“Grace Moments”                     Isaiah 6:1-8                 February 7, 2010

From Children's Letters to God:                
Worship is . . . . Being able to wear new shoes!
"Dear God,
If you watch in church on Sunday, I will show you my new shoes." -- Mickey D
Little Mickey expects God to show up. Do we?

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of a community of ducks waddling off to duck church to hear the duck preacher. . . . At the conclusion of the service, the ducks left, commenting on what a wonderful message they had heard -- and waddled back home.

Too often, would-be worshipers waddle away from worship as they waddled in -- unchallenged and unchanged. Perhaps it is because we are creatures of habit. Week after week, congregants sit in the same place in the same pew, following an order of service that they know by heart, listening to a sermon which they assume is intended primarily for someone else.

Occasionally, though, something happens. A serendipity. Unplanned. Unrehearsed. Uncontrollable. In the midst of a worship service, worship happens. Someone's eyes are opened to a deeper awareness of the grandeur of God by the majesty of the music, and new commitments are born.
 
Someone recognizes his or her life's story as the Scripture lesson is read, and a new believer is born. Someone hears in the sermon, as if for the first time, the forgiving love of Jesus, and a new hope is born. We may wonder why such happenings occur to this person but not to that one. But these events can't be explained, only described.

The central character in this week's text is Isaiah, whose call to prophetic service came during an annual celebration of worship. It was for him an encounter with God so profound that afterward he could no longer see himself or his people in quite the same way.
 
To Isaiah it seemed that the entire structure shook with the presence of God. But did you ever wonder about the others who were present during that same worship service? Did they have a similar experience to Isaiah's? Did this act of worship affect how they viewed themselves? How they viewed God?
 
How is it that two persons can hear the same music, the same prayers, the same sermon, and one of them be utterly transformed by the experience, while the other is unmoved? What makes the service of worship a profound encounter with God for one and a routine ritual for another? These are Grace Moments.

The answer appears in a moment Isaiah describes in today's text, a moment when, as songs are being sung and prayers are being prayed and the high priest is intoning the greatness of God, unexpectedly, worship happens. It happens to him. As each of us yearns for our own worship-filled moment, let us listen to Isaiah's account of an encounter with God when worship happened.

Isaiah
6:1-8:  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty;
and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken fromthe altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said:
“Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
 
Worship happens whenever God is radically present. Radical means to describe an event or an experience that transcends the ordinary; and event that is different from other events or experiences of its kind.

To speak of God as radically present is not to deny that he is always everywhere present, but rather to describe those occasions when the reality of God's presence bursts upon an individual's consciousness in an unusually powerful way. It is to be overwhelmed by an encounter with the Divine which leaves us on our knees in awe-filled worship. When this happens, God can be said to be radically present.

The radical presence of God cannot be controlled or programmed; it can only be experienced. But that experience can come to us anywhere, anytime. For Isaiah it happened in the temple, but God does not limit holy moments to holy places. For Moses God's radical presence was discovered on the backside of a wilderness; for Elijah it was in a mountain hideout; for Saul it was on a bounty-hunting excursion to Damascus.
 
And who would have thought that the most radical presence of God imaginable, the Incarnation, would have begun among the distinctive smells of a barn and ended among the death throes of criminals?

Isaiah's experience reminds us that the radical presence of God is found not only in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary as well. God can be as profoundly present in the sunset over a mountain peak as he is in a church or cathedral. He can reveal himself in a concert hall as vitally as he might in a moment of prayer. More important than where we are is our willingness to see God in what is going on around us.
 
Isaiah was engaged in an ordinary service of worship, seeing what everyone else was seeing, hearing what everyone else was hearing, when God broke through the ordinary to reveal himself as radically present. Isaiah "saw through" the smoke and the haze of the Enthronement Celebration to the eternal reality which the ceremony represented.
 
He was not content to experience only worship; he was open to an experience of God. We, too, are more apt to be surprised by the radical presence of God when our hearts are opened to seeing him in the ordinary events of life.

Worship happens whenever human inadequacy is met by the grace of God. The radical presence of God caused Isaiah to recognize, perhaps for the first time, the spiritual shortcomings of himself and his fellow Judahites.
 
Under King Uzziah, the nation of Judah had experienced an almost unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Life was good, the economy was robust, the polls showed high consumer confidence, and all of the economic indicators pointed to more of the same. What is more, all of this had been accomplished through human effort and ingenuity.

Perhaps this is why we, too, have such ineffective worship experiences. We are content with life, with career, with family. We have settled into a comfortable, if not totally satisfactory, routine of living. To be sure, we need God, but only to clean up around the edges of life. We certainly don't need his radical presence that might reveal the inadequacies of our neatly manicured existence.
 
However, God does not reveal his radical presence simply to overwhelm us or to make us feel worthless. Rather, he wishes by that presence to remind us of his empowering grace that meets and transforms our awareness of personal inadequacy. No sooner had Isaiah confessed his own and his generation's uncleanness, than God impressed on him the grace that forgives sins.
Indeed, in the text, we are led to understand that only because Isaiah was able to confess his inadequacy before God was God able to use him as a prophet to the people. For Isaiah, when human inadequacy was met by divine grace, worship happened.

Worship happens whenever a grateful response answers a divine call. It is important to note that God's question, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" was not directed to Isaiah, but rather to the attending seraphim. Isaiah simply overheard the question and immediately stepped forward.
One might want to question his sanity. After all, God did not say where the "whom" was being sent or what the task was. Isaiah might have waited until more information was forthcoming before he volunteered. What could have prompted such a seemingly rash response? Gratitude!
 
Gratitude for God's grace. Gratitude for God's forgiveness of sin. Gratitude for the experience of God's presence unlike anything he had known before. Gratitude that issues forth in positive action is the appropriate response to God's actions in the lives of his people, and in that expression of gratitude, worship happens.

Often, when one attempts to distinguish between the systems inherent in Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, terms like "law and grace" are used -- usually to denigrate the former in light of the latter. An equally valid way of viewing all of Scripture could be summed up in the terms "call and response" or "grace and gratitude."
 
All of God's actions are movements of grace -- many of his actions are calls requiring a response. Sometimes our response is to ignore his call or to decline his invitation of grace. Hopefully, more often our response is one of active obedience born out of a sense of gratitude.
Tony Campolo tells the story of a young woman named Nancy who gratefully responded to God's movement of grace.


Although Nancy has a handicapping condition and is confined to a wheelchair, she has an extraordinary ministry. Every week, in the personals section of her local newspaper, she runs an ad that reads, "If you are lonely or have a problem, call me. I am in a wheelchair and I seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. I'd love to talk." She spends much of her day on the telephone talking with the more than 30 lonely and discouraged people who call each week.
When Campolo asked how she came to be confined to a wheelchair, Nancy revealed that she had tried to commit suicide by jumping from the balcony of her apartment. Instead of dying, however, she ended up in a hospital room paralyzed from the waist down.
One night in the hospital, she said, Jesus came to her and very clearly said, "You have had a healthy body and a crippled soul. From this day on you will have a crippled body, but you will have a healthy soul." She said, "I gave my life to Jesus that night in that hospital room, and I knew that if I kept a healthy soul, it would mean that I would have to help other people. And so I do."


No one so touched by God can remain still. No one who has experienced the grace of God can remain silent. No one who hears in their heart the divine call for service can do anything less than respond with gratitude, "Here am I; send me!" And in moments like this, worship happens.
Let us pray:

God,
Grant us to be
Silent before You -- that we might hear you.
At rest in You -- that you might work in us.
Open to You -- that you may enter.
Empty before You -- that you may fill us.
Let us be still -- and know that you are our God.
Amen.
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
 
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