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Dangerous Worship

No sanctuary in the place of worship.


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June 3—First Sunday after Pentecost / Trinity Sunday
Isaiah 6:1-8

In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” She’s talking about worship. She doesn’t find contemporary Christians “sufficiently sensible of conditions.” In worship “we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Isaiah testified, “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.”

The sleeping God woke and took offense at the corruption of the house that was God’s home on earth. At the sins of the people who were supposed to be God’s precious possession on earth. The waking God drew Isaiah in, then sent him out with words of power.

Isaiah of Jerusalem, son of Amoz, son of a priest. The temple was his home. But priesthood wasn’t his true vocation. God had something else in mind. God made Isaiah a prophet. Gave him a vision of God’s purpose for that stumpy hill the people called a mountain.

No more rote ritual. No more corrupt senior priests. No more weak rulers.

God gave Isaiah a good look deep into God’s great purpose. God gave Isaiah eyes to see the painful reality. A voice to speak the hard truth of the day. What a burden! To discover what God wants for the world. To know what God must do to make things right.

Our reading is the story of Isaiah’s promotion. From apprentice prophet to full-grown, full-blown prophet. It’s also a sound-and-light show, with performing creatures unlike anything Cirque du Soleil could ever dream up, to introduce an oracle of judgment on Judah and Jerusalem. God’s judgment is at hand.

We read out of Isaiah 6 a pattern of encounter with God. Not just for prophets. For anyone called into God’s presence. Anyone who hears a word from God. Anyone who has work to do for God in this world. That’s you and me.

When we come to worship we approach God tentatively. We hope to wake God gently. We come from days as busy as we let them be. We know God is with us in those days. We want to know God is really with us in the place we call sanctuary.

Do we realize how dangerous it is to call on God’s presence? There’s no sanctuary. We want to worship a safe and predictable God. If we dare to creep into the temple behind Isaiah we’ll find a God beyond any prediction or control. We’ll find a God far too big to fit in our little temples. Too big for our desires and expectations.

We can find God in holy places. We may meet God in dream and imagination. We can reach God in prayer. Even describe God in doctrines like the Trinity. God is still far beyond any of the things we depend on to manage our uneasy relationship with God.

There’s a problem with temples, and all places we call sanctuary. Our safe holy places can lead us to believe the God we meet inside for an hour, or a few minutes at a time, is all of God there is.
Isaiah’s temple was just big enough to hold God’s coattails. As if God had already stood up to walk away. But God didn’t leave. God didn’t demand destruction of the temple because it had ceased to be what God wanted it to be. God called for correction, for renewal. For worship that would truly be the work of all the people. Time for people to gather at the grave risk of encounter with God.

About the author

Rev. Dr. Laurence DeWolfe lives in Halifax.

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