Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:9
I am exaggerating, but it seems at least half of the sermons preached at Presbytery by a candidate seeking ordination contain a reference to the call of Isaiah. You probably know the story as well as I. Isaiah, before becoming a prophet, entered the Temple to pray. Once there, he experienced a vision that would leave Stephen Spielberg gasping for air. A six-winged angel appeared singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Host. The whole world is filled with the glory of God.”
Isaiah did exactly what most of us would have done. He screamed, “Woe is me! I am not worthy to be standing here.”
Then the angel placed a live coal on the mouth of Isaiah and the soon to be prophet heard the voice of God ask, “Who will go for us? Whom shall I send?”
Isaiah responded, “Here am I, send me.”
Once the candidate introduces the story, she proceeds to weave an elaborate tale describing the exact moment she knew, without doubt, that God had issued her a call to ordained ministry. The stories are fascinating. Once in a while the call comes during a personal struggle with alcohol or drugs. Sometimes it comes during a Crusade for Christ rally. Sometimes it comes shortly after becoming disillusioned with Crusade for Christ. Occasionally it happens in a moment of solitude, sometimes in a moment of crisis. More often than not, it comes at a church camp or youth retreat. The stories are vividly real and no one listening has any reason to doubt the motivation for the person’s call to ministry stemmed from a holy moment. Yet remarkably, when I ask colleagues to share their ‘Come to Jesus moment’, most shake their heads and say, “I don’t remember.”
While we place a high priority on those hallowed epiphanies when one hears the voice of God, the truth is the Road to Damascus is on very few of our faith travelogues. We practically apologize for being raised in a Christian home as if we have committed some kind of religious crime. As we grow older, we become comfortable talking about seeing God in the sunset, or hearing God’s voice in the cry of a baby, but we never really consider those as holy announcements from the Almighty.
While everyone loves the call of Isaiah, I find myself more comfortable with the story of Nicodemus. Without a doubt he grew up in a religious home and could recite the Ten Commandments before he was three. Nicodemus feasted on stories of Sarah, Moses, Ruth, Joshua, and Ezekiel. When it came to Bible sword drills, no one dared to challenge Nico. He knew the Torah from right to left and back again. Everyone recognized he would be a Rabbi. Folks figured he was called by God at birth.
So why couldn’t Nicodemus see God when Jesus was standing right in front of him? Maybe if Jesus had showed off a wing or two the identification would have been easier? We are so familiar with his story we find it hard to give Nicodemus a break. We forget Jesus did not reveal his real identity. We forget in the eyes of most folks Nicodemus was the teacher and Jesus the student. Most importantly, we forget that the Southern Baptist had not yet popularized the phrase “born again”. Nicodemus dared to ask the question that is on the lips of every seeker, “How can I find God?”
The answer Nicodemus received was the last answer that would have ever crossed his theologically trained mind. Jesus said, “To see God, you have got to start all over again. You have to be reborn.”
Nicodemus reacted exactly as I and I suspect many of you would. He looked Jesus right in the eye and said, “Are you kidding? How can I undo what has already been done?”
I have never been real comfortable with the term ‘born again’. I realize millions of people wear that label proudly and rightly so. But I am among the tens of millions that has never had the Billy Graham experience where I was swept up in the majesty of a divine moment and instantly became God’s servant.
My journey has not been so dramatic. It has been and continues to be a slow, winding walk on a not so level path. There have been highs and there have been lows. There have been times of immense confidence followed by moments of doubt and dismay. Even now, after 40 plus years of ordination I still see myself in a transformational process yearning for a divine moment to wash away all my doubts.
I get caught up in the theoretical, the academic, and the logical explanations for an illogical concept. Like Nicodemus, I want hard data that can be exhibited as proof of that which is immensely improvable. I not only want to witness God, I want to see the kingdom of God in action.
Maybe I should open my eyes as well as my brain.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of the summer she decided to use only public transportation. Living in Atlanta this newfound virtue was not all that difficult. But then she got an invitation to speak in Augusta. Taylor decided this shouldn’t present a problem since the Greyhound made regular trips up and down I-20. She rationalized riding on the bus would give her ample time to research her topic, “Discovering the Kingdom of God.” With her Walkman and a couple of theological journals, Brown sat down in the front of the bus. Her first discovery about bus travel was white middle class women don’t take the bus much anymore. Listen to the journey through the very words of the woman who experienced it.
Once we got underway, it was like a block party on wheels. People asked each other their names and they tried to figure out if they knew any of the same people in Augusta. They passed fried chicken around and fell asleep on each other’s shoulders. They held each other’s screaming babies and traded stories that made them howl with laughter, while the middle class white lady, sitting up front all by herself, turned up the volume on her Walkman and read her journals about the kingdom of God. (stop)
Last Sunday afternoon I was sitting with my son-in-law and salivating over the ribs he was slow cooking on the grill, thinking how great it was to relax after two services and a Sunday School class. Zach obviously was not reading my mind because he remarked, “Even with three children flying around me, I always experience God when we are here for worship. I can see how much people love and care for each other. It is a holy place, filled with holy words and songs.”
We don’t offer six-winged angels or a sanctuary filled with smoke. We don’t promise a personal conversation with Jesus over how to be born again. But we are here, in this cozy little room, each on a different journey, each with different stories, together, leaning on both God’s arms and the shoulders of our neighbor, together; silently, joyfully, prayerfully, tearfully, searching for a holy moment, together; and when the hour is over, many of us don’t want to leave.
Is this Heaven? ………………No, it’s not even Iowa.
But we are here. And when two are three are gathered together……Well, you know what happens.
To God be the glory, Amen.