June 3, 2012
This text is among the more famous in the Hebrew Bible, serving as a source for the centuries’ old shape of worship.
So it would be unfair to the tradition to read this text without mentioning that it is the driving force behind what is called ‘the Ordo.’ Let me tell you what we do and why.
Every worship service, that I plan anyway, should follow a particular flow. First, we gather in God’s presence. That is why there is that first heading there in your bulletin: Gathering. You might notice that there are some things before it. There is ‘organ music,’ to set the tone here in this space. There are announcements to help the community stay connected. But these things are not the ‘gathering’ proper. No, the Gathering begins with the prelude when we begin to intentionally, prayerfully, turn our attention toward God. See it is good to remember that we are gathering, for a peculiar purpose, not to be entertained but instead to offer up praise to God, who is in our midst.
If it were up to me, we would start every worship service with what is commonly called the Solemn Declaration. I adapt it. At its most basic form it is a simple, Trinitarian, statement: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is a reminder to you (and perhaps to the liturgist) that what we are about to do is in the name of God. There are words spoken based on scripture to further orient us to a Word from the Lord that we anticipate hearing. During this summer we will frequently use something called “sentences of adoration.” These are scripture verses, taken from the lectionary texts of the day to begin our praise of God. They should remind us that we are in the presence of God and not just gathered together chit-chatting while we wait for a seat at the restaurant after church.
If somehow we realize that we are in God’s presence, who can possibly feel comfortable? It is enough to make you squirm in your seat. If somehow we are able to be transported, like Isaiah, to God’s throne room we would join him in a profound sense of inadequacy. Yes, we are all saints. We are disciples of Jesus Christ. We are believers. I am not doubting any of this. What I am saying is that if we were honest we would admit our own feeble and insufficient fulfillment of this role. And this isn’t only an individual recognition, who can help but realize that those others with us aren’t any better? So what we do is that the preacher gives us a little reminder, a call to confession, just in case our own self-righteousness has gotten out of control. Then together we confess our sin.
Even a casual reader of the bible recognizes that for some reason the very people that God chooses to be servants and leaders have trouble living up to their call. I heard recently someone make a snide comment about the pope saying, “the problem with infallibility is that you cannot make any mistakes.” Confession is the simple recognition that we do this all the time, willingly and by accident. Let us remember that as the body of Christ in the world, we do not measure up to the identity given to us.
Now, if that was all there was we’d be left in a sad state of affairs. I realize that guilt is a helpful tool to use on others to get them to do what you want. Still, to walk around all the time under this cloud of condemnation is not helpful. It leads to the ‘Oh what’s the use’ position on life. That isn’t what God wants for us. So, we recognize that God is One who judges, and then we also recognize that God is one who forgives.
Literally, this means to “set aside the condemnation we deserve and treat us ‘as if’ we were innocent.”
Now we can move forward with our heads up. Now our ears are opened to be able to hear. Now we can claim with assurance that which we already are: the Body of Christ.
I often wonder how my dog responds to my voice. When I am angry, I think all he hears is the tone. It’s confusing. If I call him, or command him in some way in that tone of voice, what I get is a very tentative response. I remember well that my Father had, or has (I don’t know), a certain tone that motivated me; his angry tone motivated me to take cover.
But a kind tone, one that conveys forgiveness and grace, that’s something different. Then I am ready to listen. Then we are ready to listen.
Finally we are ready to hear God’s word, read and expounded upon. Now it is helpful to remember that whoever is in that pulpit is just like everyone else gathered. Holiness, see, isn’t a word about condition, it is about function. Holiness is about being prepared for, and set apart for God’s purposes. So this very fragile and fallible human being, having done her homework climbs into the pulpit and offers their best effort at answering this question: “what does it mean?”
Having been ‘set right with God,’ having heard the divine word, we are ready to respond to this word. And, we respond in a variety of ways. We always have an offering. Despite what you think, the purpose of the offering is not so that the church can pay its bills. The purpose of the offering is to give us a chance in a prayerful and worshipful way to give thanks to God for those gifts God has given us. It is an opportunity to return to God a portion of all that belongs to God in the first place.
Offering isn’t the only response. Scripture is full of other responses. Remember the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian from a couple of weeks ago? Sometimes we respond by baptism. Sometimes we respond by receiving the Eucharist. Sometimes we respond by Commissioning leaders, teachers, mission workers. We respond to God’s word in this way because that word always ends with the same question: “who shall we send?”
God has spoken, and is speaking. In following the trajectory of this text from Isaiah we are then moved to go and serve God. See, the purpose of this journey is not to move us to bore down into those comfy pews and stay for another hour. Neither is the purpose to make us feel good about ourselves The purpose is to go out into the world, into our daily lives, and do those things that God would have us do with the resources that God gives us.
As you are now accustomed to my inability to remain within the given text for the day, I want to read for you two more verses:
9And he said, ‘Go and say to this people: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” 10 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.’
What the prophet is called to speak will not make their lives easier, their road smoother, or their responsibilities plainer. Everything will continue to be confusing and uncertain. It will remain difficult to discern between God’s way, and the way of the world.
In the hymn, “The Voice of God is Calling,” the fourth verse begins, “From ease and plenty save us.” It ends, “Speak, and behold! We answer; command and we obey.”
In this way, our worship follows the path so many disciples have followed. It is ‘Holy,’ set aside for God’s purposes, but never simple, never stationary, never designed for comfort and success as the world defines it. Just ask Isaiah.