Rev. Ryan Slifka
Our passage today from Isaiah is what’s usually called “the call of Isaiah.” Where Isaiah begins his vocation, his calling as a prophet. Isaiah is summoned by God, and sent by God with a purpose in to the world. Prophets in the Bible are those who’ve been given “divine perspective.” God has shown him or her something. And God has given him or her a message to deliver. For Isaiah, it’s not quite the beginning of the spiritual life, but it’s a beginning of the spiritual life in seriousness. And dedication.
But Isaiah’s call isn’t simple. It isn’t easy. In fact, it’s uncomfortable. It’s painful, even.
Isaiah’s uncomfortable call begins in the Temple, worshipping one day. The temple being a thin place where heaven and earth come together, where the boundary between the two is particularly thin. It’s a place of unique encounter with God.
And that’s just what Isaiah has. A unique encounter with God. In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s had a mystical encounter like the one Isaiah has.
He looks up, and suddenly he somehow sees the Creator of the Universe seated on a heavenly throne. Then he says that not only is God seated on the throne, but the edge of God’s robe fills the whole place. So it’s not like he spots some dude, points at him and says “God! There!” But Isaiah’s seeing a small portion of something much larger. The fullness of God can’t be contained in one place. So he gets a glimpse, a taste, a moment, of the presence of God. Just the edge of the robe. Something to grab on to. But not the whole thing.
And flying around the throne are these six-winged Seraphs. Which are often interpreted as angels. But they’re more like flying, fire-breathing snakes. So it’s not like Touched by an Angel. Or All Dogs go to heaven. It’s kind of terrifying. And these heavenly beings are singing to each other, chanting back and forth, “holy holy holy, earth is full of God’s glory.” Praising the Creator.
So Isaiah has just had an encounter with the presence of God. Who is not only in the room. But whose glory, whose weight, whose life is shot through all creation.
But here’s where the discomfort sets in. Isaiah’s first response to this awesome scene isn’t “wow.” Or “ hallelujah.” Or even “what did I eat that night?” His first reaction, coming into the presence of God is more like “Oh, crap.”
“Woe is me,” he cries. “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips. And I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah’s just met God, and his first response is terror. Because in the world of the Old Testament, God is so majestic and holy, and human beings are so small and unholy, that if a human being were to see God face to face, he or she would be destroyed.
Now the issue here is that Isaiah has “unclean lips.” He’s a liar, and a deceiver. In fact, his people thrive off of lies and deceit. He lives thick in the midst of a culture of un-truth. You might say both he and God’s people are post-truth.
Isaiah’s terrified because he knows the jig is up. And God knows exactly who he is. God knows exactly what he’s done. He can’t hide his sin and brokenness in the presence of the Creator of the universe. So not only does Isaiah feel discomfort. He fears his immanent destruction.
For Isaiah, the truth is out. The truth about himself, who he is. What he’s done. What he hasn’t done. And by all standards it really should be his end. Now, we may not, like him, fear literal obliteration in the face of the utter holiness of God. But we do fear that is the truth about our lives came out. It would end us.
Now, I thought long and hard before sharing this example. Because it’s not something that’s spoken of in polite society. So if you have children with you right now, maybe cover their ears. Not because I’ll be saying anything too bad. Just if you don’t want to have to explain what something is. But I heard—on a Christian podcast—an interview with Melissa Febos, who wrote a memoir about her time as a former dominatrix. And what she said was that so many of her former clients would re-enact a moment of shame from their past. And the reason why they would do that, she says, is because they desperately wanted to tell their story and gain acceptance. And they couldn’t share their secret shame with anyone else.[i] Because if they did, it would destroy them.
We all have our own secret shame. The truths we hide about ourselves. And the culture we live in that shapes us to be a certain way. Sometimes I think that we treat the truth about ourselves like my younger son treats a cut. I’ll ask to see it and he’ll cry, he’ll flail, he’ll refuse to show it to me. Because if somebody sees it, that means it’s real. And really, it’s just the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. As soon as they picked the fruit, scripture says, they saw they were naked. They were ashamed of themselves. They were afraid, and hid from God.
We hide who we truly are. We hide what we’ve done under a layer of self-justification, shame, and self-deceit, because we think if anybody found out the truth about us we’d be destroyed. Like Isaiah, we fear the truth coming out. Because if our wounds were finally exposed. That’s when they’ll kill us.
Isaiah can’t hide who he is before God. And the bad news is that we can’t hide who we are before God either. We can hide ourselves from each other. But we can’t hide ourselves in the presence of God. That’s the bad news. The truth is out. Whether we like it or not.
But for followers of Jesus, even bad news like this is actually good news. Because according to Isaiah, the exposure of the truth doesn’t end with our destruction. It actually leads to salvation. And healing.
Because Isaiah here is afraid. But he’s also courageous. He goes against our tendency to hide. I mean, no doubt he knew the jig was up. Might as well own up. But instead of hiding, he takes ownership of who he is. He tells the truth, engages in an act of confession.
Isaiah bares it all, really. But of having his face melt Indiana Jones style, one of the flying fiery snakes grabs a hot coal off the altar with some tongs, and presses it to his lips. And the Seraph says “this has touched your lips. Your sin has been blotted out.” It’s an act of forgiveness. An act of purification. Isaiah told the truth about his brokenness. And the response isn’t destruction. It’s forgiveness. It’s purification. Healing and new life.
And it doesn’t end there. “Who shall go for us?” God asks. And with his new lease on life, Isaiah simply responds “here I am.”
Isaiah thought the truth coming out would end him. But it didn’t. His confession was met with God’s forgiveness. And this forgiveness has freed him from his fears, his shame, his brokenness, transforming him into God’s messenger. A servant. Ready, and willing to go wherever God sends him. So not only is he forgiven, he’s given a new purpose in life. It’s a drastic change indeed.
And it all it took was an encounter with God. And a willingness to own the truth about himself. An act of truth telling that didn’t end in his destruction. But a whole new beginning. Given by God.
And that’s the good news to us, too. God sees. God sees us at our darkest. God knows our shadiest secrets, and our deepest shame. No matter how well we hide it from each other. That’s actually what the cross is all about. We are creatures capable of extreme beauty, who nonetheless hold within us the capacity for excessive destruction. The cross tells the truth about us as the human race. But even at our ugliest, Christ calls from the cross, pleading for. And proclaiming forgiveness. It’s why we go through a prayer of confession every week. And why there’s an assurance of grace every week.
Now, it’s not an easy forgiveness, obviously. God’s grace is good, God is loving, but telling the truth about our lives can be a painful thing. God’s grace not only flows like a cool stream, it burns hot like fire. That kind of painful honesty and self-examination can sting. Even the thought itself can be unbearable. The healing process of forgiveness can be more like hot coal cauterizing a deep wound than it is a shot of morphine that dulls the pain. It can be uncomfortable, painful, costly even. But, it will not destroy us. Jesus said “the truth shall set you free.” The end result is our freedom. On the other side of the cross is resurrection.
So friends, in this place. In this community of faith. In this temple of the Lord, in the presence of the Holy One. Know the truth is out. About me, about you. About our world. Our lips are so often tainted by the untruth, within a culture of untruth. But the truth is out, God knows us. And who we are. And know this as well. We can tell the truth about ourselves, and our lives. Our sins, our fear, our brokenness and shame. Before God, and without fear.
You can quit lying to yourself. You can stop the self-justification, self-righteousness. You can let go of your humiliation. And your shame. Because when we own the truth about our lives, God meets our sin, yours and mine, not with obliterating destruction. But transformative forgiveness. It may be painful. It may sting at first. But it’s the first step that leads to our healing. When we grab on to the hem of Christ’s robe. And he will lead us on the path of salvation.
Here we are, Lord. You know who we are. You know what we’ve done. You know what we are. Forgive us, we pray. Burn away our guilt and our shame. Unburden us with your forgiveness, free us to be who you have created us to be. Send us to forgive as we have been forgiven. And to love as deeply as you have loved us. Saints and sinners alike.
Here we are, Lord. Send us. In Jesus’ name. And by the healing power of your Spirit.
[i] Melissa Febos on Crackers and Grape Juice https://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-88-melissa-febos