Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

The dangerous side of worship

Lakeside with sun rising
Photo by Rikin Katyal on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

February 6, 2022

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

This is a word from the divine in a crisis, a Spielberg-worthy vision of the divine: large, powerful, fearsome even, surrounded by smoke, bizarre creatures, and a fascinated prophet. God communicated with people through various means in scripture: the Torah (teachings), nature (Psalm 8), and prophetic oracles. Here God communicates in a vision. Visions play a role in God’s revelation in various parts of scripture: Genesis 37, Amos 7, Daniel 7, Matthew 1-2. Dreams and visions communicate that what we see around us does not contain all of the truth. Sometimes, what a prophet sees in a vision communicates truth more fully and helpfully than what we can detect with our senses. Our senses do not communicate God’s continuing presence and power. 

Certainly, the vision creates a sense of wonder and might. The vision seems intended to reassure the prophet that his ministry has the backing of a formidable God. The vision communicates the divine presence not in the heavenly realms, but in the earthly temple. Uzziah had abdicated to his son, but he remained a stabilizing presence, a reminder of all that he had accomplished. The vision seems intended to convey that, despite the change in political leadership, a powerful God remains present. The passage teaches about worship, about the nature of God, and about ministry, both in the time of the prophet and today. 

Commentators have remarked that this passage contains elements of worship: proclamation of God’s holiness, confession of sin, absolution, and an invitation. Worship in a crisis can console, empower, provide perspective, and engender hope. In worship we enter God’s time and space. Many people have commented that the contemporary church does not fully appreciate the dangerous side of worship.

 In worship, the church encounters God in both comforting and challenging ways. Worship deals with ultimate, cosmic, infinite things. The church would benefit from more of a sense of awe and even fear. The image of the divine, the flying snakes, the smoke, and the shaking all grab our attention. Pastors can reflect on the reaction if a prayer of confession was followed by kissing a live coal. Yet the action speaks to the seriousness of forgiving sins. 

Scripture and the church confirm both the transcendence and immanence of God. The church needs both traits. The transcendence of God communicates divine strength in the face of evil. Divine immanence communicates approachability, care, and involvement. The passage from Isaiah emphasizes the transcendence of God. The Lord is “high and lofty.” The seraphim praise God’s holiness, the divine otherness, separation from the world. Yet this transcendent, holy God cares about what happens in the world. God calls the prophet to minister to the people. 

Later in Isaiah, from another time and author come words that speak of God’s accessibility, as the prophet talks of God treating the people the way a mother treats a nursing child, 66:10-13. We may prefer the accessible God, the God like a tender mother, but in the midst of overwhelming problems, the transcendent God, high and lofty, seated on a throne, speaks to us as well. We do not face the evil of the world alone. God’s power may not seem obvious, but the vision points to its reality. 

One can note the common themes between Isaiah’s situation and ours. If Uzziah’s death created political uncertainty, we too are awash in political uncertainty. The politicians in the United States seem unable to work together. Democracy is under attack in various places in the world. Drug lords and human traffickers seem unstoppable. If Isaiah thought he lived among a people of unclean lips, we live with cyberbullying, hate speech, name-calling, microaggressions, profane chanting, and promulgation of conspiracy theories. Since much of the language happens online, we might call ourselves people of unclean lips and fingers. 

Even though we find the vision itself intriguing, a really important part comes in the second half of the passage, the part that appears in the verses in parentheses in the lectionary listing. The great temptation is to stop reading at verse 8, where the prophet, with seeming enthusiasm, volunteers to go into service, without reading the fine print. That verse inspires the participation of the congregation! The part of the passage starting at verse 9 raises important questions about what it means to do ministry. 

The powerful, enormous deity who calls the prophet to service tells him that the people will not listen. The Hebrew grammar even suggests that Isaiah’s preaching will cause the people not to hear. Ironically, the powerful God, seated on a throne, with flying snakes all around him does not (cannot?) change the intransigence of the people. The contemporary preacher can invoke the free will of the people to choose not to listen to the prophet’s message. The powerful God allows the people to ignore the message. God tells the prophet to proclaim the message despite the unwillingness of the people to hear it. 

Recent reports have suggested that the percentage of people belonging to a church has dropped to below half. One must examine that information carefully. The preacher and the church cannot simply blame the audience. The church has done some things that have turned people off. Nevertheless, the church too quickly identifies faithful ministry as big numbers and outward success. The second part of the passage suggests that faithful ministry involves proclaiming the message despite the reaction or the response. Faithful ministry keeps the witness going. 

One hears frequently the assertion that the church can “change the world” by its efforts. A meme on social media cites the late Archbishop Tutu talking about how small acts of goodness and kindness will change the world. God does not call the prophet to change the world, or even the people of Israel. Isaiah proclaims the message, even in spite of apathy and opposition. This understanding of ministry may not provide a stirring rallying cry. Nevertheless, the passage calls the church to integrity, to endurance, to trust in God despite an unfavorable response. The passage calls the church to faithfulness, not measurable success. Trust in the powerful deity.