“We keep a troubled vigil at the bedside of the world,” writes Howard Thurman, “Thus we clutch the moment of intimacy in worship when we become momentarily a part of a larger whole, a fleeting strength, which we pit against all the darkness and the dread of our times.
I want to invite you to think for a moment about some of the darkness and dread that hangs over our world today…
When in worship have YOU felt a part of something bigger? When have you been given the strength to face those struggles in the world?
The idea that worship itself is a moment of intimacy when we become part of a larger whole is a powerful and timeless truth.
In our scripture this morning, we read about Isaiah, and the very reality of reality was presented to him when he met God in his vision of worship.
To set the stage, to understand just how important his experience was, we need to look at the first words of verse 1:
In the year King Uzziah had died…
King Uzziah was ruler over the southern kingdom of Judah and he came to be king at only 16 years of age. According to both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, he did what was right in the sight of God and had a powerful and successful reign over Judah for fifty-two years.
But then something happened. All of the success that God had brought the nation went to King Uzziah’s head. In the wake of military victories, Uzziah provided top of the line armor and weapons for his soldiers and fortified the city of Jerusalem with towers and archers and traps. But in these things, he was demonstrating trust in the hands of man, rather than in the power of God.
Our God is on that would take a whole army of the ready and send only three hundred into the battle. When you fight on God’s side, you don’t have to fight with anything else!
But King Uzziah forgot this. His pride became such a problem that he entered the holiest place in the temple… that special room at the very center that only the high priest was allowed to enter and he walked in like he owned the place and burned incense to the Lord.
Now, today, we wouldn’t consider that a big deal. But in the days of King Uzziah, there was a strict boundary between the people and God and just as important of a boundary between the authority of the priests and the authority of the King. This was the separation of church and state for its time… and Uzziah crossed the line.
He snuck into the temple and had just lit the flame to burn incense to the Lord, when 80 priests came pouring into the room. The chief among them cried out, “Get out of the sanctuary, for you have trespassed! You shall have no honor from the Lord God.”
Instantly, leprosy came upon Uzziah as a consequence of his prideful action and he was a leper until the day of his death.
It is in the midst of this culture of pride and success that Isaiah receives his vision from God.
Beginning in chapter 1 of the book of Isaiah, we hear…
What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord… 12 When you come to appear before me, who asked this from you, this trampling of my temple’s courts? 13 Stop bringing worthless offerings. Your incense repulses me. …15 When you extend your hands, I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you pray for a long time, I won’t listen. Your hands are stained with blood. 16 Wash! Be clean! Remove your ugly deeds from my sight. Put an end to such evil; 17 learn to do good. Seek justice: help the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.
True worship, worship that is pleasing to God, is a moment of intimacy.
It is a moment where we are connected, as Thurman writes, to a larger whole.
It is a moment not where we show God how great we are, but we offer ourselves, with all of our flaws and weaknesses, and let God’s greatness strengthen us.
After Isaiah has vision after vision of the failings of his nation, of the people and the bloodshed and the oppression his people have created, King Uzziah dies and Isaiah – in the midst of this moment of transition and change – is mystically transported into God’s presence.
In eight verses, we receive the pattern of a life of worship. We find the structure we need in order to let the spirit of God connect us with reality at large.
These four movements help us keep worship from being all about “me.” They pull us and stretch us and teach us what it means to be faithful.
I want to invite you to pull out your bulletin and look with me at the headings for each section. Each one of these represents a movement we discover in this passage from Isaiah this morning.
We begin with Gathering Together… a time of praise .
I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. 2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. 3 They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
Isaiah finds himself in the temple and he is not alone. The seraphim have joined him and they sing praise to the one who has gathered them all together.
Most importantly however, worship begins with the presence of God.
As we gather with one another, we do so in the name of God, in the presence of God, and in our call to worship, we remember that God is here before us. Whether we are worshipping in the sanctuary or outside or in the park or at home, we gather in God’s presence.
But another key aspect of this gathering is that we are praising God. We acknowledge… no, we can’t ignore WHO it is that is before us. The seraphim are moved to sing in this awesome presence. We, too, begin our time of worship with a song of praise.
Each week, as the hymns and songs are chosen that will begin our time of worship, the first one we sing always points to the God who has called us here.
As we think about what this gathering time means, we can see clearly just how far King Uzziah crossed the line. He entered the temple for his own selfish reasons, rather than to praise and honor God.
As we return to our bulletin, the next heading is a time of confession…
The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.
5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”
How many of you have had worship moments where you felt God’s glory filling the room?
Maybe it was during a hymn being sung or a scripture passage or some moment of prayer… whatever it was, in the presence of God’s glory we can feel so uplifted and close to the Lord.
But the flip side of being in God’s presence is realizing just how NOT like God we are.
When Isaiah stood there in the temple with the hem of God’s robe surrounding him and the seraphim singing and the sound of it all so overwhelming that the door frame shook… he felt pretty small.
Instead of trying to prove ourselves to God, like King Uzziah, instead of trying to stand on our own righteousness, true worship is a time to confess who we really are – both individually and as a community.
Confession is a time to lay bare the truth about ourselves. It is a time when we don’t have to pretend. It is a time when we are forced to see difficult truths about ourselves we might not otherwise admit.
We are human. We are weak. We are selfish. We need the Lord.
And in worship, we experience the Lord our God.
Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. 7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
After we stand before God, vulnerable, open, knowing fully who we are and how not like the Lord we are, we hear God’s word proclaimed.
You are forgiven.
I love you.
I have a job for you!
Now… these might seem like simple words – and they are! – but they are also words we proclaim in our time of worship in a hundred different ways.
Through song and scripture, through the cross above us, through our actions and bodily motions, through painting and dance, through sermons and images, through the smell and taste of Holy Communion, through the touch of a neighbors hand or the smile on a strangers faice, through a burning coal that touches our lip and makes us clean… This is the gospel that is proclaimed over and over and over again:
You are forgiven. I love you. And I have a job for you!
You see, in the very same moment God is helping us get over the past and our failings and weakness, God is getting us ready for the future God has planned.
In the words of Anne Lamott – God loves you right where you are and loves you too much to let you stay that way.
And when we come face to face with God in Christ, we hear that message, too. When we are touched by Christ in the breaking open of the word, we are forever changed.
Worship, therefore, is a time when we let God set the agenda, rather than barging in to tell God what we think, as King Uzziah did.
Finally, we respond in faith.
I said, “I’m here;
God said, “Go…”
When we open ourselves up and let God in, when our lives start to change – then we can’t help but respond to God’s call.
In our response to God’s word, we begin to realize that it is not about us. Isaiah’s plans don’t matter anymore.
His problems and failings don’t matter any more
The money he was saving to buy a new donkey doesn’t matter anymore.
When God asks, Isaiah responds – Yes.
In worship, we respond to God’s invitation with prayers. We lift up our own lives and those of others that God has called us to care for.
In worship, we respond by offering our whole selves in love and service and by giving back even a piece of what we have been giving.
In worship, we hear hymns that call us back into the world that is full of darkness and dread with a renewed strength and a word of hope.
In worship, we are sent out into the world, not alone, but with the Holy Spirit as our guide.