“CLEAR THE BENCH”
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015, Trinity Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 6:1-8; John 3:1-17

“Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’
And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
Isaiah 6:8

Without a doubt, there’s one book that’s been adapted into more movies than any other. Can you guess what it is?

Hands down, without a doubt, it’s the Bible. Say what you want about American culture getting more secular: Hollywood film studios know the Bible’s a surefire winner at the box office.

This is especially true when it comes to special effects. Who could forget the parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (the 1956 version with Charlton Heston)? It looks kind of cheesy today, but it was a wonder in its time.

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) used a combination of elaborate make-up and computer effects in what was probably the goriest movie ever made: an incredibly realistic rendition of Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion. It earned over 370 million dollars — one of the highest-grossing films ever.

Just last year, Russell Crowe starred in Noah — a computer graphics extravaganza (even if it did play fast and loose with the biblical story).

There’s one biblical scene I’ve never seen recreated on film — and I’d like to. It’s the story we read today from Isaiah, chapter 6. If there’s a biblical scene that’s positively begging for a CGI re-creation, this is the one.

It’s a fantastic vision. In the dark, candlelit recesses of the Temple in Jerusalem, filled with the smoke of incense, Isaiah sees the Lord, “sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” Hovering around the deity are seraphs — six-winged angels. You can imagine the beating of their wings, their fiery eyes. I’d like to see what the computer-graphics geeks would do with them!

Even more remarkable are those angels’ voices. They’re chanting to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!” So thunderous are their voices, so resonant, the massive building itself shudders. (Just imagine that in Surround Sound!)

Then, out of the smoky darkness, Isaiah sees a pinpoint of glowing red light. It comes closer. Turns out, it’s a glowing coal from one of the braziers where the incense is burnt. One of the angels is holding it in a pair of tongs. Isaiah’s just called out, in holy despair: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Now, put on your 3-D glasses for this one. The angel approaches with that burning coal, and touches it to the prophet’s lips. (In 3-D, that thing would come right out of the screen.) There’s no pain — this is a supernatural vision. But the prophet knows his lips have been purified — so whatever message of God he may henceforth deliver, it will not be sullied by his own human weakness.

Then, the voice from the throne booms out: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

The prophet calls back, his voice cracking with terror: “Here am I; send me!”

Now wouldn’t that be something to see at the movies?

*****

The story’s known as The Call of Isaiah. It actually happened in church! We don’t know much about Isaiah the man, what brought him to the Temple that day. Maybe he was a priest, maybe an ordinary worshiper. It doesn’t matter. He was there, and what he saw and heard changed his life: and the life of an entire people. The book containing his prophecies is the largest in the Bible (except for the book of Psalms). His prophecies are quoted more times in the New Testament than those of any other Hebrew prophet. And it all began with that mysterious vision.

As a model for the experience of being called by God, though, I think this story does us more harm than good. It suggests to a great many people that a call from God has got to be spectacular — a Hollywood blockbuster of a spiritual experience!

And so, a great many Christians walk around thinking God hasn’t called them. Very possibly, you number yourself among them.

The thought is completely unbiblical. In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul insists “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Note well what he says there: to each (not just to some). Notice Paul also says the spiritual gift we’ve all been given is for the common good (it’s for the benefit of all God’s people).

So, please don’t go thinking you haven’t been called by God — because, if you’ve been baptized, you have been — and still are!

*****

I’ve titled this sermon, “Clearing the Bench” — and I want to admit, right up front, it may not be the best metaphor. I was thinking of what happens at a hockey game, the minute a scuffle breaks out on the ice. One player checks another player with his stick, especially hard, and he crashes up against the wall, or maybe falls down on the ice. A teammate rushes to his defense, then a member of the opposing team shows up, then another player and another — and before you know it, even the players sitting on the bench, or in the penalty box, have rushed out onto the ice.

That’s what they mean by “clearing the bench.”

Now, I admit it’s maybe not the best image — because it’s so violent — but I like it because it suggests the power of what can happen when a group of people are called to a common purpose. In the case of a hockey team, the call is to stick up for one’s teammates: and they do.

I look out on all of you here today, and I see a lot of people sitting on pews — which, curiously enough, are very much like benches. In a little while, we’re going to welcome some wonderful new members, then we’re going to ordain and install some fine Christians as church officers. Each one is responding to a call from God, to take this step in their spiritual lives. But that’s only a fraction of this worshiping congregation.

I want to confess to a fantasy I have today. It’s a pastor’s fantasy. Wouldn’t I like to see these benches cleared today, like the bench of players sitting just off the ice at a hockey game! Wouldn’t I like to see each one of you get in touch with what God’s calling you to do in your life — for the common good of God’s people — then get up and start doing it!

*****

If you’re a follower of Jesus, then take my word for it: you’ve got a call from God, a call that says to you “Whom shall I send, and who shall go for us?” To which you’re meant to reply, “Here am I, send me!”

Now, maybe you’ve never been too clear on what that call is, exactly — and, if that’s the case, take heart: there are a lot of others like you out there! Discerning God’s call can sometimes be very hard.

It can be hard because so very often you and I have a way of building up resistance within us — second-guessing the call we’ve sometimes wondered if we truly have. That second-guessing takes the form of excuses. Here are some all-time favorites:

“I’m too old.” Nonsense! God called Abraham when he was in his seventies, giving him the task of establishing a holy nation.

“I’m too young.” Sorry — I’m not buying it. God called the prophet Samuel when he was only a boy.

“I’ve already got a job: I can’t leave it.”  Who said a call from God is restricted to paid employment? Sure, there are a few of us preacher-types who serve God and get paid for it, but the vast majority of Christian disciples don’t get a paycheck. Inside nearly every existing job you may have there are ways of serving God — simply in how you treat others, how you faithfully fulfill our responsibility.

“I’m too busy.” Yes, of course you are.  This is probably the most common excuse of all. Lots of us feel too busy much of the time, but that’s because we take so much on ourselves. The more we do that, the more ineffective we get at everything we’re doing. And, if you or I are making ourselves feel busy all the time, one of the hardest things to do is to carve out moments of silence and tranquility, moments for prayer and worship and meditation — for ceasing our frenetic doing, and simply being for a little while. That’s where the call of God most often comes: in the silence. (What if Isaiah had been “too busy”?)

“I don’t have what it takes.” Do you know how many people in the Bible made that lame excuse? Lots. The most notable one is Moses. God tells him to go speak to Pharaoh to plead for freedom for the Hebrew slaves, and Moses replies “But Lord, don’t you know I stutter?”

“Of course I know that,” God replies. “Just go: I’ll give you the words to say.”

“I’ve done some terrible things in my life; I don’t think God would want me.” Is what you’ve done more terrible than the deeds done by the prostitute Rahab, who helped the Israelites capture Jericho, and who ended up being an ancestor of Jesus? Or Paul, who was a genocidal murderer? Sorry, but you’ve got nothing on those miscreants.

“But I have doubts.” Well, welcome to the club! I don’t think there’s ever been a person of faith who didn’t struggle with doubt from time to time — myself included. You may want to take as your motto the words of the father of the epileptic child in Mark, chapter 9. He comes to Jesus begging for him to heal his son. Jesus responds by saying, “All things can be done for the one who believes.”

“Lord, I believe,” calls out the father. “Help my unbelief!”

The boy, of course, is healed by Jesus: because the father was willing to turn over his very doubts to the son of God!

*****

Yes, there are plenty of excuses for staying on the bench — those I’ve mentioned, and probably a whole lot of others as well. But do you know what’s even more tragic than someone who tries to respond to the call of God in some way, and fails? Someone who never gets up and tries at all!

There’s a viral video that’s been going around the Internet. It’s even been shown on TV. It’s about an autistic high school student named Jason McElwain, from the town of Greece, New York.

Now, on the autism spectrum Jason is labeled “high-functioning.” But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a whole lot of challenges. One thing Jason loved more than anything else, in his high school career, was basketball. No one imagined he’d ever play on the varsity, but in that small school, the coaches figured he could be the team “manager” — as well as a sort of mascot. Jason always wore a team uniform and sat on the bench with the other players.

Towards the end of the basketball season in Jason’s senior year, Jim Johnson, the coach, got a crazy idea. Wouldn’t it mean a lot to Jason, he thought to himself, if we could get him out onto the court to play the last couple minutes of a real game? The last home game of the season was coming up. Coach Johnson vowed to himself that if his team had a comfortable-enough lead, he’d put Jason in.

Somehow word of this plan leaked out, and the hometown crowd got all excited to see how happy this would make Jason. The other team heard about it, too, and were touched by the story. It was fixing be one of those Special Olympics kind of moments, when the usual barriers to success are removed, so the mentally-challenged young person can have an experience of winning.

It turned out no special accommodations were necessary. The coach sent Jason out on the court in the last few minutes, the crowd started cheering for him, and his teammates made sure he got the ball. Jason took a three-point shot from far out — and missed. They gave him the ball again, and the same thing happened, this time with a lay-up. If only Jason could get one basket, Coach Johnson thought to himself, he would be so very happy!

The very next shot — a three-pointer — Jason made. The crowd went wild, cheering. That’s where the story might have ended — were it not for the fact that, in the coach’s words, Jason became “hotter than a pistol.” He took one shot, and made it — and another, and another. By the time the buzzer went off, Jason had — in just 4 minutes of play — scored six 3-point shots and one 2-point shot. Those 20 points made the high-scorer for that game.

If you haven’t seen the video, look it up on YouTube. The fans stream down onto the court, they hoist Jason onto their shoulders, and joyful pandemonium reigns.

Who would have thought it? Who would have imagined that Jason McElwain, the autistic kid who followed the basketball players around like a puppy-dog, could shoot like that?

Jason didn’t sell himself short — though a whole lot of other people did, for a very long time. He left the bench. He went out there and played. And, wonder of wonders, he had the talent after all!

Jason’s story is a little parable for all the bench-sitters among us. If he can do it — with God’s help, so can you!

Copyright © 2015, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.