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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Unclean lips.

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity

July 9, 2023 at Holy Communion

Isaiah 6:1–8

The Prophet Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

We can have sympathy for the Prophet Isaiah. Three weeks ago we talked about confidence before God, and our tendency to avoid bringing before God the darkness of our hearts. We said that it takes courage to set aside avoidance and boldly go to God for healing. But Isaiah: poor guy! In a vision he is ushered into the throne room of heaven unprepared, and all he can do is fall on his face and say, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah’s avoidance of his own spiritual state and the spiritual state of his people ended rather abruptly. Surely this was good for him, but it doesn’t sound easy.

Isaiah has to face the uncleanness of his lips specifically. The lips and the mouth feature prominently in the reading. Isaiah’s lips are unclean, and his people’s lips are unclean. An angel brings a coal from the heavenly altar and touches Isaiah’s mouth, and tells him “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7). And then Isaiah is commissioned to speak for the Lord, to use his cleansed lips in God’s service.

So let’s talk about honesty. By “honesty,” I don’t mean the superficial honesty of whether we tell small fibs or not. True honesty is inward; our speech simply expresses the quality of our heart and its commitment to the truth. Jesus himself taught that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Having clean, honest lips is about speaking what is right and true in the sight of God.

By contrast, unclean lips bless what is evil and curse what is good. They approve when people do what is wrong and censure when people do what is right.

But to say just that makes unclean speech seem more distant from us than it really is. Unclean lips are subtle. They approve what is wrong not often by making bold pronouncements, but by laughing off things that should horrify us. How many jokes have you heard that treat strife between spouses, or marital unfaithfulness, or alcoholism, or plain old bullying, as if it were normal, as if it were funny? Unclean lips laugh at evil. They will even exalt and celebrate evil, or at very least politely ignore it, if a particular form of evil happens to be popular or acceptable. Even if a person holds a contrary opinion as a matter of private conscience, they will find themselves saying things they don’t really think in order to avoid letting that be known.

And, as a way of cursing what is right, unclean lips politely divert the conversation when a conversation turns toward issues of faith for morality, in order to avoid awkwardness. Unclean lips avoid ruffling feathers. They speak the words which help us get along. We withdraw from speaking clearly about what is right and good even when given the opportunity, for fear of how we will be seen.

Loose talk is, in fact, the most common way that we become complicit in wrongdoing. I think of the final verse of Romans 1, where Paul lists several sins from the rare to the ordinary—from unnatural passions and murder down to strife, gossip, and envy—and concludes that the people of his day “not only do them but give approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). They are guilty because they give approval, even to things which they have not themselves done. Paul also lived among a people of unclean lips, as Isaiah did and as we do.

But, the problem is not with other people. The problem is with us. The Christian response to the problem of dishonesty is to not to denounce other people for being dishonest, but to look inward and see how we share in the dishonesty of our culture just as much as anyone else, and to seek repentance. As we heard last week, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye” (Luke 6:42).

Isaiah represents us. We are brought into the throne room of God and we say, “Woe is me! I am undone!” And, like Isaiah, we find healing. There is an altar in heaven, a sacrificial table on which burns the “Lamb of God slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). A seraph flies to Isaiah with a coal from that altar and touches his lips with it, and declares that Isaiah’s lips have been healed. Isaiah, who moments earlier denounced his own lips as unclean, now volunteers as the Lord’s messenger. As the passage goes on, we see him embracing a vocation to speak with persistent truthfulness to a nation which will never hear.

Isaiah sets the pattern for confronting the dishonesty of our own lips and heart. We bring ourselves into the presence of God and acknowledge that we speak loosely. God provides the healing. He feeds us with the “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8), the Lamb of God sacrificed on this altar, which restores the purity of our lips. And then he commissions us to go forth from his presence speaking truthfully, regardless of whether our testimony to the truth is heard.


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