Long live the king! - Isaiah 6:1-13
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
I discovered this week that Political Correctness has been taken to extremes in some cases. Heres a few examples. Did you know for instance that someone who washes cars is now properly known as a "vehicle appearance specialist". Health and safety officers are urging the armed forces to ensure that soldiers are not subjected to excessive noise such as gunfire, and that tanks should not carry petrol and ammunition together. Hackney Council in London now call manholes "sewer openings", and Margaret Hodge, an education minister, has suggested a ban on musical chairs because it encourages aggression in children. But it is also in the religious realm that political correctness is taking over. Birmingham City Council has proposed to rename Christmas "Winterval", and to scrap Easter. And the Broadcasting Standards Commission ruled that there should be no references to BC and AD because they might cause offence to people of different religions.
Political correctness and tolerance are the new creeds of our society. And so the pressure to water down the gospel is becoming greater and greater. If you stand for the exclusivity of Jesus or Biblical morality then you will be branded an intolerant bigot. And it is very easy for us Christians who breathe in this atmosphere day by day to be tempted to mould our beliefs to the worlds agenda. Its especially easy to water down the truth about God as the awesome holy God who has finally and fully revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and to believe something slightly more palatable.
And that is just why over these past few weeks in the evening services we have been looking at some incredible Bible passages under the title "Your God is Too Small." Because the Bibles view of God is of a mighty and majestic Deity who is God over the whole world and who is not to be watered down to pander to political correctness. And it is extremely important for us Christians not to be pulled by the current. We of all people need to recapture the biblical view of God, both for our own sakes and the sake of the country. For when we see God as he truly is then we will long that our country be reformed, the gospel spread and men and women come to know this great God for themselves.
And it may surprise you to know that Isaiah, whose vision we are looking at tonight, faced a similar situation to us. He had this amazing vision of God in the year that King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had started off well. Indeed for much of his 52 year reign, the country had seen spiritual renewal. But towards the end, Uzziah disobeyed God and the country began to go to the dogs. False gods were worshipped and there was the imminent threat of a foreign power taking over the country. Uzziahs death was a little picture of the nation as a whole. The country was dying and in the most depressing of times, Isaiah goes into the Temple for consolation. But as the human king breathes his last, Isaiah sees a vision of the great divine King who is truly on the throne. And it was this awe inspiring vision that would shape Isaiahs life and ministry. And it is this same understanding of God in all his holiness that we Christians need 2600 years later if we are to stand firm as Christians and to hold fast against the tide. And Isaiah learnt three tremendous truths about God that day that would stay with him for ever and will be of immense importance to us in our Christian lives:
1) God is the Sovereign God (vv 1-4)
2) God is the Saving God (vv 5-7)
3) God is the Sending God (vv 8-13)
1) God is the Sovereign God (vv 1-4)
So first, God is the sovereign God. And by sovereign I mean the mighty and majestic God who rules the whole world. Have a look at verse 1: "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." Now before we go any further, we need to ask what is was that Isaiah saw. John at the beginning of his gospel says that no-one has ever seen God. And yet Moses, Ezekiel and Isaiah all claim to have seen something of God. And that is the clue. God is completely holy and majestic as we will see. No human could ever for one moment dwell in his presence. And yet sometimes God reveals some aspects of himself to his people for their benefit. Moses was permitted to see Gods back. Ezekiel had visions of God but struggled to say what he saw. And here Isaiah sees the Lord, but he doesnt actually describe God. He simply comments on some of Gods characteristics that he is permitted to glimpse.
So what does Isaiah see? Well first there is Gods kingly majesty. He is seated on the throne, and is high and exalted. The point is that there is no other King than this one. As the earthly king Uzziah dies of leprosy, a judgment for disobedience, this King, the King of kings is still on the throne. Isaiah says in chapter 40 of his prophecy that God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, the people are like grasshoppers. Thats how majestic he is. He is far above any other poxy human king. And that would be exactly what Isaiah needed to hear as the country went down the plug hole. The King of kings hasnt left his throne. He is still there, reigning supreme.
But secondly, the characteristic that most impacts Isaiah is Gods holiness. One of Isaiahs favourite descriptions of God is the Holy One of Israel. He would have realised it from this encounter. Verse 2: "Above him were seraphs each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet and with two they flew." These heavenly beings serve God around his throne. And their appearance reflects what God is like. They are literally burning ones. But even they cannot look upon the Lord. They too must shield their faces. They cover their feet in humility before this awesome God, and they fly in obedient service to the King. And they call to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty. The whole earth is full of his glory." Now when a writer in the Bible wants to emphasise a quality, he repeats the word. So Jeremiah, for instance, talking about some tar pits, says that they are tar pit tar pits: In other words they are particularly nasty and sticky. But only once in the OT does a writer use a word three times of God. And it is here speaking of Gods holiness. God is not called love, love, love, or just, just, just. He is called holy, holy, holy. In other words, God is supremely holy. And that is very important. Because Gods holiness sums up everything about God. For God to be holy means that he is set apart. Nothing compares to him. The writer Jim Packer says that "holiness is the very God-ness of God, everything about him that sets him apart from man." Quite simply he is God and there is no other. And the Biblical writers saw and understood this. The writer to the Hebrews says that our God is a consuming fire. When the High Priest went into the Holy of holies in the Temple a piece of rope was attached to his foot so if he was killed in Gods presence he could be dragged out. Such was the realisation of Gods awesome holiness and majesty.
And that is what Isaiah saw that day. He realised that God was the sovereign God. There was no other. And this is the majestic holy God that we are dealing with. He doesnt suffer fools lightly. Now is that your understanding of God? It is interesting that many of the people of the Bible who glimpse something of God are absolutely terrified. And yet we seem to breeze into Gods presence as if we owned heaven. Now there is a right confidence as we approach Gods throne trusting in the blood of Jesus, as well see in a moment. But all too often there is a dangerous glibness about much in contemporary Christianity when we treat God lightly. We forget he is the awesome, majestic and holy God before whom we must bow in humble obedience.
Jonathan Edwards was a man who understood Gods holiness well. He was a pastor in New England in the eighteenth century, and one of his most famous sermons is entitled "Sinners in the hands of an angry God." Before Edwards delivered this sermon, his congregation were hard hearted and very glib about God. And yet afterwards, many had repented and had begun to live with God as their King again. Listen to some of these words that he said that night: "O sinner, consider the fearful danger you are in: It is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it You have no interest in the Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own to induce God to spare you for one moment." They are incredible words. And Edwards delivered them carefully that evening reading his manuscript to his people. And yet the effect was to change that part of the world for many years to come. When people saw God as he truly was, a holy God, justly angered by human rebellion, many turned back to him and asked for mercy. It is that vision of this sovereign holy God that Isaiah saw that day, and it is that vision of God that we need too. Its not very politically correct, but it is the truth. For when we see God as he truly is how can we be silent and lethargic? God is the sovereign God.
2) God is the Saving God
But secondly, God is the saving God. How does Isaiah react to this mind blowing vision of God? Verse 5: "Woe to me! I cried. 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." Isaiah realises straight away that he is done for. "Woe to me", he cries. "How can I stand before this holy God. For I am a sinner." He sees that a sinful person cannot stand in the presence of a holy God. There can be no other outcome but death. And notice that he says that he is a person of unclean lips. In other words he saw his sin in his speech. Its striking that a prophet, who would uses his lips in his job, would say such a thing. But it seems that Isaiah knew that he had let God down even in the area where he was most gifted. Even there he had failed God. And nor did he set himself apart from the people. He didnt say: "Well Im sinful, but at least Im not as bad as that lot!" No, he knew he was sinful, and no better than the rest of rebellious Israel. He too deserved his punishment. It is all too easy to compare ourselves to others when thinking about our own sin. "Oh, Im not as bad as her. Look what shes done." All sin is terrible before God, and Isaiah realised his was no different. And its only when we see God as he truly is, as the sovereign God, the God of burning holiness that we see our sinfulness in all its horrific ugliness.
You may remember the story of how Quasi Modo took his girl up to the top of the bell tower in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. And when he got to the top and looked at the girl, he suddenly turned away. And she asked him: "Whats up, why did you turn away?" And he said these words: "I never realised how ugly I was until I saw how beautiful you are." And we will never realise how sinful we are until we look at the Lord in all his beauty and holiness. And when Isaiah got a glimpse, he knew how ugly he was before God.
But what happened next? Did God crush Isaiah in a blinding flash of divine justice? No, not at all. Verse 6: "Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hands, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said: See this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for." This verse shows us that whilst God is the holy and sovereign God, he is also the God of incredible love and grace. I guess when Isaiah saw this piece of coal coming towards him he must have thought this was the end. But instead of death, Isaiah found life. And those words of the seraph would stay with him forever, "Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." But how could this be? How can a sinful man remain in the presence of God? Surely God doesnt just sweep sin under the carpet? Well no. The clue to how Isaiah can be forgiven is in where the coal comes from. It comes from the altar, the place where sacrifices were made. In order for forgiveness to be given, someone or something has to take the punishment we rightly deserve. In the OT God provided animals who would die in the place of sinful Israelites. But that would never be enough. Only a human being could take the place of another human being. And one day, God provided the ultimate sacrifice. Isaiah would predict that Jesus Christ would be like a lamb going to the slaughter. He said that the Lord, the holy God of justice would lay on Jesus all our sin so that we could be forgiven. He died in our place so that we could go free.
Some years ago I heard the story of two twin brothers who were identical but who could not have been more different in lifestyle. One was a gentle and loving man who would never hurt anyone. But the other was constantly getting into trouble with the law and was a bit of a tearaway. Well one night the bad brother was involved in a fight at the local pub. It got nasty and he killed the other man. He rushed out of the pub, and headed straight for his brothers house. At the time, the punishment for murder was death. He hammered on the door, and his twin brother answered it. "Ive done something terrible," said the troublesome brother with blood all over his clothes. "Please help me." "Dont worry," said his brother. "Come in and change out of those clothes." So he changed out of the blood stained clothes and his brother gave him some new ones. Then, the loving brother put on the blood stained clothes and waited while his guilty brother was out the back. There was a knock at the door, and the loving brother, dressed in his murderous brothers clothes, went to answer. It was the police. "You are wanted on the charge of murder. You will die at dawn." And so the loving brother, wearing the blood stained clothes, left the house to die in his guilty brothers place.
And that is what Jesus has done for us. The innocent taking the place of the guilty so we could go free. It is what Isaiah knew that day. Forgiveness and freedom, not just from sins, but also the guilt in his heart. And that is why we can come with confidence into Gods presence, not swaggering in like proud know alls, but coming humbly and thankfully, rejoicing that this great holy God should also be our saviour.
3) God is the Sending God
And it leads us lastly to the third thing that Isaiah learnt that day which was that God is a sending God. You see God never intended Isaiah simply to be forgiven and then retire. He gave him a job to do, as he does to each one of us who experiences his heart changing forgiveness. Verse 8. Isaiah is now in a position to hear what is going on in the heavenly court. And God is asking a question: "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And its as if Isaiah tentatively raises his hand and says: "Here am I. Send me." What a wonderful response to Gods grace. Isaiah immediately puts himself forward to serve this great God and King. But just look at the job he is given to do. Verse 9: "Go and tell this people: Be ever hearing but never understanding; be ever seeing but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes." Now that is quite a commission isnt it? How did Isaiah fulfil it?
Well its that Isaiah did not deliberately hide the message. In fact Isaiahs messages are so clear and simple that he is accused of treating the people like children. Rather Isaiah faces the same dilemma the modern preacher faces. What people need to hear in order to be saved is the gospel. But sadly some will reject it, and the human heart is such that the more it hears the gospel the more hardened it becomes to it, until it reaches the point of no return and it is hardened against God permanently. The very truth that can save is the same truth that can harden. That is the nature of the gospel message and it was the same for Isaiah. As he preached, the Jews rejected the gospel of God the true King and their hardened hearts were Gods judgment for rejecting him. Isaiahs ministry was therefore a ministry of judgement. And Isaiah desperately knows how long hes got to do this job for. And Gods response is until Gods full judgement is completed. And that would not come until the exile. Thats how badly Israel had failed God. And yet even in this despair there is still hope. There is still a little remnant who will believe, a small stump that will begin with Jesus and lead to whole new people. Some will believe, even in the midst of national rejection.
And it is no surprise that this passage comes up no less than 6 times in the NT, four on the lips of Jesus in the parable of the sower. When the word is preached hearts are either softened or hardened. So if you are not a Christian this evening, then you need to hear this. But beware, the more you hear, the more your heart will change, either for good or for worse. And for those of us who do trust in this good news, then these verses are a sober reminder that some will reject the message. And they must be left in Gods hands. So as we come to our mission next week, we will long that many will soften their hearts to respond to the gospel, to be part of that promised stump as Jesus build his church. But well be aware too that some will be hardened. And the challenge for us is to do the same as Isaiah: To say: "Here am I. Send me!" Wouldnt it be wonderful if tonight we committed ourselves afresh to Gods great gospel task. Dont you find it remarkable that God would want to use you in his work. He does! Because hes a missionary God. Hes a sending God.
Well we Christians in our land desperately need to recapture the Biblical view of God in the face of relativism and tolerance. For when we do, then we will be known, as the first Christian church was, as the church that turned the world upside down. And when we, like Isaiah, see God for who he is in all his majestic sovereignty and holiness, then well be amazed that he should bother to save sinful people like us, well be astounded that he should want to use us for his service, and well long with Isaiah to say, "Here am I! Send me!" Lets pray.
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