The Old Testament reading for this morning tells the story of how Isaiah came to be called to share God’s message with the people of Israel. I sense there is a lot here about how to share God’s love with people as well.
This final week’s spiritual practice for building up the body of Christ is: “Care for the Needs of Others.” Clearly, this is one of the most obvious and necessary practices for building up the body and being a Christian community. As a pastor, I feel humbled and taught by so many of you who make this spiritual practice a priority in your lives. But as with any spiritual practice or biblical truth, there is always more to learn, isn’t there. I wonder if the Old Testament reading for today, Isaiah 6:1-13, may shed more light.
Isaiah is suddenly transported into a worship service that’s happening in the heavenly temple. There are angels or seraphs with six wings whose voices are shaking the door posts and thresholds, and the temple is filled with smoke.
Isaiah starts to think, “I’m ruined. I don’t belong here.” He becomes self-conscious about having just snapped at his wife (okay, a bit of literary license here), and bemoans the fact that he’s a man of “unclean lips,” and that he lives among a people of unclean lips.
Then one of the seraphs flies to Isaiah with a live coal taken from the altar, and touches Isaiah’s mouth saying, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” With hardly a moment to take in what’s just transpired, Isaiah next hears God’s voice saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
Without hesitation, Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!”
(So what do you think: is Isaiah volunteering, or is this a set up?)
Let’s pause here a moment. I just want to note that this rapid sequence of events all happens within the context of worship. It’s not just during Isaiah’s personal, private worship (though maybe that’s when it started). This is corporate worship not only on a heavenly scale, but happening in heaven itself. Biblically speaking, it’s during worship that we are most likely to encounter God’s actual presence.
As we think about our own call to care for one another and for others, the context for that call is the love, forgiveness and generosity of God that we discover and remember when we gather to worship. The climax of that remembering happens during communion or the Lord’s Supper. When during that meal Jesus says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” we’re reminded of the magnitude and depth of God’s love for us in Jesus. While Isaiah’s unclean lips are touched by a burning coal, our forgiveness comes through God’s ultimate and personal sacrifice on the cross.
So it’s during worship that we’re reminded of one of the core truths of the New Testament: “We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).” Jesus has set the gold standard for love. It’s impossible for us to come even close to loving like Jesus on our own. But we are motivated by his sacrifice and by the fact that we’re loved with an eternal love that is beyond measure.
When God speaks during Isaiah’s vision, the call seems to be to anyone who may be listening. Likewise when God’s word comes to us during worship, we hear that general call of God either to trust, to change, to forgive, to allow ourselves to be forgiven, to share the good news, or to love others as God has loved us. We may even become aware of a specific need during the announcements, congregational prayer, or a conversation with someone in the hallway before or after worship. Like Isaiah, having it be a general call gives us freedom to respond. This is usually the case with an inner call as well. As Pat Obrecht said a couple of weeks ago during her reflection on this spiritual practice, all we may detect is an inner “nudge” – something we can easily attribute to whatever we had for breakfast. God rarely overpowers us. He wants a cheerful giver rather than a reluctant one who thinks they have no choice.
Whether or not God’s call to care for a particular person happens during worship, worship prepares us to hear and heed that call throughout the week. It’s after Jesus quotes the Old Testament command to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength that he quotes another: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Now, if we stop here, we might be tempted to romanticize God’s call. But listen to what God tells Isaiah after Isaiah responds:
“‘Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Basically this is what I hear God telling Isaiah: ‘Don’t expect anyone to pay any attention to what you’re saying. Their minds are already made up. Their already hard hearts are likely to become only harder the more you preach to them.” This was hardly the encouraging pep talk Isaiah was hoping to hear, but it is a reminder of another core biblical principle when it comes to ministry — our call is to be faithful, not successful. The Lord’s Supper was also Jesus’ Last Supper. Communion itself is a reminder Jesus’ ministry produced hardly any success stories and ultimately got him crucified.
As Arthur pointed out last Sunday during his reflection on the spiritual practice of having spiritual conversations with non-Christians, most of what we do is plant seeds. We may or may not see what happens to those seeds. This applies to both gospel words and gospel acts of kindness.
But if we spread enough seeds around, we’re likely to see some of those seeds begin to sprout, and this encourages us. We may detect that our acts of kindness are gradually wearing away our neighbor’s resistance or lack of trust. Speaking of neighbors, during the potluck last Sunday my wife Sharon talked about a neighbor she’s been trying to build a relationship with for many years. There is hardly a day that goes by that Sharon doesn’t try to show kindness to this neighbor in some way – bringing over a newspaper, giving a ride to work or to the pharmacy, bringing over cookies, allowing the neighbor to borrow some laundry detergent, or just striking up a conversation. Yet it was only recently, after years of such efforts, that this neighbor casually referred to Sharon as her friend. (All the more amazing because one of this neighbor’s relatives recently told us that she doesn’t have any friends.)
This reminds me of what Isaiah asks God after receiving such a poor prognosis for the success of this ministry: “For how long, Lord?”
So how long do we keep loving and helping people? The short answer is: for as long as it takes. Even, says God, if “the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged.” In other words, even if things get worse rather than better, we keep loving, and we keep sharing and living the good news of a crucified Christ.
What we need to do is keep looking at the cross (again, communion can help us). The cross will teach us most of what we need to know about what it means to care for people, now that we live as followers of Jesus in the kingdom of God.
When Pat Obrecht reflected upon her own ministry of trying to care for others, she talked about how much she was taught and inspired by Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The same was true for Mother Teresa of Calcutta. During an interview with Time magazine Mother Teresa said, “We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved — they are Jesus in disguise.”
“Whatever you’ve done for one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you’ve done for me.” (Jesus)
Of course, any one of us can be “one of the least of these” when we are in a particularly dark place in our lives. So let’s not be deceived by appearances. One of the most needy people in the world right now may be the next person you or I meet.
With Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus.