In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 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. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
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.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a man who went to church to confess his sins. He stepped into the confessional and said, “Bless me, father, for I have sinned. I stole some wood from the local lumber yard.” The priest responded, “Well, son, how much did you steal? It may not be so bad.” “Well, father, with the wood I was able to build a house for my new dog in the backyard.” “My son, this is not so bad. 10 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers and you should be cleansed.” The man interrupted, “Um, father, there was some wood left over, so I used it to build a fence around my yard.” The priest was surprised. “My child, that’s a bit worse. You’ll have to do 2 full rosaries.” The man spoke up again. “Father, you see there was still some wood left and I used it to build an extension on my house.” The priest sighed with discomfort. “Oh dear, my child. You’ll need to do some real penance for that. Our church courtyard could use an update. Do you know how to build a gazebo?” The man replied, “No, father, but if you have the plans, I have the wood.”
Those poor Catholic priests, always the butt of the joke! As if only Catholic priests would be sneaky enough to take advantage of another person’s sinful behavior. Many people besides priests take advantage of the sinfulness of others. We live in a truly broken world that allows for people to take advantage of the sinfulness of others. It’s one thing to have to deal with the separation from God that our sin creates. It’s a whole nother thing to have to deal with the people benefiting from our sin. We create quite a challenge for ourselves when we sin, to have to rebuild broken relationships with God AND get rid of the scavengers in our lives. It’s best not to give into sin unless you’re up for the challenge.
But easier said than done, eh? The temptation to sin is a hard thing to resist. Even knowing that sin separates us from God and draws scavengers to us isn’t enough to keep us from giving in to that temptation. We are weak and fragile creatures and sometimes we need help. Lucky for us, we have a gracious and merciful God. Our God recognizes the power of sin and gives us the strength to resist it through Christ. We are no longer slaves to sin because we have Christ in our lives. He gives us an alternative way to live. He teaches us how we are to love our sinful neighbor instead of taking advantage of their sinfulness. He teaches us how we are to help our neighbor choose to resist the temptation to sin. We may live in a broken world but that doesn’t mean we have to live broken lives, lives without integrity and patience and generosity and forgiveness. We can live whole lives in this broken world.
That’s all that the prophet Isaiah wanted as we heard in reading for today. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Much like the man who visited the priest, Isaiah was fully aware of his sin and the sin of those around him. And God showed compassion to him. The angel took a burning coal to Isaiah’s lips and cleansed him of his sin. “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” And for what purpose did God do this to Isaiah? To be able to use him as a messenger to his beloved people. God cleansed Isaiah so that his words would accurately convey the love of God. His life became whole and he set about serving the so-called people of unclean lips: “Here am I; send me!”
Not only a merciful act of God but also a powerful call to service. Friends, we are all called to love and serve each other. Just because we are sinful beings doesn’t mean we are to take advantage of each other’s sinfulness. We are to encourage each other to live good, God-pleasing lives. We are to strengthen each other to resist the temptation to sin. And what better way to encourage and strengthen each other is there than to share the wisdom of scripture? We hear Paul in his letter to Galatians, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (5:13-14) Isaiah was set free…we have been set free…only to be enslaved to the well-being of each other, the so-called “freedom of a Christian” as Luther expressed it. We are to serve each other, look out for each other, rather than ourselves. Why? Because that’s how Christ lives among us. Jesus himself said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) If we are to call ourselves Christians, then we must live as Christ lives, always in service to others.
Incidentally, I don’t believe the priest in that opening joke is reflective of all priests. Most priests help others rise above their sinful natures rather than take advantage of their sins. As I pray all of us would do for each other. We need each other and can help each other. The book of Hebrews advises, “do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (13:16) And isn’t that what we are all called to do, please God? I pity the fool who thinks otherwise! Let us give thanks for the merciful calling of God. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.