A couple weeks ago I “told” Isaiah 6:2-8 for the ordination service of a young pastor.
It’s a dramatic passage.
Isaiah tells the story in first person. “I saw the Lord!” he writes, and if he were writing today he might have used several exclamation points and a couple of emoji’s. Even without them, his excitement is clear. He sees the Lord sitting on a throne above the temple. The long train of his robe fills the temple, and six-winged seraphs fly above him, crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!”
At the sound of their voices, the temple shakes and fills with smoke, and suddenly Isaiah is overcome! “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips—and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Ah! One glimpse of the Lord and he is undone.
I understand this. It makes perfect sense to me. I imagine that if I got a single clear sighting of the Lord in full power and beauty—thereby seing how very, very small and inglorious I am in comparison—I would be flattened to the floor. I, too, would cry out, “Woe is me!” (or the 21st century equivalent).
But what comes next amazes me—and I imagine it surprised Isaiah as well.
Immediately after his cry, one of the seraphs flies to him, bearing a burning coal the seraph plucked from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the live coal and tells him, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
Wait? What? Just like that? Without major groveling, without a lecture, without a big deal being made of it, Isaiah is simply declared clean and worthy to stand in the presence of God?!
It’s over-the-top goodness! It’s God being the restorative, loving God he is—without any fanfare or hype.
In previous readings of this passage this graciousness of God was what jumped out at me most; the speed at which he restored Isaiah and his deep sensitivity to Isaiah’s cry.
But there is more to this story. God doesn’t dwell on Isaiah’s restoration; He moves straight ahead to the business at hand. He has messages He wants spoken to the people of Israel, and so He asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”
And Isaiah, rather than feeling shy or rendered speechless by answering a question posed by God himself (both fairly “normal” reactions, in my mind), answers right away. “Here am I; send me!” He’s excited. He’s bold and passionate and ready to go.
As I prepared to “tell” this passage at the ordination, I was struck by Isaiah’s willingness for mission, and I examined what led to his willingness.
It was worship and the sheer graciousness of God that inspired Isaiah!
Isaiah saw the glory of God. He heard the seraphs proclaim the holiness and glory of the Lord. He worshiped the Lord, acknowledging him as King and himself as lowly and unclean before Him.
And this worship led him to mission.
Just yesterday I read an article titled “The New View of Heaven Is Too Small.” It’s written by J. Todd Billings, a professor at Western Theological Seminary (I just added his latest book, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope: Rediscovering the Gospel at the Lord’s Table, to “Jen’s wish list” on my husband’s Amazon page). In this article Billings pushes back a bit on the “kingdom work” focus of many theologians today. He’s not discounting or even de-emphasizing the “kingdom work” focus on the truth that “(r)edemption restores God’s good creation” or even that all Christians are called to embrace “kingdom work” in the here and now. But he is suggesting that in emphasizing the individual kingdom work(s) we are called to in the here and now, we are in danger of losing “a cosmic view of God’s work in restoring the whole creation.” In other words, a “kingdom work” focus, too, can be twisted into individualism, into a focus on what we are doing rather than on God’s great work for us. “The central question,” writes Billings, “is … what drama will we be incorporated into? If this is our question, we find our acting instructions in receiving God’s Word in worship exalting Christ our Lord…”
I see this question at work in Isaiah’s encounter with God. He sees God, high and holy. He sees and hears the seraphs worshiping God, and he gains a clear view of himself and his unworthiness. As soon as he is restored, this grace, coupled with the grandeur of God, propels him into God’s work! He doesn’t even know exactly what he is being sent out to do, he just says, “Here I am! Send me!”
Worship comes first.
It makes me think, then, that the two MUST go together. Mission that has any other starting point than worship could very well unravel into nothing more than personal activism. Equally troubling is worship that never leads to mission, that never leads to a willingness to say, no matter what is asked, “Here I am! Send me!” If there is one without the other, then that one must be examined, for there is good reason to believe it is not true.
For true worship leads to true mission.
And we need both.