As I wanted to start work on a new sermon, I suddenly thought of a week opening for the students and staff of the Theological Seminary of Andrews University in the fall of 1965. That provided me with inspiration for a new sermon.
At the time, I was studying for my master’s degree at our Adventist University in the United States. Every Monday we were expected to attend a short service, with usually one of the lecturers in charge. The sermonette of that particular morning in the fall of 1965 was given by Professor Sakae Kubo, who, among other courses, taught the class Introduction to the New Testament. He was one of my favorite teachers and ever since I have held him in high esteem. He is now in his mid-nineties, but from time to time I am still in contact with him.
That morning Kubo had chosen the first few verses of Isaiah 6 as the basis for his talk. That chapter is about the calling of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah later writes about this experience with these words: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Kubo first explained that the year of the king’s death, the year 740/738 B.C., was a year of great crisis. Uzziah had reigned for no less than 32 years. He had been able to resist the steadly growing power of Assyria. With the death of the king a dangerous power vacuum arose, just when Tiglath-Pileser, the ruler of Assyria, was engaged in a new military campaign towards the West. In that year of crisis, Isaiah was called by God to become his prophetic mouthpiece. This calling was accompanied by a vision in which God revealed Himself to the new prophet as a powerful, holy and gracious God. Kubo used this as a parallel for our calling as theological students and future ministers. He pointed out that there were all kinds of dangerous things going on in the world around us, and that in many ways our planet was facing a constant crisis. In order to be able to work for God under those circumstances, we too needed a vision of the greatness and graciousness of our God.
Isaiah would never forget in which year God called him: It was the year of the death of King Uzziah! For most people there are also particular years that stand out–years of events and experiences that we will never forget. Like many people, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on that fateful day when President John Kennedy was assassinated. And I’ll never forget that on 11 September, 2001, I was driving from Schiphol Airport to Dalfsen (where a major conference for ministers was about to begin) and heard via my car radio of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. And I think people around the world will continue to remember the year 2020 as the Year of the Corona virus. Ten or twenty or even more years from now, a whole generation will still refer to things that happened in the Year of Corona!
A lot of people around the world will remember the Corona Year above all as the year in which a loved one died. It is for my wife and me the year in which my wife’s twin sister died. We will not easily forget that this happened just before the Corona virus erupted. Others will remember this year as the year in which a life partner, a child, a good friend, a dear colleague, left them forever. In our country, tens of thousands of people will remember the Corona Year as the year in which people around them fell seriously ill, and in which at least ten thousand people who were close to them succumbed to the virus.
In the year that King Uzzia died . . .the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God. He saw God’s greatness and grace. The fact that the Lord sat on an exalted throne is a symbolic indication of his omnipotence and majesty. And the temple symbolism is a reference to God’s forgiving grace. Isaiah needed that vision in the time of crisis in which he was embarking on his prophetic ministry.
The Year in which the Corona pandemic broke out is now almost over. Now that we are about to enter the year in which we fervently hope to regain control of the pandemic, we need, more than ever, a vision of the almighty and merciful God to fulfill our mission in the world and in the church, in our family and among other loved ones.
Let us hope and pray that at the end of 2021 we will be able to say: In the year that we were freed from the Corona pandemic, we saw a vision of the Almighty and Merciful God who, in particular in times of crisis, gives us the strength we need.