June 9, 2013

Rev. John Watts

NampaFirst UMC


Isaiah 6:1-8

Last week we talked about communion.  I used the title “Communion 101”.  It was an introductory sermon on the subject.  Today we are going to expand this to the rest of the worship service.  You might call it “Worship 101”.  Again, nothing advanced or complicated.  No big words.  No Greek or Hebrew.  We’re just going to be talking about the basics.  We start each week with announcements.  Whether announcements are really part of worship or an interruption to worship is a question we don’t need to answer today.  What we’re going to be talking about is what happens after announcements.  That is to say, what is supposed to happen when we come together to worship God.

Our scripture is from Isaiah chapter 6.  If it sounded strange to you, it wasn’t just you.  This is a strange scripture!  It is a first-hand account of what we might call a mystical experience.  Isaiah is the one doing his best to describe what just happened, but I imagine trying to put it into words was a little like you or me trying to tell another person about some vivid dream you just had.  Something gets lost in the translation.  You can’t quite capture what it was like in words.  Isaiah does his best.  And his record of this strange spiritual experience has touched the lives of many believers down through the ages.

In two ways.  This is the record of how a young man named Isaiah received his calling from God.  In other words, how he came to discover God’s purpose for his life.  This is the time of year a lot of young people are facing that question, with all the graduations and all the decisions about what comes next.  And of course, it’s not just young people who need to come up with an answer to that question:  What am I going to be when I grow up?  Someone has said, “There are two great moments in a person’s life:  the first is when you were born; the second is when you discover why you were born.”  Isaiah discovered why he was born when he had that experience he wrote about in this passage we’re looking at today.  And many people have found this same passage of scripture helpful in their process of discovering their own purpose in life.

But that’s just one way this scripture is often read.  There’s a second way, which is where we’re headed this morning.  Isaiah’s record of his calling by God is also a pattern for how God’s people are to worship.  It leads us step by step through a worship service, helping us to see what needs to be included and also the flow from one part of the service to the next.  It’s not the pattern for a particular style of worship.  It fits about any style you can imagine.  We have three very distinctive styles here at Nampa First each Sunday: traditional, contemporary, and our evening service which is for those who need something a little shorter and simpler.  The Isaiah 6 pattern fits all three.  So let’s take it step by step and see what it says about what is supposed to happen after our Sunday announcements.

It begins with praise.  Isaiah sees God sitting on an elevated throne, wearing a robe so long it fills the entire temple.  He also sees seraphim.  That’s plural, by the way, for seraph.  We aren’t told how many.  There are at least two of them and each of them has six wings.  This is the only place in the Bible that the seraphim are mentioned by name.   However, there is a passage in Revelation where we find a similar vision (4:8).  The creatures there aren’t called seraphim but they also have six wings.  And they also are fully engaged in praise.

As best we can tell, these seraphim are a specific kind of angel.  The six-winged variety.  But they don’t need all six wings to fly.  They only need two.  With the wings they aren’t using to fly, they cover their faces and they cover their feet.  These creatures who, as far as we can tell are holy themselves, are not worthy to even look upon the holiness of God.

What they do is they sing a hymn of praise.  “Holy, holy, holy.”  It’s an old hymn.  It’s been around a long time.  “Holy, holy, holy,” are the words in that passage in Revelation.  These are the only two places in scripture where one word is used three times in a row. Whenever anything is repeated in scripture, it means we are to pay special attention.  So here where it is not repeated but “three-peated”, it means we are to really pay attention.

God is holy.  In other words, God is worthy of our praise.  These seraphim who presumably exist simply to praise God remind us that really is true of us, too.  We exist to praise God.  Not that
God needs our praise, but we need to praise.  And when we gather for worship, that is what we do.  That is where we begin.  We lift God up.  We sing our praises.  We focus entirely on God’s greatness and goodness, we give ourselves entirely over to praise, and we forget about ourselves.

This takes practice.  Our natural human inclination is to focus on ourselves, not on God.  Even in worship.  We have all these concerns when we come to church.  Do I look good?  Am I wearing the right clothes?  Am I dressed well enough, but not so well I look stupid?  How about my hair?  We wouldn’t want a bad hair day at church.  How’s my singing voice?  Maybe I’d better not sing out because it would be so embarrassing to be off key.  And how about raising hands when we sing?  Is that OK here, or is everyone going to be wondering what’s wrong with me?  Parents with young children worry that they will misbehave and made the parents look bad.  Of course, all this self-consciousness is magnified many-fold for a first-time guest, as we mentioned last week.

The main thing to remember about worship is that it isn’t about us.  It’s about God.  To worship God means to let go of ourselves.  It means to let go, period.  As Frederick Buechner says in this morning’s “Silent Preparation”, people who are in love don’t worry about themselves.  They don’t worry about making a fool of themselves.  Everything revolves around the one they love.  As Frank Sinatra sang, “You are all I long for, all I worship and adore.”  He wasn’t singing about God.  But if we can praise another person that much, we need to be praising our holy, holy, holy God that much and more.  And so worship begins with praise.

Then we move to confession.  Isaiah has witnessed this strange scene.  First, it’s the seraphim praising God.  Then, it’s the earth starting to shake.  Finally, the whole temple is filling with smoke. Isaiah is terrified.  You would be, too!  The first word he speaks is “woe”.  As in “woe is me!”  I think that feeling is better expressed by the word, “whoa.”  Whoa!!   Isaiah has experienced God.  It has been a wild, frightening, overpowering experience.  As he has experienced God in all God’s glory, he experiences something else deep inside himself — a profound sense of his own unworthiness.  An overwhelming realization of the huge disparity between himself and God.  “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Worship is about God, not about us, but when we focus, as Isaiah did, on the holiness of God it also brings into focus our own sinfulness.  It seems backwards, but it’s true.  People who rarely think about God rarely think about their own sins.  People who always think about God always think about their own sins.  In fact, the holier we become, the more, not less, sinful we feel!

And here’s the thing about sin.  We don’t deny it and pretend it isn’t there.  Neither do we wallow in it and become obsessed with how bad we are.  What we do with our sin is what God makes possible through the cross of Jesus.  We deal with it.  We confess it.  We repent of it.  We receive the forgiveness and the cleansing that is promised in God’s Word.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

I am convinced that one of the main things that keeps us from being as useful to God as we might otherwise be is unconfessed sin. Unconfessed sin doesn’t just shrivel up and go away.  It festers.  It grows.  It spreads.  It gets worse.  It gets uglier.

I was working in our yard the other day and I got a tiny sliver in my thumb.  It got beneath the skin where I couldn’t get to it, so I just didn’t worry about it.  I didn’t think about it.  Until it got infected and then I couldn’t help but think about it.  I had to do what I hoped I could avoid.  I had to use a needle and dig down to where the problem was.  I found it, I got rid of it, I used lots of hydrogen peroxide, and now it’s healed.  It’s that way with sin.  There is healing.  It comes from God.  But we have to do our part.  Our part is confessing our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness.

There is often pain involved.  In Isaiah’s case, one of those seraphim flew over with a burning coal and touched it to Isaiah’s mouth. I can almost hear the sizzle as I read these words.  And then the seraph speaks.  “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”

Too often in worship we just kind of gloss over confession.  We might have a unison prayer of confession, with words that may or may not really say what we need to be saying to God.  We may sing a hymn with a confessional theme.  We may have some litany that we read that is supposed to touch this base in our worship so we can know it didn’t get left out.  But let me make this public confession:  As I plan worship services, I tend to give our need for cleansing and healing and forgiveness too little attention.  Isaiah chapter 6 reminds us that when we worship we cannot leave out confession.

Third, we listen for God’s Word.  God speaks just once in this passage.  Up to now it’s being the seraphim speaking and Isaiah speaking.  But as soon as we hear the sizzle of burning coal on flesh and the seraph’s words of forgiveness, it’s God’s turn to speak.  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”  Isaiah hears those words clearly.  Clearly enough that he is able to record them in scripture where they have been preserved for us for 2,753 years now.  (We can be that precise because Isaiah pinpoints the date of his vision, “the year that King Uzziah died”, which we know was 740 BC.)  But I wonder, would Isaiah have been able to even hear God’s words without the praise, the confession, and the forgiveness that came first?

I hope everything we do in worship before we read the Bible and I teach from the Bible in this part of worship we call the sermon prepares us to hear God’s Word.  Kenny Beeson last week shared some thoughts before he read the scripture on the difference between listening and hearing.  We can’t help but listen.  Unless we plug our ears or unless we have gone deaf, the sound waves will cause our ear drums to vibrate and our brains will translate that into audible sound.  We can listen without trying.  But hearing takes work.  And hearing what God is trying to say to us takes more than just the work of paying attention.  We hear best when we are spiritually tuned in, which is what worship is supposed to help us to do.

Now I don’t want to leave the impression that we hear God only while the scripture is being read and while the sermon is being preached.  God is perfectly capable of breaking through to get our attention in any number of ways.  There’s an Episcopal Church in Sisters,Oregonwhere I’ve preached a couple of times.  It has this huge window right behind where the preacher stands that frames the Three Sisters, three beautiful snow-capped mountains that are only about 10 miles away.  It’s a standing joke in that church.  Preachers are told, “Good luck!”

But that’s OK!  We can plan the most excellent service of worship with every last detail in place, and God might be silent.  Or we can have a worship service where nothing goes right, but God will be there powerfully connecting with the people who are there.  That’s always a relief to me as I plan and prepare for Sunday.  God will speak, through me or in spite of me!

And finally, it doesn’t do God a lot of good to speak if no one responds.  We can have great praise, heartfelt confession, stirring oratory, and if everyone goes home and nothing has changed in the way they are living their lives, what’s the point?  Worship is about God, and God doesn’t speak just to hear himself talk.  God wants our response.

Isaiah gave his response.  He was listening and he was hearing when God said, “Whom shall I send?”  And Isaiah responded, “Here am I!  Send me.”

Francis Bacon lived about 400 years ago inEngland.  He was a genius in a number of fields — science, politics, law, philosophy, and theology.   He was a pretty smart guy.  And he had a wonderful way of getting big ideas into a few simple words.  He is the one who said, “Knowledge is power.”  He also said, “Small amounts of philosophy lead to atheism but larger amounts bring us back to God.”  I love that one!   And this one, too:  “I will never be an old man.  To me old age is always 15 years older than I am.”

I want to close with something else Francis Bacon said.

It is not what we eat but what we digest that makes us strong;

not what we gain but what we save that makes us rich;

not what we read but what we remember that makes us learned; not what we preach but what we practice that makes us Christian.

Christians praise God, and confess their sins to God, and hear God’s voice speaking to them.  But most of all, Christians respond.  They practice what they preach.  They say to God:  “Here am I!  Send me.”

Gracious God, we come to worship for many reasons.  Some are worthy reasons, others less so.  We believe that you want us here, that you have called us here, because you have something here for us.  It’s a paradox really.  Worship is not about us.  It’s about you.  But the more we think about you and the less we think about ourselves, the more we receive what you have to give us.  May we make regular worship a higher priority, may we enter fully into our worship and never allow ourselves to just go through the motions, and may we not be surprised when what happened to Isaiah happens to us — we experience you, holy God, so that our lives can never be the same again.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.