If anyone knows my story, you know that my father is a life-long debilitated alcoholic. Unfortunately, his periods of sobriety never amounted to much. So when I hear stories of drug addicts and alcoholics who have been raised from the ash heap of desolation my heart sings for joy—holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. I am certain God has been at work in their recovery for there is absolutely no other way to explain it. For addicts of any stripe, the dark satanic forces are always nipping at their heels. And while 12-steppers profess “a Power greater than ourselves” and to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him” there is no doubt that being in relationship with God is the best hope for recovery.
This is all to say that I’ve taken a keen interest in Stewart Elliot, the jockey of Smarty Jones, who disappointedly did not win yesterday’s Triple Crown. I’ve been praying for this guy all spring, and it’s not because I was betting on his horse! His is a classic underdog story. A 39-year-old jockey stuck in the bush-leagues who doesn’t lose faith with his sport, then gets his one shot at the big time and delivers beyond anyone’s imagination. Not once, but twice.
As you know the life of a jockey is brutal, both physically and emotionally—the broken bones, the depression, the starvation, the binge and purge diets required to make inhumane weight requirements. Back in August of 2000, Elliott, in a drunken rage, hit rock bottom when he took a pool cue to a man and nearly beat him to death. He had no choice but to check into a rehab clinic and get his sorry life together. Elliott has had four years of sobriety. Luckily for him, the trainer of Smarty Jones, knew him in his previous life and had kept up with his racing career in his sobriety. And it was by none other than God’s grace, that the owners of Smarty Jones, who are also recovering alcoholics, had sympathetic ears when their trainer asked them to take an enormous gamble on Elliott, a drunk with a criminal record. They would understand better than most that a show of faith one day can get an alcoholic to the next day.
But that’s the way it is with God. We get second, third, fourth, fifth chances, and in ways we would never dream. The prophet Isaiah was a sinful man, a man of “unclean lips” as the scripture says, found in a place where he certainly did not belong. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting upon the divine throne in a temple not large enough to contain even the overflowing hem of his robe. Yahweh is flanked by glowing serpent-like winged creatures praising his glorious reality, singing: holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The temple quakes and is full of smoke. The seraphim know better and cover their eyes because they dare not see the Lord, but Isaiah stands gawking at the true King of all reality. He knows he is doomed; he is unworthy to stand before God. “Wow is me! For I am lost!” But instead of pecking his eyes out, for no one can see God and live, a seraphim swoops down and touches Isaiah’s mouth with a fiery coal, blotting out his guilt and forgiving his sin. It’s quite a scene—very dramatic, frightening, and frankly, biblical in a 7th century B.C. kind of way!
Our lectionary though does an interesting thing with this scripture from Isaiah chapter 6. It ends with Isaiah saying in verse 8: “Here I am, send me!” This may be the climax, but it is not the end. With the following few verses the church tradition lost its nerve when it came to the content of Isaiah’s commission. It was devastating news. The people with whom the prophet lived also had unclean lips, but for their sins they received judgment. There is no hot coal of forgiveness for them. Their sins were human pride, self-sufficiency and idolatry—idolatry meant trusting in anything less than God. Isaiah’s call is to proclaim Yahweh’s word to a people whose hearts are insensitive, whose ears are dull and whose eyes are blind. His mission is clear: He is to prevent repentance and healing. And it will not be fulfilled until the land is completely destroyed. From verse 11: Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate.” And yet, Yahweh’s purpose was not just destructive: it was to restore Israel to health, to make Israel a holy people fit to serve God. Just as Isaiah was cleansed by forgiveness, so Yahweh was seeking to purify the people with fire.
Now that we know Isaiah’s commission it is conceivable why the lectionary neglects it. To be sure, this message needs to be interpreted in its wider context in Isaiah, and indeed, the biblical tradition as a whole. The Bible is rife with the good, the bad and the ugly. We need to come to terms with the fact that the Word of God, the truth, can be a proclamation of judgment just as it is of salvation. The Nicene Creed is dogma, belief in the Trinity is dogma, but the Word of God is not dogma in that it requires the same proclamation at all times and in all places. The Word of God is too big, as it literally was for the temple, and too complicated to just brush over the parts we don’t like or want to hear. I think the whole of the sixth chapter of Isaiah means that sometimes circumstances have to get worse before they can get better. This is the reality of all of our life stories. But especially for those of us who are debilitated or too afraid to make the changes in our lives we know God calls us to make.
For people like Stuart Elliott their lives seem like one tale of judgment after another. Four years ago he made the decision to encounter God’s presence, and to do so was to acknowledge his own imperfection. Elliot is quoted as saying, “You dream all your life for a horse like Smarty Jones to come along,” he said. “I’m just thankful I’m clear-headed enough to know what’s been given to me, and I pray every day for the strength to never throw it away again.” After Smarty Jones won the Preakness I read that Elliott admitted not going to an A.A. meeting in over six months. Perhaps his success has gotten in the way of his meetings. This is not a good sign. I pray that he stays on the path of sobriety and can live a life of peace and wholeness in the midst of his fame and success. Especially now that he suffered a devastating loss yesterday. The best way to stay on any path of recovery is to be in relationship with God.
What we learn from Isaiah is that there is a time and an occasion not only for judgment, but also for salvation. The final verse of Isaiah, chapter 6 is illumined by a ray of light, for it is says that after the fire of divine judgment swept through the land a stump will remain. And just as a new branch sprouts from a stump that stands in a burned forest, so new life will begin among God’s people. Salvation, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always has the final word. What we glean from Isaiah’s call and his horrible commission is a profound understanding of God. Virtually every line of scripture emphasizes that God is holy. To stand before God is both mysterious and awesome. God’s presence, through the Holy Spirit, fills the whole earth. On Trinity Sunday we celebrate the mystery, majesty, and magnificence that is our Triune God. And we give thanks that we have been given clean lips to offer holy praise to God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Amen.