Sermon on Isaiah 6; Leviticus 19:1-2; and John 12:34-41. Delivered 16 November 2014 (Heritage Sunday for my denomination) at Pequea Evangelical Congregational Church. The fifth installment of a sermon series on the Book of Isaiah; see also sermons on Isaiah 1, Isaiah 2, Isaiah 3-4, and Isaiah 5.
If the first five chapters of the Book of Isaiah serve as an introduction to its themes, now here we have the real crux of the book. The sixth chapter is a gamechanger; it's Isaiah's call to ministry; it may be the most significant event in Isaiah's life. All sixty chapters that follow hinge upon this one and are in answer to this one. Isaiah has already spoken of “the fearful presence of the LORD, and the splendor of his majesty” (Isaiah 2:19), but does he really know what it means to call God “the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah5:24)? What will happen when, like Job, Isaiah can finally say, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you” (Job 42:5)?
When confronted with a vision of God, one might have expected Isaiah to, at least in retrospect, writing or editing his prophecies years later, give some sort of description. Even if just symbolized in a vision, what did God look like? But Isaiah doesn't tell us anything about his face, his hands, anything. Much earlier, in Exodus 24, the elders of Israel “went up and saw the God of Israel” – and the sole detail they could report back was that his feet rested on something like blue pavement, blue as the sky. If their gaze could even go higher, they gave no indication. Neither does Isaiah – he only says that the lowest hem of God's robe filled the entire temple.
For the elders, and for Isaiah, the holiness of God was far beyond anything they could adequately put into words. Unquestionably, God was Other than they had ever imagined, totally beyond comparison, beyond description, defying explanation, immense. The holiness of God manifested itself to Isaiah in a terrifying purity – not just ritual purity, but raw and unadulterated righteousness – that struck fear in his heart and made his hair stand on end. But that very same holiness, that very same blazing sanctity, naturally evokes a response. From the impure Isaiah, it calls for an anguished outcry – he is overwhelmed, he is undone, the dice are cast, the fate is sealed, the mortal wound is dealt. But from the seraphim, those six-winged flames of fire that shield even their sinless eyes from gazing directly on God, it calls for “songs of loudest praise” without ending. It calls for “some melodious sonnet / sung by flaming tongues above”. It calls for a declaration that God is not merely holy, but holy three times over, holy to the uttermost extreme: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts! The whole earth is filled with his glory!”
I saw the Lord in light array'd,
And seated on a lofty throne,
The Invisible on earth displayed,
The Father's co-eternal Son.
The seraphim, a glittering train,
Around his bright pavilion stood,
Nor could the glorious light sustain,
While all the temple flamed with God.
Six wings each heavenly herald wore;
With twain he veil'd his dazzled sight,
With twain his feet he shadowed o'er,
With twain he steered his even flight.
One angel to another cried,
“Thrice holy is the Lord we own,
His name on earth is glorified,
And all things speak the great Three One.” (Charles Wesley, in Poetical Works 3:133)
Isaiah isn't left to be merely overwhelmed; the cry of the seraphim interprets the awe and majesty of the event. Only at the interpreted vision does the temple shake; the real power is in the fusion of experience and verbal witness. It's no accident, by the way, that Isaiah tells us when this happened to him. It was in the year when King Uzziah died. One of the precious few decent kings – more than a decent king, a good king, a righteous king, an inspiring king who brought restoration to the land – and now he was no more. In his days as in ours, a good leader is hard to find, and hard to replace. For someone like Isaiah, the loss of Uzziah's noble influence must have raised some powerful questions. But there in the temple – the very temple that Uzziah had unwisely invaded eleven years earlier, and punished with leprosy – Isaiah sees, not just one more mortal king, but the King, the LORD Almighty, who reigns as king forever (cf. Psalm 10:16).
Incidentally, when John takes up Isaiah's commission and applies it to the gospel of Jesus Christ, he does something radical: he says, “Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him”. Who is 'him'? Jesus. The glory Isaiah saw? That belonged to Jesus. The LORD Isaiah beheld? Behold the one we know as Jesus. Jesus is not some created being, nor even some second-tier god. He's “the Father's co-eternal Son”. Jesus is bound up intimately and eternally in the unique life of the one and only God, Yahweh, the God of Hosts, the one enthroned between the cherubim. My Jehovah's Witness friends haven't showed much success in whittling Isaiah 6 and John 12 down small enough to fit into their beliefs.
But back to Isaiah. He had probably done at least some preaching before this vision – but here, confronted with the holy presence of God himself, everything changed. Before, he had lambasted Judah as a sinful nation, as if he stood outside of it, as if he were some neutral observer. He rightly denounced sin, he rightly taught righteousness – but he was right in the way that a Pharisee is right, which only goes so far. As one Old Testament scholar and gifted commentator, John Oswalt, writes, “Prophetic anouncement is not enough. Personal confrontation is necessary” (Oswalt 1:182). But now, now Isaiah sees the holiness of God. Now, overwhelmed with a holy God, he sees that the difference between righteous prophet and the wicked masses is nothing compared to the gap between any sinful creature and the All-Consuming Fire that had to be gentle in breathing the stars into their slow simmer. All Isaiah's righteousness, he at last saw for filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). He's sickened to his stomach as he realizes with revulsion how far he falls short. He wasn't set over against the people, somehow above them, looking down from a self-made throne; he was of a piece with them: a man of unclean lips, living amidst a people of unclean lips.
He spake: and all the temple shook,
Its doors return'd the jarring sign;
The trembling house was fill'd with smoke,
And groan'd beneath the Guest Divine.
Ah woe is me! aghast I said,
What shall I do, or whither run?
Burden'd with guilt, of God afraid,
By sin eternally undone!
A man I am of lips unclean,
With men of unclean lips I dwell;
And I the Lord of Hosts have seen,
The King of heaven, and earth, and hell.
I cannot see his face and live;
The vision must my death foreshow – (Poetical Works 3:134)
Isaiah recognizes his impurity, his sin, his guilt – and he gives up hope. He harbors no illusions about the prospect of works-righteousness, no illusions about earning or meriting anything from God. Seeing God's holiness leaves no room for that. This being Heritage Sunday, I'd be remiss if I didn't relay the words of Jacob Albright when he, too, found himself convicted of his radical impurity before a holy God (Reuben Yeakel, Albright and His Co-Laborers, 26-27):
My condition struck me with fear. God's judgments appeared before my imagination; I was very much depressed in spirit, so that none of the attractions of sensuality afforded me pleasure. The feeling of my unworthiness increased daily, until finally, in my thirty-third year, upon a certain day in the month of July, 1791, it reached a crisis which bordered on despair. I felt so weak, and my sins so many, that I could not comprehend how a Judge, who judgeth a righteous judgment, could possibly allow me to escape the abyss of damnation. The anxiety of my soul increased every moment, so that I was ready to exclaim: “Ye mountains, fall upon me, and ye hills, cover me.” How deeply I regretted my past life, and how widely different I would have lived, could I have lived it over again! I not only realized my great sinfulness, but this knowledge of sin was followed by keen sorrow, whereupon I immediately formed the resolution in future to forsake my evil ways, and so to order my life, that I could at least quiet my conscience, although I had no hope of pardon for the offences which I had committed against my Creator.
Like Albright, Isaiah gave up that seemingly vain hope. But God doesn't! Then as now, God is the God of hope. A messenger from God comes to him, because God takes the initiative. A fiery messenger brings a fiery cure: a coal from the altar. God sears Isaiah's sins away – I bet it was painful, I bet it burned and scorched, just as tearing away sinful habits often does to us – and Isaiah becomes something he hadn't been before: clean. A pure message should come by way of a pure mouth – and henceforth they could. Clean lips can't help but join the seraphim in praising this godliest of gods, the one God. Isaiah's life would never be the same. Meeting the holy terror of God undid him, but the mercy and grace of God made him new.
I cannot see his face and live;
The vision must my death foreshow –
A seraph turn'd, and heard me grieve,
And swift to my relief he flew....
Upon my mouth he gently laid
A coal that from the altar glow'd;
“Lo! This hath touch'd thy lips,” he said,
“And thou art reconciled to God.
His offering did thy guilt remove,
The Lamb who on that altar lay;
A spark of Jesus' flaming love
Hath purged thy world of sin away.” (Poetical Works 3:134-135)
Once clean, Isaiah is ready to actually, directly hear God – the first time the LORD speaks in this chapter. The prophet is ready to become a prophet in the fullest sense: a human member invited into the inner circle of heaven itself, the Divine Council, the deliberations of Almighty God among his angels. The Lord asks who should be sent, who would be willing to go. Isaiah isn't asked directly, nor is he commanded; he volunteers. To quote John Oswalt again (Oswalt 1:186):
Having believed with certainty that he was about to be crushed into non-existence by the very holiness of God and having received an unsought for, and unmerited, complete cleansing, what else would he rather do than hurl himself into God's service? Those who need to be coerced are perhaps too little aware of the immensity of God's grace toward them. … Such a grateful offering of themselves is always the cry of those who have received God's grace after they have given up hope of ever being acceptable to God.
How true that is! Now that Isaiah's clean, he's gratefully eager to serve. Millennia later, as the years went by, Jacob Albright's own conversion, his own encounter with both the holiness and the grace of God, bore similar results. Albright said (Yeakel, 48-49):
A burning love to God and all his children, and towards my fellow-men generally, pervaded my being. Through this love, which the peace of God shed abroad in my heart, I came to see the great decline of true religion among the Germans in America, and felt their sad condition very keenly. I saw in all men, even in the deeply depraved, the creative hand of the Almighty. I recognized them as my brethren, and heartily desired that they might be as happy as I was. In this state of mind I frequently cast myself upon my knees, and implored God with burning tears, that he might lead my German brethren into a knowledge of the truth, that he would send them true and exemplary teachers, who would preach the Gospel in its power, in order to awaken the dead and slumbering religious professors out of their sleep of sin, and bring them again to the true life of godliness, so that they, too, might become partakers of the blessed peace with God and the fellowship of the saints in light. In this way I prayed daily for the welfare of my brethren. And while I thus held intercourse with God, all at once it seemed to become light in my soul; I heard, as it were, a voice within, saying: “Was it mere chance that the wretched condition of your brethren affected your heart so much? Was it chance, that your heart, yea, even your heart, was so overwhelmed with sympathy for the salvation of your brethren? Is not the hand of Him visible here, whose wisdom guides the destiny of individuals, as well as that of nations? What, if his infinite love, which desires to lead each soul into Abraham's bosom, had chosen you, to lead your brethren into the path of life, and to prepare them to share in the mercy of God!” I now began to realize more peace and more assurance. I felt a holy confidence that my prayers were acceptable, and I heard, as it were, the voice of God: “Go, work in my vineyard; proclaim to my people the Gospel in its primitive purity, with energy and power, trusting in my fatherly love, that all those who hear and believe shall have part in my grace.”
As for Albright, so too for Isaiah: Faith doesn't stop short of mission.
I heard him ask, “Whom shall I send
Our Royal Message to proclaim,
Our grace and truth, which never end?” –
Lo! here, thy messenger I am.
Send me, my answering spirit cried,
Thy herald to the ransom'd race:
“Go then,” the voice divine replied,
“And preach my free unbounded grace.
Go forth, and speak my word to all,
To every creature under heaven;
They may obey the gospel call,
And freely be by grace forgiven.
They may, but will not all believe:
Yet go, my truth and love to clear;
I know they will not all receive
The grace that brings salvation near.” (Poetical Works 3:135)
Isaiah's calling wasn't an easy one. His commission was not rosy. He was called, first and foremost, not to heal the people against their will, but to reveal God's true character to them – everything about God that they didn't want to accept. He had the promise, right up front, that his message would not help his generation; it would only make them more stubborn to resist God. Though his heart would surely break for them, his words would seal their doom. They were addicted to idolatry, and they would cling to it all the more, preferring the seeming safety of the idols to a God who shakes his temple and strips forests bare. As is only natural, those desperate for blind idols would become blinder and blinder; those itching for deaf idols would be “never understanding”; those yearning for the hard rigor of their idols would be just as stony and inanimate, insensible to the living whispers of God's grace.
But through it all, Isaiah persevered. His generation would fall, true, except for the smallest remnant. Success in his lifetime was not the goal he was called to meet. Faithfulness – that's the goal he was first and foremost called to meet, just as for us today. Yet his glorious message, though hurtful to his contemporaries, would bless generation after generation to come. For them, it would be a great witness, and stand as a lasting testimony.
Isaiah has a lot to teach us. As a church – I'm not talking about Pequea EC, I'm talking about American Christianity in general – we've lost sight of God's holiness. Sure, we give it lipservice just fine. We profess that God is a holy God. But do we viscerally grasp, with every cell in our bodies and every meditation of our minds and hearts, the overwhelming intensity and immensity of God? We aren't called to conform to this world. We aren't called to make the gospel easy and inconsequential, as if carrying a cross were a light-hearted matter. We aren't called to cater to the fashionable tastes and preferences of a sin-addicted age. Neither was Isaiah, nor Albright. Now, true, we're called to contextualize the gospel, to communicate it effectively and persuasively and lovingly, and to help the wounded and vulnerable tenderly approach the God of mercy who welcomes them with open arms. But this same God, revealed in Christ, is the God high and exalted, the God whose very robe dwarfs his temple, the God whose holiness shakes the earth and enraptures wary angels. It's that balanced tension – the God of this exalted glory really is the God of such humble and compassionate mercy – that blows my mind, and it should do the same for you too. But playing with fire is infinitely safer than playing around with God's holiness. The only safe path is the road strait and narrow: we are called to be pure, to be other – to be in this present age, yes, but not of this age.
But this call to be holy comes hand-in-hand with confession: In ourselves, we aren't. In ourselves, we are, each and every one of us, unclean. We're moths divebombing a high-voltage bug zapper. Our iniquity needs first to be taken away by the burning ember of the Spirit, brought from the altar of Christ's cross. Freshly made clean, we are called to say together, “Here we are; send us!” But is it any surprise when Jesus answers us, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21)? Is it any surprise when Jesus adds, “As you're going, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I've commanded you” (Matthew28:19-20)? Through this Great Commission, “Here we are; send us!” becomes “Here we go, the sent ones!” We're sent – but are we going? Compelled by God's holiness, touched by the purifying flame, how can we not join the seraphic witness? May we, too, be cleansed and enraptured by the unfathomable holiness of God; and may we not neglect to persevere in our commission. Let us pray:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory!
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Holy God, holy mighty, holy immortal, have mercy on us!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.