This passage is filled with so many incredibly powerful and popular phrases:
“Holy, Holy, Holy!”
“I am a man of unclean lips!”
“Here I am, send me!”
But I want to focus this morning on two phrases that you probably didn’t even notice, because they are the key to the bigger story behind this passage. We began our worship service with the first words of the sixth chapter of Isaiah, and my guess is that most of you did not pay much attention: “In the year King Uzziah died….” I can’t blame you, the words of some king that most of us have never heard of is probably not that important. But while that means nothing to you and me, that means everything to Isaiah. While we are not sure exactly when the King Uzziah died, we do know that the end of his reign meant the end of relative security in the Southern Kingdom of Judah in which he reigned and Isaiah lived. On the fringes of his Kingdom lay the Empire of Assyria, an empire that was rapidly creeping over the borders and in the boundaries of surrounding kingdoms, including the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. To begin the passage with the words “in the year King Uzziah died…” is similar to saying “in the year that the good old days were over.” Gone were the days in which the culture protected and supported their faith. Before the era of empirical expansion was over, the northern kingdom would be overrun and destroyed by the Assyrians, Isaiah’s Southern kingdom of Judah would be overrun and exiled by their successors the Babylonians, and the people of God would be basically homeless.
So, Isaiah’s vision likely took place on the cusp of a new era for the people of God. As the world around him was changing, he received a vision for his calling for the days and years ahead. Isaiah’s vision is sometimes referred to as his calling, as in his initial word from the Lord for his vocation as prophet. But many scholars, though, refer to this as a vocation report, an update of the work that was already happening in his life. In the middle of a changing world, and an already thriving ministry, Isaiah received a word from the Lord for how his ministry was to continue. It was a mid-season report on how the work was going.
As the first, ominous words of the chapter imply, the report was not a rosy one. The good old days were over, and the people would respond with suspicion and angst, and God knew it. God tells Isaiah that they were not going to listen. They were not going to understand. They were not going to comprehend. For several verses, God’s call to Isaiah goes on in this negative and rather hopeless manner. Until. Until the last line of the last verse of the passage, which contains these words: “the holy seed is its stump.” Like the first words, this phrase is rather innocuous, and pretty easy to overlook, isn’t it? But these words are the sliver of hope that Isaiah holds onto. Using the metaphor of a burned out forest that is filled with dead and charred stumps, God’s call to Isaiah is to remember that there is yet a seed. There is yet new life that will once again sprout. There is hope in the midst of what often feels hopeless. Even though the people around you are changing, and will not hear you with open and receptive ears, there is hope. In short, it says that “even though things look dead and hopeless, and that there are potentially even worse days ahead, I will still be here.”
Sisters and brothers of First Baptist, God’s word to Isaiah is a helpful word for us, as well, is it not? The doomsayers and futurists all tell the same story: “The good old days are over. Our culture will not comprehend our faith in the way that they have in the past. The Church is not what it once was.”
Yet, like Isaiah, it is time for a vocation report. A mid-season update. A check-in. How are we doing? A mere 160 years into our calling as a people of God here on the banks of the Kaw, how are we looking?
And I believe that God’s word to us is the same as it was to Isaiah. There is a branch of hope. There is a vision of God’s promise and power. There is a voice claiming, “life will not be easy, but I will still be here.”
In our next 160 years, we will still be a people of welcome. We will finish our sanctuary in the next few weeks and have a new opportunity to use this space as a base camp for ministry into our community. The building will not invite people to hear the story – that’s our job. But it will help us make a difference in our neighborhood and around the world.
In our next 160 years, we will still be a people of worship. In a world that tires of institutionalized, slick, entertainment-worship, we will continue to offer worship that is genuine, honest, communal and participatory.
In our next 160 years, we will still be a people of work. As a generation looks to what we do more than what we say we believe, they will see that we are a congregation that does. And as we partner with Family Promise, Justice Matters, the ABCCR, and all of our partners in mission, they will see a church that looks to care for the “least of these” as a cornerstone of our identity.
And in our next 160 years, we will still be a people of wonder. As we engage with one another as the church of the Holy Sandpaper, refusing to run away from hard conversations and difficult discussions, we will get a second look from those who want faith to be about honesty and genuine relationships.
One hundred and sixty years ago, seven individuals – 7 people! – stood on the banks of the Kaw, cleared their throats, and proclaimed with steely-eyed determination, “Here I am, send me!” And God blessed them in ways greater than they could ever have imagined.
Now, it’s our turn. One hundred and sixty years later, sisters and brothers of the First Baptist Church of Lawrence, Kansas, let us again stand on the banks of the Kaw, clear our throats, and with steely-eyed determination say together, “Here we are…send us!” And then just watch what God does next!