Scripture is full of call stories. When God has ideas for bringing healing to the world, who’s God gonna call? No. Not those guys. Or women. God’s gonna call some human beings.
In the 6th century BCE, the people of the place formerly known as Judah were in desperate need of healing. Their country had been defeated and many of their inhabitants had been taken away to a foreign country in captivity. God called Jeremiah to speak God’s healing word to the people.
Jeremiah objected. “I’m way too young for this, God. What will I say?” God told Jeremiah, Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Then God touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Jeremiah doesn’t respond, but the next 52 chapters record his many years of speaking God’s healing word to the people.
Two centuries earlier, what happened to Judah had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel. When Israel was falling apart, then defeated by the Assyrians, God chose Isaiah to speak God’s healing word to the people.
Isaiah’s call story differs a bit from Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah’s call happens in an intimate encounter with God. Isaiah’s happens…well, let’s look at Isaiah’s call.
“In the year that King Uzziah died…” that’s when things started going downhill fast for the people of Israel. The situation was dire. Everything the people had known was about to change. They needed a word from God, a word of direction, a word of healing. They needed a prophet. God chose Isaiah.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw God seated on a high and lofty judgment seat, in a robe whose train filled the Temple. Can you imagine? Imagine it here, our sanctuary filled with just the train of the divine robe…
In fact, God is so big, seraphs/angels/messengers are there to announce the divine presence. Holy, holy, holy! they cry. All the Earth is filled with God’s glory! The doorposts and thresholds quake at the sound of their shouting, and the Temple fills with smoke.
A little intimidating, to say the least. How does Isaiah respond? He says, “Woe is me, I am doomed! I have unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”
Nearly every call story in Scripture begins with reticence to accept the call. In fact, that’s one of the signs that the call is real–the prophet’s doubt that he or she can fulfill the call. The source of Jeremiah’s doubt was his young age.
Isaiah’s doubt stems from something else. “I have unclean lips…” “Isaiah’s doubt doesn’t seem to be rooted in feelings of inadequacy, as Jeremiah’s was, so much as in guilt. When Isaiah says he has unclean lips and lives among a people of unclean lips, he’s acknowledging his own sin and the corporate sin of the people he lives among”…sins that have led to the dissolution of their country. (Feasting on the Word)
Reading the rest of the book of Isaiah, those sins become apparent: the people have failed to care for the least of these. In Isaiah 58, the prophet writes: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? The call to do these things suggests that the people, including Isaha, had failed to do them. That failure was a source of their sin.
Have you ever felt God calling you to something and been reticent to accept the call? What reasons have you given? I don’t have time? I’m too young? I’m too old? I don’t have a good speaking voice? Or maybe your excuse has been similar to Isaiah’s. Oh, the things I’ve done, and failed to do! The way I’ve treated–and neglected–people. After the things I’ve done–and not done–how could God possibly use ME to do anything good in the world?
Confession. They say it’s good for the soul. Last week, in Faith Exploration, we listened to an interview with Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South African in the 1990s.
The TRC was created shortly after legal apartheid ended. During apartheid, native South Africans were treated heinously by white South Africans. As a way to move toward healing for their country, the government created the TRC so that people who had perpetrated the harrowing crimes could confess…and so that recipients and loved ones of those crimes could hear the confessions. If the perpetrators confessed to the TRC, amnesty would be granted.
Archbishop Tutu and others were disturbed by the government’s refusal to make apologizing a requirement for amnesty. But as he witnessed confession after confession for three years, the Archbishop saw the wisdom in not requiring apologies. He said that nearly every person who confessed a crime, in the end, did offer an apology to the person harmed or their loved ones. He also said that the vast majority of those receiving an apology accepted it. Had apologies been required by law to receive amnesty, the authenticity of those confessions might have been suspect. As it was, apologies that were offered were seen as authentic and sincere.
Do you remember when the TRC was going on? At the time, I remember thinking, How could they possibly do that? Why would Black and white South Africans put themselves through the grueling process of re-telling such horrific stories? It’s clear, though, that confession was good for the souls, not only of perpetrators, but also of recipients of violent treatment. Confession was good for their country’s soul, as well.
Makes you wonder what might have happened to our own country if Reconstruction had included a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Just a thought.
So, Isaiah confessed his guilt, his complicity in the sins of his country, the lack of care for the least of these that had led to their country’s demise. How could he possibly speak for God?
One of the seraphs responds to Isaiah’s confession by flying to him, “holding an ember which it had taken with tongs from the altar. The seraph then touches Isaiah’s mouth with the ember. “See,” it said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your corruption is removed, and your sin is pardoned.”
That’s the point at which that Isaiah hears God’s call, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Because he confessed, because he received forgiveness for his sins, Isaiah is now able to respond boldly: “Here I am! Send me!”
Sometimes, I think we forget what a powerful resource confession can be, not only for us as individuals, but also for our community. Something changes in us when we acknowledge harm we have caused others. Owning up to what we have done, acknowledging our own human failings, especially in our interactions with others… Confession frees us. Confession empowers us. And, as James will write 6 centuries later, confession heals us. Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)
Once Isaiah confesses his sin, he is freed to answer God’s call to him. And he does so with gusto. Here am I! Send me!
What about us? What might we need to confess to become free enough to answer God’s call with the same gusto as Isaiah? What might we as individuals need to confess? What might we as a community need to confess? What new work, what new joy, what new healing might be waiting for us on the far side of confession?
How might we get to the place we can join our voices with Isaiah and say, “Here we are! Send us?”
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2022