Sunday, June 07, 2009

Celebrating the Glory of God

Isaiah 6:1-8

We love celebrities. We enjoy reading about them and watching the news reports. Oh, I know, you may not want to admit it, but we’re all at least a little bit interested in the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” In fact, most of us secretly hope that someday we’ll run into a celebrity. Of course, if we do have such an encounter, it’s possible that we’d become a bit tongue tied or say or do the wrong thing. Now, I’ve had a couple of celebrity sightings and encounters in my life, but for the most part I’ve kept quiet – so as not to say the wrong thing.

On one occasion I was sitting in the surgery waiting room at a Santa Barbara hospital with a family from the church. Looking out the window of the room I noticed John Cleese pacing the hall outside. If you don’t know who John Cleese is, he’s a British actor and comedian who has appeared in Monty Python movies and more recently as Q in some of the James Bond movies. We would soon learn that the reason he was there was that his wife was in surgery. So, here he was a celebrity, but he was also a human being worried about his wife. What should we do?

I’d like to proudly report that our little group behaved appropriately. We said nothing, except to acknowledge his presence and concern for his wife. He was, after all, in the same situation we were in. Now, when he came in to get word about his wife, the volunteer at the desk said, “I’ll try to pretend I don’t who you are,” which meant – I’m going to treat you like I’d treat any family member – even if you are famous. But of course one person did let celebrity overwhelm her. Yes, she confronted him in the hall and asked for his autograph – which he refused. Now, we all said to ourselves, “that was inappropriate,” but secretly, we would have loved to have gotten an autograph ourselves. Indeed, our good behavior was probably due more to self-consciousness than it was to compassion.

I. Approaching the Living God

If we get tongue-tied and a bit overwhelmed in the presence of celebrities, then what happens when we approach God? After all, God is the Creator of the universe, or as Isaiah puts it, The Lord is sitting on the throne of heaven, high and lifted up, with his train filling the temple.

Although Isaiah’s vision is put in very anthropomorphic terms, he has something important to say to us about God, worship, and prayer. While this isn’t the only image of God to be found in scripture, it’s an important one because it emphasizes God’s glory and power. It reminds us that when we come before God, we’re stepping on holy ground, and that ultimately we’re not worthy of being in this place before God. But, not only does this vision speak of God’s nature, it also speaks to how we approach God in prayer and worship.

When we met in February, we discerned that God is calling us to be a worshiping community of faith. Whatever we do as church is rooted in and defined by our worship of God. The question that we must continually wrestle with concerns the way in which we live out this core value. And part of that question has to do with what is appropriate when we worship.

As we listen to Isaiah, it should become clear that we’re not the primary audience of worship, God is the audience. Therefore, when we ask the question of what is appropriate, we need to keep that primary audience in mind. I’m sure that the question of style will come up in any discussion of worship. Then there’s the question of language and vocabulary. Should we use Latin or maybe Hebrew? Should we, when praying, address God with Thees and Thous, just like they did in the days of King James? We might also ask about the dress code? Not so long ago, women wore hats and gloves and men always wore a suit and tie.

I expect that there are as many answers to these questions as there are religious communities. Some communities are very formal and others are quite simple and informal. They range from the quietness of a Quaker meeting to the ornate complexity of a Greek Orthodox service. Some focus on preaching and others on the liturgy, especially the Eucharist. As for us, we fall somewhere in between. One fact that can’t be denied when we have this conversation is that over the past quarter century, not only have musical tastes changed, but the style, language, and attire of our worship services have gotten a lot more informal. Some celebrate this relaxing of the rules, but not everyone is pleased. That debate, however, isn’t my focus this morning!

The word that I believe Isaiah wants to speak to us this morning has to do more with our hearts than either our words or our attire. I do believe Isaiah wants us to remember that when we enter the presence of God, we should be self-conscious about our own inadequacy and sinfulness. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but instead that when we come before God we should do so with humility. Another way to put this is that we are finite beings, while God is by nature infinite in wisdom and in presence. The text, however, doesn’t end there. Having confessed his unworthiness to come before God, Isaiah watches as God dispatches an angel to take a living coal from the heavenly altar and touch his mouth, cleansing him so that he might bear witness to God’s glory.

II. Worshiping the God of the Storm

Keeping with the image of God that is present in this vision, I’m reminded of the thunderstorms that hit Kansas in the early summer months. Having lived all my life on the west coast I’d never experienced anything like a Kansas thunderstorm, but I quickly learned that they could be powerful and awe-inspiring. Back then it seemed like every evening the clouds would begin to build up, coming in from the southwest. At first the clouds were scattered, puffy and white, but before long they gave way to ones that were thick, dark, and foreboding. And then the wind would pick up, whipping tree branches with powerful gusts. Then off in the distance you’d see flashes of light, and hear the rumbling of the thunder. You could sense the power, but the storm was still far in the distance. As the storm moved closer, the flashes of light became lightning bolts, after which we experienced powerful peals of thunder that would shake the house. Finally, the rain would begin to fall – often in powerful torrents.

Something similar happens in the autumn in Palestine. As the long, hot, dry summer gives way to Fall, small, puffy clouds appear off the Mediterranean, which give way to darker, more foreboding ones. Thunder and lightening, and rain all follow. This annual event serves as a backdrop to the 29th Psalm, which vividly describes God's voice in terms of a storm that’s so powerful that it can shatter the great cedars of Lebanon. Now these are no ordinary trees; they symbolized for ancient Israel strength and stability, much as the Sequoias do for us. And this is the God who appears in Isaiah’s vision, inviting us to consider not only how we should worship, but also how we should envision God’s presence, because how we answer the question of God’s presence will influence the way we worship.

III. A Voice of Power and Majesty

Today is what the broader church calls Trinity Sunday. It is a day for us to bear witness to the fulness of God’s presence in our midst as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Isaiah’s vision the focus is on God’s sovereignty, power, and majesty. It’s an invitation to come and worship God, and in his day the proper way to approach God would be to lie prostrate before the altar of God. Indeed, not even kneeling was sufficient when coming into the presence of the God revealed in the Storm. This is a God who requires of us a sense of awe and recognition that we are inadequate to stand before God. Listen to Isaiah as he says “woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips.”

As we take in this image, it becomes clear that it’s inappropriate to think of worship as entertainment. That doesn’t mean that worship shouldn’t be joyous or that we shouldn’t enjoy worship. But, ultimately the source of our joy should be God’s presence, not the accouterments of worship. Now, that doesn’t mean that organs and pianos, tables and pulpits, choirs and preachers don’t have their place, because they do – but these are the means to an end, and not the end itself. The point of worship is to be drawn into the presence of God so that God might be glorified and so that we might be transformed by that encounter. Therefore, even as Isaiah confesses: "Woe is Me! I am Lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” we also hear him say: “ yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!" This morning we come before God ready to sing with loud but chastened voices: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, and the Earth is full of his glory." And having shared in this divine worship in the presence of God, we hear a call to action. Even as spiritually joyful worship is a core value of this congregation, another core value issues from the other two, that of witness. Listen as God calls out to us: “Who will go for me?” As we hear this call that issues out of worship, with Isaiah may we respond by saying: “Here am I send me.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
June 7, 2009

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