Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Divine Draft: Isaiah 6:1-8 - Holy Trinity Sunday

1In 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. 2Seraphs 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. 3And one called to another and said:
 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
 the whole earth is full of his glory.”
 “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;  the whole earth is full of his glory.”4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5And 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!”
6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The 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.” 8Then 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!” (NRSV)

Prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall.  Courtesy of wikiart

Both of my grandfathers served U.S. Army Air Corps during World War 2.  For the first time ever, as I looked at their military photos, I was struck by the youth in their faces.

When they went off to war, they were half my age.  At a time when I was preparing for my future, their futures were put on hold.  They, along with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, were sent either to the Asia-Pacific or Western Europe to defend freedom against the deadliest empires in human history. 

Many were drafted into the service.  They weren’t given a choice.  Others enlisted voluntarily.  Nevertheless, every man and woman who’s ever served in our armed forces knows that their service may cost them their lives.  When I look upon my grandfathers’ youthful faces, I see an undeniable love of home and country. 

You could call the Old Testament prophet Isaiah a draftee of sort.  His story begins in a tumultuous time for the Old Testament country of Judah.  King Uzziah has just died, and the Assyrian Empire, which by now had already an evil empire is threatening them to the East.  God’s chosen people have turned to other gods and neglected their basic duty to love their neighbor as themselves.  They were consumed by their own selfish interests and ambitions.  They allowed poverty and oppression to run rampant among their fellow Israelites.  Those who did worship God merely paid God lip service.

Isaiah knew this full well on the day he was worshipping God in the temple.  Suddenly, he sees the Lord sitting on a throne.  Seraphs were in attendance before him.  These weren’t cute little baby angels.  In Hebrew, the word actually means fiery ones and they would’ve looked more like snakes with wings.  The foundations quake and the room fills with smoke as the seraphs sing “holy, HOLY, HOLY is the Lord.”

Isaiah is terrified as he stands before the glory of God.  “I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips,” he cries out.  He knows he cannot see the Lord and live. 

Immediately, one of the seraphs takes a hot coal and touches it to Isaiah’s lips (which had to have been excruciatingly painful).  The angel declares Isaiah forgiven—and then the Lord says, “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah says, “here I am, send me.”

Let’s face it—how could he have said no?

I would love to tell you that Isaiah leads a dramatic spiritual revival, and everyone turns back to God.  But that’s not what happens.

God sends Isaiah to tell God’s chosen people that their days are numbered. But God already knows that the people won’t listen.  They won’t understand.  They won’t care. 

So why does God bother sending Isaiah in the first place?  And what good came out of Isaiah’s obedience? 

God drafts Isaiah into a service that will not produce the kinds of results he would want to produce.

God sends Isaiah to suffer firsthand the people’s rejection of God. 

God sends Isaiah to weep with God as God’s people turn away.

God sends Isaiah to love a people who will turn on him and kill him. Legend has it Isaiah is executed by King Manasseh, one of Uzziah’s successors. 

With all this talk of gloom and doom, let us not forget that God has not forsaken God’s chosen people.  God sends Isaiah as an act of faithfulness to Israel and to Isaiah personally.  God is reaching out to Isaiah, who’s caught up in the chaos happening all around him.  God sends Isaiah to live out God’s love and grace which will ultimately save the world. 

God’s faithfulness will be the refuge that will comfort and sustain amid all the hardships he will face.  God’s faithfulness will make Isaiah’s work to be fruitful, even in the absence of what we’d call success.  God’s faithfulness will give Isaiah Godly joy as he goes.

This same God sends you, too—drafting you into God’s outpouring of love and grace for all the world.  This isn’t something God does to make you prove your worth.  It’s a gift to be sent.  God drafts you as you are, just like Isaiah.  God takes away all the impurity, all the fear, and all the helplessness—and replaces it with God’s own life.  God sends you out to be a living, breathing embodiment of God’s love for the world—with God’s power to transform lives and transform the world working in you.  Regardless of whether the world receives you with open arms or it rejects and kills you just as it did Isaiah and Jesus Christ, nothing you’ve done will be in vain.  Because God is alive and working in you, God will have the victory.  God’s faithfulness saves, endures, and triumphs—no matter what a sinful humanity does in response.

So let your eyes and ears be open and your heart prepared—for as the world groans in grief and pain; as God’s children cry in want for shelter and food, and wander through life as strangers to the God who created them, hear the voice of God calling: “whom shall I send?”  When, in faith and hope you answer, “here I am, send me” God will come alive from within you; all your weakness and inadequacy shall vanish away.  And no matter what people say or what results you see, God has already won the victory.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Surprise Vocation: Acts 1:1-11 - Ascension of Our Lord

[Luke writes:] 1In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (NRSV)

Rise Up Together! Concert, Oct. 2015.  Photo by author.
Picture this: it’s your last day of school; and it’s been a fantastic year.  Grades are up; good times were had; parents are proud; everybody’s happy.  And now, you’re looking forward to ten weeks of fun, sun, and relaxation. 

All the sudden, you wake up—and realize it was all a dream.  It’s not the last day of school; it’s the first—and an entire year of hard classes, hard teachers, hard work, and stress lies before you. 

Talk about having the wind let out of your sails!

This is what Jesus’ disciples were feeling—except that the stakes were far higher…

Forty days ago, they began their spiritual roller-coaster ride of Jesus arrest, crucifixion, and death—along with their own failure to stand by him through his passion.  But then, Jesus appears to them alive, forgives them for their failures, and affirms his unconditional love for them.  Since the religious leaders and the Roman authorities have ultimately failed to exterminate Jesus, the disciples now have their sights set on Israel’s highest hope—that Jesus will conquer the Romans, reclaim the Temple, and take the Davidic throne as ruler of a reunified Israel.

But then, Jesus pulls the ground out from beneath their feet, and tells them “No, now is not the time, and it’s not your business to know…” 

Here they were, convinced that their foes are about to be vanquished, that all their work is done, and that paradise is at hand.  But instead, Jesus tells them, “your work’s just beginning.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Then, Jesus is carried off into heaven by a cloud and disappears from their sight.

They are left with a surprise vocation that they didn’t want; they weren’t prepared for; and given their lackluster performance as disciples; they definitely weren’t qualified.  And: they won’t have Jesus with them as he’d been before.

I imagine most of us (myself included) feel the very same way about ministry: it’s a vocation for which we have neither the time, the training, or the natural-born ability to undertake.  Considering the day and age we’re living in, it’s much more practical to be a Christian-in-private, rather than a Christian-in-mission.

I know I felt this way last Saturday when our Future Forward team met with our consultant.  Over the last fifteen years, he led his church from the brink of bankruptcy and death to become one of the fastest-growing congregations in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  He spearheaded sweeping changes to the church’s worship and programming, with everything focused on reaching a new generation of believers—in other words, mission.  He spoke about creating an atmosphere that is so loving and energizing that people wanted to be there and considered it a privilege to invite friends and family.  Folks were happy to give up other things in their lives to participate in the church. 

Theirs was a successful revitalization—but one that required huge risks and incurred tremendous costs.

That’s what worries me: the risks and the costs.  Part of me believes that we shouldn’t have to change anything to participate in Jesus’ mission.  The world didn’t ask God’s permission to change, so why should we change for the world?   

Another part of me feels like the whole thing is an exercise in futility.  Leechburg is an aging, declining community, and Lutheran congregations like ours are a dying breed.  Non-denominational mega-churches are “where it’s at.” 

And still another part of me believes that revitalization is the right thing to do, but it’s not for us.  It’s not realistic.  Therefore, we should do whatever it takes to keep the doors open as long as possible and accept our fate.

But Jesus didn’t leave his disciples with some pie-in-the-sky ideal.  The mission was impossible, but only from a human standpoint.  But with the Holy Spirit, impossible happens.  Jesus says, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).  God will act in you to reveal Christ to the world and make God’s mercy and righteousness a reality.  God will act in you to give daily bread to the hungry and bind up the brokenhearted.  God will act in you to gather people from far and wide into God’s own family. 

The cross of Jesus shows us where the mission begins: where God’s children are hungry and hurting.  God’s call begins in your hunger and hurt; in your fears and anxieties; in your brokenness and inadequacies.  That’s where you know Jesus and the power of his resurrection.  People who’ve never known pain or brokenness aren’t effective witnesses, because you have to experience death to know resurrection.  You have to know sin to know the power of forgiveness.  People who never know anxiety or inadequacy can never witness the power of the Holy Spirit working through them. 

It’s okay to be a church that’s broken and struggling—because God’s people are, too.  We are broken but made beautiful through the cross and resurrection.  Despite all our struggles and disappointments; despite our smallness and the context we find ourselves in, Jesus has given you a vocation that’s also a promise: you will be my witnesses.  The power of the Holy Spirit that created the universe and raised Jesus from the dead is alive in you to reach a new generation.  You have been given a new life that’s worth waking up for.  You’ve been given a vocation that’s worth taking risks for. You have been given the life a dying world is desperate to find. 

It is a daunting and difficult mission to be sent by Jesus as witnesses to a new generation.  It’s a daunting and difficult mission to be a part of a Church that’s dying and rising with Jesus.  Change opens the door for resurrection.  Resurrection moves you forward into tomorrow.  It’s the life and love of Jesus, making all things new, that you will witness when you go.