Merciful and Mighty

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on May 27, 2018.

Isaiah 6:1-8, Romans 8:12-17

Isaiah and Paul present two very different images of God.

In Isaiah’s vision God is powerful, awe inspiring, even frightening. God sits high on a throne, so massive that the hem of God’s robe fills the temple. Six-winged creatures called seraphs fill the temple with smoke and shake its foundation with their cries of Holy, Holy, Holy! This is God strong, glorious and transcendent, sitting above and apart from humanity.

Paul, on the other hand, invites us to imagine ourselves as children adopted by a loving parent, in a relationship so intimate that we call God, Abba, or Papa.

In my experience as a pastor, many people today are drawn more to Paul’s tender Abba, while some flatly reject the fearsome God portrayed by Isaiah.

But there are days that I’m just not in the mood to cozy up to Abba; Some days I need some of that temple-shaking power of God! Yesterday was one of those days.

For decades, I have had a strong dislike for McDonald’s hamburgers. Hear me out. They’re awful. Cooked frozen, these small, gray, chewy discs taste more like shoe leather than the 100% beef they claim to be. I dislike them so much, that they make me angry at McDonald’s. I went years without ever setting foot in McDonald’s until, in 2001, when I saw a commercial with the Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant biting into a brand new, delicious looking, McDonald’s hamburger called the Big and Tasty! Finally, I thought, McDonald’s has seen the light and made a proper burger! I wasted no time going to the closest McDonald’s and ordering a Big and Tasty! Imagine my disappointment when I took my first bite, not into the big, juicy burger that Kobe Bryant had, but into the same gray, chewy, hockey puck McDonald’s had always served, this one with lettuce and tomato! I was so mad at being duped that I went right home and wrote a letter to McDonald’s telling them that instead of a Big and Tasty, they should call their burger a Small and Nasty.

I stayed away from McDonald’s for another ten years until I was again drawn in by an ad for new “gourmet burgers,” but was again left feeling betrayed and angry.

So, did you hear? McDonalds now says that they have seen the light. They have replaced the patty on their Quarter Pounder with fresh, never frozen, ground beef. I saw the commercial, this one with retired basketball star Charles Barkley. It looked delicious! So, yesterday, in the drive through to get Abby her favorite Chicken McNuggets, I saw the picture of the new improved Quarter Pounder and thought, “What the heck?”

But I didn’t even finish giving my order before I knew this wasn’t going to end well. After I said that I didn’t want mustard or onions, the voice in the speaker said, “Well, that will only leave pickles and ketchup.” “What about lettuce and tomato?” I asked, knowing the answer. There is no lettuce and tomato on a Quarter Pounder, not even on the new improved Quarter Pounder. To add insult to injury, after I paid, I had to go park and wait more than ten minutes until the burger was delivered to my car, “because it was cooked fresh,” the attendant explained.

And the final verdict? Not good. I learned that just because a burger is made with fresh ground beef doesn’t mean it tastes good. But this is about more than bad burgers. I am outraged that that one of the largest, wealthiest corporations in the world can’t care for and respect their customers enough to make a decent hamburger! And that they manipulate the appetite of their customers by misrepresenting their product, making it look like it’s big and tasty when it continues to be small and nasty. It’s more than a bad burger, it’s an injustice!

Which brings us to Isaiah.

Isaiah speaks to the injustices of his time.

In the first five chapters he lays bare the corruption and greed of the wealthy and powerful of Judah and the injustice they perpetrate:

Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil,
children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the Lord,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.

Called to respond to the rampant injustices perpetrated by Judean leaders, Isaiah has this vision of God sitting high on a throne, more powerful than any human evil. For his part, Isaiah confesses. I have unclean lips,” meaning, “How can I confront injustice if I am also a sinner?”

Reading this yesterday, I felt convicted. I realized that in my years-long battle with McDonald’s over its lousy hamburgers I also have unclean lips and need to confess. You see, I haven’t been completely honest. In spite of genuinely loathing McDonald’s hamburgers, I am sometimes overcome by a forbidden craving, for a Big Mac. Yes, hypocritical as it may be, every year or so I will sneak to McD’s for two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. It’s the special sauce that gets me. I also have unclean lips.

In response to his confession, God blots out Isaiah’s transgressions, and Isaiah says, “Here I am, Lord, Send me,” then goes on to confront Judah’s injustice.

My McDonald’s example is admittedly a little silly. But this is my point.

There are certainly times when we need the love and acceptance only Abba can provide. And there are other times when we need God to be bigger and stronger than any human injustice; we need a vision of a God who transcends human sin.

Today we honor those who have been members of First Church for fifty or more years. Think about that! I asked Ken Poppe, a member of our Heritage Committee, what was happening in the church and in the world fifty years ago, when these folks joined the church.

Not unlike Judah in Isaiah’s day, 1968 America was a time rife with injustice and electric with opposition to that injustice, including:

  • The Viet Nam War and anti-war protests
  • Riots at the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago
  • The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.
  • Urban disturbances in Newark, Detroit, and LA
  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s Rights demonstrations
  • and The Cold War versus the USSR

For all I know, Class of 1968, some of you may have been seeking refuge here from a mad, mad, world. But the seraphs cried, Holy, Holy, Holy, the foundation shook, and as a member of First Church you were sent back into the world changed, to represent all that is good and just.

Its sobering how much the events of 1968 look like a list we could make today, isn’t it?

  • Civil rights marches and protests
  • Women’s rights demonstrations
  • Cold War-like tensions with Russia and North Korea

Add to the list:

  • Terrorism
  • Mass shootings and gun violence
  • Economic inequality
  • And a politically divided nation

Truth be told, whether a member for fifty years or a first time visitor, many of us came here this morning seeking a little love and validation from a loving, parent God, our Abba. But hear the seraphs’ cry, Holy, Holy, Holy; feel the foundation shake, and listen as a mighty God, greater than any human failing and injustice asks, “Whom shall I send?”

None of us is innocent; if we are honest, we all have unclean lips.

But here’s the thing. When we confess, and step forward in response to an awesome God, God blots out our transgressions, and we are led forth by the Spirt of God as children of God. For we did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

And it is as children of God that we say with confidence, “Send me, Lord. Send me.”


%d bloggers like this: