feels small, in more ways than one. His words and deeds have been petty, and they and he can’t hope to stand before the majestic, holy presence of God. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Faced with the awesome reality of who God is, Isaiah recognizes that both he and his people fall far short, and he despairs.

I have a feeling some of us may be feeling like Isaiah this morning. This week’s presidential election saw two major-party candidates enter the contest, each with record levels of popular disapproval. As a country we want and need a capable leader, and yet those presented to us for choosing, like King Uzziah, had shocked and scandalized many, and were connected to groups of supporters, ordinary people like us, who are surprised to wake up the day after the election and see just how isolated and alienated we are from each other’s concerns, each other’s way of interpreting our country’s history and progress and prospects for the future. Like Isaiah, we’re conscious that something is wrong, something that affects each of us as individuals, but that pervades the whole of our society. We’re disconnected from one another, each side mistrustful of the other’s motives. It was painful to realize this, and maybe you’re feeling pained as well.

It’s not my place either to celebrate or second-guess the result of the presidential election. In this congregation there are good and decent people who voted in different ways. We got to have our say, and through this process our country, collectively, chose Donald Trump to be our president. As someone entrusted with authority and responsibility, he is going to need our prayers and God’s help so that he fulfill the duties of his office responsibly and for the benefit of us all. Who will become our next president is no longer an open question.

What is an open question is how we live as faithful people in a nation that is divided, where insults and threats have become a normal part of our political discourse, and where members of racial, religious, and sexual minority groups are feeling threatened and vulnerable, and with good reason. On Wednesday, the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass” when there were widespread attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany, someone defaced a storefront window in Philadelphia with a swastika and the name of the President-elect.1 San Diego State University Police are investigating a report that a Muslim student was confronted and robbed by two men mentioned the President-elect’s name during the crime.2 A clergy friend reports that some friends of his, a lesbian couple, came home to find a hateful note on their door, telling them that the new administration would bring an end to their marriage. At a high school in Oregon, two students have been suspended after telling Hispanic students to “Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow” and “Tell your family good-bye.”3 In Los Angeles, a middle school teacher was fired after students recorded her telling minority students that their parents would be deported and they would end up in foster care.4 And we’ve seen protests and demonstrations, mostly peaceful, but that can all too easily become vehicles for violence and destruction, as in a few cases they have.

I am horrified, and I suspect you are too, by these incidents. We would never treat others with such callous cruelty. We would never want such things to happen to our neighbors. And yet these crimes are simply the most extreme expression of the painful alienation that touches us all. We are men and women of unclean lips, and we live among a people of unclean lips. Isaiah’s cry is our cry.

A seraph came, carrying a burning coal, and touched it to the unclean lips of Isaiah. “Your guilt has departed,” the seraph said, “and your sin is blotted out.” God reached out to touch him, to take away his guilt, so that it no longer trapped him in old ways of thinking, speaking, and doing; so that this man who feared he had come to the very end of his life now had a new future. We have that gift in Jesus. His cross takes away our guilt, and with it our hopelessness, our cynicism, our fear of others. In Jesus we are given a new way of life that opens the possibility of loving not only our neighbors, but our enemies as well. We have inestimable value in God’s eyes, not because of what we’ve achieved or who we are or how we vote, but because of who God is—gracious, merciful, generous. And God only asks of us that we live graciously, mercifully, generously in return.

“Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God asks. “Here I am,” says Isaiah, “send me.”

You’ve been set free of your sin and your guilt. You’ve been given a new life set in motion not by the pain and fear that animates so much of what happens in our world, but by God’s love and generosity. So the question I have for you is: what are you going to do with that gift? Because there are a lot of hurting people out there, especially right now. There are a lot of people who need someone to stand up for their safety and dignity. Who will bear God’s truth—that all people are loved, all people are worthy, all people are made in God’s image—in this time of change and anxiety?

This week my old college chaplain, the woman who married me and Amy, who inspired me to go into the ministry, wrote this, as she was reflecting on the anxiety that followed this week’s election:

Tonight I spent some time reading sermons from earlier periods in Christian history. After all, the Christian church lived through other periods when politics were divisive and the stakes were high. This is what I learned: all those times, whether Christians had a vote or not, whether they felt politically empowered or not – those who were faithful did one thing: they kept their eye on the victims. They identified those who were threatened and cared for them.

That felt like the beginning of an answer to my question, “How do we live now, as faithful people?” I’ve been struggling to work it out this week.

Some are choosing to wear safety pins. As I understand it, this doesn’t signify any particular political position. It simply means, “I commit to keep you safe.” If you feel as though you could intervene in a public incident where someone is being harassed or threatened, you might think about wearing a safety pin. But please don’t let it be an empty gesture. Wear a safety pin only if you intend to follow through, to put your own safety on the line for the sake of a neighbor. Don’t assume it will be easy—be sure you track down information on how to de-escalate tense situations. Don’t confront an aggressor directly at the outset—ask the victim how she or he feels, and whether they would like help. Standing up for victims takes courage and smarts, but it’s a deeply faithful thing to do. “No one has greater love than this,” Jesus said, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). This is a powerful, Christ-like act, but don’t let it be an empty promise.

Some of you are talking to friends, neighbors, and other people in your circles who voted differently than you did, having hard but eye-opening conversations that help to keep you connected. After the basic safety of vulnerable people in our communities, this is incredibly important reconciling work you can do right now. What motivated you and them to express such different hopes for the country?

God’s gift of forgiveness to Isaiah came as a burning coal. When it touched his lips it must have been searing, painful. But it healed him, and it gave him a voice and a vision to share with his people. It meant that the future didn’t have to take the same shape as the disappointing past and the fearful present. Jesus is Lord of all. Now, as always, the church is called to embody this reality. “Who will go for us?” God asks. And I hope we can say together, “Here I am, send me.” Amen.

Footnotes

  1. Mahita Gajanan, “Racist Donald Trump and Nazi Graffiti Found in Philadelphia.” Time. 9 Nov 2016. http://time.com/4565532/racist-graffiti-donald-trump-philadelphia/

  2. Statement shared by the police on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/165977713436348/photos/a.183329528367833.44318.165977713436348/1335305786503529/?type=3&theater.

  3. Natalie Pate, “Silverton students suspended after threats at pro-Trump rally.” KGW.com Portland. 11 Nov 2016. http://www.kgw.com/news/politics/silverton-students-suspended-after-threats-at-pro-trump-rally/350703728

  4. “South L.A. Teacher Caught on Audio Telling Students Their Parents Would Be Deported.” CBS Los Angeles. 11 Nov 2016. http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2016/11/11/south-l-a-teacher-caught-on-audio-telling-students-their-parents-would-be-deported/

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