Made for This!

Made for This: Reflection for Lent

After two years of Ash Wednesday snow storms, we had a lovely spring-like day for the beginning of Lent this year. It was a joy to help with “ashes to go” for the community and to share the evening meditation on Isaiah 6:1–8. Ash Wednesday is a solemn beginning to an important season in the life of the church, a time that reminds us of human mortality and our need for reconciliation with God. Certainly the experiences of the past two years have heightened our awareness of both those things—our own mortality and the areas of spiritual darkness or hardness that still lurk within our own souls. Receiving the ashes on our foreheads shows that we recognize our need and marks our commitment to allow Jesus to speak deeply and transformatively into our lives during the next six weeks.

During Lent, our congregation will be focused on pursuing a Jesus-shaped life, using Steve Cordle’s book by that title. The sermons will explore the obedience, relationships, courage, justice, and mission of Jesus. We’ll be journeying with Jesus toward Holy Week, sitting in his presence, watching him interact with people, listening to his words. Perhaps the pressing question as we embark on this journey is, WHY? Why this laser focus on Jesus and why the yearning for our lives to be shaped like his? The answer is at once simple and profound: because we were made for this! We were made in the image and likeness of God, made to look like the Son who is in turn the image of the unseen Father. Sin marred that likeness in deep and penetrating ways, leaving us caught in a “less than” kind of human existence. Jesus came, first, to show us through his own life what real humanity looks like and then, through his death and resurrection, to make it possible for us to experience true, fully-restored, Jesus-shaped humanity in our own lives.

As we hold our own lives up to the light of Jesus’ life in the Gospels, we’re sure to notice some unmistakable gaps and questions are bound to arise. Is a Jesus-shaped life even possible for us? If it is, how? What does God do to make it happen? What do we do in response? Our Isaiah passage is a beautiful Old Testament scene that answers those questions for us and prepares us for our Lenten journey. And since Isaiah was a go-to book for the Gospel writers as they processed the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, it makes sense for us to start here also: 

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, Here am I. Send me!’”

Isaiah 6 opens with the words “in the year that King Uzziah died.” Translating that onto the world stage, this was the time in the 8th century BC when the Neo-Assyrian empire was on the rise and Judah was squarely in its sights, lying as it did in a strategic location between Assyria and Egypt, the other super-power of the day. The phrase also communicates the inevitable political instability that comes with regime change, as a new king took Uzziah’s place in Judah. But perhaps more importantly, it was a time when Judah’s spiritual condition was dark and deeply stained with sin. Isaiah 5 describes the desperate condition of the Lord’s “vineyard”—unfruitful (v. 2), greedy and grasping (v. 8), consumed with the pursuit of pleasure (vs. 11­–12), bound to sin (v. 18), twisting justice for personal gain and trampling on the vulnerable (vs. 22–23). Isaiah says that the “roots” of the vines are rotten and their “blossoms” are nothing but dry dust (v. 24). When Isaiah cries out in chapter 6 about the “unclean” condition of his people, he wasn’t exaggerating! As one of my young friends might put it, “God’s people were a hot mess!”

So we begin our Lenten journey right here, with a “hot mess” in need of a solution. Verses 1–5 lay out the problem and verses 6–8 present the solution.

THE PROBLEM (vs. 1–5). Isaiah is in the temple, reminding us that worship is a great choice in the midst of chaos. Whatever he was expecting that day, Isaiah got more than he bargained for—a disruptive, disordering encounter with God himself. The Lord reveals himself to the prophet in spectacular fashion, blowing out the walls of Isaiah’s imagination and even the physical confines of the temple. You can almost hear Isaiah struggling for words that will convey the impact of what he saw—a throne, the Being on it high and lofty, his glory filling not only the temple but the whole earth. Then comes what he heard—the earth-shaking sound of seraphim singing around the throne. In the Ancient Near East, seraphim were often portrayed as ferocious guardians of temple precincts, but here their only role is worship of the One on the throne. Their song, which shakes all of creation: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is filled with his glory.” The portrait of God’s holiness in this vision is beauty, glory, splendor, majesty. Holiness isn’t the problem!

It is Isaiah’s voice, not that of the seraphim, that expresses the problem. In the presence of the Beautiful, Glorious, Majestic Holy One, Isaiah gives a passionate cry of despair: “Woe is me! I am ruined (or undone)!” Why? Isn’t Isaiah one of God’s prophets, one of “the good guys”? Isaiah himself diagnoses the problem: “I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (v. 5). In the blazingly beautiful presence of the Holy One, the corrupt condition of God’s people is revealed and even the prophet is exposed. It is important to notice that Isaiah sums up the problem as unclean lips—their speech reveals how their hearts have missed the mark. And that’s a very big problem for a prophet, whose entire ministry is centered on speech!

THE SOLUTION (vs. 6–8). The problem is radical—and the solution is equally radical! I was struck by four particular aspects of how Isaiah’s problem is set right. First, the solution is not found in Isaiah himself, but in the very holiness of God. Isaiah can’t fix himself—or his people. Only God can do that. Second, the solution is radical, fearful, painful—and utterly effective! If you’ve ever had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop and the doctor had to cauterize it, you’ll know the terror of that heated instrument approaching your face, the pain as it does its work, and the utter relief when the bleeding stops. That experience mirrors in a tiny way Isaiah’s terror, pain, and relief as the very fire and glory of God touch his lips. Third, the solution deals both with Isaiah’s guilt and his sinful condition: “your guilt is removed and your sin is covered or atoned for” (v. 7). Not only is forgiveness extended but Isaiah is given the capacity to live and speak differently from that moment forward. Finally, the solution comes with a purpose: Isaiah is immediately commissioned. “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?”, the Lord asks. Only after Isaiah has been cleansed can he hear and respond to God’s call. “Behold me! Send me!” (v. 8).

Our Lenten Response. As I pondered this passage and its implications for us as we begin our Lenten journey, the Spirit pressed upon me two specific points of response—initially in my own life, and then as invitations to the community of faith in our collective pilgrimage toward the cross. First, Isaiah’s journey toward wholeness and holiness began when he acknowledged his own sinfulness in the presence of the Holy God and embraced the radical divine gift of forgiveness. John Wesley called this “evangelical repentance” or the “repentance of believers”—he deemed it as necessary for our continued growth in Christ as initial repentance was for the beginning of the journey. Wesley understood it as an act of both penitence and faith: “By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts and cleaving to our words and actions. By faith we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands.”[1] Receiving the ashes on Wednesday was an initial opportunity to confess our sins, humbly and honestly, in the presence of the Holy One and to receive in faith his cleansing work. The forty days of Lent provide space and time to continue in this practice, so that we come to Resurrection Sunday changed, cleansed, freed, and ready to respond to the commission of the risen Lord.

Second, it struck me as far from coincidental that in the year a king dies, Isaiah sees a throne. In a time of shifting loyalties and uncertain allegiances, Isaiah was given a vision of the OneKing. Lent is a season that invites us to do this intentionally—to set our gaze fully, fixedly, and exclusively on the King of Kings. We become like Jesus by looking at him, by walking with him, by listening to him. And here is our very real challenge—there are a wealth of other faces that claim our gazes, a cacophony of other voices that clamor for our focus. So I was moved to issue a very specific Lenten invitation to myself and to the community of faith: “Will you join me in silencing—at least for the next six weeks—the other voices that shape your daily living? Identify them clearly—who and what are the voices that are shaping your thoughts, attitudes, actions, and decisions? Whether they are religious voices, political voices, or social media voices—will you silence them, ruthlessly and intentionally, during Lent and replace them with the exclusive voice of Jesus? Steep in the Gospels—read them, listen to them in place of the podcasts or YouTube videos or newscasts or even your favorite online preachers. Will you give the Holy Spirit and Holy Scripture six weeks to be the only voices in your ear, so they can show you Jesus in all his beauty, power, and grace—as he is, not as any other human voice would present him?” For me, this will mean exchanging my weekly podcast binge (Sunday afternoons while in my sewing room), for listening to readings of the Gospels. What might it mean for you? 

I’ve been studying Mark’s Gospel over the past couple months, and the strikingly consistent portrait of the disciples in the Gospels is that, despite hanging out with Jesus for three years, they almost missed him—because he didn’t fit into any of their pre-conceived boxes. Those boxes were shaped by the socio-political realities of the first-century, by tradition, and even by the prevailing way of reading Scripture. It took the Resurrection to blow open those boxes—just like the vision in the temple did for Isaiah—and to give them a right understanding of who Jesus was, to see him clearly for the very first time. I firmly believe that if we will commit tonight to making Lent a season of exclusive, focused listening to and gazing at Jesus, we will come to Easter prepared to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly day by day.”

[1] Sermon 14, “The Repentance of Believers,” II.6.

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