Advent Sunday, 29th November 2009
Today as we know now having lit the candle is the first Sunday in Advent when we are not only waiting to celebrate Christmas Day, which is when the most astonishing event in the world’s history took place, the birth of God’s son, but we are waiting for the promise that Jesus will come back again, not in vulnerability as a baby but this time as a conquering King. So it should be just not a time of waiting in excitement and anticipation but also in awe, fear and repentance. The Bible passages depicting this are so vivid and exciting and should remind us of the need to prepare for Christ’s second coming even more diligently as we prepare to celebrate His birthday in less than four weeks time!
Can you cast your minds back to when you waited for something wonderful you had been dreaming would happen and when it did it was not only what you expected but also so much more.
Two things stand out in my mind and this is about seeing something physical. I had always wanted since a child to see Niagara Falls in Canada and an opportunity came along in 1997 to go with my daughter and stay with friends in British Columbia. We took three weeks off work and arranged our own itinerary to take in on the way back home Toronto and the wonderful Niagara Falls. I had waited nearly 40 years to see this spectacular sight and was so excited. But it was so much more than I had anticipated. The power and strength of the falls was phenomenal and it wasn’t just the Canadian falls but there were American falls as well. We went on the boat cloaked in a plastic hooded raincoat provided and still got soaked by the fierceness of the spray from both falls. Afterwards when we walked along the pathway at the top of the falls, the width and depth of the water going over was too much to comprehend, it was just breathtaking.
The other time that stands out in my mind was waiting for the eclipse of the sun in 1999. I was working at the time and went up onto the Hoe with a work colleague and waited not knowing exactly what to expect. The atmosphere was electric, the noise of the crowd buzzing in anticipation and excitement. We stood there looking out to sea not knowing exactly what to expect and as we looked in the direction of Cornwall, we could see a darkness slowly covering the sea and land. As darkness was complete, everyone became silent as they stood in awe and wonder and even fear at what was happening. Then as slowly as it came, the darkness gave way to light and everyone gasped, cheered and clapped. I am sure most of you will agree, it was a tremendous experience of a lifetime and you probably remember where you where at that time.
The words ‘awe’ and ‘fear’ are sometimes used in the New Testament to describe people’s reactions to Jesus. Frequently in response to a miracle or a healing, we read about people having a sense of awe at the mighty acts of God. What they were seeing was way outside of their previous experience and certainly outside their control, and it shook them up; that’s what the New Testament means when it says they were ‘afraid’.
But I would suspect many of us would not use words like ‘fear’ and ‘awe’ to describe our relationship with God. There were earlier years in the Victorian times when ministers preached fire, brimstone and judgement and to fear God. Now sometimes it goes too far the other way and we think of a warm loving feeling without the reverence, awe and fear that we should feel. The God who many people believe in today is more like a teddy bear than the awesome creator and Lord we read about in the pages of scripture. So with all that in mind, let’s focus on our readings from Isaiah and Revelation today. Both these readings are visions and deal with imagery which I am sure we find difficult to understand sometimes. It is way outside our comprehension, way outside our experiences.
We have heard over these last few weeks, the warnings that Isaiah prophesied to God’s people. Also last week at our café church in the previous chapters of Revelation 4 you may remember how John prophesied separate warnings to the seven churches. We talked about one church being lukewarm, one losing their first love and coming away from that service I wonder if anyone thought how Jesus would see our Church today. If you did have any thoughts perhaps you could talk about it over coffee afterwards.
Well after these warnings come these glorious visions of God on His throne in heaven. As we look at Isaiah we read that King Uzziah had just died and so Isaiah is living in a period of change; it’s the end of a golden age and the beginning of a time of instability and fear. Judah had become a rebellious and sinful nation and worst of all the people had turned their backs on God and their worship became meaningless because of their hypocrisy. God had pleaded with them on many occasions to know His forgiveness and cleansing but they resisted and rebelled against Him. God gave Isaiah a vision of who the true king really is, a vision that emphasises His power and majesty and holiness – exactly the message that Isaiah and his countrymen needed to hear.
Notice the details of Isaiah’s vision. God was on the throne. Uzziah may have died, but God was still on the throne. The throne was high and exalted which means that it is greater and exceeded all other thrones. The train (just the train) of His robe filled the temple. When a bride walks down an aisle her dress often has a long ‘train’. perhaps not so much these days, but some of you remember the wedding of Diana and Prince Charles. Diana’s train was so long that there were people to carry the train of her dress, it was 25 ft long! Our Queen Elizabeth at her coronation had a train, which stretched from her shoulders and was 18 ft long! Well, the train of God filled the entire temple! His royalty far surpasses anything we have known or can imagine. We read in Psalm 93 “The Lord reigns, he is robed in majesty, the Lord is robed in majesty and is armed with strength. The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved. Your throne was established long ago, you are from all eternity”. The last verse of that psalm “your statutes stand firm, holiness adorns your house for endless days O Lord”. What an image that conjures up doesn’t it. It is the glorified Christ that Isaiah sees and to whom the angels cry holy, holy, holy just as we read in Revelation the vision that John sees as well when the angels crying holy, holy, holy.
With one set of wings they covered their face, with another they covered their feet out of reverence for God. The angels praise the Lord with the “three times holy”. Holiness is the only attribute of God mentioned in triplicate. Twice the Bible tells us that God is holy, holy, holy, and that in both of our readings today. (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8). They declare that He is supremely holy. The shaking of the doorposts simply adds to the sense of awesomeness and power. These images are designed to point us to a majesty and holiness in God that should provoke reverence, awe and fear.
True worship begins when we stop and gasp at the wonder and power of God. Worship begins when we catch of glimpse of His holiness. The imagery of worship to God on His throne in both these readings is phenomenal. Both Isaiah and John have been given a unique insight into the reality of heaven and the worship of God Himself.
The holiness of God caused Adam and Eve to hide from God in the Garden of Eden. When confronted with the holiness of God, Moses covered his face. When confronted with the holiness of God Job’s accusations turned into adoration. When confronted with the holiness of God the Apostle John “fell at his feet as though dead” in Revelation. When we encounter the holiness of God the way Isaiah did we will see the Lord seated on a throne. It is a throne of glory before which we must worship. It is a throne of government under which we must be subject. And it is a throne of grace to which we may come boldly.
When Isaiah sees God in all his majesty and awe and holiness, the effect on him is dramatic. He is immediately convicted of his sin. And so we read in verse 5 that he cries out, ‘Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty!’. So Isaiah stands before his holy God and he is keenly aware of his own sinfulness. The first response of someone to the holiness of God is an acute awareness of personal sin. When the unholy confronts the holy we become very conscious of our own sinfulness. It is like we live most of our lives with some of the lights off, we are able to hide some of our wickedness in the dark. But when we come into the presence of God the darkness is gone. All the hidden is exposed.
Once Isaiah realizes his sin, notice what happens, in verses 6 & 7 – “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, 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 and your sin atoned for”.
What was Isaiah most conscious of? He was most conscious of His unclean lips. Now think about that. What was Isaiah’s greatest strength? It was that he was a spokesman for God. His lips should have been the one thing that fared well in the light of God’s holiness, but it was His lips He saw as sinful. Even in his greatest strength he was undone when it was compared to God’s holiness. But in the Old Testament there is a way of dealing with sin, and it took place in the very temple where Isaiah was standing; animals were offered to God in sacrifice on the altar, and as their blood was shed, forgiveness was poured out upon God’s people. The animal sacrifices were burned before the Lord, and this is the significance of the burning coal that the angel takes from the altar and applies to Isaiah’s lips. But God who is always merciful cleanses Isaiah’s sin and redirects his life. Which is exactly what He did for all of humanity that will receive it, through the Cross. That is what he can do for us when we come before the Holy One; we are so conscience of our sin but Jesus sacrificed his life for you and me so that when we come to Him in repentance, he can cleanse us and redirect our life.
But the story doesn’t end there. God does one more thing. He asks for someone to speak up for Him. He asks for someone to be set apart and Holy. Someone who is willing to stand out from the crowd and be different. 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!”
Isaiah had experienced the Holy God and when God said who will be different for me? Who will speak up for me? Who will tell people about me? Isaiah raised His hand and said Yes, Yes, Yes Here I am Send me.
As we wait for Jesus’ return, let us remember the visions of worship in heaven that were given to Isaiah and John. Let us, while waiting, give ourselves in worship to the Holy One. As we think about worship, let us remember these words by William Temple defining worship:-
To worship is:
- To quicken the conscience by the holiness of God
- To feed the mind with the truth of God
- To purge the imagination by the beauty of God
- To open the heart to the love of God
- To devote the will to the purpose of God.
Everything that our Church and we engage in should be worship in the sense so eloquently set out by William Temple. It should be a response to the holiness, the truth, the beauty, the love and the purpose of God and should be seen to be so. All that we do should be inspired, initiated, planned, permeated, empowered by and wholly subject to God Himself, by the working of His Spirit. Anything that is not is futile. The very heart of worship is the giving of not only of our talents and goods but also of our very selves.
As we look forward to Jesus’ return, let’s take this time of Advent, despite all the busyness of Christmas preparations, to reflect and evaluate on our own worship and lifestyle. Let’s remember that it is for His benefit and not ours, though it is marvellous to discover that in giving Him pleasure, we ourselves enter into what can become our richest and most wholesome experience, which is better than our Niagara Falls or Eclipse experiences, until we come face to face with our Holy God.
Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty;
The whole earth is full of His glory.