It all started the year that King Uzziah died, around what is now called 740 BCE. King Uzziah’s son Jotham ruled for a bit, and then we got his son, Ahaz. We were on the brink of the Syro-Ephraimite war. You know, you live in Judah long enough, someone is going to invade, right? We’ve got Egypt pushing up from below, Syria pushing down from above. We happened to plant our flag right in the middle. Location, location, location, as they say. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when other people roll through the landscape now and then. What can you do?
I was a priest in the Temple, which meant that once in a while I got to go into the inner sanctum. The sacrifice is burning on the altar, smoke fills the room. I loved being in this space. It just felt … holy.
How often do you get to practice awe? Looking at a full moon? Seeing a baby being born and taking its first breath. Or at the other end of this cycle of life, sitting at the bedside of someone on their way out. First moments, last moments, moments of great beauty and wonder all through our lives. When do you practice awe?
The thing about awe is you can’t always predict it. But you can cultivate it. You can pay attention, wonder about creation, stop to look deeply.
My moments of awe sometimes happened in the Temple. But this particular day was like nothing I had experienced before because … well, you may not believe it … I saw Yahweh, our God, and lived to tell the tale.
You heard the description a few minutes ago. Really there are no words. It’s just too beyond what I can describe. And all those seraphs, or as we used to call them, seraphim. Kind of reptile-like creatures, covering their heads so they don’t see God, covering their “feet,” meaning their more private parts, and flying all over the place. Talk about practicing awe: these seraphim were amazing. But Yahweh… too big for words, too unknowable, too mysterious, too awe-some.
Who am I to have an experience like this of the Holy One? I’m just little me, born of these parents at this time. Nothing special. And yet here’s Yahweh, appearing to me. What is up with that? Was there a shortage on capable, intelligent, can-do people? Does Yahweh not pay attention to the times when I say exactly the wrong thing, or forget someone’s birthday, or trip myself up on my own hubris? Does Yahweh remain ignorant of my awkward social skills, my tendency to blurt things out bluntly and hurt people’s feelings?
I felt stuck in my inadequacies. Have you ever felt that way? In choosing me, clearly Yahweh has made a mistake. (Oh! For shame! Did I really just say that?) But surely there are others with more social finesse, more smarts, more … anything. I’m so very human and flawed. How can Yahweh not see this? Why would Yahweh appear to bumbling little me?
I felt stuck and overwhelmed. Here’s Yahweh and the seraphim … and me. Me, awe-struck and paralyzed by feelings of fear and inadequacy. If some artist drew a picture of this scene, you’d have Yahweh and the seraphim, filling the Temple, smoke everywhere, and this one sad excuse for a human. One of these things is not like the others….
So I did kind of mention this discrepancy to the Holy One. I did dare to bring this up. “Ahem, could I just point out every time I have fallen short, every way in which I do not measure up?”
And let me just say at this juncture that when you tell the Divine that you have unclean lips, you might want to beware of seraphim bearing tongs of hot coals. The blisters were something fierce. My lips have never been the same.
Actually, my whole life has never been the same. Because in that moment, I understood something, and I’m going to try and put it into words, just in case you ever have your own encounter with the Divine and need a few tips.
What I understood was that of course Yahweh knows about all my shortcomings. Yahweh made me; I live in Yahweh and through and by Yahweh. There is nothing about me that Yahweh does not know.
And Yahweh doesn’t care about all my baggage. Let it go. Stop letting it have power over you, says Yahweh, because it’s holding you back. Whether it’s the time you slapped that person, or cheated on your finances, or an addiction—name what holds you back, ask forgiveness, and know that you are forgiven. Be open to the work and grace of healing. Because in fact the Holy One loves you too much to want you to stay stuck in those wounded places. The Holy One wants you to heal and move on … so that you are available to answer the call to go and do something big.
And you know what? When your lips are suddenly sizzling clean, you might just be so grateful to let go of all that baggage that, out of this sense of liberation and joy, you will say yes to God with a whole heart, and then actually go and do whatever it is that God calls you to do. And rejoice that God has called you to do it. It may not be easy, and it may not even succeed, but it will still be worth doing.
Say yes, and in an instant your life could change forever.
I’m not a change-in-an-instant kind of guy. I have to question, ponder, consider, weigh the pros and cons. This has generally worked well for me. I was blessed with an education at a time when many cannot read. Opportunities opened up for me, and I have made a good living, been given plenty of leadership roles as a Pharisee in the Jewish hierarchy.
Other Pharisees started talking about this Jesus fellow. A healer, said some. A preacher, said others. A fake, a sham, a liar, a false prophet, said others still. I was having trouble figuring out what was fake news and what was real. So I decided to find out for myself. I went to see Jesus one night when I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things he was reported to have said and done. I wasn’t ready to talk with him in public or in broad daylight. Too much at stake, and I wasn’t even sure what I was getting into. I’m not one to jump into the pool; I prefer to dip my toes first. But I do get in the water eventually.
That first conversation we had, Jesus talked about being born again, or born from above. I was completely confused, not understanding until much later that he almost always spoke in metaphorical language. I was taking his words literally, as if somehow one had to climb back into the womb. It was only later, after thinking and praying about his words, that they began to open up in meaning.
This fellow was no sham, no fool, no hypocrite. He was the real thing. I just wasn’t sure where I came in, how I was called to respond, what I was supposed to do.
Jesus told me that he came not just for the downtrodden, the outcast, the marginalized. He came for everyone. Even me, the well-educated, well-connected guy who is doing pretty well but who wrestles with questions about the Divine. I don’t worry about where my next meal is coming from. I do wonder whether I can be an upright, ethical individual in a system that is not always upright and ethical—a system that benefits me and disadvantages many. I wonder how to do the right thing when the risks and consequences can be so severe, especially in a repressive regime. I seek to speak out for what is just and true, but this can be difficult in these days.
I read in the scriptures about Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, and how it changed him instantly and forever. By the end of that one conversation, he said, “Here am I, send me!” He gave himself totally to God’s call. He was transformed all at once.
I am transformed as well by knowing Jesus. It wasn’t all at once. It was a gradual thing. Still, it was transformation. I am a different person than I once was because I met Jesus and wrestled in my soul with the concepts he put forth. I had to figure out how to bear witness to his truth in my own setting, among the upper level of Pharisees. These are dangerous times, where sticking your neck out could mean getting your head chopped off.
Still, there are truths worth standing up for. That’s what Jesus was about. Truth, justice, love, God. Well, we Pharisees are supposed to be about those things, too. We do try. We follow the Law of Torah. This gives our lives meaning. But then here comes Jesus who is like pure flame in his understanding of and connection with God. He just gets God on a whole different level. The others couldn’t see it. They kept trying to bait him, trick him, get him in trouble with the authorities. They felt threatened. I came to realize that my calling could be to help them see what he was really about.
I am not pure flame, like Jesus. But there is a flame in me. I can feel it, and I nurture it. I pay attention. Every day I wrestle with how to be a person who loves God and lives in this troubled world. Every day there are opportunities, invitations to bear witness to the pure flame I find in Jesus. Once, people were accusing him of being a fake. They said there was no prophecy about the Messiah coming from Galilee; therefore he could not be the Messiah. They got blinded by their own interpretations of scriptures and couldn’t see any other possibilities. But I could. So I finally took a deep breath and said something: “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” We do have a system of law and order here, people.
They turned on me, accusing me of being one of the Galileans, of not having read my scriptures. And by this time I didn’t care as much as I once might have. Oh, I have read my scriptures. And I see a God who is still speaking, often in ways that are not foretold in our texts. Day by day, I try to follow this still-speaking God, try to do my bit right where I am. I’m not mighty, I’m not fearless—but there is still plenty I can do. And as scary and dangerous as it was to speak out, it also felt good and right. There is plenty I can do to serve God.
In the end, those who live in fear had their way and crucified him. I was disgusted. My heart broke and I no longer cared what people knew or thought about me. So when Joseph of Arimathea requested Jesus’ body, I rounded up all the burial spices I could find, which was 100 pounds. And in broad daylight, Joseph and I tended to the body of this honest, loving, God-sent, yes I’ll say it—Messiah.
Some people, like Isaiah, experience God as a bolt of lightning that transforms them immediately. They are fearless and bold in their service to God. Some people, like me, experience God’s call as a gradual transformation. I have learned that I can stand up for what I believe in, that I can take on people who disagree with me, that I can just show up when it matters, that I can use my privileged position to say something honest, to speak out for justice, to use my voice of authority for good, and to protect a man from gossip and innuendo and trumped-up charges. Well, that once, anyway.
Maybe you’re like Isaiah, with a clear calling and a fearless “yes.” Or maybe you’re more like me, questioning, taking tentative steps. Both Isaiah and I were open to transformation—it just took different forms. One was made suddenly clean and saw in an instant what to do with the rest of his life. The other became slowly awake, step by step, over time. Hardly noticeable at first, but eventually leading to complete transformation.
We’re all different and respond to God’s call in our own ways. May we not be stopped by our own fears, by the baggage we carry around from past mistakes. Just show up, keep trying. You take one step, then another and another, and pretty soon you have made a whole journey. God meets us at every step, loves us into healing, invites us to transformation. May we learn how to say yes with gratitude, openness to liberation from our fears, joy at the invitation.
Whoever we are, that still-speaking God sees us, foibles and all, loves us, calls to us, invites us to transformation and service. Be transformed. The world will be the better for it. Amen.