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Questions to Ponder: Whom Shall I Send?

January 18, 2009



Questions to Ponder:  Whom Shall I Send?

Isaiah 6:1-8


            Isaiah 6:1-8 is an important text for us to consider today.  We often refer to this particular Scripture during an emphasis on missions.  How many sermons have you heard on the question “Whom shall I send?”  How many times have you heard the response, “Here am I.  Send me” as a call to perhaps foreign mission service?  Isaiah 6:1-8 has far greater implications than just a call to foreign mission service. 

            I remember so many times missionaries visiting the churches where I was a member.  Early on, I was absolutely fascinated when they rolled out a thirty-foot python skin, displayed the hides of animals, or showed slides from a very exotic place.  I always thought Africa would be the best place to serve as a missionary.  Some of you will remember than when I was seventeen years old, I actually did go to Africa and spend a summer there.  I came to some very important realizations I want to share with you this morning. 

I recall preaching a sermon one time on the Great Commission as recorded by Luke in the first chapter of the book of Acts.  I presented the passage by stating that the disciples are told to tell the good news, beginning in Judea, then in Samaria, then to the uttermost parts of the earth.  I said in my sermon, “We first have to go to Judea.  Then we must go to the surrounding area of Samaria and then to the uttermost parts of the earth.” 

            After the sermon, Dr. Jeffords commented to me, “The Scripture does not say that one location should be ahead of the others.  We are to go to areas around us, but some must go to the uttermost parts of the earth.  Some must minister in Judea and some in Samaria.  The Scripture itself does not rank order those tasks.”  Dr. Jeffords made a very important point, one that I want to stress this morning. 

When God called Isaiah and asked, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah objected, saying, “I am a man of unclean lips.  I dwell amidst the people of unclean lips.”  God’s response was to instruct the seraph to do what I am glad my mother did not do – take a hot coal and singe his lips.

My grandfather grew up in a hard way in Tennessee and spent four years in the Navy.  I often went fishing with him; and even after a short stint, it took my mother several times of washing my mouth out with Octagon soap to get his strong language out of me.  My mother washed that tendency out of me the best she could.  She almost got it all, but not quite.

            Isaiah, who is called by God, does not feel worthy.  He is like so many other Old Testament figures – Moses, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah.  When God calls them, they do not feel worthy to accept this task either.  God wants Isaiah because he is in the perfect position to accomplish His mission.  Isaiah is a priest who came from a priestly family.  In a magnificent scene in Isaiah 6, Isaiah sees a tremendous vision at the edge of the Holy of Holies, a vision that is almost incomprehensible to us.  According to Scripture, the entire Sanctuary is filled with the glory of God.  There is smoke, incense.  Isaiah’s eyes must have been burning.  I can imagine that when he saw the seraph, he rubbed his eyes to be sure that what he was seeing was really there.  His vision included the throne of heaven, perhaps that seat atop the Ark of the Covenant.  Isaiah clearly witnessed the presence of God, God speaking to him.  God issued this call, “Whom shall I send?”  Isaiah responded, “Here am I.  Send me.”

Do you think nothing ever happens in church?  I can tell you that tremendous events will happen here, too.  They are unpredictable, and they might not happen on schedule; but important things happen when people gather to worship.

            Isaiah, one of the most remarkable prophets in the Bible, probably ministered for forty-four years, a long tenure.  His term of service extended through several of the kings of Judah.  He was called to minister during a very unsettled time in history, when Tiglath Pilesar ruled, a name we often do not hear except in Scripture.  One of the most notorious tyrants of the ancient Near East, Tiglath Pilesar began attacking numerous countries.  Syria and Samaria asked Judah to join forces with them against Pilesar’s army.  The king of Judah at that time, Ahaz, was not a particularly holy king.  The books of Kings and Chronicles do not give him much credit for many worthy accomplishments.  When Ahaz refused to enter into an alliance with Syria and Samaria, the two kings, Rezin of Damascus, and Pekah of Samaria decided to attack.  When these two areas began combat, Ahaz quickly made an alliance with Assyria.  The Assyrians attacked Syria and Samaria, defeating them and bringing them into subjection. 

The next king of Assyria, Sennacherib, finished the job and hauled the people of Israel, the northern kingdom, into exile by 722 B.C.  Judah was left undisturbed, especially as long as Ahaz was king.  When he died, Assyria started to raise its head again.  Hezekiah, the king at that time, made a covenant, an alliance, with Egypt to try to protect Judah, the southern kingdom.  Isaiah objected to that and did something very unusual.  Isaiah 20 tells us that he stripped and went barefooted for three years.  Imagine a prophet doing such a thing – walking around unclothed and barefooted for three years.  Perish the thought!  He explained his actions by saying, “This is going to happen to Judah.  You are going to be utterly stripped because of this alliance with Egypt.”  Hezekiah, a good king, prayed for forgiveness and asked that his time might be extended.  God granted that request. 

Isaiah probably lived to the reign of Manasseh, a ruthless king who did away with all Jewish practices.  The temple was neglected.  There were no more sacrifices.  He brought in the god of Baal and tried to set up places of worship to this god.  Isaiah no doubt spoke out against these actions though we do not have any record of his vilification.  Tradition says that Manasseh persecuted Isaiah, sawing him in two, perhaps giving rise to the reference in Hebrews 11:37 about people of faith who have been sawn in two. 

God’s call to Isaiah, “Whom shall I send?” and Isaiah’s response “Here am I.  Send me” is one we have heard so often.  The next word God speaks is, “Go.”  Where exactly did Isaiah go?  As far as I can tell, Isaiah never left home.  He never left Jerusalem.  He might have gone outside of Jerusalem, to some surrounding places in Judea, but he did not go far.  God chose Isaiah, who was already a priest and well situated to undertake this task, to serve where he was living, an area that had so much need.  For this reason, God wanted to have a priest who could speak to God on behalf of the people and a prophet who could speak to the people on behalf of God.  That dual role – priest and prophet – was very important in the ministry of Isaiah.  That dual role is not easy.  Jesus said, “You cannot be a prophet in your own country.”  Isaiah did very difficult work for forty-four years.  I believe it cost him his life. 

God called this prophet to serve the people he knew best, to serve in the place he knew best.  The call of Isaiah is one that is given to you.  God calls every single one of us, not just priests or preachers.  If you are a teacher, God wants you to serve Him in your classroom.  If you are a student, God wants you to serve in your school.  If you are employed, God wants you to serve him in your place of work.  He wants you to serve Him where you are, among the people you know, doing the work you ordinarily do.

I want to give an application of this passage that is very timely, one that might be difficult for some of you.  I am a product of the old South.  My great-grandfather Thomas Oregon Walton lived in Lawtonville, (Estill) South Carolina.  He owned slaves and fought in the Civil War.  William Tecumseh Sherman set the family home on fire three times.  The first time, a young lieutenant from Kentucky ordered that the fire be extinguished because he realized people were inside the house.  The second time, my great-grandfather’s slaves put out the fire.  The third time, my grandmother’s aunt extinguished the fire.  My grandmother was a very kind woman, but one person she hated all of her life was Sherman because of his “scorched-earth” policy.  My grandmother was born fourteen years after the Civil War, but she remembered his actions as if she had lived through the war. 

My great-grandfather who lived in Darlington was named Moses Sanders Hanesworth.  He had been a cadet at the Citadel, a freshman, when the Civil War began.  Moses Sanders Hanesworth at one time owned as many as 500 slaves.  During the war, he turned his entire plantation into an operation making boots and saddles for the Confederate army.  His older cousin, Tuck Hanesworth, was on the third canon on Folly Island.  He is said to have pulled the lanyard on that canon, firing the first shot on the Star of the North, a Union ship.  A document in the archives at the Citadel claims that Tuck Hanesworth fired the first shot of the Civil War.  I do not know whether that is true or not.  Many people claim that for their own family. 

My great-great-grandfather who lived in Tennessee was Major Hugh Neely.  Though named Major, he was not a major at all.  He never served in the army.  Major was his given name.  He was so much opposed to slavery that when his step-father deeded a slave to him in his will, Major Hugh Neely set her free, saying no person should ever own another person.  Another great-great-grandfather who lived in Barnwell County was George Hutson.  He did not own slaves, probably because he was too poor.  You can see, at least, a kind of marked ambivalence in the lives of these four men in my family.  I grew up with that ambivalence. 

My grandfather was a very prejudiced person.  He did not believe that Jackie Robinson should have ever been admitted to professional baseball.  My grandfather would turn the television off if a black man was playing in a baseball game he was watching.  At the same time, he had a kind of benevolence toward black people.  He treated those who worked for him fairly and took their side if others were unfair to them in any regard.  I have been able to see in my own family – from one generation to the next – progress in the area of racial prejudice. 

I do not want to embarrass my father, but I want to tell you a story about a man who worked with Dad for a long, long time, Willis Jenkins.  When Jenkins died, my dad looked at me and said, “He was like a brother to me.”  That statement was remarkable.  I can see in my own children an advance further than my own in terms of thinking and dealing with racial prejudice. 

When I was seventeen, I went to Southern Rhodesia.  Among the many experiences I had there was my witnessing Apartheid, probably the worst racial discrimination on the face of the earth.  I saw how white Rhodesians treated African people worse than anything I had ever seen here.  When I returned to Spartanburg, my eyes had been opened.  I remember well the signs that read “White” and “Colored.”  I could now see clearly the racial discrimination in the Spartanburg I love so much, the place I call home.  I was very cautious with this new insight, knowing that my change in opinion was not going to be well received by many people.  I was uncomfortable with the turmoil and strife of the civil rights movement.  At the same time though, I knew that all people are equal in the sight of God. 

A young clergyman from Atlanta, serving in Montgomery, Alabama, led the movement for racial equality – Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was, at the same time, one of the most hated men and one of the most admired in terms of people I knew.  Almost nobody straddled the fence.  When it came to King, everybody had an opinion.  He said one time that he was almost forced into a leadership role.  In his own words, he described being pushed to the forefront of this movement.  When he was elected president of the NAACP, he thought of it as an honorary position.  As time went along, he saw that the civil rights movement had a momentum all its own. 

One of the most remarkable books that Clare and I have read about Martin Luther King was written by his sister.  Simply entitled My Brother Martin, this book written for children, gives an older sister’s account of watching her little brother grow up and being surprised at the events that happened in his life. 

During my freshman year at Furman, King delivered a sermon entitled “Strength to Love.”  In that speech, he said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.  He went on to say, “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”  Some of you will recall that soon after my freshman year, I went to Ridgecrest and had a life-changing experience.  I returned to Spartanburg, believing that God had something for me to do, but did not know what it was.  When I walked into my mother’s kitchen that day, a woman there turned and said, “Kirk, we are trying to have a Bible school at our church, but we ain’t got no preacher.  Would you help us?”  That summer I led Bible school in three African-American churches.

The very next year while I was a sophomore at Furman, Martin Luther King was put in jail in Birmingham.  A group of clergy wrote a document called “A Plea for Unity.”  They agreed that the civil rights movement was important, but they wanted everything to be done through the courts.  Martin Luther King responded to them with perhaps his finest writing, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  He basically said, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  King led with courage.  I must say that I was not a total advocate for him.  I did not like the great confusion and turmoil.  I knew, however, that he had an important message. 

When I was a senior at Furman, the first African-American student was enrolled there, a young man named Joe.  Joe is deceased now, but he was one of the finest people I had ever met.  He must have felt like a fish out of water; but he, too, was a trailblazer in many ways. 

In 1966, I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, to attend Southern Seminary.  Clare and I joined Crescent Hill Baptist Church.  Dr. John Claypool, our pastor there, was later my professor of preaching.  The only time I ever saw Martin Luther King in person was in Louisville.  He came there because his younger brother, A.D. Williams King, a pastor in Louisville, was leading an open-housing march.  Several members of the seminary faculty, including John Claypool, participated in the march.  I was merely an observer with many other seminary students.  A man small in stature, a man who even then looked very tired, Martin Luther King was clearly a leader. 

In 1968, Crescent Hill led a series of Holy Week services.  Dr. Charles Bodie, president of Peabody Institute in Nashville, was preaching.  On Wednesday of that week, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis.  Dr. Bodie, a distinguished African-American preacher in his own right, stood in the pulpit that night.  Every person was on the edge of the pew, waiting to hear his comments.  He told us of a conversation he had had that afternoon with his son.  His son, newly married, said, “My wife and I have decided we are not going to have children.  We cannot bring a child into this world.”  He quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet:  “The times are out of joint.”  Dr. Bodie’s response to his son was, “The times have always been out of joint.”  That is the way it is in the world in which we live.

Martin Luther King was the first black American honored as Time magazine’s Man of the Year.  Barack Obama was named the Person of the Year in 2008 by Time.  On Monday, many people will gather at the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday.  They will remember that in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he said he longed “one day live in a nation where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  On Tuesday, the United States of America will inaugurate a new president, Barack Obama, one duly elected by a majority of all American voters.  Many people are very uncertain about the future.  Many people wish this kind of change was not happening.  Those who are uncertain do not just live in the South. 

When God issues a call, He is not looking for somebody who banks on favoritism or popularity.  He is looking for somebody who will declare “liberty and justice for all.”  I believe he chose Isaiah for that purpose.  Isaiah never left home.  He worked in Jerusalem and in Judea, speaking words of justice, calling people back to God, a God of grace and a God of mercy to all people.  I believe that God called Martin Luther King.  I believe King did what God asked him to do.  I believe that God has called every single one of us.  “Whom shall I send?”  The only answer we can give is, “Here am I.  Send me.”  God has asked you to serve Him at whatever place He has put you and with whatever gifts He has given you.  He wants you to serve him no less than Isaiah, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or King.  He wants you to serve him and serve him faithfully.  That begins when you acknowledge Christ Jesus as your Savior. 


Kirk H. Neely

© January 2009

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