“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.”
“In the year that King Uzziah died.” Why is that significant? And who in the world is King Uzziah?
Well, to answer the last question first: King Uzziah was a king of Judah, a descendant of David and Solomon, and an ancestor of Jesus. Uzziah was a good king — and trust me, not all of Judah’s (or Israel’s) kings were good. Uzziah’s reign lasted 52 years, and many people consider his reign to be second in glory only to Solomon.
So why is it that we don’t hear much about Uzziah? Probably because, while Uzziah was king, everything was fine. Oh, there was a little trouble with pride toward the end, but while Uzziah was in charge, the government ran smoothly. There was no corruption, no scandal, no war. It’s always the bad stuff that makes the news, and, to be honest, Uzziah was boring.
And that’s why it was a big deal when Uzziah died. The strong, stable leadership that the people had relied on for so long was taken away, and Judah was left with an uncertain future. It was during this time of uncertainty that God called Isaiah. I think that it’s often during our own times of uncertainty that, if we listen carefully enough, we can hear God calling to us.
Despite all the promise and possibilities that life holds for us, we all experience times of doubt, or even despair. There’s a feeling of loose ends, of life hanging by a thread. We feel that time keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping into the future. We feel like the things that we rely on for stability are crumbling. It is in these times that I think we can learn much from Isaiah. In a time of tragedy and uncertainty, Isaiah focused his attention on God. When Isaiah’s world was in turmoil, he saw the Lord.
In our times of tragedy and turmoil, God calls to us. But do we hear the call? Where is our focus? Do we gaze longingly at the casket of Uzziah, remembering the good old days — days which will never come again?
Do we remember the days when our pews were filled on Sunday mornings? The days when children’s laughter echoed through our church buildings? In times of trouble, do we focus our attention on how things used to be, and wonder where we went wrong?
Or do we focus our attention on God? Aristotle said that the direction of our gaze determines the outline of our thoughts. Are we gazing into the past, or looking ahead to the future? Our thoughts, our attitudes, and our actions depend on the direction of our gaze.
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” Isaiah’s gaze was on the future. Isaiah’s focus was on God. In the midst of uncertain and troubled times, Isaiah kept his focus on God, and thus Isaiah was rewarded with a marvelous vision.
Let’s take a look at that vision. First of all, notice that Isaiah never actually sees God face to face. Rather, Isaiah sees the evidence of God all around him. Isaiah sees a throne, and the hem of a garment. Isaiah sees seraphs, and hears their voices, glorifying God. Isaiah feels the trembling power of God.
We, too, can see the evidence of God all around us — in the beauty of creation, in the smile of a friend. But Isaiah tells us that this vision takes place in the temple, and certainly we can see the evidence of worship: the seraphs in attendance, hymns being sung, the smoke signifying an offering.
This tells us that, while there is no doubt that we can see the evidence of God anywhere, experience the presence of God anywhere — this tells us that the best place to experience the presence of God is during our time of worship. This is why I am always stressing regular attendance at worship to you. And this is why I’m always urging you to invite others to come and worship with us.
If there is anyone out there whom you care about, anyone who needs to experience the presence of God, you have a choice: You can sit back and hope and pray that somehow, some way, that person will focus his or her attention on God in the middle of the workday, or while lining up a putt on the golf course, or while sitting at home watching Burn Notice.
Or you can invite that person to come and worship with you. Because, while a 3-foot putt for birdie might cause someone to say a little prayer, the truth of the matter is that the person who needs God is much more likely to focus on God right here, during worship. After all, this entire setting — the cross, the windows, the hymns, the prayers, the scriptures being read and interpreted — all of this is designed to help people focus on God.
So, we learn from Isaiah the importance of worship. What else?
Well, once our attention is focused on God, we may feel the way Isaiah felt — flooded with an awareness of our own sin and failures. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”
This is not only normal, it’s necessary. Before our sins can be forgiven, we have to be aware of our sins, we have to confess our sins and repent of our sins. In the 17th chapter of Luke, Jesus tells us that when someone sins, “if there is repentance, you must forgive.” That little word, “if,” is all too often overlooked, and yet it is so vitally important. Basically, Jesus is saying that we don’t have to forgive those who sin against us. We don’t have to forgive them, unless they repent. By implication, Jesus is also saying that our sins won’t be forgiven, unless we repent.
1st John 1.9 says, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Again, don’t overlook the word “if.” If we confess, God will forgive. Sounds like if we don’t confess, if we don’t repent, then God doesn’t have to forgive us. Now, I refuse to say that God will not forgive us, because I don’t claim to know the mind of God — like Paul, I see in a mirror, dimly — but why take that chance? If we do confess and repent, then we know that God will forgive us.
Isaiah confesses and repents of his sin: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.” This leads to forgiveness, to a cleansing. Confession and repentance trigger the cleansing action of God’s grace. It is only through confession and repentance that Isaiah is able to experience forgiveness.
And notice this: it is only after repentance and the cleansing of forgiveness that Isaiah is able to hear the Lord speaking. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord.” When we are lost in our sin, we are unable to hear God calling us. Only when we have focused on God, repented of our sin, and received God’s cleansing grace can we really and truly experience the presence of God.
We can see in this passage the very natural progression from sinner to saint, from lost to found, from despair to grace. First, we come into the presence of God. We come to church, to worship, and there we are able to focus our attention on God.
Once our focus is on God, we feel the weight of our sin. We then confess and repent of our sin, and God touches us with God’s cleansing grace. Our sins are washed away, we are made clean and righteous, and we become disciples, followers of God, through Jesus Christ. And then — ah, then we hear God calling. “Whom shall I send?” Most often, we don’t actually hear God’s voice. We hear God calling in our hearts, rather than in our ears.
In fact, I think the most common way in which we hear God calling us is in these familiar words: Somebody ought to do something. Somebody ought to do something. Whenever we hear those words, there’s a good chance that God is calling us, a good chance that God is asking, “Whom shall I send?”
Somebody ought to speak up about injustice in the world. “Whom shall I send?”
Somebody ought to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. “Whom shall I send?”
Somebody ought to invite more people to worship on Sunday mornings. “Whom shall I send?”
Our ears hear, “Somebody ought to do something.” Our hearts hear, “Whom shall I send?”
And our answer — as people who have been received the cleansing grace of God — our answer must be the same as Isaiah’s: “Here am I; send me!” Honestly, as disciples of Jesus Christ, there is really no other answer that we can give, no other response that we can make. “Whom shall I send? … Here am I; send me!” Somebody ought to do something; I’ll do it.
So remember the lessons we learn from Isaiah. We need to focus our attention on God. We can’t keep looking at the past; King Uzziah was great, but he’s dead, and it’s time to move on with our lives. Our pews used to be full every Sunday morning; that’s wonderful, but that was then, and this is now.
We also can’t spend all our time blaming ourselves, asking ourselves how we got into such a fix. It’s okay to feel the weight of our sin, but we can’t dwell on it. Why are there so many empty pews on Sunday mornings? Where have all our young people gone? Don’t worry about it. Focus on God, and look to the future. How we got to this point doesn’t matter; we’re here, and somebody ought to do something about it.
The future of our church is uncertain, and it is during these uncertain times that we hear God calling, “Whom shall I send?” As forgiven and cleansed disciples of Jesus Christ, it’s up to each and every one of us to respond. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord.” In the year 2010, we can see the Lord at work in our church, if only we will we all answer the call. “I’ll do something about our empty pews. I’ll invite people to come and worship with us. Here am I; send me!”