Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
The vision of the heavenly throne room
1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"
9 And he said, "Go and say to this people:
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.'
10 Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed."
11 Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And he said:
"Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; 12 until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. 13 Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled." The holy seed is its stump.
There’s never a convenient time to be called to the ministry of being a prophet. In fact, prophets are usually called at inconvenient, turbulent times. Because that’s when we need to be surprised again with God’s messages of wholeness and love.
For the 8th century BCE Hebrew prophet, Isaiah, the call came the year that King Uzziah of Judah died. It was time of political and cultural instability. King Uzziah had been a very good king for most of his 52 year reign until his pride got the better of him. Legendary history has it that he usurped the role and power of the priests in the temple by trying to light the incense there. Simultaneously there was an earthquake breaking open the roof of the temple and the sun shining on the errant king’s face caused him to have leprosy. And soon after, he died. It is not a good sign when a Hebrew king tries to defy the ways of God. It always spells trouble!
During the immediate years after Isaiah’s call, the reign of Uzziah was followed by an ineffective couple of kings, Jotham and Ahaz. During Ahaz’s time Judah is threatened by war from the countries of Syria and Ephraim. Ahaz is listening to advice from unreliable military sources. Rather than listening to God’s appointed prophet, Isaiah, who is trying to give him God’s messages and save him and the people a heck of a lot of trouble!
Why all this history background? To help us understand what God was calling Isaiah into through this very surprising vision of God that we just heard! Not into an easy job.... Hebrew scripture prophets are always called when the people and their leaders are in the biggest mess, especially when they are unaware of their mess and need the help of God’s ways of justice and love.
Scholars think Isaiah was a mid-level bureaucrat in the court of the kings of Judah during times of war and exile. In my imagination he was a good worker who just kept his head down and got the job done. No particular heroics, no stellar performances that single him out. Just a regular guy trying to make a living and be good person by going to temple, performing the required sacrifices, saying the required prayers.
And suddenly prophecy is thrust upon him in this mysterious vision – the robes of the Holy One filling the temple, smoke and incense, angelic beings, called seraphs with six wings, flying about....and direct conversation with the Divine. That is the most mysterious and scariest part of all. Here is an ordinary, temple-going guy who is called suddenly by God, a government worker just trying to provide for his family and be a good person, not a priest or preacher! Not a religious professional! And God calls him to be the prophet for the people in a very dangerous time. Watch out, lay people! In the midst of his ordinary life he receives this mysterious vision!
Somehow, Isaiah was obviously open to it, perhaps because he was a regular temple-goer following the religious traditions of his people. But he was not specially trained. His first response to the presence of the Divine was ....”whoa, I am not worthy to be here....I am a person of unclean lips and live with others of unclean lips.” In other words...I’m not who you think I am....I’m not perfect or wise about this religious stuff...I observe of the rules but I don’t think I’m good enough for this faith in action stuff. I’m a government middle manager. I’ve might have made some iffy ethical choices in my time. I’m not so sure about this mystery thing and definitely don’t feel worthy of it, perfect and holy enough to be here face to face with you, God.
God simply reaches out in grace to the humiliated and hesitant Isaiah....no shaming, no rhetoric, no dogma....just “Here we can make you clean with just a touch....accept my grace and love....and let’s get down to business....I need a prophet.”
“Oh! Oh, my!” responds Isaiah and after the touch of holy fire, “Okay....I’ll go! Send me!”
Isn’t it interesting, according to this prophetic story, that once we really accept the grace of God, the steadfast love of God, the forgiveness and wholeness offered by God we are freed to say, “Oh, ok! I’ll go!” And we haven’t even heard the assignment yet. (There are other prophets in the Hebrew scripture tradition who do put up a bit more resistance ..... “no, really, I’m just a boy”.... or “I can’t speak well enough. I stutter!”....God just keeps offering grace until they accept it and accept the job.)
All this is good news for us, isn’t it? God comes to ordinary people in the midst of our lives offering grace and love and purpose and meaning and wholeness! We just have to show up! Maybe that’s the tricky part? Showing up....because here is the rest of the story that we were not asked to read...the next five verses of Isaiah chapter 6. This is what the Holy One asks the new prophet to show up to...
"Go and say to this people: (my people of unclean lips....those people just like you),
'Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.
Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’ "
What? Make them unrepentant? What is up with God? I thought God was supposed to help us and be faithful in offering grace to us! How can you hear God’s message with out your ears? Or see God’s revelations without your eyes? Or understand God’s meaning without your mind? Scholars have poured out much ink over what this directive from God means. Do we as a people have to experience a “no” before we can experience a “yes”? From God? Hear some judgment, some tough news, before we can hear and really receive the good news? That was Isaiah’s visceral experience in the temple. “I am unclean, not whole, not as good as I thought I was” Then its God’s power heals. Could this be a poetic, prophetic and parabolic way of God saying....listen with your hearts, I put my laws and love within you, you are created in my image. Just listening with your more rational senses, trying to figure it all out by yourself will not get you where you need to be to really experience the grace of God. Don’t get stuck in all your see and hear and do not understand. Listen with your hearts.
With such a very tough assignment, Isaiah understandably says, "How long, O Lord?" How long do I have to deliver this unbelievably hard news?
"Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled," God says.
In other words...for as long as it takes for the people to realize they rely on me and not the human wisdom of an unfaithful king. In Isaiah’s historical context this means even into exile and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. For us could it mean until all we think we have built up with your own power and might no longer distracts us from listening to God.
Why is it so hard for us to accept God’s grace? Why do we hide from it? The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, addressed the mystery of God, “you drifting mist that brought forth the morning” saying:
Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.
Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
Our fervent hands hide you.[i]
Franciscan father, Richard Rohr, writes, “The key to entering into the Divine Exchange is never our worthiness but always God’s graciousness. ... To switch to an economy of grace is very hard for humans because we base everything in human culture on achievement, performance, accomplishment, payment, exchange value or worthiness of some sort.”[ii] We work on a merit badge system.
The tough news message here is the message of surrender, folks. And by that word, the S word, surrender, I do not mean becoming a worthless, ragged doormat for God. That is not what God requires! Remember Isaiah’s vision. God does not think we are worthless...God always offers us grace! And along with grace offers challenge, purpose, meaning! We surrender in order to get out of our own way so we can listen and follow. We do love to stand in our own way when it comes to listening to God because listening to God is risky business.
Yet God calls us again and again, through prophets, through the visions of our hearts, to be attentive to God’s ways....to live counter-culturally to the ways of the world....God calls us to put down our soul roots into the heart of God, to trust, to discover purpose and meaning in relationship with the mystery of the Holy One who is ultimately the Divine Energy of the cosmos....all that is and has been and will be, the unity and love of God. Then as we go about our “normal” everyday lives as Isaiah did....God will break through with epiphany and revelation....even if it seems we are living in the midst of destruction.
God says to Isaiah, “Even if a tenth part remains like the stump of a tree that is felled and then burnt to the ground.....God will break through when we can finally pay attention with our hearts. Isaiah says “The holy seed is its stump.” God does not desert us to live in a burned out life, but even in the devastation there are seeds of God’s grace that can grow into faith.
May we open our hearts to the holy seed and answer God’s prophetic call in each of our lives as well as in our life together as God’s people here at Plymouth!
[i] Richard Rohr, Dancing Standing Still; Healing the World from a Place of Prayer, (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2014, 42). Ibid
[ii] Ibid, 42-43.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
This is the second installment of our sermon series on Thorny Theological Themes, and yet I don’t know if “grace” is so much thorny as it is ignored. We sort of gloss over it when we sing “God of Grace and God of Glory” and maybe even when we sing “Amazing Grace.” And yet it is a foundational idea for Christians and perhaps especially for Protestants, whose revolution was based in large part on the idea that we are grounded in God’s grace and our response to it is what brings us to wholeness.
I remember being a little kid and going to a friend’s house for dinner, and before the meal began, his dad said, “Let’s say grace.” And I was brought up short for a minute…were we supposed to repeat the word “grace?” And things became a little clearer when he began to offer a brief prayer before the meal…what in my family we would call “the blessing.” (The briefest of blessings in our house is one only I offer — and I’m sure I shouldn’t tell you this — “God, bless our food, our family, and our crazy-ass congregation. Amen.”) But back to the family of my childhood friend…what his dad offered was in fact a blessing, so where does this “grace” title come from? Well, it’s Latin, of course! Gratia is the Latin noun for thanks, and it spills over into Romance languages with gracias and grazie. So, they were offering a prayer of thanks, which is great. But that’s not exactly what the theological concept of grace is about.
Going back to the Greek of the New Testament, the word we translate as “grace” is charis, which means a present or a gift. Even in English, when we say that someone has the gift of being attractive and engaging, we say they have charisma…that they have a gift of being able to draw people in, in the way JFK did. So, if we start thinking of grace as a present and God’s grace as a gift, what is that all about?
Well, think about that…what has God given you? Look around! It’s all grace!
You are able to inhale and exhale! You can perceive beauty and the terror in creation! You have senses and are able to perceive complex ideas! You are sitting in a progressive congregation trying to deepen your spiritual life! You understand what love feels like, both in its presence and in its absence. It’s all grace!
And you didn’t do anything to earn those gifts. Your life itself is an unearned gift from God, given to you unconditionally. I don’t know how to describe the enormity of this gift of existence, but I like the way Frederick Buechner describes it: “Grace is something you can never get but can only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth….The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
God also creates us for relationship…one with another and also with God. And that trusting relationship – that longing for and embrace of the divine – is what we call faith. And the writer of Ephesians says that it’s a relationship that we can’t earn, because it is an unconditional gift from God…our faith is a gift, a grace from our creator.
One of the thorny bits of western Christianity before the Reformation was the idea that we could build up merit with God, who was seen as something of a divine accountant, keeping track of all of the good works we do, putting them in the credit column to outweigh the sin that was in the debit column. This became a big deal in European Christianity in the 16th century with selling indulgences, through which the church told people would add to the credit column in the ledger God was keeping on you. But Martin Luther famously objected and wrote, “A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved since through faith [that is, relationship] [the Christian] is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely. [The Christian] seeks neither benefit nor salvation since he [or she] already abounds in all things and is saved through the grace of God because in his faith he now seeks only to please God.”
That is an enormous idea with great implications on how we live out our faith, our relationship with God. Think of it like relationship between parent and child. Just as we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with our parents, we have no need to earn our way into a relationship with God. And just as we foster human relationships with love and communication and attention, so we nurture our faith (our relationship with God) through love and communication and attention. And yes, relationships do get skewed and broken. And with God, there is always a tender parent looking for reconciliation with a child who has wandered like the Prodigal Son. In fact, there is more grace shown when we return to the embrace of God after straying apart.
I don’t know if any of you are fixated on the image of God as accountant and trying to tilt the divine ledger in your favor, but if so…knock it off!
There is nothing wrong with doing “good works,” but if you are going on mission trips or being a trustee or organizing a yard sale just to earn God’s favor, you are barking up the wrong tree.
Instead, focus on the grace of God that has been shown to you. None of us did anything to earn the gift of life. None of us did anything to be born into an affluent society. None of us did anything to earn the exquisite beauty of Colorado. And if you focus on the grace of God, you will want to respond somehow. That’s where the Latin word gratia comes in. We respond to God’s unearned gifts to us through gratitude. We do “good works” not as a way to curry divine favor — there is no tit-for-tat with God. No, we do them because of an external response to and internal feeling: we are showing gratitude to God.
So, I’m giving you permission to let go of pious language and the “doing good to look good” either to God or to others. Get real. Take a moment each day to let God’s gifts to you soak in. Enjoy them! And respond, giving thanks to God for the outrageous gift of your life and all that surrounds you. Amen.
© 2018 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 The Greek synonym doron is used in this passage as well.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking. (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), p. 38-39.
 Martin Luther, “The Freedom of a Christian” in Martin Luther: Three Treatises, trans. W. A. Lambert. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), p. 298.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.