Pastor Todd Buegler
November 17-18, 2012
Lord of Life
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God who is the Christ. Amen.
One Wednesday night in 1993 at Chicago Stadium, the Bulls were playing the Miami Heat. A 23-year-old fan by the name of Don Calhoun from Bloomington, Illinois, had a once in a lifetime experience.
He was pulled from the bleachers to see if he could shoot a 79-foot shot (a shot that was launched from the opposite free throw line, three-quarters of the length of the basketball court). And Calhoun, who was picked from the crowd because he was wearing bright, yellow shoes that had rubber soles that wouldn’t scuff the court, launched the ball, hit “nothing but net” and earned himself 1 million dollars. An interesting side-note was that Calhoun was about to shoot the ball like a typical basketball set shot. But he said that one of the cheerleaders told him as he walked past her that it was best to throw it overhand, like a baseball, which is what he did. Scottie Pippin and Michael Jordan spent the next afternoon trying to duplicate the feat and couldn’t.
The fact that someone might actually make the shot was so unexpected that the company sponsoring the promotion wasn’t even sure how they would come up with the one million to pay him.
The “Once in a lifetime event” is something that everyone wonders about from time to time. It would have to be something dramatic…something life-changing…winning the lottery, or climbing a mountain, or the Vikings winning the super bowl. Well, maybe once in a lifetime might be too much to hope for.
It was a once in a lifetime event that happened to Isaiah when he visited the temple. It wasn’t a mountain climb, or even a basketball shot. No, Isaiah’s experience was actually quite a bit more profound than even that. Isaiah saw God. He actually saw God. And that encounter, that once-in-a-lifetime experience is the story we want to dig into today. You might want to grab a Bible from the pew and look with me at Isaiah 6.
And while you do that, I’ll give you just a little bit of background: Isaiah and his people had lived through good times under the rule of King Uzziah. It had been a period of peace, and stability. And it was also a time of unprecedented prosperity. The people were affluent and secure. But then suddenly, unexpectedly, in the year 738bc, King Uzziah died and overnight, everything changed. The King’s succession wasn’t clear. The people no longer knew what to expect. There was uncertainty about the future. Their economy went into a tailspin. Their neighboring nations saw them as vulnerable, and they lived under the threat of invasion. The way of life that they had enjoyed for so long was coming to an end.
There is a certain level, to which we can identify with Isaiah and his contemporaries. Economically, socially, politically and internationally we live in a time also filled with uncertainty. The old and sure ways of the past don’t seem to work as they once did; and the new ways remain unproven. Cable pundits issue blame, and our nation and the world feels polarized. So what are we to do in such stressful times?
I think we can learn from Isaiah. In a time of uncertainty he went to the temple to pray and to seek direction and comfort. As people of faith, we do the same thing Isaiah did: we turn to God.
Isaiah’s experience takes place in the innermost portion of the temple, which was known as the “Holy of Holies.” It housed the Ark of the Covenant. Yes, the ark, as in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The Ark was viewed as God’s earthly throne and it was in this inner most room that the Israelite people believed that God literally lived. In this room, Isaiah was overcome by a vision that changed his life completely. In the vision, there were angels, and other heavenly beings, and for Isaiah, the distinction between the earthly and the heavenly became blurred
And then Isaiah stood in the very presence of God, sitting on a throne. If you’ll look in verses 1-4, the experience is described. You need to understand that in Jewish tradition and law, one could never see God. Because God was so big, so awesome, so amazing that the mere sight of God would simply overwhelm your mind, and you would die. They believed that to see God, was literally to die. So it is no wonder that Isaiah is simply terrified by this experience. He knows he is a sinner who is completely unworthy to be in the presence of God. He is struck by his inadequacy and unworthiness.
In verses 2 and 3 we see that even the angels are covering their eyes, because they cannot look upon God. And they sing “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Now in Hebrew tradition, when someone repeats a word or a phrase over and over, it is to imply intensity. So the phrase “Holy, Holy, Holy…Holy, Holy, Holy…” could literally be understood as “Holy…way too holy…way way too Holy.”
Jump to verse 5, where Isaiah cries out “woe to me, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips. And my eyes have seen the King, the Lord almighty.” Unclean lips means “I am a sinner…unworthy…”
Isaiah is saying, “I am in soooo much trouble. I am a sinner…I live in a nation of sinners. I have seen God. I am gonna die!”
But even though encountering the holy God appropriately terrifies and humbles him, Isaiah has nothing to fear. God doesn’t want him to die. God has another plan.
One of the angels picks up a hot coal, and touches it to Isaiah’s lips, literally burning…cauterizing away the sin. The angel says “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.” The coal touching his lips is painful, it is a punishment. It is atonement for sin. It is the same atonement that Christ pays for us.
Then, in verse 8, God looks at his angels and with Isaiah the only human in the room, asks the ultimate rhetorical question: “Whom then shall I send?” And Isaiah, perhaps overwhelmed with gratitude at having been forgiven and permitted to live, cannot help but reply, “Here am I; send me!”
I have to admit to being just a little bit jealous of Isaiah. It is clear what God wants him to do. God’s call to Isaiah is obvious. And Isaiah goes on to become one of the major prophets of the Old Testament.
When I’ve tried to figure out God’s call for me, what God wants for my life, it has always seemed a little less obvious. I think that’s the case for many of us. Our sense of God’s call can be clouded and harder to figure out.
And this whole idea of “call” even is a bit confusing. In all honesty, it is kind of “churchy language.” It is language that we in the church use when thinking about vocation. And it’s used most often when thinking about pastors, or church staff people. We don’t say that pastors are “hired” by a congregation, we say that they are “called” by God, and by a congregation.
Unfortunately, I think this understanding kind of puts the concept up and onto a pedestal and it feels out of reach. As in, “Well, a pastor is ‘called’ but I’m just ‘hired.’”
This is a misunderstanding.
Fredrich Buechner said that “The place God calls you to, is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” In other words, where your passion…where the things you love to do and the things you care about, can meet a need that exists in the world. That is your call. That is your vocation.
We sometimes confuse vocation and career. If we can make our vocation line up with our career, well that’s an amazing thing. That’s the situation I find myself in. My passion, my gifts and the needs of this congregation align…This is where God has called me to be.
But people’s vocation can be outside of their career as well. I was talking with a member of the congregation who serves as a hockey coach. He loves coaching hockey. He’s a good coach, and there is a need. His work as a banker is what pays the bills and allows him to do the coaching. But coaching is his passion. In it, he finds his vocation. And in all honesty, it is vitally important for us, for people of faith, to be out in the world, being good hockey coaches who lead and teach with faith and integrity….to be out in the world working as accountants, or IT professionals, or teachers or police officers or street sweepers, being persons of faith in those venues, and understanding that they are called to be there; this is their ministry.
People of faith don’t change the world when they sit here in the pews. People of faith change the world when they are equipped here, and go back out to a world desperately in need.
Martin Luther said, and please excuse the gender exclusive nature of this comment, “Send your good men into ministry. But send your best men into politics.” He said this because he wanted to underscore the importance of people of faith working in the world. And for the word “politics,” you could substitute the word “medicine”…or education…or law, or business, or technology, or any other field.
While God’s call to you may not have been as dramatic as God’s call to Isaiah, it is no less sincere, and no less important.
My own call story, well in all honesty, it’s kind of boring. I have lived a kind of a Lake Woebegonish existence. There was no dramatic vision, no angels and heavenly beings. There were no sudden 180 degree turns. It has been God working through a combination of family, friends, teachers and mentors to nudge me in my life. My call story was neither crooked nor straight. It has resembled more of a curving path.
But it is my journey, my path. And we all have paths. We all have these life journeys that take us from there to here. And they all are shaped differently.
The Lutheran understanding of call and vocation is, I think, a pretty healthy way to approach things, and it mirrors Isaiah’s experience.
Isaiah came to the temple to worship…He realized and confessed his own sinfulness. God forgives him and then issues a call, and Isaiah answers and is sent to serve.
That’s what God does. When gathered in God’s presence, we confess our sins and we receive the gift of forgiveness. And we are sent from here to serve. God gathers, forgives and sends. That is what God does.
The key is to understand our sense of call, not as a dramatic event reserved for just a few, but as something we all experience. And that receiving and understanding our call is a process that moves and continues throughout our life.
Think of it as a “once in a lifetime event” that happens every day of our lives.
You come to worship to be in the presence of God. You recognize that you are a sinner. God forgives you and Jesus makes the atonement. The bread and the wine touch your lips. This is grace. Then God asks the rhetorical question: “whom shall I send to your school, to your business, to your workplace, to your home.”
This is the question. This is the grace. This is the call. And like Isaiah, we all have the opportunity to raise our hands and to answer. “Here I am. Send me.”