A Sermon Preached at The Federated Church, Weatherford, OK on Isaiah 6:1-8
It’s strange to put the words “good” and “death” in the same phrase as I’m doing with the sermon title isn’t it?
Because when we think death, we think grief, sadness, loss, and weeping.
And if we’re from the church, when I say death, you might think casseroles and church ladies.
(Oh, I love some good funeral food, don’t you?)
But good AND death? Nope.
Those aren’t words we’d pair together at all. For, death is a word that speaks to a separation, a pain that for most of us is just too much to bear. Death speaks of lose of a hope that we’ve channeled in a particular direction. Death is the end. And by death, I don’t just mean when a particular person dies but the death of a job, death of a friendship, or death of a dream that we’d planned on our life upon. Lots of things can die in our life all the time.
None of these “ending” experiences are good, are they? In fact, they are very, very bad.
But can any good come from death? Any good at all?
By this, I don’t mean adding expressions like “Everything happens for a reason” or “God makes everything beautiful in His time” that are empathy busters for the pain we feel during times of grief, but rather I’m wondering can death bring about any good?
Such is a question I want to explore this morning with our Isaiah text set before us.
I posed this question to Kevin this week, “Honey, can you think of any story in modern times when the death of a famous person brought about something good, when something better happened that could have happened because of a death?”
(You see, I was fishing for a good sermon illustration).
He told me I asked too many hard questions. Then, he said, “How about Hitler?”
“Oh” I said, “I can’t talk about Hitler. That’s so intense and a little clique.”
So since I can’t offer you a great example of what it means to have a good death (other than Hitler), I thought at this point, we’d just dive into Isaiah.
Isaiah 6 within this historical context: “In the year King Uzziah died, Isaiah saw the Lord.”
It seems like a phrase that could have easily been left out, couldn’t it? We didn’t really need to know this, did we? Isn’t the spiritual stuff that follows more important?
If you are like me you might be thinking, “Who in the world is King Uzziah?” You might even say, “I’ve been in church so many years and never heard of him!”
Good question. And today is our day to learn.
King Uzziah was the 11th king to rule after King David in the house of Judah. If you had to make a list of good kings in Israel’s history and the bad kings, Uzziah would most certainly be on the good king list.
We learn a lot about him in II Chronicles 26 as it tells us that Uzziah took the throne when he was only 16 years old and ruled the nation for 52 years in Jerusalem.
His accomplishments were many. He led Israel in battle against their archenemies the Philistines and won! Uzziah’s army was bar none with all the best gear.
He engineered a building project in Jerusalem, constructing towers at the gates of the city.
He “got folks to work” as modern Presidential campaigns often promise to do, through his plentiful agricultural projects.
And best of all scripture tells us that he loved God and sought to put God first in his life. When prophets such as Zechariah came to declare the word of the Lord to him, scripture says, “He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.”
I tell you all of this because I believe it’s important for understand that King Uzziah was a larger than life figure in history at this time.
He was the JFK of the 1950s.
He was the Martin Luther King, Jr. of the 1960s.
He was the twin towers in New York of the 2000s.
King Uzziah was everything good that the nation of Judah built their hopes upon. And I can’t help but think that Isaiah looked up to him. He admired him. He saw how God was with him as he led and might have even wanted to be exactly like him. For 52 years he sat on the throne.
Uzziah however made one really huge mistake. He overstepped his bounds and began doing some of the priest’s work in the temple. God would not stand for such disobedience in the holiest of holy place. A sickness came upon him and he suddenly died.
News spread throughout the land that Uzziah died.
Can you imagine the shock? The horror? The fear? And for generations, remembering the exact place where they were when they learned the horrible news.
Isaiah’s hero was no more. He lost a giant figure in his life. And the nation was in mourning too. Everything about their future seemed uncertain.
But scripture reads, in the year, King Uzziah died, [Isaiah] saw the Lord.
What do we make of the connection between such? Why does this sentence read exactly as it does?
I believe because of the connection between the word good and death.
Consider situations and things in your own life that didn’t seem good in the moment but then later all became clear.
Things like- the terrible tasting cough syrup that your momma made you take when you were sick, but made you better sooner than if you’d hadn’t taken it.
Or things like the books your teachers made you read in the summers that kept your mind strong all year round, though you’d rather played outside with your friends and not read at all.
Or like the advice you took from your daddy to not buy your first car—though you really wanted one– till you could afford the insurance and the gas money.
For an event to be “good” you see, it doesn’t always come without pain. Sometimes, the best things in life that happen to us can be very, very painful, can’t they?
And for Isaiah’s story, I believe that we get this one detail “in the year that King Uzziah died” because it says everything about his posture that day, to receive that the Lord had in store for him.
Because isn’t the message of our faith—when death comes then resurrection can follow?
And in the case of Isaiah, this is what we can assume: his larger than life figure, this idol even had to die so that the new things of God could come. Death needed to come so that he could have EYES to see the glorious thing that was about to happen to him.
For Isaiah was about to have an opportunity to SEE something that few of living human beings ever get to see— “the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” He was going to taste the heavenly glory as he saw seraphs attending about the Lord crying to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of host; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
It was the definition of an awesome experience if there was ever one. And Isaiah got it.
And in this awesome experience, Isaiah was about to get a calling to be prophet to a nation in crisis and be asked to respond. The Lord would ask him, “Who shall I send and who will go for us?”
Isaiah would then find the words to say, “Here am I: send me!”
And I believe that none of this would have happened if a death, a loss, a separation, hadn’t happened first. The death prepared Isaiah for all the new life to come!
The thing is that so many of us say with our lips that we “want to see God” or “we want to have more of God in our lives” or even that “we want fresh life in our church.” But we don’t really know what we’re asking for when we make such declarations.
For if we really want to see God, then, my friends, the news I have for all of us today is that death has got to come first.
It’s Trinity Sunday and my favorite time of year to pull out my favorite quote from Annie Dillard’s book Teaching a Stone to Talk who says this about the presence of God:
“It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; 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.”
Our holy, holy, holy God full of power and might and just does not reveal Him or Herself to anybody. We have to be ready for it.
Something got to give. And it’s not going to be from God. It’s got to come from us.
We’ve got to be cleared of distractions.
We’ve got to let go of what exalted images of ourselves.
We’ve got to relinquish our sacred cows of the way things have always been.
And then the new calls, new experiences of God will come.
Recently, I read a book called, He Leadeth Me that tells the story of Walter Ciszek, an American priest who follow himself living and working in Russia at the time of the second World War.
It was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time because it gets at the heart of what relationship with God is about—surrender.
After begin taking captive in Russia and spending several years in solitary confinement waiting on his sentence for crimes he did not commit, he begins to realize that the only way he was going to survive was to let go of his own expectations of his life. Even though he’d lost so much, it just seemed like new deaths were coming all the time as his freedom was slowly taken away bit by bit.
Though he could have viewed what happened to him as unfair or unjust, he came to this conclusion: “For each of us, the trials will come in different ways and at different times— for some, self may be easier to overcome than others—but we were created to do God’s will and not our own, to make our own wills conform to [God’s] and not visa versa.”
Or simply stated—Walter learned he needed to embrace death, loss and grief in his life so that God’s radical grace could take hold in his being more powerfully, so that even in prison he could more fully live!
So this is the truth I have to offer you today: if we want to see God, then death of what we want has got to come first.
You and I aren’t not the authors of our own lives—as much as we try to be, or want to be, or hope to be.
This doesn’t sound too much like good news this morning, does it?
But remember the title of the sermon again—a good death.
You might imagine when I was poking Kevin to help me with a sermon illustration I would not settle for his answer of Hitler. “Come on Kevin,” I said. “You’re smart, help me think of another good death.”
To which he looked me in the eyes and said, “Jesus.”
I smiled and thought to myself, “Duh. Of course Jesus.” (Why did I not think of that?)
For this is our faith we proclaim today my friends, that though death came to Jesus it was not the whole story. He arose! So, as we follow our resurrected Lord, our lives can have good deaths too. The lose of the best job we ever had doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the dearest friend we’d ever known doesn’t have to undo us. The lose of the closeness of relationship with a child of ours doesn’t have to undo us.
No because we can believe that resurrection is on its way. Nothing is out of the realm of God’s redemption, my friend. Nothing. All things can be made new.
Death just has to come first. Though sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning. And for this we can say thanks to God with hope.