Today’s Scripture is about the prophet Isaiah… but it’s really about all of us.
Isaiah lived in Jerusalem in the late 8th century BCE; his ministry lasted from around 740 to 700. Here’s how Michelangelo pictured him:
There’s a reason a big-deal artist like Michelangelo wanted to paint Isaiah. Isaiah is a big-deal prophet. Biblically speaking, he’s literally first among the Old Testament prophets with an impressive 66-chapter book. Historically speaking, he lived to see the northern kingdom of Israel fall and his own southern kingdom repeat the mistakes that would eventually lead to the same end result.
So far, you might be thinking you don’t share much in common with Isaiah. And specifically, you’d be right – we live clear across the globe and in an entirely different era. But generally speaking, we share a lot in common.
He was a human called by God – and we are, too. Not just me, the pastor; not just the missionaries or the choir directors or the Sunday School teachers. All of us. We are all called by God. And our souls know this; they long for it. When we have that floundering, listless feeling – when we’re asking ourselves, “What’s the point?” or “What am I really supposed to be doing?” – when we feel like that, it’s our souls searching for a call.
We, like Isaiah, are called.
But unlike Isaiah, the way we hear this call may not come in such a clear, crazy vision. It might be more of a gut feeling that strengthens over time, or an idea that we can’t let go of. It might be people around us who keep suggesting we serve or lead in a certain way.
However it is that God is calling us, our odds of hearing it increase if we set aside some time to listen. So why not do that, right now? Take one minute. Close your eyes. Open your heart and mind. Ask God, “What are you calling me to do?”
Maybe you’ve been hearing something. Maybe you could picture something God wants you to do. Maybe you’ve been feeling it for a while. Maybe, like Isaiah, you’re ready to say:
“Here I am, send me!”
That’s how Isaiah is famous for responding to God. “Here I am, send me!” I actually have that verse framed in my office, a gift from a sweet family friend when I graduated seminary. But, if you’re feeling this call for the first time, this quote might leave you thinking again that you don’t have much in common with Isaiah. Honestly, when I first felt called by God, I did not think, “Here I am, send me!” I was scared and confused and overwhelmed. I was more like:
“Woe is me!”
Which, you might remember, is how Isaiah first responds to God. See – we really do have a lot in common with this Old Testament prophet. “Woe is me!” is how most of us feel when God shows up in our lives. Isaiah felt that way because he was a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. In other words, he was unworthy – and he knew it. Standing before God’s holiness, Isaiah’s uncleanness is painfully obvious. How could he possibly be up for the task of speaking for God?
When God calls you, it’s very likely that you will feel the same way. And when you do – when your soul cries out, “Woe is me!” – you might see that as a sign that you’re not really called by God. Why would God use you, one who is unclean, unworthy, so not up to the task? As it turns out, God loves to use people just like you – and Isaiah – who are unclean to start.
Because we are all “woe is me!” for some reason, let’s take a moment and acknowledge that before God. Close your eyes again and pray with me: “Woe is me, God. You are perfectly clean and I am unclean. You are all that is good and I am unworthy. You have big plans and I am so small.”
But Isaiah’s story doesn’t end with “woe is me,” and neither does ours. Do you remember what happens to Isaiah next? One of those six-winged seraphs in his vision comes down with a hot coal and solves Isaiah’s problem. The artist Marc Chagall pictures it like this:
God literally burns the uncleanness off Isaiah’s lips.
When God calls us – and when we respond, “Woe is me!” because of our uncleanness – God will address the source of our woe. God will ready us for the task. But we need to be prepared for this part, too, because it can be a painful process. Like, burning-coal-to-the-lips painful.
Like a-year-of-pandemic painful, maybe.
One of the things I love best about God is how God can use bad things for good. Like how God used Jesus’ death to give us all life. God is really good at that kind of redemption. So this COVID-19 year that’s been so hard for so many of us – I think God used it to work on a lot of us. I know God did it for me – shining a light on parts of me that needed work, but in the business of normal life I never noticed it. Has that happened to you to?
Only you know; only God knows. So close your eyes again and take a moment and ask God: “God, I know I am unclean and unworthy. I need you to work on me. How are you bringing a hot coal to my lips? Are you doing it already? Help me to recognize you at work. Clean me; mold me; make me worthy.”
In my experience, this is not a process that finishes. I accepted a call to be a pastor long ago – and yet like I said, God is still working on me. But there is this tipping point, this leap-of-faith moment when we realize that the God who calls us will enable us to answer that call. That’s the moment where we can answer. It might be a timid little voice, like a student in the back of the room raising their hand to answer a question but not really 100% sure it’s right:
“Here I am, send me!”
In so many ways, we are naturally like the prophet Isaiah. We are called by God. We respond “Woe is me!” We need God to make us clean and worthy of our calling. But in this last way of being like Isaiah – in answering God’s call – we might need to coax ourselves into it. We might need practice. So close your eyes one last time and practice praying with me:
Here I am, send me.
Here I am, send me!
Here I am, God – send me!