When I teach Christian Ethics, I try to compensate for my students’ general lack of theological literacy by taking them on a whirlwind tour of the biblical narrative. The main thing the Bible has to teach us, I often tell them, is who God is and what God is up to, with the latter showing us a lot about the former. What God is up to, I suggest, is some variation of the same thing he’s been up to since he approached Abram somewhere around 4,000 years ago: a work of healing, cosmic in its scope, in which (as some of the Ekklesia Project’s own literature points out), God’s called and gathered people are both recipients and partners.
This is the fundamental economy of God’s ongoing work to heal the brokenness of his beloved Creation. God calls regular folks, all of whom share in Creation’s brokenness, often profoundly so, and then empowers them, collectively and individually, to be embodied witnesses to God’s now-yet-coming reign.This pattern is repeated throughout the biblical story, from the covenant with Abram (Genesis 12-18) to the promise to David (2 Samuel 7 & 23) to the call of Peter (Luke 5) to Jesus’ promise-commission to his followers at his ascension (Acts 1).
Its apocalyptic accoutrements notwithstanding, this week’s Old Testament passage from Isaiah is yet another story demonstrating this pattern. Isaiah, son of Amoz, experiences a vision in which he is given a glimpse of the throne room of the Almighty. The spectacle the prophet witnesses is disrupted when one of the seraphic attendants proclaims of God: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
This news shakes the very foundations of everything present, especially, it seems, the prophet. Made so conspicuously aware of God’s identity as holy – the Hebrew here is qadosh, meaning, roughly, “set apart as distinct” – he can but cry out “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
In spite of his terror at that moment, Isaiah is not lost. His sudden awareness of his own brokenness relative to God’s absolute integrity places him precisely where God wants him, in the appropriate posture for being cleansed, reassured, and sent forth to do God’s work. In Isaiah’s case, that work is in some respects less than pleasant; he is called to forecast God’s judgment. Yet that judgment is not the final word, for the prophet is also given a word of hope to proclaim: God’s steadfast love for his people and all Creation is unconditional and everlasting, and God’s perfectly just, peaceable reign is history’s ultimate horizon.
For all of us who live profoundly aware of our own brokenness, who wonder how so holy a God could possibly love us, much less use us, the story of Isaiah’s call is pure gospel. It reminds us that God’s forgiving, healing, transformative work has always been done among and through women and men just like us, and that God continues to work in precisely that same way. Having been made aware of our brokenness, having had the healing of that brokenness begun, we have genuinely good news to speak and show to a world desperately in need of it.
As a Wesleyan and an obsessive-compulsive, I am seldom wont to quote Martin Luther, yet his words seem somehow a fitting way of summing up this passage and the entire breadth of the economy of God’s redemption. A Christian, he remarked, is simply one beggar telling another where to find bread.