Uncertainty can bring out our true selves. We in the Abrahamic traditions hold a contradictory worldview: we believe that the sovereignty of God exists amidst human free will. Our sacred collection, from the Tanakh to the Christian canon to the Quran, contains tales of God active in a world shaped by human free will; we set forth ideas of divine omnipotence, yet God can be talked out of things. See Abraham and Sodom. We proclaim divine omnipresence, yet God loses track of Abel. We monotheists have uncertainty built into our biblical faith. And it is not just seeming contradictions in our theology. We have countless examples of God’s power being revealed in tales that are too fantastical to tell. Or perhaps, too disturbing. The story of the binding of Isaac would look very different from Isaac’s perspective than it does from Abraham’s, don’t you think? Or from Sarah’s? Why, the Bible reveals that where there is a call for trust, there often is unacknowledged uncertainty.
In our Hebrew Bible text for today, we learn that King Uzziah has died. This line does not mean much to we moderns, but to those who know Jewish history it is telling. It is a line that we might hear as “Tuesday’s election.” You see, King Uzziah had reigned for five decades, with a storied history, including being stricken with leprosy for trying to usurp priestly duties. His full story is found in 2 Chronicles 26, but our point is outside his biography. The death of King Uzziah comes at a time in which the Assyrian giant is eying Jerusalem. The northern kingdom has already fallen, and the uncertainty of the earthly throne, the writers of Isaiah contend, is answered by the eternal kingship of God. Isaiah encountering God on a throne is a powerful image. There is uncertainty below, but above there is no disruption. God is in charge, the text from Isaiah assures us.
Or, to use words I have heard lately, There’s no need to panic; everything is going to work out.
This is the point at which many of my agnostic and atheist friends begin to roll their eyes, and I get it. It is easy to say that amidst chaos there is order, and all we have to do is convince ourselves that everything happens for a reason. God has a plan.
God on the throne seems pretty distance too, pretty odd and esoteric. Not many people are going to respond to a story of winged seraphim flying over to some random dude and putting coal on his lips. It doesn’t seem too relevant now, does it? Coal on the lips might be the ancient world equivalent of collagen but it seems uncertain what it has to do with us.
Isaiah is as much a product of his own times as are we. Isaiah finds himself in the presence of God during an uncertain period. There is chaos on the earthy throne; the north has already fallen; there is fear and uncertainty and people are wondering where God is and Isaiah has God in his sights and yet he cannot approach.
Think about that. Isaiah cannot approach. Why? Is it because God is too powerful? God is too remote? God is too…
For Isaiah, God is too holy. Too much the other. Isaiah feels unworthy to approach God. He doesn’t know how to situate himself in order to receive the blessings and gifts of God. So God provides Isaiah what he needs: in this case, that is represented by winged creatures that kinda look like us that provide him a cleansing. A tabula rosa. Permission to approach the bench. An elevator to the top floor. Call it what you want, but Isaiah is moving on up to the east side.
Before we can get a piece of that pie, though, there’s a question from God. One all of us must answer. Whom shall we send? God asks.
Here am I, Isaiah answers. Send me.
I speak often about not searching for fact when God is in the business of truth. The fact is, I don’t know if this happened exactly the way that it is reported; the truth is, I believe the story. Because I know that I have been afraid to approach God this week. I’ve been looking away because I have been uncertain. Uncertain about the future. The messages and personal stories keep piling up one after another; each day seems to provide another spark in our big gunpowder room. I wrote in a previous entry about the shaky first steps after the election, and I seem to vacillate between feeling reasonably certain that things are not going to explode all around us to wondering if there’s anyone in the congregation who has a fallout shelter with enough food for my family of four they’d be willing to let me purchase with witty essays I will pen while we wait for armageddon.
I’ve been turning away from God because I am scared. I know what is required of me. Jesus is very clear, and he showed it by living like he meant everything he said. Even when it cost him his life. That is not a euphemism, but it is isn’t not a euphemism. Gandhi said that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind; Pastor Aaron says a bunch of dead Christians doesn’t do much to bring about the kin-dom of God. We are not all called to the same things. I’ve been afraid because I know that what I am called to do may cause me to be arrested in the future, primarily because I have a big mouth that I won’t shut and I really, really believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am privileged. I am relatively young and in relatively good condition. Yet, I have a mental illness. So that means there are some things I just can’t do; there are things I must discern in order to keep myself healthy and well. I fail at this a lot, but the more I submit to God the better I get.This week, though, I have been wanting to just leave the whole enterprise. Believing in a God that expects things of you is hard.
In order for me to get to Isaiah’s place, I had to start with Peter. I had to throw myself down in front of Jesus. I had to submit myself and say that in the face of uncertainty, I use my free will to chose the will of God. And, wow. Yeah. That sounds crazy; maybe it is crazy. But it keeps me remembering that so many people in the world are not lucky enough to have the choices I have; I can cautiously approach dangerous situations that many people have thrust upon them early and often. I don’t worry about being raped or extorted, kidnapped or tortured because of my faith. My education. It’d be so easy to just shut my eyes and ignore it all.
My faith constantly opens those eyes and screams about what is happening and how I am complicit.
I think we all must face God’s question now. Whom shall we send? Our calls are different. The reasons that we avoid our own versions of the coal on lips are different, but I imagine many of you know that you have them. You have reasons why you might be shying away from what you feel God is revealing. You shy away because it is hard. It is frightening. That’s okay. We need to know that sometimes fear is all we’ve got. We’re not ready to move into action. We’re not ready to seek reconciliation. We”re not ready to hear someone else’s perspective. We see Jesus, but we’re not ready to go foot diving. We are not from a town called hope.
Today, maybe we just acknowledge the uncertainty. Perhaps we give it a nod, let it know we see it in the room. That might be enough, this making introductions.
If what I described does not sound anything like you, I want you to know that it sounds like a lot of people who are not in the pews on Sunday. Fear and uncertainty and confusion is gripping the hearts of people around us; I believe that God is calling us to them. To go to them. To pay attention to the ways in which what we hold in our hearts may be of use to them. Not so that we can grow our membership rolls or increase our tithing, but so that we may live the Gospel. Uncertainty has a way of revealing the character of a person. What’s being uncovered in you?