“In the Year Uzziah Died…”
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean, VA
On June 3rd, 2012
Mark 8:14-21, Isaiah 6:1-8
Our first scripture text for today is from the Gospel of Mark,
which is the Gospel that our confirmation class goes through every year.
It is also the Gospel that our Women of Spirit group
is slowly making its way through on Wednesday mornings.
We’ve made it halfway through chapter 8 in 16 weeks.
Of the four Gospels, Mark’s is the one
that portrays Jesus’ disciples as the most slow to understand his message
(as our own Dan Thomas is fond of saying, Mark shows us the DUH-sciples,
or as I like to call them, God’s poster children for the spiritually hearing impaired).
Which makes them great companions for you and me, I think, because
we too sometimes have a hard time really understanding
that God does provide what we need if not always what we want;
we have a hard time understanding
that Jesus’ way of sacrificial love gives us the best glimpse
into who God is and what God wants from us;
and sometimes we have a hard time understanding
that we really are called to follow in that way.
In the passage I am about to read,
Jesus has just finished telling the Pharisees,
who have asked him for a sign to prove that he’s the Messiah,
that he’s not going to give them one.
And yet, the disciples have by that point in Mark’s Gospel watched him
heal sick people, cure deaf people, and cast out demons
that separated people from the community and their best self.
He’s walked on water, stilled a storm,
and fed 5,000, and then 4,000 people
by taking what might have been enough only for a few
and transforming it into plenty enough to feed a crowd.
Talk about signs. There were plenty of signs all around,
for those who were paying attention, at least.
Now the disciples are in the boat with Jesus,
and he warns them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.
You know, of course, that yeast or leaven is what makes bread dough rise.
Yeast is what observant Jews to this day remove from their homes
in the days leading up to Passover.
They only eat unleavened bread to symbolize
that in Exodus they had to rely on God’s provision
when they were fleeing Egypt.
In the Exodus, people had no time to wait around for bread to rise.
So they took unleavened bread.
They had to do more than rely on themselves as they went to the places where they would go.
They had to rely on God.
Listen for how the disciples misunderstand when Jesus warns them
about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod.
Note that Jesus, who people sometimes believe
was always gentle, meek, and mild,
comes across as rather irritated here.
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
Our second passage is the one assigned for today from the book of Isaiah.
It details an episode that happens some 760 years before the conversation
Jesus has with the disciples in the boat.
In today’s text, Isaiah recalls how he first experienced God’s call in his life.
It happened in the Temple, the place where Jewish people gathered for worship.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘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!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ 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!’
In the year that King Uzziah of Judah died, which scholars say was 740 or 739 B.C.E.,
the prophet Isaiah, who was then a very young man,
had a remarkable vision.
Isaiah was in the Temple in Jerusalem,
the place where Jewish people of that day went to worship,
particularly on special occasions.
That’s where he had his vision …
What he encountered in his vision was a sense of the sheer majesty,
the utter otherness, the enormity of the transcendent God,
a God who couldn’t be contained in the Temple,
and couldn’t be reduced to any sort of box Isaiah might want to put God in.
The hem of God’s robe filled the Temple,
—which meant that the rest of God had to be a lot bigger than that—
bigger than the statements, structures and systems
that we construct to try to contain God.
The angels that were there in attendance
couldn’t do anything but cry “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
One “Holy” wasn’t enough to get the point of God’s majesty across.
Just as one “Thank You” isn’t enough to the Motet Choir for their music today.
Thank you, thank you, thank you!
It’s true. Sometimes one “Holy,” or one “Thank You,” isn’t enough.
It was the year that King Uzziah died, and isn’t that how we remember
significant events in our lives? We often mark them not just by what happened,
but by other big things that occurred about the same time.
We situate them in the larger story of our lives and the world.
Farmers might say, “It was the year we had that bad drought,
and the crops didn’t come in. That was the year when we lost Grandma.”
Sports fans might say, “It was the year that the Nationals
went to the playoffs for the very first time.”
Americans of a certain age might say,
“It was the year World War Two ended. Remember that?
That’s when we first met.”
Or, “It was the year that Kennedy was assassinated. That’s when my teacher,
on hearing the news, punched his fist right through the blackboard.”
It was the year terrorists flew planes into buildings.
That’s how I remember when I met my late friend, the folksinger David M. Bailey
—it was just one month after 9/11 and we were just outside NYC for a conference.
We went into the city that week,
and the acrid smell was still hanging in the air from
where the Towers collapsed a month before.
My daughter Rebecca was born in 1993.
That was the year a big blizzard hit the Northeast.
She was born one month to the day after the blizzard of ‘93.
Well, you get the point.
We connect big events in life to other big events.
It was the year King Uzziah died….
Isaiah’s vision was situated in real time.
Like the birth of a baby named Jesus.
You know, during the first census that took place
during the reign of Emperor Augustus.
when Quirinius was governor of Syria…
When we have remarkable experiences, our minds tend to connect them to other things
going on in our lives or in the world around us—that’s how we remember.
So I can see Isaiah as an old man,
gathering his grandchildren and great-grandchildren around him…
“It was the year that King Uzziah died, and I had this remarkable experience of God.
It was as if the whole Temple shook, and it filled with smoke,
and there were angels there.
And after that I was never the same. Changed my whole life completely.
I never would have met your Grandma if it weren’t for that….”
I don’t know about you, but occasionally I get just a little bit jealous
of the characters in the Bible who have these remarkable experiences of God.
It’s not that I don’t have my own stories to tell, mind you,
it’s just that they seem so much less dramatic than, say,
getting knocked off your donkey on the road to Damascus,
or watching your mentor get carried up in a chariot of fire into heaven,
or having the pivots of the temple shake while the sanctuary fills with smoke.
The closest thing I’ve ever been around to a sanctuary filling with smoke
was the Ash Wednesday when, as a greenhorn pastor,
I decided it would be smart to burn things in the sanctuary as part of the service.
Smoke billowed up and out, people started to cough
And I thought we were going to have to call the fire department.
That was just an ordinary occasion, not a dramatic experience of God, right?
Oh, my stories are a little more ordinary than Isaiah’s..
Like the time I gave my Dad his twenty-five year chip in A.A.
Or the afternoon I decided to turn back in the Metro station
and go back up to the hospital waiting room
realizing that I had forgotten to pray with this family
I was just coming to know as the husband and father lay dying.
Then there was the day I paid attention to the nagging sense
that I had to go see somebody that very day
not knowing that two days later she would die unexpectedly.
Or, the morning two weeks ago when I stopped to give money to the homeless veteran.
My experiences are not like the hem of God’s robe filling the temple.
They are something that somehow seems more ordinary.
Our confirmation process comes to an end today with eight bright young eighth-graders
standing before you and affirming their faith.
I hope the program has been memorable for them
that they’ve gotten something out of it.
We certainly try to make it interesting for the kids.
It’s been fun for me.
But more than having fun or being interested, it is my hope
that the young people in our confirmation class
have had and will have
experiences of God…
Maybe even today, when they come forward
to affirm their faith in front of a gathered congregation.
I had an experience of God this week when I watched a Session member
and one of our confirmands discuss his statement of faith
at the dinner we had for the elders and the confirmation class this past Thursday.
They were talking about his statement of faith and the topic came around to prayer.
The elder was so passionate as he expressed to the confirmand his conviction
that prayer is about more than piling up words.
It is about really listening.
He was so passionate about telling this eighth grader that faith
is meant to be a lifelong journey
lived out in the support and challenge of a community of believers.
As I watched them interact, I couldn’t help but sense that there was
something more at work in the world than just us.
As you may know, we have the young people in the confirmation class
write statements of faith,
and that’s an important task, I think.
It’s a good discipline to every so often write down
what we believe at this point in our lives.
It’s a good discipline for all of us. So if you haven’t ever done that, and even if you have,
consider this a challenge. Sometime in the next few weeks,
write down what you believe. Create your own faith statement.
But the trouble with faith statements—whether it is something I’ve written,
or something you’ve written,
or something like the Apostles’ Creed that
was written in the fourth century,
is that we can begin to think that our words can capture and limit God somehow
instead of remembering that no structure, no system or statement
—not the temple, not the denomination, not the particular church,
not the particular theology (not even Reformed theology)
not even the brightest, most inquisitive mind
can contain God in all of God’s fullness.
At best, a statement of faith, a denomination, a church, a theology,
contains just the hem, the train, of God’s robe.
They are our grasping efforts to catch something of the Divine.
But in the end, we are left with mystery, and awe, and Holy, Holy, Holy.
We are left with one more thing. The call to respond…to say, “Here am I, send me.”
Now whether or not you have ever had an experience like Isaiah’s
an experience of being overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of God
—whether in a sanctuary or out in nature someplace—
(and who is to say you won’t have an experience like that?)
I am willing to bet that all of us have had or will have times
when the challenges of life seem bigger than we can handle,
at least bigger than we can handle on our own…
Something will come along—and it will seem huge.
It will seem to fill up and overwhelm your life.
A friend, a spouse, a parent, a child will die.
A relationship you built your life on may fall through.
A job you thought would last your whole life long will end.
A candidate you never ever would have voted for will be elected.
A college you wanted to go to will send you a rejection letter.
You name it. Big, unfortunate things will happen.
Or maybe you’ll just look at the world around us and say,
“Oh. My. God. This is a disaster!
What can be done about the problems our world faces?
What could I ever do to even make a dent in them?”
And you will think you won’t be able to make it.
That you don’t have the ability to stand the pressure.
That you are too flawed or broken to manage.
That’s when you’ll need to remember Isaiah,
and how he was overwhelmed, not by problems,
but by how big God is.
And you’ll also need to remember the message the disciples on the boat heard.
They, who had seen Jesus do any number of miraculous things,
needed to be reminded again that God really can and does and will provide.
It was the year that Chrys Liddle died.
That’s how I remember it.
Chrys was 49. She was the Clerk of Session in my first church, in upstate New York.
Chrys was a big woman. Big in stature. Big in personality. Big in heart.
She was a joyful person.
One morning, about 5:30, I received a phone call.
“Aaron, you need to come to Glens Falls Hospital. Chrys is dead.”
I was 27 years old. I had been confirmed. I had been ordained,
and had been in ministry for a couple of years.
But I didn’t know what to do or say in the face of that reality.
Other than to just go. To just show up.
That day and that week I prayed, and prayed, and prayed.
And somehow I was given the words
to hold her husband together, her son together, our church together, and myself together.
When I stood up to preach the following Sunday
after leading Chrys’ funeral in the middle of that week,
the text was from Isaiah 6:1-8.
I couldn’t help but notice, at that point,
that my mouth was just one big cold sore.
It was as if someone had touched my mouth with a burning coal.
That was my Isaiah moment.
I made the connection that here I was, a young man feeling overwhelmed
by leading a congregation through a time of enormous crisis and pain
feeling like I was so not up to the task
after all, I was a person of unclean lips in a congregation of unclean lips
amongst a people of unclean lips.
I didn’t know what I was going to say.
And then I had this cold sore.
You can tell me, “Well, Aaron, that’s easy to explain.
You were under an enormous amount of stress.
That’s what happens when you are under stress.
You get cold sores.”
Okay. But I also see it as the hand of God telling me
“You are called.”
That, more than my confirmation, more than my ordination,
was the moment when I realized that God could use me;
that was the time when I said, “Here am I, send me.”
Whatever it is for you, whatever age you happen to be right now,
whether you get a cold sore or not,
I hope you understand that God means to use you to be a blessing
And that you are able to respond,
“Here am I, send me.”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.