Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Isaiah 6: 1-8)
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance that I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for a while
But February made me shiver with every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died 
That must’ve been a pretty bad day, don’t you think – the day the music died? You ever wonder that’s talking about? I mean, if you know your musical history, you may be aware that singer-songwriter Don McLean was making reference to February 3, 1959, the day a plane crash killed three budding music legends – Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. The day the music died – the music they’d made already, for sure; but even more, the music they hadn’t yet made, the music that would never be made because their lives were cut far too short.
And that phrase, a phase that’s repeated at the end of each of the song’s six verses, that phrase becomes an anchor for the song, lyrically-speaking. And you don’t even have to know the story behind it to feel the weight of it, right? The day the music died. That speaks to something deep and dark and depressing. A world without music – can you imagine? Can you imagine a world without worship, without concerts, without instruments, without albums or CDs or streaming music or even 8-track tapes? Yes, 8-track tapes, even though I know some of you have no idea what I’m talking about. But as horrible of a concept as 8-track tapes were, I would take them in spades if it meant still having music. The day the music died. Life-changing; existence-altering. How horrible a day that would be.
Let it be known, then, that the writer of Isaiah was going for the same effect in the opening of his passage for us today, except his anchor comes not at the end of the verse but at its beginning: In the year King Uzziah died. Granted, it doesn’t translate all that well to the melody, but do not underestimate the impact of these words on those who read them and heard them the very first time, those who knew far too well what it meant that King Uzziah had died.
See, King Uzziah was king of Israel, and throughout its history Israel had had a really bad run of kings. I mean, notoriously bad. For every decent king there were, on average, a dozen bad ones. Some were so bad that their reigns lasted months, even days. Some were terrible to their people, hoarding their power and making life miserable for their subjects. God had tried to warn God’s people years before when they begged for a king what would come of it. But they didn’t listen, and with a few notable exceptions they got exactly what they asked for.
And that’s the thing. King Uzziah was one of those few notable exceptions. Contrary to the norm, Uzziah was a good king. Perfect? No. But good. And good was good enough. Uzziah reigned for over 50 years, one of the longest periods of stability in Israel’s history. The nation prospered during his time on the throne; people were by and large treated fairly and equally.
Uzziah was one of the good guys. Until he was not. Because he died.
And so when Isaiah writes, “In the year King Uzziah died,” he is doing more than marking a particular point in time, the way we might say, “On February 3, 1959.” Isaiah is providing context, yes. but not just chronologically. He’s telling us so much in these six words. In the year we lost one of our greatest leaders. In the year our nation’s great prosperity began to take a turn. In the year when certainly became uncertainty, when stability became unstable. In the year that everything went to hell in a handbasket and no one had a clue what would happen next. In the year King Uzziah died.
Tell me, friends, what do you do in seasons like this? Who do you look to when everything seems to be falling apart, crumbling around you? How do you deal with the not-knowing?
For Isaiah, he has a vision. And that in and of itself tells us something, don’t you think? When everything was falling apart, when all certainty was out the window, Isaiah has a vision. A bizarre vision; some would even say unsettling – thrones and altars, seraphs with six feet, shaking foundations, and lots and lots of smoke. Isaiah has a vision where he feels ill-equipped to be in the presence of this upending, where he has zero clue on what to speak into this uncertainty in the year King Uzziah died. Isaiah has a vision where the God of the universe makes God’s self known and touches his lips with a burning coal that, in a way only visions can, gives the prophet exactly what he needs to do what needs to be done. A vision where God poses a broad question – Whom shall I send – even though that question is meant for an audience of one. And a vision where Isaiah raises his hand and responds, Me. Here I am, Lord. Send me.
There is a song we’ll sing in a little bit that is based on this vision; a hymn that more or less has become a Presbyterian anthem of sorts. Daniel Schutte wrote it back in 1981 and imagines a broadened dialogue between God and the prophet, between Creator and Creature:
I, the Lord of sea and sky – I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin, my hand will save
I who made the stars of night – I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
And Isaiah answers in the chorus:
Here I am, Lord – Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night
I will go, Lord if You lead me
I will hold Your people in my heart
Of course, it’s not just Isaiah answering the call, is it? For we are the ones singing it, singing that beautiful melody which we ourselves will give voice to in the very near future. We’re doing more than just recounting a scripture passage when we sing this hymn – we are answering the call ourselves.
There is clarity in knowing what the call is and answering that call. But let us be clear: this clarity comes not when all is right with the world, not when everything is going according to plan, not when things are “decent and in order.” The call comes to us most clearly when people are crying, when the world dwells in darkness, when we encounter the day the music is no more. In the year King Uzziah died – in that mess of a year, God asks “Whom shall I send?” When things are most uncertain, that is when the call to God’s people is most clear.
In her excellent book How To Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, author Susan Beaumont talks about the ways that churches move through and beyond liminal seasons – those uncertain periods between what was and what comes next; those times of transition when we’re not entirely sure what we’re transitioning to. Listen to what she says:
In the absence of meaning and purpose, people become fearful. Fearful people will attach themselves to anyone who promises to reduce their anxiety. Often, this involves attachment to one who promises a return to the past – a promise to restore the glory days. Unhelpful attachments to the past do not serve an organization well.
To move forward, Beaumont poses four questions that communities of faith should ask themselves in liminal seasons:
Who are we? (a question of identity)
Who do we serve? (a question of context)
What do we stand for? (a question of core values)
And what are we called to do next? (a question of purpose) I’ll change that to, Where is God sending us?
I think of the prophet in our scripture today, in that liminal season after the death of a beloved king and the subsequent ending of normalcy and stability. Granted, Isaiah didn’t run through these questions like some sort of checklist. But something about this vision of the overwhelming majesty of God helps him gain a better sense of who he is, don’t you think? Something about coming to grips with the frailty of his humanity and God’s redeeming touch enables him to understand better who he is called to serve and what he needs to be standing for. And something about God’s simple question makes it crystal clear that he is the one being sent.
Who are we?
Who do we serve?
What do we stand for?
Where is God sending us?
You think these questions have something to say to us, Trinity Presbyterian? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the past fifteen months than a liminal season. For over a year, our experience of church has been turned on its head. We are not the same church we were in February 2020; and as I’ve been telling you ever since, we will not be the church we once were on the other side of this. So these questions very much apply to us as well:
Who are we, Trinity?
Who does this church serve?
What does this church stand for?
Where is God sending us?
You and I, we are just mere days away from our sabbatical experience, something that this congregation and its pastors have not experienced in decades, if at all. It will be weird to not be among you for three months, to not worship with you and preach sermons for you, to not provide you pastoral care. And I know it will be weird for you for all the same reasons. For three months we will enter a liminal season within a liminal season, and the questions are still there:
Who are we?
Who do we serve?
What do we stand for?
Where is God sending us?
Beloved, let me invite you to think and ponder with me on these questions over the next three months. Talk about them with each other – with Rebecca, with our session members and other church leaders, with our young people who are also our leaders. And when September comes around, and it will be here faster than we know it, let’s talk about these questions together as we continue discerning the church that God is calling us to be – not the church we have been, but the church we are becoming. Let us talk about them as a community of faith, because that is where we gain the greatest sense of our calling, our purpose, our vision, our reason for being, in a world that is changing faster than we know. Let’s discern our call, and let’s do it together because, in the words of noted expert on the matter high school senior Jimmy Click, “A church is only as strong as the community it builds around it.”
God, here we are – Trinity Presbyterian Church of Charlotte, NC. Here is where we have been, here is who we are becoming. Send us, God. Send us into a world so desperately in need of a good word, of hope and promise; and may we ever be a source of that hope and promise, shining your light and your grace.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
- Opening verse of “American Pie” by Don MacLean.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.