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Learning from the Legends: Evelyn Underhill Teaches us to Worship

Isaiah 6.1-8

It was the year 740 BCE. King Uzziah was dead, and it was time for a new beginning.

Uzziah had been a successful king, at least in terms of worldly values. The economy was booming. The military might of Judah was stronger than it had been in a long time. Uzziah had curried political favor in the region and started to wield his power.

But Uzziah had not been successful in the realm of heavenly values. He had forgotten what true worship was all about. For Uzziah, worship meant covering all the bases, worshipping all the gods, cozying up to the deities of other nations and kings so that he could appear more magnanimous. He had done little to impress Yahweh, the one true God.

In the year that King Uzziah died, Isaiah walked into the Temple for worship. The Temple that Uzziah had made a mockery of. The Temple that had been scorned and de-prioritized during his reign. The Temple that was meant to serve the true power player—the king—at least in his mind. Worship was a means to an end and the worshipper was in it for what they could get out of it.

But now it was the year 740 BCE. King Uzziah was dead, and it was time for a new beginning.

Because the Temple was still a thin place. It was a place where the threshold between heaven and earth was its thinnest. Here is where an experience of the divine was likely, perhaps even impossible to avoid. Here, at the Temple, in worship, Isaiah came to see God.


And boy, did he! Isaiah 6 tells of the vision that Isaiah saw in the Temple that day, filled with smoke and angels and thunderous power. This passage has always been one of my favorite, especially when it comes to helping us understand worship. I think that in the world that we live in, we have our fair share of “Uzziah”s. We have plenty who are astute in naming the economic value of things, but not as astute seeing them for their God-given value. We have plenty of those who rely on military might, but not on divine might. We have plenty who know how to curry political power, but not spiritual power.

We have plenty of Uzziahs, but what we need is more Evelyn Underhills.  Evelyn was born in 1875 in England and saw her fair share of Uzziahs in her time, as well.  There were plenty who believed that because she was a woman, she was mentally unable to comprehend theological concepts. They were wrong. Underhill became one of the most profound scholars of her day; she was the first woman ever invited to give theological lectures at Oxford, and was made a fellow at Cambridge. Hers was a brilliant mind, but it was also a gentle spirit.

Underhill is perhaps best known for her books on mystical encounters—those thin places where the threshold between heaven and earth was razor thin, like the vision of Isaiah in today’s passage. She wrote of the theological and rational processes that allow us to open our hearts to God. She was published again and again—books, addresses, letters. She wrote a book about practical mysticism, another about spiritual consciousness, and this work simply titled Worship.

For Underhill, the topic of worship was one that deserved study. What happens in the mind of a person who enters a worship event? What do they bring to the event? How are they changed by that event? What happens in that thin place of a worship experience, whether in the halls of an Anglican church, where she worshipped, to another place and time on the earth where we are able to turn our attention to the Holy.

And the lessons that she gives us help us to set aside our inner Uzziah, and find something different, something more humble, something more like Isaiah found when he stumbled into that thin place as well. I can’t help but see the connections between Isaiah and Underhill. And I have props!


First, says Underhill, worship enlightens.

How many of you all know what this thing is? I have seen these before, but never one quite so cool. You flip the switch one way and a magifiying glass comes out. You flip it the other way and a light comes on. For those of us whose eyes are starting to need a little more help, this little guy can be a life saver. It is a tool for enlightenment. It helps us see in a new way.

Which is exactly what happened to Isaiah. He walked into worship with his mind numbed by the Uzziah-ness of the people of Judah. Worship was a means to an end. The worshipper stayed in charge and controlled the situation. They were in it to see what they could get out of it. But then Isaiah walks into worship and is forever enlightened.  He sees God as this wholly other being – beyond anything that Isaiah could ever imagine. More powerful, more mysterious, less predictable, less controllable than he ever thought that God could be. Isaiah had his eyes opened to who God was in amazing and even frightening ways. All of a sudden, Isaiah was not in charge anymore. Yahweh was. The light came on in Isaiah’s mind in that moment of worship. “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory,” Isaiah realized. He was enlightened.

Underhill has more to say about this experience. She analyzes the phenomenon of worship and realizes that it comes with this experience of enlightenment. Understanding, first through the experience of nature, or humanity, or something that sparks that thin place for us. Then we move toward a ritualization of that experience…”sacred objects and ceremonial acts.” But at the heart of it all is this enlightenment. We see God in a new way!

This is a powerful indictment about the ways that we often worship today, isn’t it? Perhaps you have heard someone say, “I just don’t get anything out of that kind of worship.” If we are to take Underhill and Isaiah seriously, perhaps we might respond, “You aren’t supposed to get anything out of worship. We aren’t here to worship you…” As soon as our eyes our opened to the holiness of the wholly other, we become enlightened to the point of understanding: we aren’t here to be entertained; we are here to put all of our attention and adoration and praise toward God. Our work is to see once again that the earth is filled with God’s glory. A song of praise. A moment of celebration. An experience of seeing God in a new way.

Worship enlightens.


Second, worship purifies.

You can’t get a much better image of that than Isaiah, can you? When Isaiah is enlightened to the power of God and the glory of God filling the whole earth, what is his response? “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Immediately, Isaiah saw himself for who he is. Namely, not God. And yet, God didn’t leave Isaiah in to wallow in his finitude, to be lost in his sinfulness. Look what God does…an angel flies over to Isaiah and puts a live coal on his mouth. He burns the impurities from this man of unclean lips. He purifies Isaiah through this worship experience.

Underhill once again indicts us with her concern over what worship can become. She reminds us that worship is not to be about us and our “demands” but about “adoration,” acknowledging that we are not God! We become purified from our own brokenness, our own “uncleanness.”

And we do the same thing in our worship today, do we not? I mean, we don’t use a lot of live coals to purify our mouths, but we engage in the same mystery. We confess our sins—in effect crying out “woe is me…I am a woman or man of unclean lips.” We do it individually, like Isaiah does, and corporately like Isaiah does—our shared discipline of confession is much like the statement from Isaiah: “I live among a people of unclean lips.” Each Sunday we acknowledge our personal and communal “unclean lips.”

When we were kids, we went to a lot of historical reenactments and historic villages, and one of my favorite places to visit was the blacksmith shop. I loved the smell of the burning coals and the sound of the hammer on the anvil. And I loved the image of this piece of metal that was red hot, primed for molding, and the work that the blacksmith did to bang out the imperfections in the metal. Each time it was heated up and smashed over and again, more of those impurities would be hammered out of the metal. I used to have some really cool tongs, but broke them and this little guy has had to suffice, but you get the point. You can imagine these holding a burning hot piece of metal, impurities slowly released from it. The same is true of our worship. Worship reminds us who we are and more importantly that we are not God. We may not be overwhelmed each and every week, but over time, God is using that experience to knock out the impurities from us, to bring us closer and closer to who God wants us to be, who we were really made to be. Worship is that process of purifying. Week after week. Heated up and worked out again and again.

Worship purifies.


Finally, Underhill says a third thing about worship: it transforms.

It wasn’t hard to find an object to fit this word. How many of you all knew all about Transformers long before Michael Bay got his hands on the franchise? I loved the old school cartoon and I loved the Transformer toys. This one gets me doubly geeked out, because it is a Star Wars Transformer. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, these toys look like a vehicle or a ship, but then you manipulate them and they turn into a robot…this one becomes Obi Wan Kenobi. But the point is that inside of this thing is this other thing, waiting to come out.

Which is exactly what Underhill says happens in worship. It transforms us, making us who we are meant to be. She says that worship is “creative and redemptive,” creating in us an awareness of who God has called us to be.

Of course, one of the most powerful images of Isaiah 6 is the transformation of Isaiah.  From worshipper to prophet. God’s voice rings out, “whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah’s transformed voice answers back, “here I am, send me.” The passage happens at the beginning of the book of Isaiah, where the prophet is still working out his call. Just like most of us called into this faith, Isaiah made a commitment somewhere in the middle. The first few chapters show Isaiah watching the world around him fall apart. The Uzziah-values of Judah are not working out so well for them, and so his heart is broken by what he sees around him.  But before long, the vision of Isaiah 6 transforms the prophet. He becomes one who is willing to tackle the brokenness, the uncleanness, the Uzziah-ness of his land, and name it for what it is. He is transformed from one weeping and empty to a powerful voice for change and redemption.

Of course, this is a part of our worship service, as well, isn’t it? We respond to that purifying and enlightening. We return a portion of what we have been given as an offering to God. We gather around the table to respond and be transformed. The Baptist worship service is designed around an opportunity to respond…how many of us shared with our churches that we wanted to be baptized in the worship service? A powerful symbol of the transformation that happens here. In worship.  Worship transforms, and it does it in a way that is creative and redemptive.

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