It was a tough year, 742 BCE, the year King Uzziah died. Uzziah was crowned, following his father, at sixteen years old, ruling for 52 years in Jerusalem. In those 52 years, he consolidated territory, conquered neighboring tribes, engaged in massive building projects, it was quite a record. Later, though, God struck Uzziah with leprosy because he had been too proud, becomes too strong, forgotten where his strength and success came from. His final years were in a separate house, his son running things and, being leprous, he was excluded from worship in the temple. What had begun so powerfully, so well, ended with disappointment.1
Yet it was into this season, after 52 years, with warring tribes gathering on the borders, that God showed up, speaking to Isaiah. We don’t know much about him or his family; what we know is that God showed up. In this amazing vision in chapter 6, God dominates the heavenly throne room to which Isaiah is given access.2 This massive complex, making Duke Chapel look pedestrian, can contain only the tiniest portion of the Lord’s clothing.
The scene itself is even more striking: the wind against his face as the massive seraphs, fiery winged creatures that appear, along with their sibling cherubim, as God’s attendants and emissaries, starting with the guarding of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3.3 Two pairs of wings shield their faces from God’s glory, two cover their bodies from God’s holiness, and two keep them suspended in the air above the royal throne. As they see to God’s every need, they sing: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The ground shakes, and the house fills with smoke. Isaiah, as he clings to the wall, first in terror, then filled with inadequacy, hears himself say, "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!" This is Moses taking off his shoes at the burning bush, knowing he is on holy ground.
The smoke clears. In the heart of the holy terror there is a moment when everything gets quiet. You hear people talk about it after the car accident, after the earthquake, there is the shaking or the crash and everything is thrown into turmoil and then, it is quiet. A seraph flies out from the fire, tongs pinching a glowing coal: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." It is a powerful, cleansing, liturgical act. The angel says to the prophet that the old life has gone, the new life has begun, whether things you have done or things you have left undone, know you are forgiven and be at peace. We say it each week: Hear and believe the good news of the gospel, in Jesus Christ you are forgiven. Isaiah is reminded of God’s mighty claim upon him, a love, that WILL NOT LET HIM GO.
Then comes the call. In grateful response we rise, we get up, we lean forward, listening for the Spirit’s direction. Narratives like this pop up in the Hebrew Scriptures in a particular way, like with Moses and Gideon and Jeremiah, like Mary the mother of Jesus is called. There are a couple of things about this text that I think are worth paying attention to. One is that Isaiah’s call comes in chapter 6. Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s – other major prophets – come early, in chapter 1. Scholars aren’t clear why Isaiah’s is in chapter 6. Was it a later addition, something independent, or was it included here as a unique way of shaping the literature? I find it refreshing, though. Not everyone gets a clear, visionary call early on. It takes time.
The second is that Isaiah is called to do something that is in keeping with who he is. We know very little about Isaiah or his family specifically, but it seems clear from other parts of the book that he is has grown up in Jerusalem’s elite social circles. He is someone of privilege, someone already with access, who can, in chapter 7, set up at least an informal audience with the king. Not everyone could do that. God could have pulled out someone from the wilderness to try and speak to the king, but I bet they wouldn’t have gotten in the door. God takes who Isaiah is, the gifts he has already, and blesses them for God’s purposes.4
This got me thinking about the role our gifts and our experiences play in call. To be clear, I am not talking about only pastors or only church officers. All are called to follow Jesus, and all are called to do so in particular ways. Sometimes God turns us around, like the Apostle Paul on the Damascus road in the book of Acts, changing his direction entirely. But other times, in keeping with this text, God takes the gifts you have been given, the things you know how to do, and calls you to use those things for service in the world. It happens in tons of amazing, small, and less noticed ways among us. God calls someone who is used to spending time with children to teach. God takes people who are good listeners and calls them to be Stephen Ministers. God takes people who know how to sew, or knit, to make blankets for the homeless or for little newborn babies in the NICU. God takes people who know how to build things and asks them to do projects around the church or build a habitat house. God takes people who can organize tasks to pull off events or plan trips. God calls us to use what we have been given.
But God uses our experiences, too – where we come from, what we know. God often, I think, calls us to use our brokenness, our pain. Carrie and I, Carrie particularly, spend a lot of time over at Duke Hospital working with the pediatric folks because we have walked those halls, slept in those awkward chairs, held a child attached to machines rocking late at night. I know God uses those of you who have been through cancer to walk with others, those who have experienced pain, even the death of a loved one, to offer solace to those who suffer those kinds of losses among us. Last week there was an amazing obituary that I will link to when this sermon is posted online that I really want you to read. Clay William Shepherd was 22. The obituary begins,
"Our charismatic and beautiful son and brother died Sunday morning from a drug overdose." I was also taken aback because in circumstances like this families don’t like to name what happened. Then the family wrote about how it looked like he had it all, but how inside he was suffering. "We loved Clay with all of our hearts, but we now know that was not enough to shield him from the world. This note isn’t an attempt to assign blame for Clay’s death. It’s not to vent our anger and frustration at a world where drugs can be ordered and delivered through the internet. We write this obituary in hope that it may provide an insight to those that need to change their behavior one night at a time."
This remarkable family then took time to tell his story – of his many gifts, of the times they tried and it seemed like things were working, and the times they failed. It is heartbreakingly honest. He completed rehab a couple of times, but still couldn’t quite get there. At the end they write:
"To all children, this note is a simple reminder that there are people who love you, with everything they have and no matter what you do – don’t be too afraid/ashamed/scared, too anything, to ask for help. To all parents, pay attention to your children and the world that revolves around them – even when the surface is calm, the water may be turbulent just beneath. Clay’s struggles have ended. He is finally at peace. We will miss his keen sense of humor, impersonations, cooking, plant advice and rhythm on the dance floor.
Goodbye Clay, we love you and miss you dearly.
Mom & Dad, Cole, Wade & Jess, Jean & Lucas"5
This family didn’t use religious language, but I would surely say that they felt called to speak of Clay’s addiction in a way that opened up space for others. We do this too seldom, especially when issues of addiction or mental illness are in play. I don’t believe God causes these things to happen, but I do believe that with Isaiah, and with us, God takes the gifts we have been given, the experiences we have had, even deep pain, and uses all of those things for God’s own purposes in the world.
This summer, as we do our best to spend a little extra time relaxing, maybe stepping away as school winds down, be mindful of call. Know that God has something in store. And whether you end up with a grand vision of the temple or not, God has work for you to do. Listen carefully. Listen carefully.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. I’m not a huge fan of internet research, but some of this information I found helpful: In the Year King Uzziah Died. Also see II Chronicles 26:1-15 and II Kings 15:2.
2. Walter Brueggemann, WBC: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), p 58.
3. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achtemeier, ed. (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1985), pgs 167, 998.
4. Robert Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1980), p. 271, in Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2003), 160. See also Isaiah 7:3, 8:2, 22:15-16 for the prophet having access to the king, the chief priest, and other important players in the city.
5. Clay W. Shephard, Obituaries, The News & Observer, 2015-05-20.