Connections: Isaiah and the Calling

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Chaos

The last half of my senior year of high school was chaotic. I was trying t figure out college and where I should go. I was trying to figure out what to major in when I did finally pick a college. I was trying to figure out how to go from being a teenager at home to being student out on my own and being able to take care of myself.

At the time, I had aspired to be a medical examiner. I was, and still am, fascinated with the forensic process and even wrote one of my senior high school reports on the process. I had looked at several colleges and universities for the best medical school admission rates and the programs that offer the best opportunity for me to study medicine as early as possible. I was convinced that this was what God wanted me to do with my life.

After working in the medical field during my first couple of years of college, I realized that nearly ever doctor I knew was divorced and their families seemed to suffer greatly for the dedication required to be a physician. I also realized that the mathematical aptitude necessary to get into medical school left me a few equations short of an accurate solution.

After that, I thought I might study political science. The idea of being a political analyst sounded interesting and I even went so far as to look at taking the civil service exam and filling out a CIA application. It wasn’t long, however, before I simply got bored with it. Politics was interesting, but not interesting enough for me to want to spend the rest of my life thinking, talking, living, and breathing politics.

Then I decided to consider the idea criminal justice as a major. I was still interested in forensics and thought that maybe this was a good fit for my interest. The theory was good, the practice not so much. The idea of being shot at was not something I cared for not to mention the fact that my reflexes are not so much cat like as maybe dumb dog like. “Oh wait, somebody’s shooting at me. I should duck. I should hide. Squirrel!”

When I started working as a graphic designer the year before my first year at Mercer, I had a full-time job and when I started school I was also going to school full time at night. At Mercer, I finally settled on religious studies but not because I wanted to be a minister. I was just interested in it. I remember a conversation that I had with my father about my final major. He asked me what kind of ‘real job’ could I expect to have with a religious studies major. I told him I might eventually become an academic but the reality was I was simply getting a degree to bump up my salary. Having a college degree would get me an instant pay raise and I could keep drawing pictures for a living.

My calling to ministry would have to wait a few more years but in the interim, there was much learning to do. Then I realized my calling and there was much learning to do. Now, I am living into my calling and I realize that I know even less than I thought I did before. Calling wasn’t a consideration for much of my life because I was busy living and trying to get by rather than being concerned with a greater purpose of life.

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Photo by Nick Knl courtesy of FreeImages (www.freeimages.com)

Isaiah before the throne

The prophetic text of Isaiah is one of the most quoted, most beloved of the Old Testament. The text was commonly studied from the time of its writing into the days of the New Testament when it became a common source to draw from in first century writings. Jesus himself, in the book of Luke, declares his ministry by quoting from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

For me, however, there is no more magnificent story than that of Isaiah’s calling. It’s one of those moments when I feel like I can step into the story and experience the feeling of presence that Isaiah felt and the realization of the calling that he experienced. I can see the winged creatures flying around the throne of God calling out to one another as they fly back and forth across the scene. I can feel the trembling of the room and the walls as the echo of their voices rattles the very fabric of reality.

I can also imagine the overwhelming sense of dread and awe, string at this magnificent scene. The temple of God filled with the presence of God. The throne of God occupied by the only one worthy to reside upon it. The room filled with the smoke and heat from the fire upon the altar. The heaviness of his heart and the overwhelming weight of being from Being itself.[1] Bowed before the throne, on his face, Isaiah laments the distance between his soul and that of the Almighty, the separation of who he is from who he was created to be. Beyond that, Isaiah knows that God told Moses,

“you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live.” The Lord said, “Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by.  Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible.”[2]

Isaiah is terrified that by merely gazing upon the person of the Almighty, he will undoubtedly die. And so, the future prophet lies on the quaking floor, overcome with emotion and cries out,

“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!”[3]

In response to this anguished man’s plea, one of the winged creatures flies to the altar and takes one of the burning hot coals and touches it to the lips of Isaiah,

“See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”[4]

Now, as Isaiah recovers from the ordeal of being cleansed before God, a great voice thunders from the throne, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah, trembling in the face of this vision, finds his footing and his courage and replies, “I’m here; send me.”

This powerful scene has provided so much for readers, preachers, scholars, and anyone else who reads it, in that it speaks to so many things about the nature and person of God, the nature of presence, the nature of holiness. So much can be said about this passage and yet I have always connected to the story of calling a prophet. Perhaps it’s the fact that being a pastor in many ways is the call to prophetic office in that we are here to say, “Thus sayeth the Lord,” much as the prophets of old.

The idea of calling and living into our calling, is, I think, a call to being a listener. Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and scholar, wrote a book on calling based on an old Quaker saying, Let Your Life Speak. In it he writes,

“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”[5]

I want to reread that and make a slight substitution to Palmer’s writing that I think will be enlightening for us.

“Before you tell God what you intend to do with your life, listen for what God intends to do with you. Before you tell God what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let God tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

Notice what Isaiah spends most of his time doing in this scene: watching and listening. How else could he have offered such a powerful vision of what it is like to be in the presence of God? Isaiah lies there on the ground experiencing this incredible moment, taking in the brilliance, the majesty, of God and does so not by having something to say, but by patiently listening to God.

I think there is a great lesson to be learned here in that most of our communication with God could not be labeled as listening. I think most of the time, most of us, end up offering up to God a list things that are going wrong in our lives or the lives of those around us and spiritually dropping it off as though it were a holy to do list. Is there a place for prayers that are essentially requests for God’s help? Absolutely. But when it comes to discerning the daily call we live into and the greater call that we offer with our life, I believe we should spend more time listening to and waiting for the leading of God than simply making a request and going back to our lives.

Listening for the call

Several times in the gospels, Jesus says, “Let the person who has ears, hear.” In other words, let the person who is truly trying to listen, truly trying to understand, let them understand what has been said. That comes with taking the time to listen and make listening a practice of life that pervades our being, so that we are seeking to hear rather than seeking to speak.

I believe we have two callings in this life. The first the call that Jesus offers to all disciples when he says, “Come, follow me.” Everyone is extended this invitation to take on the character and being of Jesus and everyone who becomes a believer is essentially saying, “I wish to be as Jesus was, is, and will be.”

The second calling is more specific and requires us to spend more time listening in prayer rather than speaking to God in prayer. It requires that we become introspective and consider what we are at heart, in the innermost part of our being. It is the calling that comes out of the part of us that defines the fabric of our being. I think knowing ourselves at this level means that we must listen to God and allow God to speak to the part of who we are that he created for a special purpose. It is looking at what we are naturally gifted to do, the things that bring us joy in their practice. In knowing these things, we know who God created us to be and we can live into that being.

When I realized my calling, it wasn’t like a lightning bolt flying across the sky and hitting me in the head. It wasn’t a moment where the ground shook, the skies opened, and God dropped a scroll at my feet. It was when I could finally be still enough in my soul, quiet enough in my spirit, to listen and hear the voice of God.

I invite you to begin a journey this morning. It is a journey that will take you nowhere and everywhere. It is a journey that bring great difficulty and great joy. It is the journey of listening. It is the day to day, moment to moment, waiting before God that the Almighty of Isaiah’s grand scene may speak to us as to Isaiah. It is the practice of offering God praise for what the Lord has done, to bear requests and troubles before the throne of grace, and then simply sitting there and listening; listening for an answer, waiting for the presence of God, being patient before God.

Our calling as a disciple will be made known in the calm stillness of his presence. Our calling in ministry will be made known in the calm stillness of God’s presence. Our souls will be revigorated to follow as disciples in the calm stillness of God’s presence. Our understanding will deepen as we live in the calm stillness of God’s presence.

Wait. Listen. Hear. Then live. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


 

[1] ““I Am Who I Am… ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” – Exodus 3:14, “I am” as an ultimate expression of being.

[2] Exodus 33:20-23

[3] Isaiah 6:5

[4] Isaiah 6:7

[5] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. © 2000 John Wiley and Sons. San Francisco, CA. p.3

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