Long live the King - Isaiah 6

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 27th January 2013.

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It is now just over 50 years ago that one of the most famous actresses in the world died in tragic circumstances. Her name was Marilyn Monroe. But her real name was Norma Jean Baker and by all accounts she endured quite an unhappy childhood. She never knew her real father and at the age of seven she was taken away from her mother Gladys and placed in an orphanage for two years because he mother had been institutionalised as a severe paranoid schizophrenic. Can you even begin to imagine the sense of bewilderment and insecurity that little seven year old girl must have felt? The uncertainty of what was going to happen to her? And orphanages then, in the early 1930’s were not particularly child friendly, they were often cold and harsh places in which to live. What must the future have looked like to her? Pretty bleak I would have imagined. And it is generally agreed that she never shook off that deep insecurity and fear even when she became rich and famous. And so at the age of 36 she was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills. Now I relate that story to try to enable us to get some sort of feel for what it is like when our world is suddenly threatened with instability and uncertainty, just how frightening and disorientating it can be. You see, that is what it was like for many countries when it was announced that ‘the King was dead’. Whether he was a good king or a bad king in some ways was neither here nor there, the fact that the king was the one who held the country together meant that once he was gone, you weren’t quite sure what was going to happen next. What would his heir be like? Would this be an opportunity for another country to attack and reduce your city to a wasteland? Well, those were the kinds of thoughts and fears which would have been pulsating through the minds of those living in the tiny, vulnerable state of Judah and the royal city of Jerusalem in the 740BC when the news arrived that King Uzziah had died.  He died under very unpleasant circumstances, dying in complete isolation from a vicious skin disease because of his arrogant pride- you can read all about it in 2 Chronicles 26. But the point was that after a 52 year reign the King was dead -now what was going to happen? The anxiety and sense of foreboding for some would have been almost unbearable. And it is at this point, the point of perplexity and deep uncertainty that Isaiah says, ‘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.’

This is one of the most extraordinary, breathtaking and astonishing visionary experiences of God ever recorded in the Bible. At the point the King died, Isaiah saw the real King- and what a King he is. Here is the one who holds the future and shapes the future. Here is the one who has plans for his people and who will fulfil those plans. He is the one beside whom all earthly rulers appear weak and pathetic in the extreme- after all, they die- but he reigns for ever. Isaiah was forced to appreciate the overwhelming reality, which many people then and now refuse to appreciate, that it was not upon Uzziah’s successor Jotham, that he was to pin his hopes any more than it is upon our government or ecclesiastical leaders we are to pin our hopes- but God. It is the Lord who occupies the throne and so exalted is this throne and the one who is seated upon it, that all Isaiah can see is the mere hem of his robe. At this time Kings didn’t have trains, the word is better translated ‘hem’. So great and mighty is this King that the mere hem of his robe entirely fills the Temple. And Isaiah wants to say to us that when you have glimpsed the true King, as I have, then everything will look different. The way you view the world, the way you view yourself will never be the same.

First we encounter the holiness of God, look at verse 2, ‘Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty the whole earth is full of his glory."’ No one is quite sure what a seraph is, it is a word which means ‘fiery ones’ So Isaiah in his vision sees these flaming creatures flitting about the heavenly throne in one continuous activity. They have six wings, with one pair they fly, with another pair they cover their faces- even they can’t look directly at the face of God and anyhow it is their ears which are important not their eyes, for their duty is to obey God’s commands; and with another pair they cover their feet, maybe signifying that they don’t intend to move anywhere without the Lord’s direction- they will only go where he says to go. But it is what they are saying to each other that is the most important element of the vision- "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty the whole earth is full of his glory."’ Now why is that so significant?, If you wanted to say how superlative a thing was in the Hebrew language, you didn’t say, ‘This is great’ or even ‘This is very great’, you simply repeated- ‘great, great.’ And so to declare that God is Holy and could not conceived of being any more holy, for he is supremely and superlatively holy, the only way that could be expressed was by saying ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty’. The central, overwhelming, heart gripping truth about the real King is that he is holy. He is so utterly different and ‘other’ to all else that exists or could exist. Not that this means that  God is somehow standoffish and aloof like a snob, which seems so negative, but rather that whatever is the best that we can think of, what is good, true, attractive, and moral compelling- God utterly surpasses all of them. This is the way the 18th century American theologian Jonathan Edwards puts it, ‘Holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood, as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour and unpleasant thing; but there is nothing in it but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. It is the highest beauty and amiableness, vastly above all other beauties; it is a divine beauty’. What Isaiah saw, and what the seraphs were consumed by so that they could not stop declaring it, was divine beauty. The word ‘holy’ itself has at root the idea of being ‘set apart’ (kadosh word group). But it is a setting apart as a gold medallist Olympic athlete is set apart from Scott! You look at some of these world class athletes and there is a mesmerizing beauty in their performances which simply takes your breath away and you say, ‘Wow, how did they do that? They seem to be a breed apart, almost super-human at times.’  And here is Isaiah with such an exalted vision of the Lord that all he can see is the tiny hem of his divine robe, and what he hears from these white hot fire brand, heavenly creatures, is the constant declaration of the Godness of God- he is utterly holy, radiating an entrancing, and yet at the same time an almost blinding, divine beauty. And what is more this divine beauty is not restricted to heaven, because it is an emanating beauty, like the beauty of a crimson sunset, or the head-turning beauty of a bride walking down the aisle- it isn’t restricted to itself but goes out so others can see it and bask in it too- the whole earth is full of this beauty. There is a glory in nature which is but the faint afterglow of the glory of God if we but took the time to appreciate it.

And so overpowering is the divine beauty, this eternal weight of glory, which the apostle Paul says one day all believers will share, that the temple and its very foundations shake and is filled with smoke. It’s as if the whole temple edifice can’t contain such a presence, it is woefully inadequate, being far too lowly and weak a structure to bare the overwhelming mesmerising beauty of God which has come into it and to which the seraphs testify.

So if the response to the presence of the real King is for the unfallen, heavenly creatures to gasp in praise ‘holy’ and the response of inanimate fallen creation is to tremble, what is the response of fallen human creatures? We see it in the humility of the servant, v5 "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." In the previous chapter Isaiah has spent most of his time surveying the sins of his fellow citizens and pronouncing God’s curse on them- v 18, ‘Woe to those who draw sin along with cords of deceit and wickedness as with cart ropes.’; v 22 ‘Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.’ But now as he is confronted with the utter, ineffable holiness of God, it is upon himself that he sees the curse falling ‘Woe is me.’ And notice he pinpoints the very thing which is his gift, namely, his speech, his lips as a prophet which is his undoing, ‘I am a man of unclean lips and live amongst a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty’.  Friends, what is meant to be our experience of meeting with the real King, if not this? When a Christian appreciates the utter holiness of God, his first reaction is not so say, ‘How rotten the world is. How depraved are unbelievers-shame on them’. No, his first reaction is to say, ‘How rotten I am. Shame on me.’ The reason why we are so pleased with ourselves and willing to accept such low standards as Christians is because we think God is really like us. He is a bigger version of what we are and so he won’t mind us living for ourselves and being centred upon ourselves, for isn’t this what he is like? No he is not- he is holy- totally different. His love is a giving love; it flows out of his inner being towards others. He is just and fair, completely truthful, he doesn’t have to hedge and qualify his speech with small print get- out clauses, like we do because we don’t want to be tied down too much. He is dead straight in his dealings with us for he is holy. And we are meant to be holy too. And Isaiah coming face to face with God realises he is anything but. That is why he feels totally ruined.

I don’t know how many of you have seen the old black and white film version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo. In one scene he rescues the ravishing gypsy girl, Esmeralda and as she wakes up in the bell tower, Quasimodo hides his face from her and won’t let her look at him. She asks why? And his reply is so moving and so simple. He says, ‘You are beautiful. I am ugly’. In the book by Victor Hugo he says, ‘I never realised how ugly I was until I saw your beauty’. Isaiah never realised how sinful he was until he saw God’s holiness. You see, we are to God what Quasimodo was to Esmeralda. When ugliness is confronted with surpassing beauty the natural reaction, (maybe the only reaction), is to want to hide your disfigurement. When you or I meet this King, that is precisely what our reaction should be, you are knocked down onto the canvas- winded. So how is the beauty going to treat the beast? What hope can we have- corrupted, sinful, disfigured creatures that we are- before a God such as this? We find out by looking at what happens next, which is very strange indeed, v6: ‘Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”’

It must have been a terrifying sight of Isaiah to see this creature composed of fire moving towards him with a white hot coal and then placing it on his lips. Nightmarish I would have said. What would he have been expecting? Well, we have already been told in verse 5, ruination, destruction. But in fact he experiences the very opposite- forgiveness and atonement- the covering over of sins and a uniting with God. Notice that Isaiah does not ask for forgiveness, he thinks it an impossibility having seen what he had seen and heard what he had heard. And yet it is because God is holy, that he takes the initiative to make Isaiah holy, by taking a coal from the altar on which sacrifices for sins were made and applying it to the most corrupt and offensive part of his being-his mouth. And here we are given insight into what it really means to really know God. It means knowing-feeling- he is pure. It means knowing- feeling- we are corrupt. It means knowing- feeling- his cleansing forgiveness. And if we do not know these things, then no matter how loudly we may say the creed or enthusiastically sing our choruses- we do not know this God. Could I ask: do you know God in this way? Because if not, then you don’t really know God at all. If you do, then you will experience what Isaiah experienced next which brings us to the hardness of the message, vv 8-13.

Look at verse 8, ‘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!"  This is the first time Isaiah hears God speak. And it’s as if a conversation has been going on in the heavenly courts concerning a divine plan and then after his cleansing, Isaiah’s ears are opened to hear the tail end of that conversation-"Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Why is there a need to send someone? Who are the people who will be the receiving the sent one? Isaiah doesn’t know, but one thing he does know is that the only proper response to this King who is holy and so wonderfully gracious is to say, ‘Send me’. This is not an enthusiastic ‘send me because I am the best candidate’. This is more of a humble, timid, ‘Lord, will I do? I don’t know what it is you have in mind-but if there is in any way I can be of service to you, pathetic creature that I am-well, will you please consider me.’ And experiencing the love of God does that to a person- it makes them available for God, reckless even-‘Whatever you want Lord. Wherever you send Lord- here I am’. Have you said that to him yet?

And so he gets the job and what a crippling job it was. This was the message he had to tell his fellow Jews and do you think he will be popular for it? V9 he said, "Go and tell this people: " `Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' 10Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." As far as God is concerned this people are so far gone, so beyond the pail, that although with their physical ears they will hear the message, it will not penetrate beyond the auditory nerve. Isaiah’s preaching is going to be so clear, so simple, so ‘in your face Yorkshire talk’ that no one will have the excuse of saying ‘We didn’t get his message’ (for in chapter 28 the complaint of the people was that he was too blunt and unsophisticated, that he insulted their intelligence by talking to them as if they were children) rather, the more they hear him speak, the harder their hearts will become. The more people resist the Gospel message, the more unable they will be to receive the Gospel message and so condemn themselves. And friend, it may be that you are here tonight and you have heard the Christian message dozens of times- maybe as a member of Mark 2 or the student group, or just coming along to this place week after week. Whatever accusation you may want to level at myself and Lee and Scott and Jake, lack of clarity cannot be one of them. And you are finding a strange thing happening to you- you are either beginning to resent Christianity more and more or you are caring less and less. Now I want to put it to you as seriously as I can, that if you find just a modicum of openness and interest in the Christian faith- go for it with every fibre of your being while you still can. Call upon God tonight to do with you what he did with Isaiah. For that is the only way you will be saved.

Now can you imagine being given this ministry? No wonder Isaiah cries out ‘How long?’ How long must he endure such a back breaking, dispiriting slog of a work? Well, until it is all fulfilled, v12. And it happened, not in Isaiah’s life time, but over a hundred years after his death as Jerusalem was devasted-v11 and people were slaughtered and taken off into captivity. So in that sense his ministry was very successful- hearts were hardened, eyes were blinded and God’s judgement came. But this does not mean that God had ceased to be kind and merciful, for his plan goes beyond judgement, it offers salvation- v13 “And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land." The holy God is going to have a holy seed which will arise out of the ashes of judgement. It could be referring to a single individual or a group of people, but it will happen. And you know what? It did.

In John 12:41 after quoting this part of Isaiah 6, John says a most extraordinary thing. He writes: ‘Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him’. Isaiah saw ‘The Lord high and lifted up and the hem of his garment filled the temple’. John says, that  what he saw was the one we now know as Jesus. At the end of the book of Acts, this part of Isaiah 6 is also quoted and we read: ‘The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘God to this people and say, “You will never be hearing.” And yet in Isaiah 6 we are told that it was the Lord, who said this. So the Lord is the Spirit. In other words, what Isaiah saw and heard was the LORD, Yahweh, the triune God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So how do we meet the real King today? We meet him as Isaiah met him. We meet him in Jesus and so experience the same power of the holy God as he did. How do we experience the purpose of the King? The same was Isaiah experienced it, we go to the altar of the cross to see the God-man sacrificed for us, who out of the burning ashes of that death rose a victorious King who offers forgiveness and new life to all who would come to him. How do we experience the presence of the King, well, as Isaiah did, for as we come to Jesus who is high and lifted up, we receive God the Spirit to live in our broken, messed up lives by faith, and as we do so he sends us out with a message, that while there is still time, (and that time gets shorter with every passing hour) the King invites us- in fact he lovingly commands us- to come to him and enjoy his glorious holiness.

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