Our scripture this morning takes place in the year King Uzziah died. A little background. Uzziah became king when he was 16 years old…and he had reigned over Judah for 52 years. It was one of the longest periods of stability in Judah’s history. When he died…everything changed. Suddenly, the factions and divisions within the nation sprang to the surface. Nobody knew what would happen next and the world felt unfamiliar and unsafe.
Huh…sound familiar at all? A lot of people have been feeling that way lately. In our country…but also across the globe. Everywhere divisions seem to be growing deeper and the world sometimes feels unfamiliar and unsafe. And we don’t know what is going to happen next.
But that’s when Isaiah has this vision…when the kings of the earth are shown to be vulnerable..their power tenuous. That’s precisely the time this vision is for. It is for our time. And in Isaiah’s vision he sees God…high and lofty. God….who is big…so big that just the hem of his robe fills the temple. The grandest and most glorious – the most religious and holy place…the temple… not only was not God’s dwelling place…it wasn’t even big enough to contain the bottom edge of God’s clothing. Isaiah’s vision reveals a glimpse of the truth about God. And that is …what we think is grand and glorious…what we think is religious and holy…only contains a tiny remnant of God’s presence. God is so much more. Our best…our most impressive…is nothing compared to the majesty of God. It’s just the hem of the robe.
In a world where leaders of nations and communities disappoint us…where religious institutions again and again insist on small and petty narratives…Isaiah remembers that God’s glory fills the whole earth. In a world where security and stability seem elusive…we remember that God is BIG. Bigger than our imagination…bigger than our churches….bigger than our nations….bigger than our histories.
And at that point in the vision, Isaiah comes to a realization. God is big…and he is not. He is not big. He is not holy. He is average, at best. He says the wrong things and does the wrong things, just like everybody else on this earth. He is a man of unclean lips among a people of unclean lips. And as much as he wants to keep speaking grace and love in this world….like everybody else, he gets caught up in the gossip and rumors, the fears and anger…and says unhelpful…hurtful things. Sound familiar? Ok…maybe not for you…but for me. And a few million other people on various social media platforms.
God is holy…and we are not. Isaiah is not.
But then…an angel touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal. And Isaiah’s sins are blotted out and his guilt is taken away. He is purified by the fiery ember. God turns all Isaiah’s failings…all his sin…all his weakness into ash. And all that is left is the child of God he was created to be.
We’ve been trained through much of Christian history to avoid the fire…we’ve been taught to fear the fires of judgment and that maybe we can avoid them if we just believe “right”. It’s a great racket for the church — selling fire insurance. But here’s the truth…throughout Scripture, it is the fire that makes new life possible. It is the fire that licks away the dross of our life…the petty as well as the horrific…so we can stand before God fully as the children of God we were meant to be. The fire is grace…that declares that you are not the worst thing you have ever done. The fire is grace …that says that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more and nothing you can do to make God love you less. The fire is grace….that says you are a child of God, created for love…for kindness…for mercy…for dignity. And the rest…is just ashes. God burns it and it blows away on the breeze.
The fire of grace burns away Isaiah’s fears and insecurities…and so when God asks “who will I send?”….Isaiah is willing to say…”Here I am…send me.”
“Here I am, send me!” Most of us have heard those words or have at least sung those words before. And most of us really do want to be the brave one saying those words…the one willing to step in the breach…into the hard places. We want to have the courage to volunteer…to do what God would have us do in the word…to say what God would have us say. To bring God’s word…God’s love to the world.
But it’s hard. Because most of us don’t like conflict or controversy. We don’t want people to be mad at us. And sometimes…you gotta admit, sometimes it seems people of faith who do feel they are those “prophets” in this world are not people who make the world a better or more loving place. Instead, they often are self-righteous and hate-filled and angry. And we really don’t want to be that.
No…it is not easy to want to be the one God sends. Because we don’t want to get it wrong. And because we’re scared. And the only way Isaiah can do it…is by trusting in the fire of God’s grace…and the vision of God’s vast presence…God’s robe stretched out over the world…with just it’s hem too big to fit in the temple. The only way Isaiah can speak God’s word…is by placing himself in the shelter of that robe.
On Monday, when we were discussing this passage…someone pictured the robe of God in this vision as a massive thunder blanket spread over the earth. Some of you may be familiar with thunder blankets…they make them for dogs and for people. It’s kind of a jacket that wraps and stretches across pressure points …providing a sense of safekeeping for when you’re anxious…like a weighted blanket also can do. God’s holiness provides a thunder blanket for Isaiah to calm his anxiety and so he can have the courage to go forward. I love that image….God’s holiness as a weighted blanket keeping us secure in the midst of all that makes us anxious. Surrounding us. Giving us a sense of safety to go forward.
So here is what happens…underneath God’s holy thunder blanket Isaiah has the courage to step out into the breach. To say “Here I am.” To speak God’s word. He doesn’t have to get it perfect. He is not big. He is not holy. He only needs to trust God…who is big. Who is holy. And do his best to speak a faithful word…of justice. Mercy. Dignity. Love. For all people. But especially for those at a disadvantage. If you read all of Isaiah…you’ll find it was the widows and orphans who were the ones God particularly wanted Isaiah to speak up for…because the justice system worked against them. So…who are we called to speak up for? Foster kids? People of color? LGBTQ folks? The disabled and differently abled? The soldiers who return home wounded in body or mind? Homeless folks? The mentally ill? There are so many who need our voice. Who need a word of justice and mercy…dignity and love.
And honestly….it is scary to say…”Here I am, Lord…send me”…because we’re afraid we’ll get it wrong. We’ll say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing. And guess what? I’m here to assure you that you will. You will get it wrong sometimes. I do. Isaiah did. But when we share that word of God whose glory is not limited to the small scope of our temples and churches and nations but encompasses everybody…every single body ….when we share a word of God whose amazing grace burns away the dross…the waste…the dregs of our life together and proves that the worst things about us are not the things that last… when we share a word that lifts up the hurting and the ones who are at a disadvantage … …when we do that, even messily…it’s good. It’s holy. And it will be okay. But …we’ll probably only be able to do it…when we are safe in the shelter of God’s presence…when God’s thunder blanket is wrapped securely around us. We can only do it…when we trust in God who is greater than us. When we do not trust in our “rightness”…but in God’s love. Then we do not have to fear…anything. Not even the terror of the night. Because we dwell in the shelter of the Lord.