What is Next? Longing for a Word from God

St. Augustine is one of the most important figures in Christian history. Although he died over 1500 years ago, he was, in many ways, the first modern, or even postmodern, person. He grew up in a decadent time, and lived to see the fall of Rome. His mother was a devout Christian. His father was a pagan. Augustine’s life as a young man was characterized by loose living and a search for answers to life’s basic questions. He followed various philosophies, only to become disillusioned. He experimented with various religions.

Around the year 386 A.D., Augustine was teaching rhetoric in Milan and heard the eloquent preaching of Saint Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan. Over time, the Bishop’s preaching led Augustine to a new understanding of the Bible and Christian Faith. Sometime in the year 386, while outdoors in a garden, Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, “Pick up and read.”

Realizing that the song might be a command from God to read the Scriptures, he located a Bible, opened it, and read the first passage he saw, words from Romans: “Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh”(Romans 13:13-14).

Augustine had received a personal word and revelation from God. He went on to become a priest, a bishop, a great theologian, and the founder of the Augustinian Order. Later, reflecting on this experience, Augustine wrote his famous prayer: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. [1] 

Today, we are talking about our need for a word from God for our lives.

The Word of God from Isaiah

For the next few weeks, we are going to be looking at a selections  from the Isaiah that are important for Christian faith and understanding what God was doing in Jesus Christ. Isaiah is the most important of the Old Testament prophets. Augustine himself was told by Abrose that he should read the book. The only reason he did not as a new Christian was the complexity of the book makes it difficult to understand. Nevertheless, the early Christian church, and Augustine, saw in Isaiah the clearest picture of the Messiah as the Suffering Servant, revealed in Christ. This morning we’re going to be looking at the call of Isaiah. Hear the word of God as it comes to us from Isaiah chapter 6 verses one through eight:

 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 6:1-8).

Let us pray:God of Wisdom, who has spoken to us by the prophets, by the apostles, and most definitely, through the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, please come to us this morning and open our hearts for your Word to us. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

Isaiah’s Story

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Isaiah is one of my favorite books in the Bible. The prophet Isaiah lived around the year 750 B.C. His ministry began, as today’s text says, in the last year of King Uzziah, who was a good king who came to a bad end. In his later years, God judged Uzziah for his pride and overreaching. By the time Isaiah began to write, it was clear that Judah and Israel were decaying and that Assyria was the emerging world power. In 731 B.C., the Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and Judah was directly threatened. At this pivotal moment of Middle Eastern history, God called Isaiah to be a prophet.

If you’ve read Isaiah, or studied the book, you almost certainly have been struck by some facts. First, Isaiah, with Ezekiel and Jeremiah is a major prophet. The book is long and complex, just as Jeremiah and Ezekiel are long and complex. Second, Isaiah contains some of the most beautiful literature and poetry in the Old Testament. Third, and this is not so obvious, Isaiah is deeply influenced by Old Testament wisdom literature. The book is filled with wisdom from God.

We don’t know a lot about Isaiah, but we do know that he was both a great man of God and a great literary artist. We know that Isaiah was uniquely gifted with a clear vision of who Messiah would be, and what the Messiah would be like. It is in Isaiah that we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much a conquering hero as a Suffering Servant. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be a man of violence, but a man of peace. In Isaiah, we learn that the Messiah is not going to be so much of man of action, as a man of wisdom. In Isaiah, we learn the Messiah will be God with us, and not just another human being.

In today’s text, we see a young man, probably a priest, at the very beginning of his career. One day, he received a vision of the living God (Isaiah 6:1). In all probability, Isaiah was praying for a word from God about the condition of his country. In the midst of his prayers and worries, his thoughts and meditations, God appeared. Amidst the decay of his own society, in the midst of the death of his own people, at the time of the death a king, Isaiah received a vision of God high and lifted up, lifted up above all the problems and perplexities of our world, ruling in wisdom, power and love.

Many years ago, the author J.B. Phillips wrote a book called, Your God is Too Small. [2] Sometimes, we think of God as if he were a little old man far beyond his best years, without the capacity or the ability to really interfere in our lives or the world for the good. We think of God is a little bit like George Burns in the movie, “Oh God.” – a bumbling old man who is more or less out of it. [3] This is not the God of the Bible nor the God of Isaiah!

The God of the Bible is filled with glory, wise beyond our understanding, powerful beyond our imagination, good beyond our ability to comprehend, and loving beyond any possible human imitation. The God of the Bible sits on the very throne of heaven. Sometimes, God may seem not to be in control, but God  is always deeply in control of events. The God of the Bible is surrounded by angels and archangels and rules the universe and human history with endless wisdom, power, and love.

If you are like me, when times are tough or difficulties arise, I often forget this great truth: The God of the Bible is in control of history and of our lives. God loves us and will care for us, no matter what. God is never too small for the problems of our life. In fact, God is bigger than any problem we can have now or in the future. We can trust God in every circumstance. If there is anything we can get from this passage it that we have a big God.

Mary’s Story

This is the first Sunday of Advent. Often, we begin Advent with another message from God. One day, more than 700 years after Isaiah’s vision, a young woman in Nazareth was visited by one of those Seraphim who surround the throne of God. [4] She was not a scholar. She was not a priest. She was not from a wealthy or powerful family. She was not highly educated. She was not old and experienced. She was a girl about fifteen or sixteen years old. She was a Jew, and as a Jew she had waited for many years in hopes that the Messiah would come. She had been to the synagogue many times and heard the words of Isaiahthat one day that would come a son of David, the Prince of Peace, and everlasting God, the person who would save her nation and rule with wisdom and justice. I’m pretty sure that Mary never thought one moment that she would have any part in the story other than a person it would be rescued with everyone else.

As she was going about her daily life, another angel, this time Gabriel, which means “One Who Stands in the Presence of God,” appeared to her. He began with a strange greeting: “Hail to you most favored one” (Luke 2:28). Mary had no idea what to think of this. She had no inkling that an angel would ever appear to her, and she was afraid (vv. 29-30). You see, peasant girls in ancient Israel did not expect to get a personal message from God.

The angel went on to tell Mary that she should not be afraid, indeed she was honored, because the Spirit of the Lord was going to come upon her and she was going to be the mother of the Messiah (vv. 30-33). From Mary’s perspective, this was impossible (v. 34). Nevertheless, after the angel explained what was going to happen to her Mary simply said, “I am the Lord’s handmaiden” (or servant) (v.38).

Our Story

The stories of Isaiah revelation and of Mary have real importance for us. Here are a few things we can take from these stories about our own relationship with God:

  • God appears to those how are seeking God. Both Isaiah and Mary were people of faith. Both were devout. While God does sometimes appear to unbelievers, most of the time he appears to those who are already seeking God in faith.
  • God appears to humble hearts. Both Mary and Isaiah were awestruck by their revelations. They did not feel worthy and they made that known to by their response to the revelation they received. God most often reveals himself to the lowly of heart who truly depend upon God and not upon their own wisdom.
  • God appears to those convicted of their own sin. The scene in Isaiah where a hot coal touches the lips of the prophet is a scene of cleansing and the burning away of all that separates the recipient of the prophecy from God (Isaiah 6:5-6). Conviction of sin and repentance from it are important. This does not mean that we’re not still sinners. It means that we know were sinners and are repentant.
  • God appears to those willing to respond to God. When Isaiah responds to God, “Here I am, send me!”(6: 8), and when Mary responds to God, “I am the handmaiden of the Lord”(Luke 1:38), they are expressing a willingness to follow God where God leads.
  • Finally, God appears to those who are willing to suffer for God. Just after the passage we read this morning, God reveals to Isaiah that, although he is going to prophesy to the people of Israel, they are not going to listen (Isaiah 6:9-13). Mary was going to be slandered and thought ill of because she was going to be an unwed mother. Her betrothed, Joseph, was going to doubt her truthfulness. She was even going to live long enough to see her firstborn son die a terrible death. This reveals something that we don’t want to hear but need to know: God normally reveals himself to those who are willing to do God’s will and accept any resulting suffering.

Conclusion

The book of Hebrews begins with one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. Here’s what the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. And, after he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that, although God will speak to each one of us at one time or another and ask us to do one thing or another, we have already received the most important word of all from God. He has sent us Jesus. In the manger, we see the one who created the world by his wisdom who redeemed us by his grace. That is enough.

You probably have a story like this in Ohio, but in the South we have a story to go something like this: Once, there was a great hurricane down in Louisiana. A poor Cajun was in the floodplain. The water rose and rose until the Cajun was forced to crawl  onto the top of his little shack to keep from drowning. He began to pray that God would save him. In a little while,  a family came by swimming  by together as a group. It looked terribly unsafe. A few minutes later, a small fishing boat, old and leaking, came by with the person in it. It looked terribly unsafe. He continued to pray, and a helicopter flew over, but the Cajun and was afraid of heights. Finally, the waters covered the house, and he drowned. He went to heaven and appeared before God, angry and wet. Immediately, he said, “Why didn’t you save me?” God replied, “I sent a family, and you didn’t jump in with them. I sent a boat and you wouldn’t get in. I sent a helicopter, and you wouldn’t wave it down. What more could I do?”

Sometimes, we are like that Cajun.

In my earlier years, I often prayed that God would reveal to me a path to ministry. What I learned was that God would never reveal himself to me until I was willing to respond in faith. The same is true today. We are not really listeningfor a word from God until we are willing to respondto God and do what he asks us to do. We should be thankful for the example of Mary and Isaiah: They heard and obeyed.

Amen.

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Midwest Augustinians, “Conversion of St. Augustine “ https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/conversion-of-st-augustine/(downloaded November 27, 2018). The quote is from the Confessions of St. Augustine.
[2] J. B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small(New York, New York 1952, Touchstone Edition, 2004).
[3] “O God,” Dir. Carl Reiner. Wr. Larry Gelbart, Avery Corman, Starring John Denver, George Burns, Teri Garr (19777).
[4] Gabriel, with Michael and Raphael, are archangels or seraphim, who are variously described in Scripture and non-canonical works. See, Saints Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael www.catholicism.org(downloaded December 1, 2018).

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