At its fount, missional theology flows from the conviction that the community of Christ is sent to join God in God’s mission of redemption and new creation. But there is a great difference between volunteering for a job and being sent on a mission. Isaiah 6:1-8 helps us see the difference, and shape our imagination for true sending.
The chapter begins by referencing “when:” “in the year King Uzziah died.” The reference to the timing of Isaiah’s vision gives us many clues to the historical and political context of Isaiah’s ministry, but it also anchors the vision in Isaiah’s experience as a human person. We mark life-changing spiritual events in relation to the times in which we live, and through this verse the preacher may engage some of the formative power of this text for a congregation. “In the year my first child was born…”; “In the year I got sober…”; “In the year I went with the mission team to Israel/Palestine…”; “in the year that violence erupted in our community.” The list goes on. Encounters with God are interwoven with the events in our lives. Part of becoming a“sent congregation” or a “sent person,” is learning to look and listen for God, especially at the turning points of life. On this Sunday after Pentecost, we might describe it as cultivating a life of communion with the Holy Spirit. As we pass through transitions, celebrations or crises, God may well meet us there with a new vision and fresh word.
In the year that Uzziah died, Isaiah saw a vision of God. “I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.” (vss. 1-4) This is a not simply a vision of God enthroned afar in heaven, but of God in the Holy of Holies. Isaiah’s vision is intimate and close, but also frightening and dangerous and disturbing. Likely, most of us have never had such a mystical vision and will never have, and as preachers it’s perhaps best to simply be honest about that. There is no need for a congregation or a preacher to feel anxious about why they have never experienced a vision of such biblical proportions. But, we can help congregations attend to their own experiences of awe in the presence of God. These experiences come in public worship, in private devotion, in mission service, in close relationship, in every day life. When you live in communion with the Spirit of God, the splendor and beauty of God breaks through — often in unexpected times and places — in ways that lead us to awe. In fact, new research in psychology indicates that more than any other emotion, awe leads us out of our narrow self-interest and to seek the well-being of the larger group.
Which is a psychological way of saying, awe leads to mission. But first… Isaiah’s experience of God’s presence, led him to a profound awareness of his own sin and the sin of his community. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Here, the lips are a symbol of motivations and actions, which is the stuff of a whole life. In the presence of the Lord of Hosts, Isaiah is touched with his own and his people’s brokenness and imperfection before God. But as soon as Isaiah has uttered the confession, one of the seraphs flies with a hot coal and touches Isaiah’s mouth. “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah is made whole, he is healed by an act of grace. Symbolically and dramatically, we are brought here to the heart of the gospel we preach, that in Christ God himself flies to a broken people and offers forgiveness and new life.
And this is the fountain of our sending. We are sent to join God in mission because we have encountered God, because we have been brought face to face with God’s holiness and our brokenness, and because we have been made whole by God’s grace. In response to this worshipful moment, we lay our lives before God and in God’s service. Isaiah hears the Lord say, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”, and the prophet responds “Here I am, send me!” At its root, Isaiah’s cry of “Here I am!” is a response to God’s presence and grace. Isaiah is not volunteering because he thinks he has skills God can use, or has time on his hands. Isaiah is laying his life before the God who encountered him and has made him whole.