From Isaiah 6:1-8: “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips . . .
Well isn’t this an interesting scene that is here in this passage?! Here you have Isaiah the prophet having this vision of going to be where God is, being transported to heaven if you will. It is like some grand scene out of a movie with these large-winged beings called seraphs, or seraphim in the plural. These beings have enormous wings with which they cover themselves due to the holiness of God.
One of the things that was unique about this God in that day, was everyone else that surrounded the children of Israel, all of these other tribes and other peoples had gods that they had pictures of . . . or statues of . . . and you knew what their God looked like. At the very least you had some representative form of God that spoke to you of who that particular God was. Even as late as the Greeks and Romans, you have these statues of, let’s say for instance, Poseidon, the god of the sea. You would recognize Poseidon’s statue by the presence of seashells and seahorses.
But this God, the God of the children of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, our God said very early on that there were to be no images to be worshipped, no sculptures that people would revere as God. Right there at the beginning of the Ten Commandments, there it is: no graven images.
As human beings we like to name things, to sculpt them, to control them in some way. God was telling us to be careful of how we might limit what God can do. In some ways it almost became dangerous to see God; there was real fear associated with being so close to something so holy. The seraphim covered their faces and their feet so as not to offend God by the display of the feet and so that they would not die because they had seen God. God is just that holy . . . and frightening in a way.
But now . . . here we have the prophet Isaiah, right there with God . . . right next to someone so holy . . . so powerful. I think I might have been a bit worried too.
Have you every felt like that? Not necessarily that you have been in the very presence of God, but have you ever been around someone that you just felt uncomfortable around at first . . . it is almost like fear. It is like meeting the President of the United States or something. You are standing there and there is the President, the leader of the free world . . . someone that is so important and so powerful. And you fear that you are going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. You feel like you are fumbling over all of your words and you walk away later just knowing that you said the wrong thing . . . that you embarrassed yourself somehow . . . that sometime when the President thinks of you, if they ever think of you, they will only remember the idiot that said or did that crazy thing.
Do you ever get like that . . . scared to death that someone is going to see through who you are trying to be, that someone is going to figure out that you are not nearly as capable as you seem to be . . . that the thoughts that go through your head about some people are not nearly as nice as anyone would suspect?
When I was a kid, I remember standing face to face with Troy Southerland, the principal at the school that I attended. Dr. Southerland always had this way of putting his hand to his chin and rubbing it like he was rubbing modeling clay . . . and he was working it until it was pliable so he could get just the right shape to it. And he’d just look at you . . . standing there in that way of his, hand to his chin, just rubbing it.
And there was something about Dr. Southerland, something about the way that he carried himself. Even if you hadn’t done anything wrong at the time, and there were a few times when he was standing there looking at me and I hadn’t done anything wrong, even at those times Dr. Southerland had a way of making you feel like you should be sorry for something anyway . . . even if you couldn’t remember what it was that you had done.
Now in junior high, I played on the Junior Varsity basketball team. We were coached by an ex-Army or ex-Marine man by the name of Ben Snipes. Coach Snipes always sported a buzz-cut; he was a large man in that he was tall and stocky and he always wore those shorts that only coaches wear . . . those polyester ones . . . but no one would have dared to even think of poking fun at him. Coach Snipes was a hard and demanding man. During our practices we would run around and around that gym; he would yell and scream at us if we did something wrong. He would just let us have it. You would just be scared to death to show any kind of weakness . . . you worried about every shot you made during practice that if he saw you miss that shot, that would be the end of you . . . and literally . . . I think some of us worried that Coach Snipes would end us—period.
It is funny in a way, but I think of Dr. Southerland and Coach Snipes when I read this passage of scripture. There is Isaiah, standing before Almighty, All-powerful, All-knowing God. Isaiah is so overwhelmed by this that all that can come out of his mouth are words about his own unworthiness. Isaiah confesses to God, “I am a man of unclean lips.”
Now, I don’t know if this means that he would shout out a curse-word if he hit his finger with a hammer . . . that’s probably not it. Whatever it was, we realize that Isaiah’s first impulse upon being in the presence of God was to focus on his own wrongdoing, to focus on his own unworthiness, to focus on whatever reason it was that he could not do the work of God, could not be a part of God’s work. Isaiah confesses his fault and says that he is utterly lost, ended, unusable because of this one thing. It is the same way that all of us have felt lost at times, as if we were done, finished, as if there was no way that God could use us.
I do think that we all fear at times allowing those people that we respect in our lives to see our weakness, to know our hurt, to have any idea of what weird and mean things that run through our minds. Whether or not it was our fathers that we worried about disappointing, there was probably that figure in your life somewhere that you hated to let know the ways in which you may have been, or may still be, weak and hurting. Our fear is that that person is going to end us right then and there. We worry that it will all be over if that person knew who we really were and how we really felt. We worry that we will destroy our relationship with that person.
And here we have Isaiah, right there in front of God, confessing his weakness, admitting his struggle.
And there is God, God most holy, God most high, All-knowing, All-powerful, there is our God . . . offering forgiveness, not wrath, not anger; on this Earth, those who have had authority over us, like my school principal or that hard-nosed coach, we may feel genuinely afraid of failing in front of these people. And like them, it is certainly true that God sets limits for us; God shows us the guidelines so to speak. But when we fail, we should not fear. When we are not perfect in the way that we want to be, God is always there with welcoming arms of forgiveness to accept us in spite of our failings, working with those failings in order to show God’s strength in the midst of weakness. This God brings victory out of what appears to everyone else to be a defeat.
But we don’t always believe that about God; we don’t always believe that about the people in our lives that we respect and love; we sometimes have a difficult time believing that they too may offer us love rather than anger.
God was not angry with Isaiah. In that moment of the call of Isaiah, God offers forgiveness and says to Isaiah, “I’m choosing to use you. I know you’re failings. I have heard your confession. I am offering forgiveness.” We read in this passage the call of the prophet Isaiah, a call that was rooted in God’s forgiveness of sin. Isaiah was a prophet who held the justice of God in one hand, and the forgiving, steadfast love of God in the other. This is the call of Isaiah and this is our call too!
Confess to God the ways in which you have failed;
Confess your hurts and weaknesses;
Confess your sins.
This God offers forgiveness and uses those who are weak to show the wonderful holiness and strength of God.