Today’s reading from Isaiah contains one of the best known passages in the entire book (chapter 6:1-8). Episcopalians get to hear the story of the prophet’s Temple vision of the Holy One at least every Trinity Sunday. Each and every time we gather for Eucharist, we recite the praise song of the seraphim Isaiah reported hearing on that day : “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (we call it the Sanctus).
This section of Scripture is also a favorite text for ordination liturgies (I picked it for my own ten years ago). Isaiah’s exclamation at verse 8 is dramatic, conclusive and inspirational. The prophet responds to God’s questions, “Who will I send? Who will go for me?” with the emphatic words, “Here am I! Send me!”
If we’re inclined to read the text of the book of Isaiah sequentially, this call story, seems out of place. Why would God “call” someone who had already been busy condemning the political/religious status quo? Why would God call someone who was already incessantly warning of the coming of Divine judgement?
Some scholars contend that the first 8 verses of chapter 6 are a “flashback” of sorts, carrying the reader back to a moment that predates Isaiah’s first oracle. My inclination, though, is to wonder if the key to understanding the placement of Isaiah’s vision isn’t contained in verses 9-11 (the part that always seems to be omitted from our liturgical readings):
And God said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until the cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is desolate…”
Isaiah, in a moment of holy awe (maybe even knee-knocking FEAR) says, “Here am I! Send me!”
And then God tells him what he’s being sent forth to do. God essentially says, “Go, share my message, even though the results will be nil, and the entire effort will seem pointless to you. The more you talk, the less people will hear. The more you show people the less they will see. The more you try to explain it all, the less they will understand. And it’s all a part of the plan.”
The work of the prophet — telling God’s truth to clogged ears; showing God’s ways to eyes that are shut in rebellion; explaining God’s message to minds that are dulled by arrogance and pride — isn’t work anyone would willingly volunteer to undertake. Only the realization that one had been possessed by a call larger than oneself would press a prophet forward into the face of such guaranteed failure and rejection.
All of this makes me wonder about the fixation on “success” that seems to grip clergy and congregations these days. What if our work isn’t about garnering the largest average Sunday attendance or the best array of parochial programming or balanced budgets? What if our faithfulness is best attested when we feel we are failing at every turn?
I wonder if what we need in church these days is a good deal less self-satisfied competence and great deal more knee-knocking awe in the presence of the Holy One who came to us wrapped in bands of cloth and will return again clothed in glory?