Scripture Readings from Isaiah 6:1-8
I want to start out with a little trivia. Can anyone tell me what character popularized the phrase “holy moley?” It was Captain Marvel, who appeared for the first time in a comic strip in 1940. The phrase “holy moley” actually has much older origins, but it was Captain Marvel who made it popular in the modern age. “Holy moley” was his expression of surprise (right before he also exclaimed “Shazam,” which was the magic word mild-mannered radio reporter Billy Batson said any time he needed to become Captain Marvel).
Holy. When the biblical writers wanted to emphasize something, that’s the word they use. It means something that is set apart. Different from the ordinary. Above average. Out of this world.
Have you ever had a holy experience?
My holy experiences have been varied.
Being in the mountains is always a holy experience for me, but specifically Sky Ranch is a holy place for me. It’s our church camp at over 9,000 feet, surrounded on 3 sides by 13,000 foot peaks. The beauty of God’s creation there. The nature of what happens among God’s people there. You can feel God’s Spirit there. Holy moley, it’s a special place!
Another holy experience for me was seeing my children born. Holy moley, what a holy, amazing experience!
Sometimes even worship can be a holy experience; and I say sometimes because WE often get in the way of that holiness, judging worship according to OUR expectations instead of coming to worship open to the holiness of God. But worship is always a time set apart to be with the holy. Holy moley, what God can do with us here!
Have YOU ever had a holy experience, something outside of a normal, everyday experience?
The Bible often describes many different holy experiences, but when the biblical writers wanted to describe something far beyond an ordinary experience, something you can’t even imagination, you know how they did it? They gave it: / the triple “holy.” And there’s only one thing that has ever gotten the triple holy: Holy…HOLY…HOLY… God.
Do you know what happens to a person when they come into the presence of the Holy…HOLY…HOLY… God? The prophet Isaiah does. But before we go there, let’s look at Isaiah’s context. The story starts off with this phrase: “In the year that King Uzziah died.” Now, this seems like a phrase that we should just skip over. It doesn’t seem important, mainly because most of us have no idea who King Uzziah was, what year that was, or why it matters. But it matters because it frames the story, it’s a historical marker. It’s like asking, “Do you remember what you were doing on September 11, 2001?” If I picked any other random date from 15 years ago, you probably wouldn’t remember. But September 11 has significance. If you’re older than about 20 you can probably remember the exact details (where you were, what you were doing, who you were with), and if you’re younger than about 20, you’ve probably heard detailed stories. Because September 11, 2001 was a day that the world / / held it’s breath.
In the year that King Uzziah died, Israel held it’s breath, because though Uzziah started out good, he became very corrupt in all his power. But even worse than a corrupt leader, to the east there was a kingdom called Assyria that had built up one of the greatest and most brutal armies known to the world. And they were waiting at Israel and Judah’s gates, breathing down their necks. The whole world held it’s breath, waiting, wondering, “what are we going to do? What’s going to happen?” They lived in fear and frustration and worry.
And God hears their worry and their fear, so God comes to Isaiah in a vision. And in this vision, Isaiah is in the temple, worshiping God, and he sees God. “I saw the Lord seated on his throne high and lofty,” Isaiah writes. But God is not just IN the temple, God is both so big / and so holy / that just the hem of God’s robe is in the temple. God is in the heavens, and all out in the world. And then there are these creatures around God that are like fiery, flying, snake-like creatures with 6 wings – called seraphs. Many scholars believe that the seraphs represented all of the gods and all of the powers of all the nations that surrounded Israel. And there they are, flying around in service to the Lord God Almighty. It’s as if God is saying, “Isaiah, I am way above Assyria. And I am way above Uzziah, your own king. And it’s going to be okay. Because I am holy, and I am with you.”
In our own days charged with politics and anger, these are words we need to hear. That God is above any earthly leader. God is above any political party. God is above any ideology. No matter what side you think you’re on, surely you’ve noticed that people on all sides seem to be carrying frustration and anger and fear and even hatred, so God has gathered us here together in God’s holy temple (Republican & Democrat & Independent) to remind us that the holy…HOLY…HOLY God is with us, and it’s going to be okay. Because God is preparing us here, and calling us back into the world.
There’s Isaiah in that temple, and there are these seraphs, and they cry out, “Holy…HOLY…HOLY…Lord! Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory!” And it’s so different than any ordinary experience that the building shakes and is filled with smoke! What would you do in that moment? Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah’s not concerned about his own sin here as much as he’s concerned about being an ordinary human in the presence of the Holy…HOLY…HOLY… God. Because being in God’s presence can completely undo a person. It’s not a threat, it’s just what happens when a human is in the most Holy…HOLY…HOLY… presence of God! And it’s what happens when God gathers us for worship. Even if there is something in worship that isn’t to your liking, it’s not about our preferences, because here our holy God gathers and calls us, cleanses us from all unrighteousness, changes us and sends us. Here, God sends a messenger to each of us, to leave us shouting, “Holy moley! Here I am, send me!”
The seraph flies down to Isaiah with a burning hot coal and touches it to his lips, cleansing him, preparing him to go back to a troubled world and speak God’s word to it. Sometimes, Isaiah spoke words of confrontation and judgment. But just as often, he spoke words of hope, comfort, and healing into the dark, disturbing, confusing days in which he lived.
Friends, like Isaiah, we live in unsettled and unsettling times. There is a lot of frustration and worry, a lot of anger and fear, and even a lot of hatred. Things are changing, and the world is holding it’s breath, waiting. Don’t blame the left / or the right. Don’t blame liberals / or conservatives. Don’t blame Democrats / or Republicans. Anger has been there all along with both sides, with all people. On one side, I have seen peaceful protests turn into violent mobs. On the other side, I have seen victorious triumph lash out violently against marginalized people – people of different race and religion and language, people of different sexual orientation. It’s happening everywhere, and it is not okay. God’s call has nothing to do with convincing the other side that your side is right – truthfully, no one will listen anyway. In the very next verses after today’s Scripture, God tells Isaiah to prophesy to God’s people even though they won’t listen. It’s frustrating to Isaiah, but it’s also good news, because it reminds us that God does not give up on us, even when we don’t listen. Even when we give in to the anger and frustration. / It was political anger and frustration that crucified Jesus, but God did not give up on us. Jesus took that anger and frustration to the tomb, and rose to new life, leaving all that darkness behind.
And he calls us to that new life, purifying us with the gift of baptism, touching our lips with bread and wine, calling us with the holy word. He calls us to shine light into the darkness, to expose anger and banish it, and to fill the void with love.
In these coming days, we cannot be silent in the face of hatred and fear and acts of violence, because silence is allowing – and even siding with – that hatred and violence. Like Isaiah, we are called to speak against it, act out against it – in love. A mysterious, holy love that fills the temple and flows out into the world. It may be with words of confrontation and judgment, or it may be with a peaceful nudge exposing a person’s anger and calling them into holiness, or it may be seeing the other as God sees them.
It’s easy to get swept up into the extreme emotions around us. Whatever you’re feeling in these days, whether it’s extreme sadness and fear, or jubilant victory, before you say anything this week, remember that God calls you and has made you holy. God is calling: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” God calls us to show love and care instead of hate. God calls us to be his lips, to speak words of hope, comfort, and healing. To use words to build others up, not tear them down. To call them to life. Holy moley, we’ve got work to do! But it’s going to be okay, because God is with you.