Encounters with God is a sermon series about the theophanies or divine appearances and how they reveal the stunning character of God and his heart for a world that is lost without him.
Isaiah has a vision of God, high and lifted up, and is confronted by the holiness of God. A supremely holy God can seem like a threat to people who struggle with sin. But surprisingly, holiness is both the reason God is able to save us and is the future for all people in Christ. Recorded on Dec 12, 2021, on Isaiah 6, by Pastor David Parks.
All year, we’re talking about The Greatness of God. And today, we’re continuing a sermon series called Encounters with God. In the Bible, when God appears to someone it’s known as a theophany or divine appearing. And these encounters are wild stories, God never seems to act how we would expect. But these appearances reveal the stunning character of God, and his heart to save a world that is lost without him. Well today, we’ll consider the surprising encounter with God and the prophet Isaiah. In this theophany, at first, the vision of God as high and lifted up is quite terrifying because of the holiness of God. But then we realize, with Isaiah, that the holiness of God is not only wonderful but is also tied directly to the very purpose of the church, to our purpose/mission today. It’s a story of surprisingly good news. If you have a Bible/app, please open to Isaiah 6:1.
Isaiah 6:1-5 (NIV), “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. 5 “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.””
Let’s pause here. So Isaiah goes into the temple and who should he find there, but the Almighty God himself, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, the Lord of hosts. Have you ever been surprised at church by the presence of God? Sometimes during worship, I just get this sense of awe and power at the presence of God. But probably not exactly to this degree. Isaiah finds himself transported into the throne room of heaven where the Lord is seated on a throne like a king, high and lifted up. Now, sometimes dates are difficult to determine in the Bible, but we actually know that it was the year 742 BC when King Uzziah died. Isaiah lived during a time of extreme uncertainty with the threat of war/violence all around the nation of Judah. [Map slide] During this time, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrian Empire, so the most powerful empire in the world was literally on its doorstep. This would’ve been terrifying because the Assyrians were the first civilization in history to have a professional army, not just a collection of local militia’s. As a result, for about 300 years, the Assyrians conquered everybody. Because this was a time of exile for the people of ancient Israel and Judah, there were many prophets at work during this time. Similar to the time of the Exodus, God was speaking a lot during the time of the exile so that his people wouldn’t miss why all this was happening. Other prophets who were active at this time include Jonah and Hosea in the northern kingdom of Israel and Micah and Isaiah in the southern kingdom of Judah. One more history nerd fact: the ancient Greek poet, Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, was 8 years old when Isaiah had his theophany in the temple. So there was a lot going on in the world at this time.
Ok, let’s jump back into the throne room of heaven. First, God is sitting on the throne and the train of his robe has filled the temple. Think of a long train of a bridal gown representing the beauty and honor of a bride on her wedding day. The train of God’s royal robe, represents God’s superlative beauty, glory, honor, and power. Second, Isaiah says that he sees living creatures he calls Seraphs. These mysterious, flying creatures are mentioned only here in the Bible but seem to be related to angels or perhaps more closely to the living creatures that Ezekiel sees in his encounter with God. But these seraphim aren’t spectators. They’re actively involved in ministry, calling to one another. Look back at v. 3. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” They were calling, or perhaps singing, about the holiness of God. Of all the attributes of God, isn’t it interesting that they are calling to one another about the holiness of God? Why not the justice of God or the love of God? But it’s even more of an emphasis that we might first realize. Commentator Gary Smith points out that in ancient Hebrew, repeating a word is a way to emphasize the quality of that word. There’s a passage that mentions items made of gold gold, meaning, the purest of gold. But here, the seraphim don’t just refer to the holiness of God by doubling it but by tripling it. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” The seraphim raise the holiness of God to the highest place. That there is nothing and no one in all the universe who is as holy as the Lord God Almighty. What does this mean? That the Creator is altogether different from his creation. He is set apart and sacred, not profane, not ordinary. It means God is spotless, pure, and undefiled. He is not a sinner, he is perfect. And because of the supreme holiness of God, he is worthy of all worship. The whole earth is full of his glory. Just as the moon reflects the glory of the sun, so the earth and all of creation reflect the glory of God. This is what Isaiah saw: the Lord high and lifted up. How would he respond? Job had said, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” How would you respond? It says that Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me! I am ruined!” For a prophet to declare a woe on someone was a most serious thing because it meant they were under divine judgment. Now, the fact that this vision happened in the temple is very fitting because the holy of holies at the center of the temple was to represent a place where heaven and earth came together. However, because God was perfectly holy, there were many laws in the Mosaic covenant dealing with the cleansing of the priest who would enter into this holy place so they wouldn’t die in the presence of God for their sins. In fact, the holiness of God was such a threat to unholy people, they would tie a rope around the leg of the priest who would enter the presence of God so they could drag out the body in case something went wrong. Isaiah knows this. And even though he was in the temple, presumably to do ministry for the Lord, his assessment of his status in the actual presence of the living God, high and lifted up, and supremely holy, was that he was utterly ruined, doomed, he was dead. He recognized that compared to God, he was nowhere near as holy as he should be. He immediately realized how unclean he was. And not just himself, but his people as well. What hope did he have? How would God respond? Crush this unholy man? Destroy him in judgment for his sin? Look at v. 6.
Isaiah 6:6-10 (NIV), “6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” 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!” 9 He said, “Go and tell this people:“ ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ 10 Make 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.”
This is such a wonderful picture of the gospel. One of the living creatures flew to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar. Isaiah had said that his lips were unclean, maybe because his sin had come from his speech to other people. Or maybe, as Pastor Tim Keller pointed out in a sermon on this passage because for Isaiah, his best quality was his speaking. We know he was a prophet who was called by God to speak. And we know from reading through the book of Isaiah, that he was an unquestionably brilliant speaker/author. Maybe in the presence of God, he realized that even his best quality fell far short of the holiness of God. Either way, the healing and forgiveness of God come to the source of the problem. The live coal touches his lips, but instead of burning him, it says his guilt is taken away and his sin is atoned for. Isaiah thought he was a dead man, ruined, for being unholy in the presence of the holy God. But God made a way for him to be forgiven and freed from the power of sin and remain in his presence. But even more, God has this conversation in the presence of Isaiah. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” What would you say if you were standing in the throne room of God and he had just pardoned you for your sin? Do you think you’d volunteer? I would think so. Out of all the surprising joy and gratitude that comes when God doesn’t treat you as your sins deserve, all of that grace makes you want to serve him. This is always what the grace of God does. The more you understand the grace and mercy of God, the more you want to give your life back to him. So Isaiah says, “Here I am. Send me!” Send me, Lord. I will go for you. I will leave my old life behind. I will do what you want me to do. Here is utter surrender. Absolute commitment. But it will not be an easy assignment. God says that the people of Judah won’t necessarily respond to Isaiah’s ministry well. Revival won’t happen in his generation. The people won’t welcome his message.
Now, it’s sobering work to preach the word of God in any generation. I know that this is true. My preaching ministry — of teaching the Bible and continually pointing to what God has done through his Son, Jesus — is received with joy/faith/repentance by some. And so my message is a hope-producing, life-giving message of good news. However, not everyone who hears the gospel believes it is true or trusts in Jesus as Lord and Savior. In the parable of the sower, Jesus himself taught that there are various reasons why someone might reject the gospel and continue in the hardness of their hearts toward God and in unrepentance toward their sins. In that case, what is the outcome of my preaching of the word of God? It clarifies for people who and what they are rejecting and it will serve as a testimony against them in the day of the Lord. For they hear but do not understand. They see but do not perceive. That’s a tough assignment. Isaiah’s life and ministry will carry a heavy burden. For you can’t properly preach to people you don’t care for. You can’t rightly speak the truth without love. And when people you deeply love and care for respond with ambivalence to God, or reject him outright, it is a heart-breaking task. How do you think Isaiah felt about volunteering for this mission? We see in v. 11.
Isaiah 6:11-13 (NIV), “11 Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, 12 until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. 13 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.”
This is pretty bleak. Is there any hope here? How long will this fruitless ministry go on? Until, God says, the land is forsaken. Until the exile is complete. This is not good. Of course, God said hundreds of years earlier in the book of Dt, that if the people were unfaithful to God, they would lose the promised land. And God had warned them for generations, but the people continued in the hardness of their hearts. Now it was the time of judgment. But even here, there’s a glimmer of hope. Where? First, it was the Lord who removed the guilt and atoned for the sin of Isaiah. He wasn’t there to condemn only. He was also there to preserve a remnant of faithful people. Second, it was the Lord who was sending Isaiah back to his people with a word from the Lord. God was still working, he was still speaking, he wasn’t fully done with his people, even though these were dark days. Third, at the very end, God gives us an even greater source of hope. He says that out of the chaos, out of the judgment against the wickedness of the people, there will be a holy seed that will be planted in the land. This is more than a glimmer of hope. This is a promise that God will plant/grow/harvest the fruit of that holy seed. Everywhere in Isaiah, references to oak trees are made in a negative sense, recalling the pagan worship that often happened under or near a large oak tree. But in the end, in Is 61, it is the ministry of the servant of the Lord, the anointed one, the Messiah, who would proclaim a message of good news to the poor/brokenhearted, to those who have been humbled. For those people, they would receive life/hope/joy/praise. “They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” This would be the forest that would grow from the holy seed. But how? How/when would this take place? And what does this mean for us today? The people of God wouldn’t really know until about 700 years after Isaiah’s vision of God, high and lifted up in the temple. After he was sent to preach to a stubborn people. Only then would we discover that God had kept his promise by sending his one and only son. You see, Jesus is the promised one, the Messiah. And the image of the Messiah being a holy seed is one that runs throughout the Bible. Jesus is the seed/offspring of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head. Jesus is the seed/offspring of Abraham who would bless all the nations on the earth. Jesus is the seed/offspring of David who would rule over a kingdom that would endure forever, the Kingdom of God. Out of the ruin that his people brought on themselves, God would bring forth from the stump in Judah, a holy seed. One who would himself be perfectly holy. But one who would take away our guilt and atone for our sin. One who would be committed to making us holy. How? By cleansing us by the washing with water through the word, and presenting us to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Eph 5:26-27) So the holiness of God is really why we’re in the mess that we’re in regarding our sin. We cannot stand in the presence of God — even the best of us would realize just how far we have fallen short of the glory and holiness of God. Woe to us. But at the same time, the holiness of God is the reason God could save us. Jesus Christ, the Holy Seed, had to be holy in order to break the power of sin. So Jesus is both the source of our freedom/hope/victory because he could be the perfect sacrifice for our sin, AND he is the type of person that God is transforming us to become. God’s holiness is no longer a threat, it’s our future; it’s our destination and goal, in Christ.
As we close, let me ask you this: Does the holy perfection of God cause your heart to sing in worship (like the seraphim?) or does it seem more like a threat to you? Seen in the light of his mercy and grace, and seen in the light of his willingness to forgive our unholiness, the holiness of God doesn’t have to be a threat. In fact, holiness is the soil where love flourishes. It all depends on what you do in response to this message. Will you fall down in humble repentance (like Isaiah)? Will you cast yourself upon the mercy of God and receive the person and work of Jesus by faith? Or will you reject him? If you receive him today, and you receive his work of both forgiveness and in your sanctification — of helping you grow in holiness — will you also receive his calling/purpose for you? This is the great purpose/mission of the church today: To share the good news of the grace of our God, high and lifted up, supreme in holiness and glory, yet working to save a world that is lost without him. This is who God is. This is what God is like. Those he saves he also sends. And those he sends, he also sanctifies. Wherever you call me, Lord, here am I. However people might respond, Lord, here am I. Send me! Send us.