These are some of the best-known words in the prophet Isaiah’s career. They also make him look like a bit of a teacher’s pet, the kid on the first row who raises his hand to answer every question. “Here I am. Ooh! Ohh! Pick me, pick me!”
But there’s a backstory here in which Isaiah isn’t so immediately eager. Isaiah sees a vision where God is sitting on a throne and his robe is so magnificent, it’s filling the entire Temple. (Can you imagine one of our Sunday robes filling the sanctuary at church?) Angelic beings called “seraphim” are standing above him; they have not just two, but six wings each. They are volleying God’s praise back and forth to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” says one; “the whole earth is filled with his glory!” responds another. The foundations are shaking. Smoke is filling the place.
This is not the moment when Isaiah jumps up to volunteer, “Here I am!”
In the presence of all that, not even a teacher’s pet like myself would be raising a hand from her front-row seat. I imagine Isaiah standing dumfounded, speechless. Then he opens his mouth to say:
“Woe is me! I am lost.”
And why does Isaiah feel so hopeless in the presence of God’s glory? “I’m a man of unclean lips,” he says, “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
We don’t know precisely what Isaiah is bemoaning here. Isaiah is not ritually unclean, and we aren’t told any more of his story to fill in the details. And yet, I think we all know what Isaiah is saying. We might any of us join in:
“Woe are we! We are lost, for we are a people of unclean lips.”
Have you ever said something you regretted? I’ll answer for you: Yes, yes you have. I don’t like to assume things (you know what assuming does…) but I’ll go out on a limb with this one and say that every single one of us human beings has said something we wish we hadn’t.
What is it about the words that come out of our mouths that makes them so dangerous? Is it that they come so fast? When we write, it takes a few seconds to translate thought to page. When we type, we have to make a conscious decision to post or send or otherwise make our thoughts public. But the spoken word is dangerous, unpredictable. The words fly out of our mouths with a millisecond’s notice. Then, once they’re out there, they’re impossible to take back. We can’t grab them out of the air, we can’t hit delete or choose to edit what was said. For better or for worse – often, for worse – they’re part of our permanent record.
Woe are we; we are a people of unclean lips.
Maybe this is what Isaiah is thinking. Maybe that’s why Isaiah’s first reaction isn’t to volunteer his services, but to moan and declare himself lost. What’s said is said, and there’s nothing to be done about it.
Unless you’re God, of course.
Next, our woeful and lost Isaiah is approached by one of those six-winged seraphim. It’s carefully holding a hot, burning coal with a pair of tongs. He puts the coal up against Isaiah’s mouth and says,
“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is forgiven.”
Whatever made Isaiah’s lips unclean is now gone. Isaiah’s attitude changes; now can he respond with those memorable words:
“Here I am; send me.”
Speaking of hot coals on mouths; have you ever burned your tongue?
This is a regular hazard of being a coffee drinker, and usually the culprit is a to-go cup. I’m a moron with those plastic lids. I try to ease the drink toward my mouth, slowly tipping the cup, but every time the hot beverage splashes forward when I least expect it and I end up with a scorched tongue.
The burn is no real injury, but it’s annoying in that “first world problem” kind of way because of how it lingers. For the rest of that day every bite and sip is tainted by my injured tongue. All day long I am reminded that I’m a thirty-seven year old who hasn’t yet mastered fast food coffee containers.
Was there a lasting effect like this for Isaiah after the hot coal? I mean, I know it was just a vision – but were his lips changed afterward? Were all the words that came out of his mouth after his moment with the seraphim different, somehow? Did they all remind him of that God experience where smoke and trembling and God’s robe filled the Temple?
Isaiah was sent with a tough message. God told him that the people would never understand, never really heard what he preached – but he was to preach it anyway, right up until the moment when the Israelites got their punishment via the Babylonians. I imagine that Isaiah might have felt tempted to alter the message to something a little warmer and fuzzier. Or he might have wanted to curse this miserable people and leave them to die, unwarned. When those words reached the tip of his tongue, did they feel different there because of the burning coal? Did he remember God’s glory and forgiveness and stop before he said something he shouldn’t have?
Isaiah’s words – “Here I am, send me” – are so well-known because they are words that we are all expected to say as disciples of Christ.
When I graduated from seminary, my Aunt Susan gave me a framed picture of this passage. I stood there in cap and gown, ready to be “sent” after fifteen consecutive years of academic preparation. It was a beautiful gift, one that I treasure and have in my office as a reminder of how I’ve volunteered to be “sent” for God.
But Aunt Susan didn’t have to wait for me to earn a Masters of Divinity to give me Isaiah 6:8. The first time I consciously decided to follow Christ I should have been raising my hand and saying, “Here I am, God; send me” – because that’s what following Christ is, being sent on his behalf.
When Jesus prays for his disciples after the Last Supper, he tells God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18). Although this is a prayer for the twelve, I think it’s fair to include us, Jesus’ modern-day disciples. We are sent to do the work that Jesus did, which includes using our words to proclaim the Good News of God’s love and grace and salvation.
But sometimes, we who would be sent might moan like Isaiah: “Woe are we, for we are a people of unclean lips.”
So God does for us what God did for Isaiah.
God gives us forgiveness. We need it all the time, especially where words are concerned. Christ’s death on the cross is payment enough for whatever stupid or hurtful things you have said. Don’t let your past keep you from your future work; accept that forgiveness, and be sent.
God also changes us. We are not forgiven so that we can go on and say whatever we want and then access that forgiveness again. We are forgiven by God’s grace in a way that stays with us, like a burned tongue. When we experience God’s love we become mindful of what our words really mean. Things start to taste bad in our mouths that wouldn’t have before. Gossip isn’t as juicy. Racist jokes lose their humor. “Oh my God” seems an inappropriate use of such a good name.
The God who stood before Isaiah in all his glory is before you now, offering the gift of forgiveness.
The God who cleansed Isaiah’s lips wants to do the same for you.
Be cleansed, and be changed.
The God who sent Isaiah is calling for more volunteers.
Is it you?