The Gift of Service

Published: Monday, 28 May 2018

This sermon was presented on 27 May 2018 (Trinity Sunday) at ABC by Geoff Pound. It is based on the lectionary reading for the day and is part of a series in the month of May at ABC. The sermon concludes with some Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 (NRSV)

During the Second World War, the Nazi army was moving across Europe and bringing every country to its knees. But across the English Channel lay the last stronghold. Winston Churchill was at its helm.

He committed every plane to the skies, every boat to the shores and every able person to the streets. But that wasn’t enough.

So, Churchill went down into a concrete bomb shelter and from deep underground he spoke to the people of Britain. He spoke not of superiority but of sacrifice, not of conquest but of courage, not of revenge but of renewal.

Slowly but surely Churchill talked England back to life. To people on their rooftops with buckets of water, to frightened people behind the sandbags as the sirens screamed, to exhausted pilots dodging tracer bullets, Churchill’s words announced a new dawn. His message conveyed to people the strength to bring that new day to pass.

Today’s Scripture records a life-changing encounter when Isaiah is called by God to speak hope to his people.

Our reading begins:

In the year that King Uzziah died…”

-          Isaiah 6: 1

This could simply be like a date on a letter but the death of a monarch is always a memorable milestone.

In the year that John F Kennedy was assassinated.

In the year when Iraq was invaded.

In the year when the Twin Towers were toppled.

The writer is saying, ‘These were turbulent times. These were uncertain times. These were vulnerable times’, but into this topsy-turvy time, God intervened. God called a person to be God’s representative.

The writer is reminding us, that God comes to us, just at the right time. In fact, the timing is so often the miracle of it all.

 

In the year that King Uzziah died…”

This date and royal death notice remind us that worship isn’t airy-fairy. Worship isn’t disconnected from life. Worship and God’s intervention in our lives happens in real time, amidst the concrete events of our world.

In worship we’re not to lose sight of the real and tragic events like the death of a King or the joyous wedding of a Prince. In fact, worship must bring our world into clearer focus. Worship gives us new perspectives on life. Worship broadens us with a global vision. Worship draws us into God’s world and sends us out with courage and practical compassion.

Here’s the warning alert: Isaiah’s life was turned upside down when he happened to attend a worship service.

God speaks to us at any time and in any location but in the place of worship when our hearts are being tuned and our minds are being readied, then we shall be on the alert to hear when God speaks.

What follows is one of the most comprehensive teachings on worship. Note these essential ingredients especially if you’re called to lead worship.

The first element is the note of Praise. Isaiah says:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. 

Isaiah 6: 1

There’s no way we can whoop up worship. We can’t manufacture such a vision but this can happen in silence. Our minds can be raised by a Psalm of praise. Our hearts can be lifted by a song of thanksgiving for genuine worship causes us to look up! To look up to the One who is high and lofty.

Isaiah looks up and sees that the insignificant hem of God’s royal robe fills the temple. Worship can be mind-blowing. Worship can expand our vision of who God is.

When Queen Anne was given her personal tour of the newly built St Paul’s Cathedral, she said to Christopher Wren, “This is awful”. Instead of the architect being despondent, Wren was delighted because the meaning of that word has changed down through the centuries. Today she would say, “This fills me with awe. This is awesome!”[1]

The writer says:

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. 

Isaiah 6: 2

These seraphs seem to be heavenly creatures and this is what worship does—it creates that ‘thin place’ in which heaven seems so close.[2] The seraphs highlight the mystery of the worship experience. We can’t explain it. We can’t always get our minds around it. More than this … a vision of God can be so hard to bear. Like the seraphs we want to cover our gaze. We can’t take it in.

If like Isaiah, we’re being called to say tough things to King Uzziah’s successor, we could act cowardly. We might soften our words. But think of the courage we’ll derive when, in the place of worship, we see the Lord sitting on the throne in all God’s majesty and light.

Look for the next vital ingredient in worship:

And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts ...”

Isaiah 6:3

This vital element is the word of truth which comes through Scripture and hopefully will come from preaching.

Isaiah’s experience in worship and his vision are now being interpreted. The One moving him to awe is none other than the Lord of Hosts.

I wonder what name, what quality of God, we need to see today? Here, for reasons that become clearer to him once he got serving as a prophet, Isaiah is given a word and an experience of the holiness of God.

Holy, holy, holy

Perhaps on this Trinity Sunday this reading reminds us of the three-fold person of God—Holy Creator, Holy Saviour and Holy Spirit. The one God who comes to us and ministers in various ways.

In the English language we say this puppy is cute, this puppy is cuter than that one (comparison), but to have all these puppies is the cutest thing (superlative).

Or we might say one cake is good, two cakes are better but a plate of cakes is the best.

The Hebrew language doesn’t work like this. Instead, it simply repeats, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’. So, the seraphs are saying that the Lord of Hosts is holy, the Lord of Hosts is more holy than another and the Lord of Hosts is the most holy being in the universe. Holy, holier, holiest.

While this life-changing encounter takes place in the temple, the seraph in its sermon says: “the whole earth is full of God’s glory”.

So, when we finish public worship, we don’t stop encountering God. We don’t stop worshipping. No, we come to discover God’s glory shining in the ordinary moments and the everyday events of life, and we worship.

The Biblical record says:

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 

-Isaiah 6:4

Something happens in worship. Worship isn’t just cerebral. We sense God. We hear God. God shakes us up. Holy smoke. We see God. We smell God. And where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,

Isaiah 6: 5

Here’s the essential element of confession. From a vision of God Isaiah gets a vision of himself. In the presence of this holy God, Isaiah feels unworthy and unclean. Then his confession gets very specific as he thinks of his unclean lips and the dirty, rotten things he has said.

In worship we need regular opportunities to confess our sins, to state our unworthiness and to say to God that we’re lost without you. This is the time in worship where we put out the rubbish.

Isaiah continues:

“and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

-Isaiah 6:5

 

This is the element of intercession—bringing the needs of our people and our world to the attention of God. Isaiah moves from a vision of God, to a vision of himself and then he gets a glimpse of the needs of his people.

In many contemporary churches there’s almost an absence of these elements of confession and intercession, which is hard to square if you are strong on salvation. Maybe it’s a reaction to earlier days when there was an unhealthy preoccupation with how sinful we are, how unworthy we are and how doomed we are.

William Carey, the missionary pioneer, is buried in the Serampore cemetery near Kolkata. The words on his plain grave read: William Carey, Born August 17, 1761, Died June 9 1834. ‘A wretched, poor and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.’ ‘A wretched, poor and helpless worm’. That description doesn’t make you feel good about yourself!

Isaiah makes his honest confession and earnest intercession for his people but it doesn’t stop there:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet [‘Yet’. This is the word of grace. This is the point of return] my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

-Isaiah 6:5

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 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.” 

-Isaiah 6:8

After the specific confession of unclean lips there follows this touching, the cleansing of his lips. This is the element of absolution when Isaiah hears those liberating words: “your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out”.

But the worship service isn’t over yet.

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

-Isaiah 6:8

Worship in the sanctuary leads naturally to God’s mission in the world. Church is not all about what happens in here (the sanctuary). God points to the door and says: Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

Is this another reference to the trinity? “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

But God, where in the world, are you wanting to send me? God, tell me first what would you want us to do? Without knowing, where in the world or what or how, Isaiah volunteers:

And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

-Isaiah 6:8

Isaiah is not like Moses who was full of excuses. “Here am I, please send somebody else.” He’s not like Jeremiah who said, “I’m too young.”

Earlier he felt lost and unworthy. Now Isaiah is putting up his hand to serve. In worship we find our true vocation and the strength to endure our calling.

This is the element of offering: And I said, “Here am I; send me!” I am available. Send me to wherever you will. You know best. If only we can live with this attitude of surrender.

From the early days of the Wesleyan movement, John Wesley encouraged his churches to make and renew their covenant with Christ. I invite you to pray or ponder these words:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will,

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly give myself to you

For I love you Lord

And seek to do your will.[3]

Questions for Personal Reflection and Group Study

There are more questions here than for one period of reflection or one session of group study. You might like to look at these questions over a number of sessions. It might be good to pray the Wesleyan Covenant prayer after each session.

Scripture Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 (NRSV)

In the year that King Uzziah died…”

-          Isaiah 6: 1

In the year that John F Kennedy was assassinated…

What is the year and the event that is etched on your mind?

“The writer is reminding us that God comes to us just at the right time. In fact, the timing is so often the miracle of it all.”

Do you have a story to tell about the amazing timing of God?

“This date and royal death notice remind us that worship isn’t airy-fairy. Worship isn’t disconnected from life. Worship and God’s intervention in our lives happens in real time, amidst the concrete events of our world.”

Discuss. Maybe we want to be disconnected from life. Is this desire valid?

How do we prevent worship from becoming a holy, irrelevant bubble?

Remember that old ditty: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus … and the things of earth will grow strangely dim…” Is that right?

“Worship must bring our world into clearer focus.

Worship gives us new perspectives on life.

Worship broadens us with a global vision.

Worship draws us into God’s world and

sends us out with courage and practical compassion.”

How does worship shape you?

The temple and the sanctuary aren’t the only places where God speaks. God spoke to Jacob when he was asleep. God spoke to Mary when she was busy with her wedding plans. God spoke to Rosa Parkes when she was sitting in the front of a bus.

Where does God speak most powerfully to you or where are you most sensitive to the presence and voice of God?

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of God’s robe filled the temple. 

Isaiah 6: 1

What in public worship have you found to be most uplifting and has expanded your vision of God?

“If like Isaiah, we are being called to say tough things to King Uzziah’s successor, we could act cowardly. We might soften our words. But think of the courage we’ll derive when, in the place of worship, we see the Lord sitting on the throne in all God’s majesty and light.”

What aspect of public worship leads you to be courageous, even prophetic?

“There’s no way we can whoop up worship. We can’t manufacture such a vision but this can happen...”

How can we create the best atmosphere/setting/context in which genuine worship can happen?

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. 

Isaiah 6: 2

What are these seraphs all about and what do they convey in this worship encounter?

And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts ...”

Isaiah 6:3

How do you understand the holiness of God and what impact does such an awareness of God’s holiness have on you?

When Abraham was called to offer his son Isaac, he came to know God as ‘Jehovah-Jireh’, the God who provides. (Gen. 22:14) When Hagar had been abused and became pregnant and was running away in the remote desert she must have asked: “Does anyone see what I am going through?” She was given a vision of ‘El Roi’—the God who sees it all. (Gen 16: 7-14) When John Newton the slave trader came to see through his blindness, he came to an experience of God’s amazing grace.

What name, or what quality of God, do you/we need to see today?

Holy, holy, holy

If this is an allusion to the trinity, what does the three-fold person of God mean to you?

Talk about an experience you have had with the holiness of God.

“and the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

What does this mean and how can we grow in our awareness of God’s glory in the world throughout the week?

And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,

Isaiah 6: 5

“In worship we need regular opportunities to confess our sins, to state our unworthiness, to say to God that we’re lost without you. This is the time in worship where we put out the rubbish.”

Do we make sufficient opportunities to help people put out their rubbish?

How might we make the act of confession more profound?

“In many contemporary churches there’s almost an absence of these elements of confession and intercession, which is hard to square if you are strong on salvation. Maybe it’s a reaction to earlier days when there was an unhealthy preoccupation with how sinful we are, how unworthy we are and how doomed we are. For instance, William Carey, the missionary pioneer is buried in the Serampore cemetery near Kolkata. The words on his plain grave read: “William Carey, Born August 17, 1761, Died June 9 1834. ‘A wretched, poor and helpless worm, on thy kind arms I fall.’ ‘A wretched, poor and helpless worm’. That description doesn’t make you feel good about yourself!”

How do we create opportunities for confession without people feeling they are worms being pummeled into the dust?

“and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

-          Isaiah 6:5

 

“This is the element of intercession—bringing the needs of our people and our world to the attention of God. Isaiah moves from a vision of God, to a vision of himself and then he gets a glimpse of the needs of his people.”

How can we make this element of intercession more significant yet save it from being a mental world tour or feel like listening to half an hour of catastrophic world events?

To what extent are we being called to intercede on behalf of the sins (‘unclean lips/deeds’) of others?

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 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.” 

-          Isaiah 6:8

Any ideas of how this step of absolution (the knowledge of being cleansed and liberated) might become more real and significant?

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

-          Isaiah 6:8

Is there any meaning or purpose in this step of offering coming after all the other elements of worship?

How can we make the offering more all-encompassing?

And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

-          Isaiah 6:8

Is Isaiah crazy to state his availability without knowing more about the destination, the task and the likelihood of success? If we read on in the book of Isaiah we find how tough was his task and how unresponsive were the people he was called to serve.

Are you like Isaiah, the patron saint of volunteers, and if not, what are your usual questions? What are your well-thought excuses?

How might our experience of worship shape the full-hearted surrender of our lives?

Prayer

You may like to intercede by mentioning the names of people or situations that are of concern to you.

You may wish to pray together the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will,

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly give myself to you

For I love you Lord

And seek to do your will.

Amen.

 

[1] St Paul’s Cathedral is Amusing, Awful and Artificial, Quote Investigator.

[2] Mark D Roberts, Thin Places: A Biblical Investigation, Patheos, 2012.

[3] This is a variant of the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, Wikipedia.