In The Year That King Uzziah Died….
Rev. Dr. Robert T. Carlson, Jr.
May 27, 2018
Every so often, this life can surprise us with its eloquence. You go along from day to day not noticing very much—just the same old one thing after another. Then all of the sudden, when you are not necessarily looking for it, something speaks to you with such power that it catches you off guard, makes you listen whether you want to or not. Something speaks to you out of your own life with such directness that it is as if you have been called by name and forced to look where you have not had the heart to look before, to hear something that maybe for years you have not had the wit or wisdom to hear.
Some people think that God has stopped speaking to people 2000 years ago. I have never heard a voice—though I know people who have heard a distinctive, recognizable voice speak a message directly to them. During my cancer treatments, I had more than one experience of walking out to the mailbox after a long, weary, demoralizing day, only to find a card or a letter with message of hope and cheer. Is that just a coincidence?
When I least expected it, I would receive an e-mail message, a text or a letter telling me that I was being prayed for. Some people clipped articles and sent them to me. Others found a vaguely theological cartoon and dropped it in the mail. I got from phone calls from people who I had not heard from in years. I had to sit down when I heard their voice on the other end of the line. How they heard about me and my situation… how they found an e-mail address or a phone number was beyond my understanding. One phone such phone call was from my sister. You have to realize that my sister and I had the kind of relationship that we talked to each once every three years. Then this fall, my sister started calling me every week. And, at the end of one of those phone calls she said, “I love you.” I was struck dumb. That is not how we talk to each other in my family of origin. But I wonder, is this not how God reaches out to us, how God speaks to us today—through the voices of others that we have grown accustomed to take for granted?
Last Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in the dugout with my grandson during the second baseball game he played in that day. The first game was at 10 a.m. I had other obligations last Sunday at 10:oo. But as I sat there, one the coaches, a father of another boy on the team, sat down next to me and told me a story. He said that early that Sunday morning, he went into his son’s room to wake him up to get ready for the early game. His son was startled by being awoken so early on a Sunday morning, and when he sat up in bed, his first question to his dad was: “Are we going to church?” This coach and father turns to me and asks: “Do you think God is trying to tell me something?” I know this coach knows who I am and what I do. He has heard of me from my own son who coaches along side him. So I gave him a very simple answer: “I do.”
Brian Doyle tells a story of how he once drove the Dalai Lama from Portland, Oregon to Seattle. He had missed his connecting flight, and it looked like he might have to cancel a speaking engagement, so Doyle volunteered to drive him, and the Dalai Lama said sure, that’s be terrific. Doyle invited the living embodiment of the Buddha to lay down in the back seat and rest, but he said no, he liked tress and hills and rivers and birds, so he sat up front and fiddled with the radio the whole trip. Doyle writes:
“You wouldn’t believe the man’s knowledge of American Pop Music. He sang along with oldies like Paul Revere and the Raiders. Turns out he loves surf music: Beach Boys, Ventures, and Safaris. He kept me laughing the entire trip. Nine out of ten songs he knew the song and the lyrics. As we got near to the place he was speaking in Seattle, I asked him how he knows so many songs. He said its because he is always on the road—a line I never forgot, a line that sort of makes me sad. Here is this holy man, and his country is stolen, his family and friends are either in exile or dead, and he has no place to lay his head—like another holy man I know of. And he goes around the world and back again, everybody nodding at what he says about compassion and kindness and peace, but no one really doing anything about it. How he can be so funny and so real… and so holy I haven’t the faintest idea.”[i]
These are small stories of holiness. I know larger stories too, but it is the little stories that seem to make a greater impact for me. I am one who attributes most mysteries to the mysterious nature of God. And because I believe in the God who is known in Trinity—God in three persons—I also believe that God can use any means necessary in order to communicate with God’s people, including me. Our God does not stop speaking, moving, doing, showing, revealing, in order to accomplish God’s will. Though the times seem dark and life seems empty, God keeps searching and speaking even to a people who have grown insensitive to the presence of God’s Spirit.
…As God reached out to the prophet Isaiah in the year that King Uzziah died. Notice that this is no fairy tale that begins once upon a time. The stories of God with God’s people are grounded in history, in real time and real place. Uzziah ascended to the throne in Jerusalem when he was 16 years old. He reigned there for more than 50 years, a reign marked by economic prosperity and military victories for the people of Judah. But as a king, he was undone by his own pride. Instead of relying upon God, Uzziah, like all the other kings before him, relied on his own innovation, his personal power, and the strength of his alliances. Eventually, those things all collapsed. Uzziah himself was struck by leprosy and lived the last 11 years of his life confined to his house, while his son ruled in his stead.
Isaiah sits down in the Temple and gazes upon the Holy of Holies as the priest lights the incense and the room fills with smoke. Like other prophets before him, Isaiah did not go looking for God, did not expect a word or a vision directed to him personally. When Isaiah realizes what he is seeing, the first words from his own mouth are, “Woe is me. I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips.” This is close to what Peter says to Jesus when Jesus takes Peter out into the deep water and nets that had caught nothing all night are suddenly filled with a catch of fish.
But instead of judgment, Isaiah receives forgiveness, and his response to that grace is to answer God’s search for a body, a person to carry God’s will and Word, by saying, “Here am I; send me.” The mandate Isaiah receives is a disturbing contradiction. The mission of a prophet, after all, is to open people’s hearts, to enhance their understanding, and to bring about a return to God. But Isaiah is sent to the people with a message that will make it seem as though he is standing on his head: “Make the hearts of this people fat, their ears heavy, and shut their eyes,” says the Lord. Because the people are already spiritually insensitive, Isaiah is told that their punishment is going to intensify what they have already done to their souls. Thinking that their problems were due to an error in politics, they cannot recognize the failure in their relationship with God. The people already have a callous attitude. Isaiah hears them cry out in defiance: “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”
Isaiah’s experience of God’s presence and God’s call led him to proclaim a truth that we have never understood very well: Namely that God is God and we are not. This was a truth that the 20th century theologian, Karl Barth began to proclaim at the end of the First World War. Barth argued that modern theologians thought they were speaking of God if they spoke about being human in a very loud voice. Barth was dismayed and discouraged that all of his professors had supported the Kaiser’s war policy in the World War I. These theologians thought that Germany was the new Israel, the embodiment of the real kingdom of God, and that it is up to us to make history come out right.
Barth believed that the glory and holiness of God emerges for us when there is nothing left but the existence of God. When God becomes to us the truthful and living God, then we are forced, like Isaiah, to realize that such a God stands against us. Woe is me. I am lost. That is where we all stand in the face of God. But such a realization leads us to understand that that the One whom we can only apprehend as against us, stands there—for us. Christ has been delivered up for us which means that God is for us, and we are at His side. Therefore, hope that is a visible hope is not hope, and direct talk of God cannot be talk of the living God.
American and British theologians were immediately critical of Karl Barth. But on May 30, 1934, it was Barth and some of his students, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who recognized the demonic character of the Nazi Movement and organized opposition in the form of the Barmen Declaration. While others counseled appeasement, Barth and Bonhoeffer practiced resistance.
One of the events leading up to the Barmen Declaration was Hitler’s decision to summon 40 prominent church leaders to meet with him in Berlin. One of those leaders was a pastor named Martin Niemoller. Hitler told these pastors, “You leave the care of the Third Reich to me, and you look after the church.” As the assembled clergy were leaving, Niemoller approached Hitler privately and told him, “As Christians and churchmen, we have a responsibility toward the German people too. Our responsibility was entrusted to us by God, and neither you nor anyone in this world has the power to take it from us.” It is little wonder that Niemoller was arrested just 3 years later, and spent 8 years in concentration camps, which miraculously, he survived.
Our God is an extravagant, talkative, triune God, who speaks to us and reveals Himself to us in countless ways. This Triune God is the One that Paul writes about when he says, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Christ Jesus from the dead dwells in your mortal bodies, you too shall rise from the dead.” This is the same Spirit through which we are made participants in the Trinity.
This Spirit is at work in us and in the church for the long haul. Our culture is a culture that values speed, but the holiness of God requires patience and perseverance. Some theologians today are calling this the slow church. A slow church has a passion for justice and change, but the change sought is not of solutions that do not last. Rather it is the kind of church that makes possible companionship in a world based on isolation. The Spirit rests on our bodies, making us capable of friendship.
This is the Spirit that Cardinal Newman prayed for when he asked:
“Stay with me, and then I shall begin to shine as You shine: so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will all be from you. None of it will be mine. It will be You who shines through me upon others…. Teach me to show forth your praise, your truth, your will. Make me preach you without preaching—not by words, but by example and by the catching force, the sympathetic influence, of what I do—by my visible resemblance to your saints, and the fullness of love which my heart bears to you.”[ii]
If only something we have said and done in this life has such a catching force, then we can call it a life well lived, a life lived in the power and service of the triune God. Amen
[i] Brain Doyle, A Shimmer of Something, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2014.
[ii] This prayer is in The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2015.