Confronting Conflict – Sermon on Isaiah 6.1-8

Isaiah 6.1-8

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. Then 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!”

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Tell me about your last fight.” So began one of my recent premarital counseling sessions. The couple danced around the question for a few moments, claiming they couldn’t remember the last time they had a fight, but when I started to ask more specific questions the answers started pouring out. Their conflict could be boiled down to a lack of communication, and when I sat there with them I saw them begin to share things with one another for the very first time. Before we went on, I couldn’t help myself from asking, “Why haven’t you talked about this stuff before?”

The woman sat in my office with her head hung low. It took her a few minutes to muster the courage to begin telling her story, and when she started it came out like the floodgates were opening. She felt invisible to her husband, no matter what she did, he would brush it off and continue to focus on the task before him. She was afraid that she had done something wrong and didn’t know where else to turn so she came to me. We talked together about her situation, but I couldn’t help myself from wondering, “Why hasn’t she told her husband how he makes her feel?

We were sitting on the edge of a property in West Virginia after nearly a week on our mission trip. The young boy was from a different church, but I could tell something had sent him over the edge. His tears fell slowly and deliberately as he confided in me about his struggles. He could not longer stand being treated like an infant or a child. He had important ideas and things to share but everyone brushed him aside instead of treating him with worth. Rather than being supported in his discipled journey, he felt like he was all alone and he was worried. I listened, but I also knew that when the end of the trip arrived he would be going home to a different community and a different church so I asked, “Is there someone from home that you can share all of this with?” And he said, “I don’t know, I’m afraid.

In each of your bulletins you will find a piece of paper about the size of an index card and I would like you to hold it in your hand. We’re going to have some time for silence, and during that time I want everyone to write down the name of one person that you are currently in conflict with.

Maybe your mother-in-law has been driving you crazy with her relentless need to tell you how to raise your family. Perhaps your boss continues to heed your advice, but then takes all the credit when things go right. Maybe your son has made some poor choices and you can’t remember the last time you had a decent conversation about anything. Perhaps one of your best friends is letting their backwards political opinions isolate them from what it means to be a decent human being. Maybe your pastor has been preaching all sorts of sermons that you definitely do not agree with.

So take a moment, and write down a name. No one will see it but you. When you’ve finished, I want you to hold the card in your hand for the rest of the sermon.

In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord sitting on a throne. God encountered the soon-to-be prophet in the midst of something important. Uzziah was an arrogant ruler, and his arrogance led to his death. Even though his reign brought economic prosperity, he neglected to respect the temple and the worship of God. It was at this particular time, in the wake of Uzziah’s death that Isaiah was called to speak.

The call is frightening. The Lord is high and lofty with the hem of his robe filling up the entirety of the temple. Seraphs, winged creatures, were flying above the Lord, each with six wings. One of them called out to another and declared, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

Everything around Isaiah began to shake and tremble and the room filled with smoke. Only then does Isaiah muster up the courage to say anything at all, “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!

Isaiah was confronted with the utter and radical holiness of the Lord. With wind spinning, floors shaking, and voices trembling, Isaiah is struck with the realization of his own unworthiness and the unworthiness of his people. Have you ever felt unworthy when confronted by something greater than yourself?

When I saw my wife Lindsey walking down the aisle at my home church to meet me at the altar for the covenant of marriage, I felt completely unworthy. When I held Archer and Abram Pattie in my arms above the baptismal font and brought them into the fold of God’s kingdom, I felt completely unworthy. Every month when I serve communion here at the front of the church, I am met with eyes of Christians who have lived far more faithfully than I ever will, and I feel completely unworthy.

God’s majesty, whether through the beauty of creation, a call vision, or the people in our lives often leaves us feeling pretty feeble. When we discover the divine we can only feel that much more mortal. When we encounter the infinite, we are reminded of our finitude. When we meet the living God, we can’t help but wonder about the lives that he gave to us.

God’s call is frightening. God calls the young and old, men and women, to abandon their former and sinful ways to live fully in Christ. God called a young prophet to speak harsh truths to a community that had grown far too complacent. God continues to call all of his children to be prophetic with our words and our actions.

The call is frightening and scary enough. But when we respond, when we answer the call, the real trouble begins.

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Then one of the seraphs flying high above the Lord came down to Isaiah with a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with the burning coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me!

Isaiah was dramatically changed through his encounter. The flaming coal not only cleansed him, but it also gave the him the power to speak on behalf of the Lord. In a matter of moments he went from crying out, “Woe is me! I am lost” to “Here am I; send me!

This whole story about Isaiah’s call is a lot like what we do in worship. We come together to praise the almighty God, we pray and confess our unworthiness, and then seek forgiveness. We pray for God to give us the grace and strength to hear the Word with faith so that we can respond accordingly.

How we worship matters because it shapes us into the disciples we are called to be. Every Sunday is like Isaiah’s call. We meet the Lord in the words from scriptures, prayers, hymns, and our brothers and sisters. Through that encounter we are called to live out our faith as soon as we depart in a way that will make God’s kingdom reign. All of these things that we do on a weekly basis, they are done to attune us to the voice of God who speaks into our lives.

Isaiah’s call, this dramatic and overpowering moment in the temple, reminds us that when we encounter the living God, there is not way to know God without being changed. Like a coal coming from the altar to our lips, we are tasked with speaking words like fire. Like a frightened prophet we are given the power to cry out “Here am I; send me!

The prophet was called to speak during a particular time, to sinners in the midst of sin. If we hear something from God’s Word today it should be a similar call. We should not be afraid to names the sins of our time, just as Isaiah did when he confronted the people’s political arrogance, spiritual pride, and economic injustice.

Abraham had to confront the Lord who promised to make his descendants more numerous than the stars. Jacob had to confront his twin brother Esau who sought to kill him for stealing his blessing. David had to confront King Saul who was jealous of the Lord’s favor. Isaiah had to confront a people who neglected to thank God for being the source of all their blessings. Jesus had to confront a religious elite who no longer practiced what they preached. Peter had to confront the gentiles and welcome them into the fold of the church. Paul had to confront his own sinfulness and call others to do the same.

Christians, for centuries, have been called by God to confront the conflict in their lives. To be faithful is to meet the outcasts where they are and show them love. To be a disciple means a willingness to forgive people when they have done something wrong. To follow Jesus means having the courage to ask for forgiveness when we have done something wrong.

What situation are you in right now that God is calling you to confront? I believe the holy Lord of hosts is personally addressing each and every one of us in the scripture today. Who do we need to call out? Where are the conflicts in our lives?

In each of our hands we have a name that represents a conflict in our life. Some of them can be confronted with a phone call or a conversation. Some of them can be confronted with our willingness to forgive a wrong that was done toward us. Some of them can be confronted with the simplest of gestures.

It might not go well. If we take the first step to confront one of our conflicts, it might blow up in our faces. But the longer we let these names stay on paper, the longer the conflict will keep us from fully living out our identities as disciples. The longer we let the conflict simmer, the longer we will be people of unclean lips living amidst unclean lips. The longer the conflicts remain, the harder it will be to hear the living God speaking into our lives.

The voice of the Lord is saying to all of us, “Whom shall we send, who will go for us to confront the conflict?” Our answer should be the same as Isaiah’s, “Here am I, send me!” Amen.

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But I Say… – Sermon on Matthew 5.21-26

Matthew 5.21-26

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment. ‘But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on they way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

 

Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Lets assume that all of us are here this morning because we want to be good people. We see what our lives look like on a daily basis, and we recognize Sunday mornings as opportunities to better ourselves, to hear about the kind of people we are supposed to be.

Lets also assume that we are already fairly decent people. I mean look at us. We are sitting here in church on Sunday morning, thats certainly doing better than the people who are still sleeping in at home, curled up under their soft and warm blankets.

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Becoming a better person is what Christianity is all about, isn’t it? One of the main functions of any religion is to be shaped and molded into something greater than we currently are. This journey of faith is aimed at reconstructing ourselves so that we might resemble Jesus in the way that we live in the world.

But, the trouble for us who know a little bit about Jesus is that we know it was the good people, the scribes and the Pharisees, the ones who obeyed all the laws, the ones who, like us, showed up for worship on time, the people who gave fervently to the temple, who remained faithful to their spouses, who loved the Lord their God with all their heart, who knew all the scriptures, who walked humbly with God, those people were the ones who eventually yelled, “Crucify him!” 

What drove them to such disregard for the Messiah who walked among them? What could have made them move from strict religious adherence, to crowds thirsty for punishment?Well, one answer is the scripture that we have today.

We find Jesus here in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Let me set up the trajectory: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, escaped to Egypt with Mary and Joseph, returned to Nazareth, was baptized by his cousin John in the river Jordan, was cast into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights, began his Galilean ministry, called his first disciples, and then gave his Sermon on the Mount.

This sermon marks the beginning of Jesus’ mission to God’s people. The words of the sermon will come to dictate who Jesus will serve, how he will share God’s grace with the people, and why he was dragged to the cross.

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

The sermon begins like all good sermons, Jesus jumps right to the point: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth, and so forth.

With the people no doubt scratching their heads regarding whatever this inversion of the world’s dynamics was supposed to mean, Jesus moves forward, “You all are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world. Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

The sermon concludes with Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Mosaic ten commandments, which is where our scripture begins today:

You have heard it that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or a sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or a sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.

What a sermon this is shaping out to be.

Jesus’ teaching is stricter than the law itself. He will go on to proclaim do not get angry, do not lust, do not swear, do not seek revenge, and do not hate your enemy. He takes the law and make it even harder to obey.

Under the old law only murder and other extreme offenses were guilty of death, but under Jesus’ understanding angry temper is to be similarly judged. And he doesn’t stop there! Even those who would call others, “stupid” or “fool” are worthy of judgment by the court.

For Jesus, anger is just as bad as murder. Killing is not done by knives, and guns, and fists alone, but by the angry words muttered between friends, or the casual indifference between classmates that often makes people feel less than human.

Jesus looked out at the crowd and saw people worthy of love. His sermon is not just a message for Christians to follow regarding other Christians, but its a call to recognize the inherent value in all people. In Jesus’ day there was a custom of placing a large gold coin beneath the mainmast of most sailing vessels. For those who knew, this meant that even a wreck had value. Jesus recognized that value in all people, and called those with ears to hear to a life of grace, mercy, and love toward all people everywhere.

“You have heard it was said to those of ancient times… but I say to you…” Thats a classic Jesus move. It is possible to be so good, and right all the time, that you are wrong. You can be so religious that you miss the point of religion. Legalistic adherence to the law can begin to overshadow the importance of love and grace in your daily living. Overvaluing the law can lead to a faith that is cold, calculated, dry, and dull instead of a faith that is warm, wide, fun, and forgiving.

Jesus continues, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar (when you decide to place your offering in the plate) if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother and sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

A professor of mine in seminary told a story about a church in Africa that took this command quite seriously. Every Sunday morning the people would make their way to the church located in the middle of the village. Some with sleep still in their eyes would drag their lethargic bodies down the dusty road, continuing the same march they made every week.

At the bottom of the steps leading into the small sanctuary, the local pastor would be smiling from ear to ear greeting everyone as they came forward, however the doors would remain locked. The crowd would grow and grow until everyone from the village was present, anxiously waiting outside the church.

“Look around you,” the preacher’s voice would echo, “who do you need to reconcile with? Who have you betrayed since last we met? Go and find your brothers and sisters, make peace with one another. Until you do, these doors will remain locked.

For the next twenty minutes, all of the African congregants would slowly make their way throughout the crowds searching for those who they had wronged, and who had wronged them. Now this wasn’t a town where you could just stand around and pretend that everything had been perfect since last Sunday. Everyone knew everyones’ business. That meant that they truly had to make peace with the collective church. Without the reconciliation, the people had no business entering the church to worship God. Only after the pastor was satisfied that everyone had been merciful with one another, were the doors opened and worship continued.

Some might say that Jesus’ command that someone should leave their gift at the altar to reconcile with his brother or sister is a depreciation of worship; however, it is actually an exaltation of worship. Just as it happened for that African church, God sees our inmost motives, and we are called to worship God in truth. If we have baggage with others in the community, we mock God by coming before the altar instead of first reconciling ourselves with others. God is concerned with our lives and our worship; we cannot ignore one while participating in the other.

I thought about doing something radical this morning. After reading the scripture for Sunday, and remembering the story from my professor, I wondered what it would have been like to stand outside those doors preventing all of you from entering today. But, after having shoveled at the parsonage and the church the last few days in the cold, I thought better of it. Nevertheless, what would our worship in this place look like, if first we made peace with those in the pews, rather than anonymously continuing down our faith journeys all alone?

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What Jesus presented to the crowd, what Jesus presents to us this morning is not so much a new law to be strictly observed, but instead a new way of living our lives. Jesus makes his point dramatically in order for a change of heart to take place.

Jesus is here with us this morning, addressing us as he did to that crowd so long ago: You already know that you are forbidden to murder anyone, but now I’m telling you that you are forbidden to become angry with anyone. Call someone a fool and you’ll be worthy of punishment. Do you truly want to be good? Don’t just keep the law like the “good” Christians, go beyond the law.

Challenge yourselves to be greater than following guidelines and lists. Strive to love those around you to such a degree that the world will be transformed into the kingdom of God.

As a professor of mine once said, we are so accustomed to coming to a church like this and, if we should struggle and stumble with a passage like this one, it usually takes no more than 15 minutes for a skillful preacher, using the skills of story-telling, diversion, and trite formulaic expressions to explain it away. To reassure all of us that a nice person like Jesus never would have had a reason to say something tough to good people like us.

I know of no way to do that with this text. No amount of pop-psychology or narratival reductionism can remove the true message of Jesus’ words. The tougher the text, the more likely  it was to have come straight from the lips of Jesus. Being a Christian is no easy thing. It requires us to love greatly, and to forgive deeply.

Now more than ever we need to reclaim the high call of Jesus’ sermon. Young people today find and seek validation in their peers and parents that, when not offered, leads to self-destructive habits. Just think of the cases of bullying that have recently dominated significant media attention. Words and actions are powerful things. We often do not realize how powerful we can be with our words, and how destructive we can be if we are not careful.

Love is the key to all the commands of scripture, particularly Jesus’ sermon on the mount.

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Today, Jesus’ sermon is as hard to swallow as it was 2,000 years ago. You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “Do this and don’t do that,” but what Jesus says to us is to do more, go beyond the law, strive for something incredible, work for the kingdom, let God’s Word be incarnate in your lives, imagine a more graceful and purposeful life, seek out the last, least, and lost, be better than good, be holy as your heavenly father is holy.

Amen.

 

(I am thankful for Will Willimon’s sermon “Being Good” for inspiring parts of the above message)