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Edward F. Markquart

Series C
An Awesome Holiness: Isaiah

Epiphany 5     Isaiah 6:1-8

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory.” Awesome. Totally awesome. Incredibly awesome. Mysteriously awesome. Awesome is a word that is part of our vocabulary. Awesome is on of those words that reaches to the pinnacle of our adjectives. It is one of the highest words we can use, and this word is used in all kinds of ways. The word is usually used to express goodness and power. The word, fantastic, is a good word, but it lacks the power and goodness that is implied in the word, awesome.

For example, we had the experience of having a foreign exchange student live with us, Katerina Noetzold, from our sister church in then East Germany. She was and is from the city of Leipzig and Leipzig is flat. Leipzig is dirty, so Katerina says. Leipzig was under communist rule for decades and so Katerina had never seen anything like gorgeous mountains before. O yes, after she had become free, she had gone and seen the Alps from a distance, but our family was the family who was able to take her to Mount Rainier for the first time. We went to Mt. Rainier and to Paradise  Park and then hiked up to Panorama Point. As we got higher and higher and higher, she was searching for words in her vocabulary. How do you describe this beauty that you had never seen before? Her eyes were filled with tears and her emotions were swept away when she finally said, “It is beyond awesome.” Awesome. Awesome is one of those words that describe grandeur and power.

The word, awesome, is used in our everyday vocabulary. There are tons of examples. One time I went fishing with a friend named, Clyde. He caught a sixty-five pound salmon, and as we looked at this fish on the scales, we both said, “Awesome.” I remember one time when I was watching a professional golfer, and I saw that drive go zipping out there more than three hundred yards, right down the center of the fairway, my eyes popped because that drive was “utterly awesome.” If you are driving down the freeway and a sports car zips by you in the opposite direction, the teenager in your car spins his or her head to notice and says, “Awesome.” A kid is in high school and another classmate comes up with a letter jacket with all kinds of stars and stripes, and they both think that the letter jacket is “awesome.” The word, awesome, is used very often in our vocabulary.

The word, awesome, is also used to describe creations of artistic beauty. You go to the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and you see the Sistine Chapel done by Michelangelo. You are mesmerized by that ceiling as is every one else, and you exclaim, “That is awesome.” You go to a concert as I did the other night to hear the St. Olaf Choir and the tones were so perfect, you just kept saying to yourself, “Awesome.” You see a painting by Raphael with those glorious colors and shadings of light and you say, “These paintings are awesome.” 

The word, awesome, is used for science. You are watching the lunar space shots. You see one of our rockets being shot into the sky with astronauts aboard and you say, “It is awesome.” You see a man walking on the moon and talking about one giant leap for mankind, and you say, “That is awesome.”

The word, awesome, is used to describe flowers, plants, and gardens. The giant chrysanthemum will take your breath away, as will the flowering plumb or a blossoming  orchid. So will moonsets and sunrises and moonrises and sunsets. They are awesome.

The word, awesome, is also used to capture those special moments that happen to us. I am referring to those holy moments of life. For example, if you had the privilege of adopting a child, you go into this room and you see a child for whom you have been waiting and waiting and waiting for what feels like weeks and months and years. Finally the child arrives, and you go into that room with fear and trepidation, and you see this perfect child wrapped in a pink blanket. It is an awesome experience. … Or, if you give birth to a child and are with your wife, and the child comes and you are there with them. The infant is placed on her chest, skin against skin, flesh against flesh, and the mother feels the child and it is an awesome, awesome experience. … Or when I was a young boy and saw all those movies of the GI soldiers coming home from Europe and I saw them march down the streets of New York in the middle of a ticker tape parade, with millions and millions of people, it was awesome. … Those who stood at the Washington Monument when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, with hundreds of thousands of people there, fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, those who were there that day said “it was an awesome experience.”

The word, awesome, is used to describe Ferraris; it is used to describe clothing; it is used to describe Michelangelo; it is used to describe the “man in the moon” and trips to the moon. The word, awesome, is used to describe almost everything great.

One of the problems of language is its limitation. You just have so many words. We just don’t have many or any words bigger than awesome.

The word, awesome, is also used to describe God and experiences with God. Sometimes when you have experiences with God or see God’s miracles, the only word you can use is,  awesome. For example, you young people who have been up to Camp Nor Western in the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound. Outside the camp is a small peninsula, and it forms a rock formation on a small hill. You go there and have a worship service. You are surrounded by  360 degrees of the beauty of nature and surrounded by all these young people and there is not a hint of wind or breath in the air and the seagulls are there flying and it is incredibly beautiful. This past week I was talking with Laura Jeter who is now living up north and is pregnant with her first child. We were talking about this camp and about this rock peninsula and she blurted out, “It was awesome. One of the most awesome times in my life.” When you stand there on that rock, with all the beauty  360 degrees around,  you say, “Our God is an awesome God.”

Or, some years ago, some people from our church and I went to the Holy Land. Outside the walled city of Jerusalem, there is a cliff and in the cliff there are sockets. There are caves in that cliff. When you stand back from that cliff, it looks just like a skull. We know that the place of execution of Jesus was called the “Place of the Skull.” Gradually, over the centuries, people have concluded that Jesus was crucified at the foot of the cliff that is now a parking lot for buses. We saw that and then went to the top of that cliff, and there was a garden on stretch of land on top of that cliff. There were these gorgeous old trees, with their gnarled branches that are thousands of years old. If they could tell secrets, they would tell you what happened. There is an empty tomb there, an ancient tomb, a burial tomb that many people have concluded that this may be the tomb in which Jesus was buried two thousand years ago. We were there one day with members of our congregation. There in that sacred place, Dorothy Smith from our congregation sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” She came to that last stanza, “Where you there when God raised him from the tomb?” We felt the awesomeness of God who died on the cross. The awesomeness of God who conquered death. We felt the awesomeness of God, that our God was an awesome God.

The word, awesome, is used to describe God.

Some years ago, about 1969, I was a new young pastor, with black hair but totally green in experience. I took a group of young people on a retreat up in the mountains in the winter and this was my first experience with the mountains. We caught one of those winter snowstorms, and the flakes were just big light flakes, and so soft. We got to this camp, and we were snowed in. It was a Saturday night. It was wonderful as the snowdrifts became higher and higher and higher and the tree branches hung down lower and lower with the weight of snow on them. That night, at about one o’clock, I went outside by myself. Everyone was asleep and it had been a wonderful day. I went out for a walk and it was awesome, totally awesome.. I went home to my cabin that night, and I wrote the following words.

“I walked down the road on a quiet wintry night,
I heard the meadows speaking in the silence of the light,
I saw the treetops glistening and the hilltops etched with snow,
And I bowed my head so humbly to the Majesty I know.

I saw the bushes kneeing, their arms bent to the ground,
I heard the meadows whiten by the silence of the sound,
Alone I sat there listening to the stillness of the night,
And I bowed my head so humbly to the Majesty of Light.

I knew the awesomeness and goodness of God.

Every person who knows God has experienced the awesomeness of God.  That is what the Old Testament lesson for today is all about. Every person in every culture in every generation experiences the awesomeness of God in a different way.

This is the way that Isaiah, in the year 740 B.C., experienced the holiness, the awesomeness, of God. His experience of the holiness of God was not like the mountaintops or islands in Puget Sound or like a solo sung near the tomb of the resurrection.

Isaiah was in the temple. The temple was about two hundred and fifty years old now. It was a beautiful, beautiful building.  As he was in the temple, he looked up high, a hundred and fifty feet high to the ceiling. He looked up high into a vision above him. He saw God on his throne. The robes of God came cascading down into the temple as water comes cascading down a waterfall. All around Isaiah was the robe of God, flowing like streams of silk, curling around him. He looked up into the face of God, and he couldn’t quite see the face of God, but he could see two seraphim. The seraphim were two winged creatures with three sets of wings. One set of wings covered the face; one set of wings covered the feet; and the other set of wings were used to fly. The seraphim were singing in their deep magical voice, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of God of Hosts.” The voice rumbled,  “Heaven and earth are full of God’s glory. Holy, Holy, Holy. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome is the Lord God of heaven.”

In Palestine at that time, you could see the skies in all their clarity. You could see the heavens on those desert nights of star filled beauty.  You could actually memorize the sky and the stars, as we memorize songs or poetry. … Isaiah saw all of this and more and said, “Heavens and earth are full of your glory.” Isaiah walked the Jordan River and its banks and saw all the flowers on banks of the Jerusalem and the beauty of mountains growing up from Jerusalem and Isaiah exclaimed, “Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Heaven and earth are full of your glorious beauty.” … There, in that moment in the temple, Isaiah experienced the awesomeness of God.

Immediately, his heart felt: “O God, you are so good. I am not good, compared to you.” And the seraphim, reading Isaiah’s thoughts, flew down to the altar and took a tong to pick up a hot piece of coal from the altar. The seraphim flew over to Isaiah and touched his lips and his heart, and said, “Your guilt is removed. Your sins are gone.” Then Isaiah heard the voice of God, “Who will I send? Who will go out into the world for me to be my people?” Isaiah, having experienced the holiness of God, having experienced the forgiveness of God, raised his hand and said, “Here am I, Lord. Send me.” … How is it that that hymn goes, “Here am I Lord. It is I Lord. Do I hear you calling through the night.”.

Having experienced God’s awesomeness, having experienced God’s forgiveness, Isaiah raised his hand, “Here am I, Lord. I am yours. Use me.”

One thing that I have learned in life is that all of us experience the awesomeness of God in different ways. Isaiah experienced it in the temple.

But it wasn’t that way for Peter. Simon Peter, the big fisherman, wasn’t in the temple at all. He was fishing. Fishing, probably on a Sunday morning, the first day of the week, and having a good time out there. He hadn’t caught anything all night long. Jesus said, “Simon Peter, let’s get in your boat and go out in the lake and start fishing.” They went out fishing, put down the nets,  and their nets were full of fish.  As they were catching all those fish, Simon Peter realized that he was experiencing a miracle. Peter looked at Jesus and felt that Jesus was the holiness of God. He fell down onto his knees and said, “O Lord, you are so good. You Jesus are Lord, and I am nothing.” Jesus reached down and touched him on the lips and said, “Your sins are forgiven. From now on, you will no longer catch fish but human beings for the Kingdom.” In that situation, Peter experienced the holiness of God, the holiness of Christ whom he called, Lord.

Holiness. It was different for the woman at the well. It wasn’t in the temple. It wasn’t out on the lake. She was at the well, if you recall. She was there to draw water and Jesus came to talk with her. In that conversation, Jesus said, “Woman, you have had seven husbands.” She was puzzled and said, “How did you know that about me?” That Jesus could read her thoughts and read her mind. Knowing that Jesus could read her thoughts and read her mind, she fell down and worshipped him and went and told all her friends, “I have met someone unlike I have ever met before.”

You see, these people all experienced the holiness of God in different ways.

Do you remember how it was for St. Francis of Assisi? He was riding high on his horse and he reached down to touch a man filled with leprosy and puss. As Francis reached down to pick up the man, he saw the face of Jesus in that man with leprosy. He experienced the holiness of God in that moment and Francis was transformed.

Do you remember how it was for C. S. Lewis, the famous author of the Tales of Narnia? C.S. Lewis got in his carriage and rode from his home to a cathedral through the countryside of England. When he arrived after his brief journey, he believed. He knew the holiness of Christ, the holiness of God.

Do you remember how it was for Martin Luther? He was up in a room. Up in that room, he was reading the book of Romans, in chapter three, the verses about the grace of God. In reading of those verses, he experienced the holiness of God.

The mother of our godchild called the other day. She said her nineteen-year old daughter was in chapel, and the movement of the music came down and surrounded her, like the silk train came down and surrounded Isaiah. I was told her daughter had “an epiphany.” A revelation.  A manifestation of God.

One thing I know is that each person experiences the holiness of God differently, in different ways.

How has it been for you? How have felt, seen, and experienced the awesomeness of God in your life?

God says to you today. “Your guilt is forgiven. Your sins are removed. And you, having experienced the forgiveness of God, having experienced the holiness of God, you now hear the words, ‘Whom will I sent?”

YOU, having experienced the forgiveness of God and YOU, having experienced the awesomeness of God, you raise your hand and say, “Here am I, Lord. My life is yours. Send me.” Amen.

(A footnote from a version of this sermon that needs to be remembered.)

This past week, I was talking to a pastor friend of mine and he was telling me that he down in Dallas, Texas.  He said he saw a sign in a parking lot at church that said, “You are now entering your mission field.” I like that. I am going to talk with our church council and perhaps we can put a sign at each exit of our parking lot as you leave, “You are now entering your mission field.” (Those signs have been up for years now and everybody loves the message of those signs. It has become our congregational mission statement.)

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