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A Life of Awe

It was a long-time Thanksgiving tradition, and the Garcia family wasn’t about to give it up this year! Before the food could be passed, everyone had to go around and name at least one thing that they were thankful for. It had happened every year since Hector could remember, and the family wasn’t going to let 2020 rob them of their traditions!

But as everyone who was there this year named what they were thankful for, Hector drew a blank. Instead of gratitude, Hector couldn’t help but think that the world around him felt like it was falling apart:

The pandemic only looked like it was getting worse and locally numbers were on the rise. Here he was, sitting outside in the front yard for Thanksgiving. His grandparents wisely chose not to come to avoid exposure, after his grandpa had already had a bout in the hospital with the disease. His girlfriend, who worked at a hospital, made the choice to steer clear of the meal, and then quarantine from Hector for two weeks afterwards.

The economy was bad enough last Thanksgiving…this year it was a disaster, and Hector wasn’t sure if he would have a job this time next year.

Politicians nationally and around the world seemed like they had no interest in working together to solve this or any of the world’s problems.

And as beautiful and warm as it was at the end of November, Hector knew that climate change was likely the reason, and he felt helpless and hopeless that anything could be done to turn it around.

In fact, instead of naming something that he was thankful for, Hector could not help but think of all the things that made him feel thank-less. Helpless. Insignificant. Hopeless. Before he knew it, all eyes were on him. And Hector simply had nothing to say.

Perhaps you feel like Hector this Thanksgiving season. Psychologists predict that this will be one of the hardest holiday seasons in generations, as isolation and depression combine with helplessness and hopelessness to create a perfect storm of feelings of insignificance. Gratitude will be hard to come by.

Perhaps Isaiah could understand. As today’s passage opens, we learn that the king has died. The political upheaval around a tense transition is not new to 2020. The king is dead, many are grieving, the Assyrians were knocking at the door, and no one knows exactly what was going to happen next. Meanwhile, Isaiah finds himself in a perfect storm of helplessness and insignificance. As he serves, very likely as a priest in the Temple, Isaiah has an experience. Some would call it mystical, or even other-worldly. What we do know is that Isaiah felt a wave of insignificance roll over him. Look at the language that he uses to describe his vision:

It says the hem of the robe of God filled the Temple. Most of us never pay attention to the hem of anything. It is rather insignificant, and only catches our attention if it falls out and we have to get it fixed. So, you can imagine that this tiny, insignificant part of God’s robe FILLED THE ENTIRE TEMPLE. Isaiah felt totally dwarfed by the power and magnitude of God. It later says that the Temple shook and filled with smoke…supernatural experiences that blew Isaiah away.

He talks about the seraphim, these angels who accompanied God in the Temple. I cannot believe I never realized this, but it is obvious to me now: the seraphim were “Mandalorians.” Some of you will recognize the name Mandalorian from Star Wars…in the original movie series, Boba Fett was a Mandalorian, and there is a new series on Disney Plus about a character who is a Mandalorian. And these soldiers for hire are known mostly for their cool armor…a helmet and head to foot armor that protects vulnerable places, and an awesome jetpack that lets them fly around. So, obviously, these angels in Isaiah 6 were “Mandalorians.” It says they had 6 wings—2 covered their head (like an awesome helmet), 2 helped them fly around (like an awesome jetpack), and 2 covered their feet (which in Biblical days was actually euphemistic for one’s most vulnerable parts, including genitalia). Like most angels in the Bible, these were not Precious Moments chubby cherubs, these were terrifying holy bodyguards. Again, you can understand why Isaiah would feel more than a little insignificant, as he vastly pales in comparison even to God’s underling bodyguards.

Finally, Isaiah talks a lot in the passage about his lips. As a priest and eventually a prophet, Isaiah’s lips were a big deal. The words he said brought power and healing and strength. In some ways, his lips were Isaiah’s best asset! So it is important when he throws his hands up and says, “I am a man of unclean lips.” In other words, “the best thing that I have, the fullest power that I can demonstrate, the thing that makes me most who I am…is unclean and powerless and useless and helpless, next to the majesty that I see in front of me in this moment.” It would be as if Adele said, “I am a woman of useless vocal chords.” Or Patrick Mahomes said, “I am a man with a worthless right arm.” Or Bette Davis said, “My eyes are drab and uninteresting.”

Isaiah feels unworthy and insignificant. “I am lost,” he says. The narrative lectionary parallels his experience with that of Peter when he is first called by the miracle-working Jesus. He throws himself on the ground and proclaims his unworthiness. His insignificance. Perhaps we can understand Isaiah, and Isaiah would understand our sense of powerlessness in 2020.

But then, this thing happens to Isaiah. The “Mandalorian” bodyguards fly around and one takes a hot coal from the fire…and touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips. And a shift takes place. It is a shift from helpless to humbled…and those are not the same.

Helplessness is tied to shame and worthlessness and hopelessness. It is closer to what we feel when we see the big problems of the world and know that we cannot fix them. We see the political chaos and the climate chaos and the medical chaos of the world around us, and feel like not only is there nothing that we can do to fix them, but in a more basic way we feel that they cannot be fixed.

Compare that to humility. When we are humbled, it is akin to what happened to Isaiah. He saw the power and majesty of God filling the Temple, and it humbled him. It gave him perspective to see how small he was next to God. Yet, it did not leave him powerless, but empowered. God had a job for him. When the angel places the coal on his lips, we see a transformation from “a man of unclean lips” to “one who will go for us.” God shows him that he is empowered and purposeful. He is not lost in helplessness, but he is empowered with a sense of humility. It’s the same with Peter. He is transformed from a man groveling on the ground to a disciple with purpose…from a fisherman to a fisher of men.

With this new perspective, Isaiah, and later Peter, are able to see their own insignificance, dwarfed by the problems of the world, which are in turn dwarfed by the power and significance of the God who calls us. Now, the disasters of the world become surrounded. Tag-teamed by the overwhelming power of God, and God’s prophets and disciples and hands and feet on earth. No, we cannot do it alone. But no, we aren’t supposed to. Helplessness to humility. To purpose. To vocation. To calling. Isaiah was called, and he became one of the most important prophetic voices to the people of God from the last three thousand years. The shift that takes place here is helplessness to humility. “Woe” to “Awe.”

God invites us to participate in the same shift. The theological and ecclesiological name that we give to that shift is worship. When we worship God, we humble ourselves. We place God on the throne and not us. We recognize our failings and inadequacies. But not in the way of helplessness. Not with a feeling of nihilistic hopelessness, that there is nothing that we can do about the suffering of the world.

Instead, our worship becomes a training ground. What we do in here is training for what we do out there. This is the training ground for a life lived with awe, with humility, with character. When we listen to glorious worship music, and humble ourselves with the perspective of Scripture, and come together in community—virtual or in-person—we are training for a life of awe and humility and worship. Together, we experience awe. Together, we are given new perspective. Together, we see that the problems of this world are not insurmountable. Together, we see that we are called to participate in the “Holy Surmounting” of evil and sin and death. Worship turns us into “workers.” It turns us into “welcomers.” It turns us into “wonderers.” It invites us to respond as Isaiah did, “Here am I, send me.” We are moving from helplessness to humility. From woe to awe.

Sunday morning at 10:45 is only the beginning. I feel that sense of humble worship whenever I spend time in nature. I think of last summer on sabbatical, when I was able to see the size and grandeur of the Grand Canyon, and the Atlantic Ocean, and the Pacific Ocean, and the dark sky of the Rocky Mountain stars. When I see that magnitude, I feel like Isaiah lost in a vision of God’s grandeur and majesty. But we don’t have to take a road trip to worship. Just this last week I worshipped when I stopped to see the intricacy of a sycamore leaf hand-painted by the Creator. I felt the cold, crisp, still, silent Kansas morning as I smelled the neighbor’s fireplace. I turned up Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony while I cooked dinner for the family. These were moments of worship. Shifts from helplessness to humility. From woe to awe. I told you that I began a practice last year that I call photography of the hours, where I pause six times a day to pray, to worship, to humble myself with the visual majesty that God sets before me. These are moments of prayer. Of praise. Of worship.

A final story that ties together these ideas. I may have told you of my trip to the top of Mt. of the Holy Cross in Colorado. Like most 14er hikes, we began early in the dark, and by the time it got light, we couldn’t see much more. The clouds were super thick and it looked like we wouldn’t see anything. Until one moment, when we had been climbing a while, and I figured we had to be getting close to the top, when the clouds opened and I saw a long stretch, straight up a ridge that looked a thousand miles long. It was at that point that I wished the clouds would have kept it covered! I don’t remember exactly what I said, but “woe is me” was probably a good paraphrase. We crept up the side of that ridge, and along the trail a while longer, before we finally got to the top…and saw the inside of a cloud. Again, “woe is me,” or something worse probably went through my mind.

But then, in a moment of vision, the clouds opened and we could se the whole front range. The beauty and majesty and power laid out before us moved us to a moment of awe. From woe to awe. From helplessness to humility.

Likewise, today we are so often in a place where all we can see is the terrible climb in front of us. All we can think of is despair. Insignificance. Woe. Today, I invite you to the top of the mountain, to see that even beyond the top of that climb is the majesty and glory of a God who not only surpasses the struggle, but empowers us for it. Today, let us see rightly the hope and power of the God who fills the Temple and fills the world with glory. Today, let us worship at the top of our lungs “Holy, Holy, Holy.” And let us enter the work alongside of Isaiah and Peter and the God of Glory, with a simple response: “Here I am, send me.”

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