Sermon from August 21, 2011

08-21-2011 sermon text

ISAIAH:

Send Me

Isaiah 6:1-13

They are sweeping, harrowing challenges.  They hit us in the dead of the night and in the quick of the heart.  In our day they include the specter of global terrorism and hate filled, violent, technological overkill.  Fears of looming environmental disaster and worldwide chaotic economic collapse seem to ratchet up higher and louder on a daily if not hourly basis.

In Isaiah’s day it was the brutality of subsequent invasions from various succeeding flavor of the month empires and despots, first the Assyrians, then the Babylonians and finally the Persians had their play.  The Assyrians especially adopted this thing called siege warfare where instead of annihilating you in one fell swoop they slowly starved a community out until it was nearly stark raving mad and then they would annihilate you.

In James Stockdale’s Day it was being involved as a commanding fighter pilot in a war half a world away that was increasingly having its moral foundation questioned at home after he had experienced being shot down and the prospect of brutality and tortuous death as the highest ranking POW in a Hanoi prisoner of War camp.

In addition to whatever is happening out there that you have little control over, what sweeping, harrowing challenges in your personal life have you brought with you into this service this morning?

Isaiah lived, breathed, ate, drank and slept the harrowing, challenging, brutal facts of reality.  But one day he … saw … God.

That is what we want to look at today, Isaiah’s call as a prophet here in chapter 6.  One of the things that Isaiah would become beloved for is launched in this call.  Isaiah was able to keep one foot in the brutal facts of reality while keeping the other foot firmly planted in the sweeping grace and soaring hope of God.  So the question for us becomes, how do we do that too?  In other words how do we see God for who God really is, ourselves for who we really are, and the world as it really is; and bring that all together in our lives in an effective way?  How do we bring the sweeping grace and soaring hope of God to bear on the brutal facts of reality right where we live?

I just want to lift two things out of Isaiah’s experience that I think would be extremely helpful to us.  Accept something once and for all.  Seek something on an ongoing basis.  First accept engagement not despair.  Accept engagement in the struggle with the brutal facts of reality in your situation instead of being overwhelmed by despair.  You see, absent God, there are two possible responses to the brutal facts of reality in any situation.  You can be overwhelmed into the despair of inaction, or you can actively flee and choose escape from or denial of the brutal facts.  It’s the difference between being, in an athletic situation, a player on the pitch or a spectator in the stands; in a military situation, an engaged voluntary warrior or a disengaged citizen.  You can let Chicken Little be your prophet, the sky is falling the sky is falling woe is me.  Or you can let Isaiah be your prophet.  Skipping forward to v8 the Lord says whom shall I send and who will go for us.  And Isaiah says here am I send me.  He accepted engagement in the struggle, not despair.  Isaiah had seen the brutality of reality, and the reality of sin, but he still chose to be an active participant in the solution not a passive victim of the problem.  He accepted engagement not despair, he said, here am I … send me.

I came across an account of Stockdale’s experience in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great (HarperCollins: NY, 2001, pp. 83-87).  In fact he quote’s Stockdale’s paradox as “confront the brutal facts of reality but at the same time never lose hope that you will prevail.”  Since then I‘ve read some other writings by Stockdale.  He cites stoic philosophy but I see a lot of parallels to the apostle Paul and Isaiah here in what he says.  He talks about how there is so much we don’t have control over but the one thing that God does give us absolute control over is our own moral and spiritual choices.  And so instead of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by what he couldn’t do and control as a POW, Stockdale concentrated all his moral and spiritual power on making the best use of what he could do and control.  He not only survived 8 years in that hell on earth, he not only devised a tap tap form of communication that linked all his fellow POW’s to constant encouragement and a realistic shared code of conduct, when he came closest to death as he could’ve come and was thrown brutally back in his cell the first thing he noticed in the courtyard was an encoded message from his 80 or so other brothers in arms, simply saying ‘thank you.’

Isaiah didn’t deny or try to escape the brutal realities of his day.  What he did was accepted engagement as a courier of sweeping grace and lofty hope in the midst of it.  When you and I accept engagement in the struggle rather than despair the great thing is we don’t have to have it all figured out at any given moment.  What it does mean is that we decide once and for all to accept our role as a courier of sweeping grace and soaring hope in every situation, in every decision.  In the redemptive drama that is reality, you choose not merely to be a spectator but a player; you choose not merely to be a civilian you enlist as a warrior for good.  You may be a truck driver or accountant or a stay at home mom.  And yet in the moral and spiritual choices you make in that role you are still a courier of sweeping grace and soaring hope.  How will you do that?  Like Isaiah and Stockdale, accept engagement with what you can do, not despair over what you can’t.

How do we keep one foot firmly planted in the lofty hope and sweeping grace of God while keeping the other planted in the brutal facts of reality?  First accept engagement not despair; the other ongoing thing to do is to seek renewal not escape.  This goes back to verses 5-7.  Isaiah has seen God in all God’s unspeakable majesty and there are these winged creatures that cover their mouths in reverence, their feet in humility and they fly in service to the one to whom all service is due.  Isaiah sees himself and his people as doomed, evil, unclean before this God, yet the winged seraph brings a coal from the altar of grace and cauterizes or cleanses his lips.  In the spirituality of the near east, choices to do evil reside in the human heart but they are let out by the gateway of the mouth.  This thing here in v6-7 is a radical reordering and renewal of Isaiah beginning with his moral and spiritual capacity.  In three short verses he moves from ruined wretch to commissioned courier of grace.

In our lives we need to be renewed constantly from sinful, limited people into useful servants.  But once we’ve experienced that cleansing, to have seen that lofty hope and sweeping grace its easy to want to stay there and never reengage the brutal realities again.  And yet the whole second half of this chapter is God’s encouragement of Isaiah not to give up and want to escape.  Look at verse 11 where Isaiah says, How long, Lord, dealing with these brutal realities of my own and everybody else’s sin is hard and tiring, when is it all going to end?  And God says, keep going.  Remember the wings, the humility, the reverence the service.  Isaiah got the message.  Those, he would write later, who serve the Lord, will renew their strength, the will mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.  Seek renewal not escape.

You know what that means for me?  It means all the things I do to renew myself spiritually, mentally and physically.  These things are never ends in themselves; they are never the ultimate goal.  They are not an escape; they are means to get me back in the game, back in the struggle with brutal reality, armed with sweeping grace and lofty hope.  For instance, some day, I fantasize, it would be awesome to sit on a rock somewhere upon the most beautiful mountain in Vermont and watch the sunrise over a crystalline lake set high in the green rolling hills, all the while drinking a cup of the darkest riches roasted coffee yet without a hint of bitterness, all the while reading and praying this passage back to God.  That would be awesome.  Yet that is not my highest aspiration or ultimate goal in life.  I do not order myself around that.  I will continue to value excellent coffee, and find renewal in prayer, and scripture and vacations with my family in Vermont or other beautiful places.  These are means to an end.  I engage in disciplines of renewal and self-care not as ends all and be alls, not as escapes, but as springboards to get sinful and limited me back into the struggle of bringing the lofty hope and sweeping grace of God into the brutal realities of life in this place at this time with other regular limited sinful people like you.  I pray and rest and exercise and watch sunsets so I can be available in my world the way a guy named Forest was in his.

Forest Nunley is a 40 something year old housepainter from Salt Lake City.  A few years ago he took a Tuesday off from work to drive two hours up in the mountains to join a search and rescue effort.  An 11 yr old boy camping with a group in the rugged Uinta Mountains had been missing for 4 days despite 3000 volunteers joining law enforcement’s search across the windswept wilderness area.  Forrest arrived at the camp and decided to drive his ATV about 5 miles from the camp where nobody had yet searched.  By midday he made the discovery that brought brutal facts of reality and desperate hope of a lot of people together in one place.  I turned a corner, he said, and there was this wet muddy kid just standing there (CNN.com, 6-22-05, cited by Greg Asimakoupoulos, online: www.preachingtoday.com).

How do you and I bring the lofty hope and sweeping grace of God to bear on the brutal realities of our life right here, right now?  Accept engagement in the struggle, not despair, once and for all.  Seek renewal not escape, as a way of life.

On a global scale, on a local scale, on a personal scale, the brutal facts of reality are there.  God is still saying whom shall I send, and who will go for us?  You may never save the life of a lost boy, but with Forrest, with James Stockdale and Isaiah, may we be the ones who say in this place, in this time, in our reality – here am I … send me.

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

August 21, 2011

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