Fear-less – message by Stephen Radke
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘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.’
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’
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!’
He said, ‘Go and tell this people:
‘“Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”
Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.’
Then I said, ‘For how long, Lord?’
And he answered:
‘Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.’
God’s big story starts with the recognition that human beings were made in the image or likeness of God. People and God spoke as friends. This friendship and closeness between God and people was lost when Adam and Eve decided to be like God and know good from evil.
The book of Genesis tells us about the decline and scattering of human beings. It speaks of God calling Abraham. about 1900 BC before Christ. God mounts a rescue mission for humanity through Abraham and his descendants. They would be a light to the nations and tribes and people would know about God and what he is like through those people we know as the Hebrews.
You can read about their slavery in Egypt and about their rescue by Moses and about the teaching God gave to Moses. After they moved to Canaan you can read about the charismatic rulers called Judges’, then the kings.
We are concerned today with the part of God’s big story 1200 years after Abraham where it is obvious that God’s Hebrews are not fulfilling their destiny as God’s light to the nations. In fact they are living just like the nations and tribes around them. So, we have prophets like Isaiah who have the job of pointing this inconvenient truth out to people.
Even though this reading from the prophet Isaiah predates Jesus by 700 odd years it points forward to him as all the prophetic writings do. Jesus will be the true Hebrew, the true light to the world.
In Jesus the lost image of God is restored to humanity and humanity again can experience the friendship and closeness of God.
A closed world versus the vision of the living God who frees us and draws us into his life
Times of Crisis
A couple of weeks ago my sister in QLD got COVID. She has an ongoing health condition and I feared for her. Vulnerable people have much to fear because of COVID, fear of lockdown and isolation; fear they will lose their living, or their lives. The prophet of Isaiah lived in a time of fear and threat. The ruler of their little country Judah had died after a 52 year reign. At the same time at the gates of their capital are two armies from the north ready to destroy his city Jerusalem: the Syrian army and the army of Israel (the brothers of Judah). And to the far north of all of them the super-power of Assyria was rising up ready to sweep them all away like a tsunami.
Times of crisis lay bare our gods and show what we believe in. Today I will talk about two very different views of the world or belief systems that people like us hang on to. I will call them The Closed view of the World and The Open World of the Living God.
The Closed World
In the areas of counselling, mental health and education that I have worked in in the last 20 years, I have been hammered with the view that the universe is limited to what we can see, feel, touch and smell. This is a philosophical position which passes off as science. It preaches that what is real is limited to what our senses register. Because we limit reality to what we can see, hear, touch and smell of course there can’t be any other reality because we have declared it to be so.
In Isaiah’s time 2700 odd years ago the nations around Judah held to a closed universe. Sure, they believed in gods and spirits, but heir gods and spirits were seen as being part of the universe. Since the gods are part of the universe they can be manipulated by human beings. People believed that you could use rituals and sacrifices to get the god to do what you wanted, to keep you safe from a disease for example .
This enclosed worldview is very attractive because it puts us at the centre of the universe. What we want becomes the most important thing in the world and we manipulate and control the world to get what we want through science, medicine, economics or military force. We end up saying things like, ‘I am doing well because I am smart, and I am working hard’. ‘Because I am smart and working hard I deserve to be better than others.’ If you are religious you can add to this the believe that God is blessing you because you are a good, honest hard working person who prays and goes to church. God becomes our butler whose job is to help us achieve our personal goals and ambitions. This belief system does much harm to those who are not doing well and the greed of it all ruins the environment.
This closed view of the world robs us of meaning in life. At the heart of this this closed view of the world is the belief that we are only here by accident, an accident of cells and an accident of genetics. This means the only meaning in life is what we make up for ourselves. We all know people who have lost hope and feel very disappointed with life.
The Open worldview of the Living God
But there is an open way of seeing reality the prophet tells us about this when he says,
When I worked as a primary school counsellor I saw many young children whose worlds did not make sense to them. Sometimes this was caused by a loss of a parent who had died or left the home.
But for other children it was something less obvious. Particularly for young people who were wired differently, neuro-diverse children who perceive the world differently to other children. These children needed a moment of understanding from another human being to begin to make sense of the world. The lonely experience of these young people is close to the experience of Isaiah.
Isaiah, because of his closeness with God could never perceive the world the way others did. He like the prophets before and after him could see through people’s mistreatment of others to their closed view of the world. A world where god was just part of the world like them and they could manipulate god like they manipulated others.
Isaiah’s moment of understanding was a vision of God. He got to see the serpent fiery creatures flying and calling out Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory. He saw God who is completely outside of all other reality, ‘Ultra Holy’. God who is completely other to you and me and to that everything else that exists. And yet God fills all of reality. Complete other, yet the God is closer than our own skin, in the cells that make us up. God fills the universe.
Isaiah now knows who he is, he begins to know himself, ‘I am a man of unclean lips who lives with people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the king the Lord of Armies’. The coal from the altar takes away the wrongness of his closed world view and the bad treatment of others that comes from his wrong view of the world.
Isaiah overhears God talking in the heavenly council, God talking among himself;
‘who will we send, who will go for us?’
He says, ‘Look, I am here’. He is changed and is no longer like Adam and Eve who hid from God’s closeness. As we all do at times.
God makes known to Isaiah that people would be ever hearing Isaiah’s preaching and not understanding it. Isaiah would preach a message of hope;
hope that God’s people would be made new, but they will not hear, their eyes will glaze over.
Jesus and St Paul who came hundreds of years after Isaiah quoted these same words. Isaiah like all true prophets after him spoke clearly of God’s mercy, but people hardened themselves to it.
Isaiah was called to be a witness to the fact that there were no Band-Aids left for God’s people. Things were so bad now that God’ s people will only be God’s light to the tribes of the world by dissolving as a nation and being remade, made new. There would be forgiveness and new life through first of all dissolving. Isaiah dissolved when he saw God, he said ‘ I am undone’ so God’s people in Judah and Jerusalem will be dissolved as exiles in Babylon almost 220 years after Isaiah’s preaching
Being dissolved in a foreign country was never going to be the last word because God’s aim is that they return from exile as a new people loyal to him. People who know and worship the God who is apart from the universe yet fills every part of it. These words of Isaiah were entirely fulfilled 700 years later when Jesus is born in Bethlehem in Judea. Jesus is the Holy Seed at the end of our reading.
Jesus is dissolved on the cross in the place of all human beings of every clan and tribe. Jesus was dissolved in your place, so you have been dissolved with him. On the third day Jesus rose from death and you have been remade with him as a child of God. We again reflect the image of God that Adam and Eve had and lost. You and I are now fully in God.
New Testament prophets tell us we see God in the face of Jesus. Being joined to Jesus is being with God. When we are with God we can make sense of who we are and of the universe we live in.
God always intended that we should share in God. God always intended to make a new community of people, people who are a light to all tribes and clans. He always intended that you and I should be part of it.
We all have our fears, both real and imagined. We all have moments of real loneliness times when we lose meaning. That is why each day you and I need to turn again and see God in the face of Jesus. Let God crack open your closed world and open your eyes to see the vision of the light of God in the face of Jesus.
In the name of Jesus Amen
Prayer after the sermon:
Loving Heavenly Father,
It is easy for us to be afraid of the disease and unrest in the world we live in. Things don’t seem to be stable or settled. Open our eyes like you opened Isaiah’s eyes and help us to see that you over all things yet you are closer than our own skin. Help each of us to see you in the face of Jesus. Help us to sense your closeness to us and your deep love for each of us. in Jesus’ name, Amen.