An Encounter With God Ė Isaiah 6
When a Christian friend dies I sometimes wish they could tell me what heaven is like. I wish they could give me some assurance that what I believe and what I am doing is pleasing to God. I just want to be sure. Interestingly Jesus told a story that explains why this doesnít happen. A rich man died and went to hell while a poor man named Lazarus went to heaven. The rich man asked that Lazarus be sent back to warn the rich manís brothers so they could avoid his fate. But the rich man was reminded, "They have Moses and the prophets." If they wonít listen to them, neither will they listen to someone who rises from the dead (1).
Today we have the testimony of a great prophet Ė Isaiah! Through his encounter with God we can learn the most important things about God, ourselves, and our relationship with Him. This experience of Isaiah is almost as though someone had risen from the dead to tell us about God. It is a vision that gives us a lot to think about. Most of all it encourages and assures us of those things that are of primary importance to God and should be to all of us.
God is Holy
Isaiah 6.1-4 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above it stood seraphim; each one had six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one cried to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke.
Isaiah lived in the 8th century before Christ. He was a faithful servant of God called to deliver a very difficult message: Godís people would be wiped out. Only a remnant would survive. But through this remnant would come the Messiah, a Savior to all nations. Isaiahís call to be a prophet is described in chapter six.
The first thing Isaiah sees is the holiness of God. I was speaking with one of our elderly members a few days ago. We touched on the subject of holiness, and she said, "I donít think we fully appreciate Godís holiness." I canít agree more. There is probably no other topic of the Bible that people know about but truly do not "know." Holiness means to be without sin and hating sin. How can we, who are born sinners, understand what it is like to be without sin? To be holy is to be pure, perfect, complete in every possible way.
In this vision Isaiah sees seraphim- a type of angel. The word "seraph" means "burning." These are the "burning ones" who dwell in the presence of God. Yet Godís holiness is so overpowering that they cover their faces and feet, and they cry out a thunderous song, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD of hosts; The whole earth is full of His glory!" I think it is important that this is the first thing Isaiah mentions. He could have spoken of Godís power, His beauty, or His wisdom. But Isaiah gives primary attention to Godís holiness. So should we.
It is wrong to picture God in any other way. The LORD is not a tottering old man. He is not mother nature. He is not a figment of manís imagination. He is holy. Notice that the angels cry "holy" three times. Later He asks Isaiah, "whom shall I send, and who will go for us." This pattern of three and this singular but plural nature of God is found throughout the Bible. Mary the mother of Jesus is told that: 1. The Holy Spirit will come upon you. 2. The power of the Most High will overshadow you. 3. And the Holy One who is to be born will be called Son of God (2). Jesus would late direct us to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (3).
Woe is Me
Isaiah 6.5 So I said: "Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, The LORD of hosts."
Isaiahís experience with the holy God only draws his attention to his own sin, his own unholiness. "Woe is me," he cries out. He is unclean and his people are unclean. There is no way that he can make himself acceptable to God. Now remember that Isaiah is no coarse or unrepentant person blatantly living in sin. But compared to the holiness of God, even the most righteous person will be ashamed. This is an important lesson from Isaiahís encounter with God.
All too often people get confused about their sinful condition. They either become prideful- assuming that they donít have any really serious sins. Or, they become fretful worried that they might fall out of favor with God. The first type of person never deals with their real condition of sin. They never look beyond the surface of their outwardly moral life, and thus their repentance is rather weak if there is any at all. Worst of all they do not grow in faith and sanctification. The second type of person lives in perpetual fear. They pray not because they love God but because they are afraid He might do something to them. When something does go wrong in their lives, the first thought they have is "Iíve been bad." Like the first person, they can grow weak and whither spiritually.
Isaiah is honest with himself and God. Aware of Godís holiness, he humbly admits his uncleanness. He doesnít avoid it or excuse himself like the first person. Nor does try to pay God back like the second person. He doesnít ask, "what should I do to earn Your blessing?" He simply repents. Thatís what God asks of us also. Simple, honest, and regular repentance is the first step in the constant cadence of the Christian life. Without this we will never stay in the presence of God.
This Has Touched Your Lips. Your Iniquity is Taken Away.
Isaiah 6.6-7 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, And your sin purged."
When Isaiah repents God doesnít hesitate. He does not leave Isaiah to writhe in his iniquity. God does not desire to punish people for their sins or sinful condition. Immediately He dispatches an angel to take a burning coal from the altar and touch it to Isaiahís lips. When I taught this chapter to our Tuesday confirmation class, one of the kids immediately asked, "did it burn him?" I donít know. The Bible doesnít tell us. What the Bible does say, however, without reservation, is that this act took away Isaiahís unclean iniquity. He was forgiven.
But a more important question is this, why did God do this with a burning coal from the altar? Why didnít He just pronounce Isaiahís forgiveness? The reason can only be that by these means God helped assure Isaiah that he was indeed forgiven. In a special way, this sacred act was a one time sacrament given only to Isaiah. In this act we see Godís great desire to forgive and to bring that forgiveness right down into our very lives. He doesnít want us to be left in doubt about this.
When you think about it, God would not have had to send His Son into this world to forgive sin. In His infinite wisdom, He could have thought of another way. But He didnít. He didnít do it any other way because He didnít want us to be left in doubt. He sent Jesus from the glory of His presence into this dark world of unclean people to touch us and to take away our sin. Until Jesus comes again, He left us with another type of burning coal from the altar in the Lordís Supper. We can think of the Lordís Supper doing the very same thing that the coal did to Isaiah. "This has touched your lips. Your iniquity is taken away." Jesus said of the Lordís Supper, "For this is My blood of the new covenant shed for many for the remission of sins" (4).
Here I am. Send Me!
Isaiah 6.8 Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying: "Whom shall I send, And who will go for Us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me."
Fully assured of Godís forgiveness, Isaiah responds to the LORDís question, "whom shall I send?" Isaiah eagerly desires to go with Godís message: "Here I am. Send me!" Nothing frees a person like forgiveness. Nothing motivates a person like the love of God. When we will not face our sins, either by avoiding them or refusing Godís touch of forgiveness, we continue to be paralyzed by them. We may have all the ambition in the world to do what God wants. But we do not have the power that comes only through the holiness and righteousness of God. That cannot exist when we reserve a seat for sin. But when Evil is removed from the throne of manís heart, the love of God charts a new course.
Isaiahís job would be incredibly difficult. Most would not listen to him even though they are being destroyed by the power of sin and evil. Two hundred years later, Jerusalem would finally be over-run by her enemies. Godís people would be taken into captivity. But Isaiah, the mighty seer, was permitted to see beyond all of that. He could see the mission of God to send that beloved Son Jesus. The coal from the altar, attended by angels, would come to take away our iniquity. The Holy One of God would be sacrificed for the unclean. "Upon Him," Isaiah said, the LORD would lay "the iniquity of us all."
You and I are also sent to live and to tell this message. Do you need to be
assured of this? Would it help if someone were to rise from the dead to tell
you? No, you have the words of this great prophet. Listen. Know the holiness of
God, the uncleanness of your life, the forgiving touch of Godís word and
sacraments in Jesus Christ, and go as you have been sent to be the living
message of Christ into all the world.
(1) Luke 17.20-31 (2) Luke 1.35 (3) Matthew 28.20 (4) Matthew 26.28 (5) Isaiah 53.6
Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany, February 4, 2001
Michael P. Walther, Pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois. Copyright, 2001
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