Who Will Go?
I was reading Paul's letter to the Ephesians recently. And I came to a part that I've known pretty well: Paul's prayer for the church in chapter 3 (14-21). I took a course on prayer, at a convent, during seminary, and the nun who was teaching the course had us memorize and meditate on this passage, so it's been familiar for some time by now. It's a beautiful prayer--Paul prays that we would be rooted and grounded in love; that we would come to know all the height, depth, length, and width of God for us in Christ Jesus. It ends with the wonderful reminder that we've been called into relationship with the God who is able to do abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
And those are the things I often jump to, when I read through that prayer: God's extravagant love; God's surpassing nature. But this time, a verse I hadn't paid nearly as much attention to sort of lit up, as sometimes happens when we spend time in Scripture. Ephesians 3:16 says I pray that according to the riches of [God's] glory, he may grant you that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit. The thing that grabbed my imagination and that I've been thinking about since is the combination of according to the riches of God's glory, and power through his Spirit: God's glory and God's power are what are at work in us and in this world. It's an amazing thing to think about. Paul has this relentless sense that who we are and what we're called to do, as individuals and as the church, is not in proportion to our best will and effort, our great skills and commitment, but in proportion to the riches of God's glory and the astonishingly intimate presence of God's power. That's quite a thing to say about God, and about us.
It could be that I'm a bit slow. But do you know when you notice something in a new way, or even really for the first time, and suddenly you see that thing, or hints of it everywhere? This combination and the call to live in it, to live according to the riches of God's glory, and in the strength of God's power, is everywhere in the writings of the early church. This is how they understood what they were about. Philippians 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, 2 Peter 1:3, all over Revelation. For his part, Peter says: God's divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they were clothed with power from on high, covered in God's power and glory. That's the promise. And when that happened, the doors were blown off. The Church came to life, and a most unlikely gathering of nobodies changed the world!
Let's pray: Holy, holy, holy Lord, ready us this morning to see you, to hear you, to know you more and more, so that we might live to make you known. Come in the power of your Spirit to reconcile and make new. We pray in the powerful name of Jesus. Amen!
I want to think today a bit about what it means to let Paul's prayer come over us. What might it mean to be strengthened, empowered according to--in proportion to--the riches of God's glory, at work in us? What is this condition he's prayed over us? What does Peter mean when he assures us that because of God's divine generosity we've got everything we need to do what God is calling us into? What does it mean to trust that? I want to think about this by sitting at the feet of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah tells us of this vision that he's had. It's not his first vision: he's been at this a while, but it seems to be a pretty transformative moment in his life and ministry. This seems to be when Isaiah really becomes Isaiah. He's already a prophet, he's already doing God's work, bringing God's word to life in the midst of God's people, but it's not until chapter six that we get this commissioning moment. I could be reading too much into this, but I like the idea that even Isaiah (Jesus' favorite prophet!) doesn't step into his faithful vocation fully formed. I feel like that's good news. Wherever we are with God, God's not done with us. Even if we've been sitting in church or standing in the pulpit for some time, it's a perfectly biblical expectation that God is not finished with us. God's glory, God's power alive in us is not a short-term project--it's eternal life.
Another thing I think is important is that Isaiah is at prayer. There's no indication that it's an especially out of the ordinary prayer time. Isaiah simply shows up--that's largely what we're doing when we pray. He's in the temple and he's praying. He's doing what he's been taught to do, almost certainly what he's done since he was a child. What we're seeing is what St. James will tell us several hundred years down the road, and which is the experience of Israel and the Church in every generation: Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you. God is self-giving, not stingy; God is personal and intimate with us, not distant and vague; God's desire is to give us what we need, to be who we're made to be. Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.
Of course, that's not always a perfectly straightforward promise. It's a beautiful promise, but it's entirely possible that we'll get wondrously more than we bargained for. Isaiah at prayer is suddenly overwhelmed by the magnitude of his situation. Sometimes, when we pray, we can forget what's going on, whom we're dealing with. But Isaiah is reminded in a big way that he is in the presence of the Living God:
I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. That image doesn't get better by explanation--only by mediation and prayer. Let that image sink in. The hem of God's robe filled the place. It's as if that's enough. All we need is the hem. If I could just touch the hem of his robe, is the hopeless woman's prayer in Matthew's gospel (Matthew 9:21). We get a glimpse of God's grandeur and it's marvellous, enthralling.
So often we reduce God to kind of manageable bites. We treat God as an accessory to our generally well-functioning lives. When things go sideways we sometimes want God to act according to the riches of his glory, but often we look for God in small doses to add a touch of spiritual flare to things, and then carry on in whatever way we happen to imagine is best. I think we all have this tendency. I trust it's not just me. We humans have an uncanny capacity to get God down to our size, to imagine God in proportion to our thoughts and feelings, our wants and leanings. We might find our own special way to do that, but the Scriptures witness to the truth that more or less all of the saints, from beginning to end, are guilty of it at some point.
At the end of the day, we tend to have a pretty small imagination for the way the world is, and we'd like God to fit nicely into that. Only God, mercifully, doesn't. In sharing his experience that day in the temple, Isaiah invites us to experience for ourselves, to see for ourselves the glory and power of God; Isaiah calls us to draw near to the One whose ways and thoughts aren't our ways and thoughts, the One who made and sustains and redeems all things. We're called to hear for ourselves the echoing holy-holy-holies of the angels, to see for ourselves that the whole earth is full of God's glory--God's life and power, God's joy and love. The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, sings the psalmist (24), and in Isaiah's company we might see that again for the first time. I saw the Lord, sitting on a throne high and lofty, and the hem of his robe filled the temple.
At the heart of the gospel is this truth that we have been called into a holy conspiracy with the God who made heaven and earth, the God able and willing to do more in us than we can ask or imagine. We heard Jesus tell Nicodemus that to get in on what he's doing, on this world-redeeming conspiracy, we need to be born of the Spirit, clothed in power from on high as he promised the Church would be (and that that's an earthly reality, not for some other time and place). There is no way to live fully in the way we've been made to live, except in the presence and power of the One who made us and whose very breath, whose Spirit sustains us.
And I'm grateful for Isaiah's honesty about this experience, of being in the presence of God. I'm grateful that his response isn't a sort of vague spiritual contentment, or a sense of personal fulfillment but his sudden awareness that he is lost. He's a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips. (And you get the sense that folks' lips aren't the only problem.) When we find ourselves in the presence of the Living God, we are faced with the reality of our humanness; we can't avoid it. There's a reason we start our services with a Prayer of Approach, where we draw near to God, and then dive right into a Prayer of Confession. When we're confronted by God's holiness, we know our own brokenness; when we see God's passionate love, we know our own fickleness with our neighbors; when we experience God's lavish generosity, the pure grace of all we are and have, given everything for life that is truly life, then we know our own stinginess; when we are reminded of God's glory, then we know our own dullness; when we're caught up in God's grace, we know our own hardheartedness. In the presence of the Lord of Hosts, we know St. Paul wasn't overstating things when he said that we all sin and fall short of God's glory (Romans 3:23).
Isaiah's response is a hard, but gracious one. It's hard because if we're really paying attention we can't help but understand what he's on about. We know our brokenness. We know about the brokenness of the world--I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. But here's the thing, the remarkable and beautiful and gracious thing: as soon as the words are out of his mouth, something's done about it. His confession isn't, after all, self-incrimination in the face of an angry judge; it's an admission of need, and opening for grace. As soon as he cries out, the seraph is there, coal in tongs: your guilt has departed, your sin is blotted out.
I don't think that's at all what Isaiah expected. But it's what he got. And it's pure grace. When we're confronted with the glory of God, with the riches of God's glory and the strength of God's power, we are also made wondrously aware of the paltriness of sin's power, of the limitedness of our brokenness. God is bigger than our brokenness.
In Isaiah's company, we're made aware, in a way that we couldn't have hoped on our own, that the sin that binds us, the things that weigh us down--the hurt that we think we'll never get rid of, the guilt that haunts us, the shame that ties us in knots, the junk that we've been lugging around--none of it is comparable to the glory of the God who made us and knows us and loves us, the God who chose us when we couldn't or wouldn't chose him; the Father who runs at us while we are still a long way off; the Mother who gathers us in protective arms as a hen gathers her chicks; the Brother who prays "forgive them, they don't know what they're doing"; the God whose pleasure is our reconciliation, the newness of all things. I don't think that's what Isaiah expected when the hem of heaven's King filled the temple, but it's what he got. To know the heights of God's glory is to know the depths of God's grace. The love of God comes not to condemn the world, but to save it. Your guilt is departed; your sin blotted out.
And then we see why Jesus says we've got to be born from above, clothed with power from on high; why Paul prays the riches of God's glory, the strength of God's power over us; why Peter's convinced that if we'll do what we're called to do, we need God's provision and presence. The freedom, the newness, the forgiveness is accompanied by a call: a call to go into the world, to become what we have received, to bear witness to God's glory, to be evidence of the power of God to break bonds and tear down walls, blow off doors and part waters--the pleasure of God to make all things new. Isaiah's guilt isn't taken, his sin blotted out, so he could carry on merrily as he was. We are not called, forgiven, and freed just for our own good, but because God has this relentless inclination to get mixed up with us, this holy notion that we can be--here and now, in these bodies, in this life--a foretaste of God's dream for all things; a living witness in all we do, to God's love that saves the world.
It's worth acknowledging that Isaiah doesn't get sent out with an easy message for his time and place. But then, neither do we. The work we're called to is not always straightforward or easy. Repentance and forgiveness aren't easy. It's easier to ignore our neighbors than to love them. It's easier to tend to our own than to bear witness to God's relentless self-giving. It's easier to judge those we disagree with than care for them. It's easier to rage against our enemies and our persecutors, than to love and pray for them. It's easier to lash out than draw in. It's easier to shrug our shoulders in despair or indifference, than to move into the world with hope and peace on our lips and in our hands. More or less anything that Jesus calls us to do as we follow him, it's easier not to do. Indeed, what's fairly clear is that if we're following Jesus--the startling image of God's glory in the world--that could well cost us everything.
Except that it never costs us everything. It can't. Because we're not sent out with only what we've got; we're sent out with the unending riches of God's glory. We're not called to live by our own resources, but in the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit. We're not commissioned to muddle along in futility and make the most of a doomed situation: we're made to live and move and have our being in the will and way of the One who made heaven and earth, the One seated on heaven's throne, the One whose fierce love is infinitely greater than our sin, and whose life consumes the power of death, whose pleasure is to make all things new. Isaiah calls us to join him in prayer and witness, to see and to know the surpassing glory, the wild power of God because these are the conditions we live is. This--the riches of God's glory, the power of God's Spirit--is the reality that echoes with the question: who will go? Whom shall I send?