And so it is we come now to the mystical, perhaps more than mildly terrifying account of the call of Isaiah.
This one where God is portrayed so large we only encounter the hem of the Almighty’s robe, for that is all that will fit, and where these odd flying creatures carry out God’s work.
And where Isaiah’s protest is one that rings for all of us as we find ourselves standing with him in the presence of such immeasurable greatness, as he recognized his own inadequacy.
Where the prophet would sum up all that was wayward in him with the phrase, ‘unclean lips.’
And where God’s response was not to cast Isaiah aside as simply unworthy, but instead to burn away all that would stand in the way, equipping the prophet with what he would need for everything which would follow:
- Lips which would be called to speak the truth, no matter how hard.
- The wherewithal for Isaiah to speak the words which so many of us have also spoken when so called, “Here I am. Send me.”
- And then through all that was yet to come, which would take all the prophet had to give, urged along by the certainty that this was God’s call.
I found myself standing still in that image of that burning coal these last few days. And as I did, I came across a poem by Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, The Prophet, written nearly two centuries ago. (You can find a number of translations of it online.)
To be honest, I find Pushkin’s words offer a somewhat disturbing rendition of the scene played out before us in the temple now, but really not much more startling than what we read in the sixth chapter of Isaiah. What has been working on me, though, has been the part near the end where the poet’s imagination has the prophet’s chest split open and the burning coal which was used to cleanse his lips placed where his ‘timid heart’ was before.
And what a powerful image this is which then plays out, doesn’t it, in all that follows from Isaiah and for anyone who hears the call of God and follows.
And so it is this week as I found myself returning to this again and again, other places where such fire burns throughout the witness which is ours to receive and to share came to mind:
- In Moses and that burning bush, yes? And in that pillar of fire which led the freed slaves through their first dark nights in the wilderness. (Exodus 3 and Exodus 13:20-22)
- In John’s pointing to Jesus, reminding all within ear-reach that Jesus would be baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:15-18)
- In those two travelers on that first Easter who, looking back, realized their hearts were burning within them when they walked with Jesus. (Luke 24:13-35)
- On Pentecost when tongues like flames rested on each of those first followers of Jesus. (Acts 2)
Oh, it surely is fitting, isn’t it, to imagine that the hot coal which burned away that which would keep Isaiah from following this call, would then be planted deep within him urging him along and sustaining him for all that would follow?
And oh, I do wonder now with all of you, what that seraphim’s coal is even now burning away in me, in you.
What fears, what doubts, what perpetual temptations to turn aside or turn away, what downright exhaustion (and on and on…) needs to be seared, cleansed from you, from me, so that we might now step into the deepening call God has for us?
And more than this, so much more even than this, running with the poet’s image, how do you know that same fire burning within you, leading you through the darkness, alighting on your head and mine as signs of God’s presence and power?
We have been called to challenging times, dear ones.
- Times when with the discernment of Isaiah, we will need to sort out when to speak not only words of judgment, but also words of comfort and promise and hope.
- Times when we know that something — by the hand of God’s agent or not — is burning away what we have known and perhaps relied on before — and when we need to lean into the promise that in the end even this burning leads to freedom and to look ahead to where God’s light is leading us through the darkness.
- Times when we might not recognize it in the moment, but in the looking back — hopefully with a companion or more — we will recall that our hearts were burning within us all along, pointing us to the certainty that when we could not discern the full meaning just yet as was so for those first disciples so long ago — Jesus was already there.
I do not believe I speak too dramatically here when I say aloud that we have never, all of us, been called to a time such as this. And here, yes, I am especially addressing those among us whom I know best who are serving in this context where Christendom which has been in its death throes for decades, is now ready to be buried. And to be sure this time, this experience leads many of us to grieve the loss of what was familiar that is no more, grief which too much can hold us back or even have us turning on one another, sapping our hope, our resilience, our imagination, and on and on…
Too dire? Maybe. And maybe not.
- Indeed, I cannot help but wonder if we do well now to dwell with such as the prophet, Isaiah, when he first heard the voice of God, listening for how to speak to a world of people who had lost their way, who were already broken in ways beyond their imagining or understanding or acceptance.
- I wonder if we would do well now to deeply listen for what sustained Isaiah and others like him as he had to speak both hard words of judgment and powerful words of hope to people who were in the middle of losing all they had known.
Because it seems to me that the world we are navigating now may just parallel Isaiah’s in ways we are only beginning to understand.
And so I wonder now…
- As you stand in the presence of the Holy now, what is it you sense needs to be ‘burned away’ so that you might hear and also respond, ‘Here I am. Send me.’? Or has it already happened? Has the burning already begun?
- As you look back, when was it you sensed your heart burning within you before? How did you perhaps later realize you had encountered God then? What does it mean for you to look back and remember this?
- Perhaps you agree that we stand in the midst of, on the edge of, a great deal that is yet unknown, challenging, perhaps even frightening. What will it mean for you to move forward with that fire burning within you, with a pillar of fire guiding you, with flames dancing on your head? What difference will that fire you hold and that holds you make for you and for the world for whom you are sent?
Perhaps you are like me and you find yourself thinking this was not the ‘call’ you first answered maybe decades ago. Or maybe you have come to this later with eyes wide open to the challenges we face today. Either way, we are here now, and the call keeps coming for the sake of this world God so loves.
As you go, may be you know that fire burning within you every day, a sure sign of God’s presence and power.
And may you know the sustaining, uplifting company of others also discerning this ever evolving call.