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Actually, watching the GAME would not apply to all who tune in. Lots of folks will be more interested in the commercials which are going for a cool $2.6-million for a 30-second spot - $85,000 per second. The most intriguing one is set to air during the fourth quarter - some fellow is planning to propose to his girlfriend in front of however many zillions are still watching and some company is footing the rather expensive bill in hopes that the unusual approach will make their commercial more memorable. We shall see.
Thinking of those who will see the game tonight but who do not normally follow such things, do you remember that wonderful Andy Griffith bit called, "What It Was, Was Football?"(1) It is the story about a country boy at his first football game: "What I seen was this whole raft of people a-settin' on these two banks, and a-lookin' at one another across this pretty little green cow pasture." There were these five or six convicts runnin' up and down a-blowin' whistles. Then 30 or 40 fellows come a-runnin' out of this little outhouse at the end of the pasture followed by another 30 or 40 coming from the other end of the outhouse and commencing "the awfulest fight I have ever seen in my life," all over this "punkin'" that each group wanted. There were "these purty girls a-wearin' these little-bitty short dresses and a-dancin' around... And I don't know, friends, to this day what it was that they was a'doin' down thar! But I have studied about it. And I think that it's some kindly of a contest where they see which bunchful of them men can take that punkin' and run from one end of that cow pasture to the other, without either gettin' knocked down...or steppin' in somethin'!"
That about has it. Amazingly, the National Football League has managed to turn that run around the cow pasture tonight into the phenomenon known as Super Bowl XLI. HUGE!!!
But I suspect Isaiah would say, after his encounter in the Temple that we read about in our lesson, that, in terms of ultimate reality, this is pretty small potatoes...or "punkin's," as the case may be. It was "the year that King Uzziah died" which signaled the end of an era of relative independence for Judah, a time of transition from a popular and effective ruler to his unproven and less popular son, Jotham, while super-power Assyria looms on the horizon. Isaiah is in "church." The temple interior is dark, lit by dusky oil lamps. The pungent smell of the burning meat from the sacrifices is pervasive. Isaiah looks up and sees the Lord, enthroned before him like an eastern potentate, a formidable presence bigger than the universe. The sight is so humongous that just the train of the divine robe fills the place. This is the one whom no one can look upon directly and remain alive. Circling around this amazing figure are angels - seraphim: fiery six-winged serpent-like creatures; with two of the wings they cover their faces, and with two more they cover their "feet" (which in Hebrew is a euphemism for their private parts); they hover in flight, two more wings at the ready, waiting to speed off at the Lord's command. This is a better production than the one for the Super Bowl half time show.
The seraphim are boisterously singing songs of praise. "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." When Hebrew repeats a word, it is for emphasis, and for "holy" to be repeated THREE times, well... This God is totally AWESOME. This is no soul of nature, no spark within human beings, no familiar spirit available everywhere. No. The God of Old Testament and New is "other" from everything in heaven and on earth, uniquely different, uniquely holy. This God overwhelms everything.
Isaiah feels the sensation of an earthquake - "the doorposts and thresholds shook." He is thoroughly unnerved by what he hears and sees and is literally scared to death: "Woe to me...I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips." One of the seraphim flies over to Isaiah and touches his mouth on the Lord's behalf with a burning coal. If Isaiah is complaining that he is "a man of unclean lips," then the heat of the fire cauterizes them and makes them clean again - henceforth, he will be worthy to speak God's Word. The ritual has cleansed the prophet but not addressed his other concern: that he lives "among a people of unclean lips." No matter. Isaiah has now been set apart.
This is a somewhat more sensational encounter with God than most of us experience on a given Sunday in church. Our perceptions of God are usually on the level of quiet stirrings, not thundering spectacles. Truth be told, we experience too little of God. In America today, God is seen as marching in step with our political parties, and with our national interests. God is understood to want nothing but the best for us, the gospel of health and wealth. God is perceived as a calming presence, a supportive friend, and a healing helper, all of which work together to maintain the status quo. There may be some truth to these characterizations, but they are certainly not the whole truth, not the whole truth at all.
I read recently of a tavern owner in Kentucky who was suing the neighboring Baptist Church. It seems the Baptists had prayed for God's intervention to close this tavern down. Not long after, in the midst of a thunderstorm, the tavern was struck by lightning and destroyed. The owner sued, the church replied, "What did WE do?" The judge responded by noting that the tavern owner believed in the power of prayer but apparently the church did not. Hmm.
Annie Dillard, one of our most eloquent and insightful writers, has asked of our understandings about God, "Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet gloves 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 some day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return."(2)
The passage ends with verse 8, a ringing call to service. The Lord asks, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" The question was not directed to Isaiah, but rather to the attending angels. Isaiah simply overheard and stepped forward. Was he nuts? After all, God did not say where the "whom" was being sent or what the task was. Isaiah might have waited for a bit more information before volunteering. What could have prompted such a seemingly rash response? What do you think?
We all experience the holiness of God differently, in different times and in different ways. Sometimes, it is the whisper of that still, small voice; sometimes, it is the awesome and overwhelming presence that Isaiah encountered - HUGE - and, yes, MUCH bigger than the Super Bowl. Either way, God's question reverberates: Whom shall I send? Who will go? Who?
1. Capitol Records, 1953
2. Annie Dillard, Teaching A Stone To Talk, (New York : Harper & Row, 1982), p.58