It’s not something we experience in this country, with our peaceful transfer of leadership every four years after an election, but in other places, entire generations of people grow up with the same national leader.
Even though the English monarch is at this point more a figurehead with ceremonial duties, while the business of the government is handled by the Prime Minister and Parliament, British people still revere their queen. For young people, maybe those heading off to university this year (or taking their classes online as pandemic continues to rage), Elizabeth II has always been the Queen of England. They, along with many of us who are older, do not remember when England had a king instead of a queen, and they don’t remember any other queen other than Elizabeth.
We of course wish Queen Elizabeth good health and a long life, but she is mortal, and one day she will go the way of her father, George VI, Victoria, Elizabeth I and her father, Henry VIII. People have been speculating for years who will take her place—will it be Charles, who is no spring chicken himself, or his son Prince William? That’s mostly been just an idle speculation, but one day it will be asked in earnest.
Now imagine that you live in a country where the monarch is more than a figurehead, and one person has reigned for over fifty years, just as Queen Elizabeth has. That monarch has set the direction of the country’s public life, perhaps even its religious life and observance. Few people other than the very elderly remember a day before this king, or queen, took their place on the throne.
But, again, even kings and queens are mortal, and eventually they die. And years after, people will tell each other stories: “Where were you when…”
Still, today, we tell each other those stories.
Where were you on 9/11, when you first heard about the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon?
Reaching back a little: Where were you on April 26, 1986, when the news came that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded only moments into its flight?
A little further back yet, for music-oriented folks: Where were you the night of December 8, 1980?
Where were you on November 22, 1963, if you’re old enough to remember that?
Fewer people all the time can tell us where they were on December 7, 1941.
I obviously don’t remember the attack on Pearl Harbor, and I wasn’t born yet when President Kennedy was assassinated. But I can describe quite vividly where I was on September 11, 2001, April 26, 1986, and December 8, 1980.
Right after 9/11, country singer Alan Jackson recorded a song that captured the mood of the time. “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?” That’s how a lot of us felt during those horrible days.
Some years later, Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central, talked about those days and what came after. He said there was a lot of thought given to when it would be okay to laugh again.
I don’t remember just how long regular TV programming, including The Daily Show, was pre-empted. It just wasn’t something where we could quickly put it behind us and move on.
Isaiah of Jerusalem, whose call story is our text for today, would probably have been able to tell a story similar to those told by people who remember 9/11, or the Challenger disaster (remember the poem President Reagan read that night in an address to the nation?), or even when John Lennon was shot.
Uzziah—who is known in some of the historical texts as Azariah—reigned for over fifty years. I don’t know how old Isaiah was “in the year that King Uzziah died,” but it’s quite possible Uzziah was the only king who had ruled in Jerusalem during Isaiah’s entire lifetime. Just like those of us who lived through 9/11, nobody would ever forget where they were and what they were doing when they heard of his death, because on that day, life as they knew it—life as, for a great many of them, it had always been—changed dramatically.
The late Phyllis Tickle spoke and wrote extensively about how Christianity and culture in the West experience a major upheaval every 500 years or so. The first one, of course, was Jesus.
A little less than five hundred years later Rome fell, and then in 536, there was a major volcanic eruption. People who study such things have determined that it’s quite likely to have been Krakatoa, in Indonesia. (There are a few really interesting documentaries on this subject out there, many on one of the British historical channels on YouTube. Just search for “536” and they’ll come right up.) That eruption darkened the sun the world over, resulting in crop failures and all kinds of other disasters, likely including epidemics of deadly diseases. That kind of stress collapses cultures and oftentimes forces people from their homes.
Following the fall of Rome and the disaster of 536, Europe descended into what many historians—not entirely accurately—have called the “Dark Ages.” Then around 1054, the Eastern (Orthodox) Church and the Western (Roman Catholic) Church split. The patriarch of the Eastern branch and the Pope in Rome excommunicated each other, and the two branches of Christianity over the years have become very different in theology and practice.
503 years ago, on All Hallow’s Eve, 1517, another momentous event took place in the Western world. A monk and professor named Martin Luther, after having struggled for a long time with his anxiety about his own sinfulness and relationship with God, had a major revelation while he was studying the book of Romans. As he thought through what Paul was saying in that book, he began to question the penitential system the medieval church had set up, most especially the selling of “indulgences,” sort of a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card. While it was billed as a spiritual exercise, it was actually, in Luther’s time, how the church raised money for a building project, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
So, as he questioned this practice, Luther had a bunch of copies printed and circulated of 95 Theses he wanted his students at the university in Wittenberg to discuss. He posted a copy on the door of the university church there, which was used as a sort of community bulletin board. That was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, which, along with the invention of the printing press and the aftermath of waves of Plague which had swept Europe, changed Western culture for ever.
Looking back through the lens of 500 years, especially looking back as Protestants, I think it’s hard for us to understand just how difficult the years after 1517 were. The various groups of Protestants did a fair amount of fighting with one another over which group was reforming the “right” way.
The Anabaptists, especially—that’s the branch of Protestantism to which the Mennonites and Amish belong—were hounded, hunted, even imprisoned and sometimes killed. The same is true for the Huguenots, French followers of John Calvin, and, in England, the Quakers.
In England the official religion changed back and forth a number of times, between Catholicism (Mary Tudor and at least one of the Stewarts) and the Church of England (notably Henry VIII and Elizabeth I); and whatever group was in power tended to mistreat the other.
Since the Reformation was part of a bigger cultural upheaval, there was quite a lot going on outside the church, too. The Age of Exploration was in full swing, taking Europeans to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Largely because of religion—Catholicism vs. the Church of England vs. the Puritans—England descended into civil war in the 1600s. And something we take very much for granted, the fork, was first used at a banquet in Vienna in 1518.
A lot of things changed in the world five hundred years ago.
Phyllis Tickle said we are in a similar time of major cultural change right now. She liked to use the metaphor that the church and culture held a “rummage sale” every five hundred years—re-examining assumptions and tossing some of them out. In the midst of that, of course, there are people who do not agree that some assumptions need to be tossed out—which is why the Catholic Church, in the years after 1517, embarked on a counter-reformation.
We can look back at the Reformation, its precursors and its aftermath, now through the lens of history, and we can see what happened and what it all meant. But it’s sort of like the view you get when you fly over a piece of geography in an airplane. The way history tends to get written, it’s hard to see how the Reformation period played out among regular people. We don’t see the messiness, the bloodshed, the uncertainty, and even the fear that would have run rampant during that time period. And the folks living through it at the time would not have been able to see the bigger picture, the changes that made the modern world, for better or worse, what it is. That bigger picture is really only available in hindsight.
So Phyllis Tickle would say that today we are in a similar time of upheaval in the western world—the United States, Europe, even the Middle East—and I daresay that as interconnected as we are today, that upheaval is affecting the eastern world, too. We might be able to trace some of the roots of the current situation, but it is impossible to see what the world will be like when things settle back down.
Just like in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Reformation period, we’ve also got a pandemic in our midst, and historians say the waves of pandemic that swept Europe for centuries contributed quite a lot to the social change and upheaval of 500 years ago. And as in 536, we are dealing with climate change, as well; and that is going to affect how we live going forward. It is an unsettled time, a frightening time, a time when we’re all trying to figure out how to live in the midst of a terrifying pandemic, a time when some folks are rejoicing at the discarding of old assumptions and others are hanging onto them for dear life—and that’s true no matter how we voted two weeks ago.
The foundations of the world as we know it have been shaken, were shaking long before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and may well be shaking for some time to come. It has happened before, both on the grand scale of something like the Reformation and on the smaller scale of a single community or nation, and it will happen again. It happened in Judah in Isaiah’s time, “in the year that King Uzziah died.”
Here’s why I and a lot of scholars think that little time marker at the beginning of the text is very important—why I think it’s significant that Isaiah’s vision of God’s throne room happened in the year that King Uzziah died. Judah had been in a very comfortable place, with great economic and social stability. Assyria may have been on the march, but things were pretty good inside Judah.
Then King Uzziah died, and nothing would ever be the same again. It was impossible to know what was going to happen next. What kind of king would Uzziah’s successor, his son Jotham, be? Would Assyria or some other nation take advantage of the situation to do harm to Judah? Will our economy continue to be good, or will the new king’s policies wreck it?
The foundations of the world as Judah knew it had been shaken.
Even in the midst of all this, just as is the case today, ordinary people do their best to get on with their ordinary lives. And so it was that Isaiah was in the Temple, perhaps preparing the space for worship, as he had done many times before. Maybe as he worked, polishing altar furnishings and candle stands, filling oil lamps, he mulled over the events at the palace, and wondered what was coming next.
Then, suddenly, it was as though someone tore the roof off the Temple, and he could see that it was an antechamber of the throne room of an even more powerful King.
Isaiah’s call tells us a couple things that might just be worth holding onto as we go through the current social, cultural, religious, and political upheaval, which Phyllis Tickle termed “The Great Emergence.”
First, no matter who held the earthly power—Uzziah, Jotham, or whoever might come next—God still sat on the heavenly throne. As the 46th Psalm says: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change”; because the Lord of Hosts is still with us. The foundations are shaking, but God’s throne still stands on solid ground.
Second is the significance of Isaiah’s vision taking place “in the year that King Uzziah died” and everything the people thought was nailed down came loose.
It’s no coincidence that new forms of Christianity came into existence at the same time as the restructuring of European society after the Black Plague, the beginning of modern thought in the Renaissance, and the invention of the printing press. When the foundations of our lives are shaken, when the world is changing around us and we don’t especially welcome the changes…that’s a time when we just might, like Isaiah, be more likely to hear the voice of God speaking to us, even as we go about our everyday lives.
 There were also attacks on Jews; Martin Luther himself was rabidly anti-Semitic.
 Jotham is described as having followed Uzziah’s example of obedience to God’s commandments, but his son Ahaz most assuredly did not.
 That most Lutheran of hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” is based on Psalm 46.
 The importance of the invention of the printing press in 1436 cannot be overstated. As books became more abundant, literacy became more widespread. With universal literacy came a democratization of knowledge and of theology. And written materials like Luther’s 95 Theses could no longer be suppressed so easily. Had he simply put the Theses on the Wittenberg church door and done nothing else, they could have been torn down and destroyed and no one would have been the wiser. But Luther had copies printed and distributed. A century earlier he could not have done that, and may have suffered the same fate as his Bohemian predecessor, Jan Hus.