St Barnabas, 1st December 2013
Reading – Isaiah 6:1-13
How many people here can remember what they were doing in November 2003 – apart from, of course, getting ready for the new church?
How many people had a Facebook account in November 2003?
How else has the world changed over the past 10 years?
Back in November 2003 the war in Iraq was in full swing. Saddam Hussein was to be captured the following month. We were living in the boom years of Tony Blair when things like the minimum wage and child tax credits were introduced for the first time. In the charts Busted reached number 1 on 22nd November with “Crashed the Wedding” (No, I’ve never heard of it either). On the pitch Plymouth Argyle were heading towards the old Division Two Championship (now called, confusingly enough Division One). And for most people, a tablet was still something you took when you had a headache, and an app was half an apple.
So much has changed over the past decade. But then again, God’s people have always lived in a time of change. Our reading from Isaiah begins: In the year that King Uzziah died and that instantly tells us Isaiah was ministering in a new and unknown situation. Uzziah had been on the throne for 52 years. His reign was one of great peace and prosperity. His son Jotham would be OK as a king, but he wasn’t going to be anywhere as forceful as his father. In other words, the good times were coming to an end, the future was uncertain.
That’s why Isaiah’s vision was so important then, and why it is so important to us now. It is a powerful and awe-inspiring vision of a God who does not change, a vast and mighty God who is able do far more than we can ask and imagine. 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. On the one hand, there is the passing of the old order – the king is dead. On the other, there is the Lord, seated on a throne, reigning as He always has and always will do in the heavens, high and exalted, far beyond and far above the fortunes of this passing world.
And whatever else we need as a church, I suggest we need to regain this vision of just how strong and powerful and transcendent is this God. You see, the people of Isaiah’s time put God in a box. It was a big box and it was called the temple. And yes, they called it the house of the Lord, but then many of them also worshipped at the house of Baal or Ashtoreth or Molech. In fact their gods often changed with the passing of each new fashion.
Isaiah’s message to them is this God – the Lord Almighty – is different. He can’t be put in a box and He’s not just a passing fad. In fact just the outer hem of his garment alone takes up more space than you give him. That’s why the train of his robe filled the temple. And why indeed on a Sunday when we are thinking about buildings and anniversaries we must not fall into the trap that somehow we can contain God in this place. We worship a God who reigns on high over every person on this planet and in this parish and there is no box big enough to contain him. Of course we need our churches, but Isaiah’s message to us is to lift our eyes and do business with the one true, living God, the maker of heaven and earth.
And that is a challenge. We would, if we’re honest, much rather have a comfortable religion that insulates us from a full-on encounter with God. We’d prefer a cosy relationship with a God who is on our level. We’d love to set our own agenda for our lives, rather than submit to His demands. But if we are to go forward as God’s people we need to have this big vision of God and know who He truly is.
So what does Isaiah discover when he catches a glimpse of this awesome, all-powerful God?
First of all, that he worships a holy God.
Take just a moment to stand in Isaiah’s shoes. Actually, if you were Isaiah’s shoes, you would probably be face first on the floor. Because above you there are the whole host of the heavenly choir. Around you the whole building is shaking. There is smoke in the air, exactly the same kind of thick smoke that the Israelites saw when the Lord came to them on Mount Sinai. And in your ears there is this song being sung over and over again, in fact you find the angels are still singing it when you come to the book of Revelation:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.
Now I wonder how many times over the past 10 years we have talked about the holiness of God? We like to think of God’s love and God’s peace, of God’s power and God’s presence. But unless we understand the holiness of God we always run the risk of trying to put God back in the box.
No, the God we worship is pure. That means he is untainted by any human sin. He isn’t prone to bursts of violence or anger or jealousy. He loves us because He loves us, not because He wants to trick us or force us to do things for Him.
And the God we worship is perfect. His laws and His commands are the very best we could follow, because they reflect His very nature. God has no hidden faults, no weaknesses. He cannot be influenced by our good works or our religious deeds, as if we can make Him do whatever we want Him to do.
And the God we worship is powerful. The whole earth is full of his glory – not just this church, or this parish, or this country. But across the world, on every mountain, in every valley, on every street, in every field, he is Lord. How do we know this? Because if we had but eyes to see we would see His glory, the wonder and beauty and majesty of His creation.
Such is the God we worship – pure, perfect and powerful. And that is why the angels sing: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory. They are praising the very essence of God, a holy God. And why do they sing holy, holy, holy? Well, some say that three is the number of perfection. Others see here a reminder that our God is three in one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As far as I am concerned there is no need to have an argument here. We have a God who is far beyond human imagination, who is complete in Himself, who is worthy of all praise and worship, who is in short holy. Do you, I wonder, know this God?
Isaiah discovers that he worships a holy God.
Secondly, he discovers that he worships a forgiving God.
Let’s go back to Isaiah who, as I just suggested, is probably face first on the floor before the throne of God. His senses are being overwhelmed by the vision he is given. His eyes are transfixed by a glimpse of heaven. His ears are ringing with the song of the angels. His nose is filled with the smell of incense. But his one, overall abiding sense is that he is a sinner, that before such a pure, perfect and powerful God he has no case to plead, that he can only confess his impurity, his imperfection, his own powerlessness.
“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.”
Have you ever considered how without the good news of grace we would all be ruined at the sight of the King, the Lord Almighty? Maybe that’s something all of us – even if we have been walking with the Lord for many years – need to contemplate. Because, you see, there is an unbridgeable gap between who God is and what we are like, a gap caused by our own sin, by our own failing, which on our own we can never hope to close.
I am a man of unclean lips. And yes, I can relate full well to what Isaiah is saying here. I do not need to pause too long to realise that the words which come out of my mouth do not glorify the Lord as they should, in fact that so often my speech actually denies the very God I claim to worship. If it is true, as Jesus says in Luke 12:3 that What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofsthen I am guilty as charged. I too am ruined.
But it is not just my own words that make me unclean. I live among a people of unclean lips. And the words that other people say can also have a hugely damaging effect on us, can lead us to all kinds of sin and wrongdoing. There’s much more I can say on this subject but the focus of this vision is not Isaiah. It is God. And what God does next is utterly astonishing, and utterly marvellous.
Because God has the perfect right to judge Isaiah. Yes, he may be a prophet, and he may be a man of God. But he is still a sinner, he is still unfit to stand before the Lord Almighty. So how God respond to this confession?
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.”
I want you to savour the full force of this verse. You see, some people say the Old Testament is all about law and judgement, that the God of the Old Testament is somehow less loving than the God of the New Testament. In fact here is the clearest example of grace almost anywhere in Scripture. It is the personal touch of God, free and undeserved, to cleanse and heal, to purify and redeem. It is about God sending an angel from heaven to earth to do what we cannot do – to make us fit to stand in the presence of the Lord Almighty. And in some ways the seraph’s action prefigures the coming of Jesus who came from heaven to earth to atone for our sin, to take away our guilt. Not of course with a live coal, but with His very body and blood so that we can be forgiven, cleansed and made once again a child of God.
That is the astonishing good news of grace we find in the Christmas story. The apostle John puts it this way: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9). Yes, God is pure, yes, God is perfect, yes, God is powerful. Yet His Son came to enter our impure, imperfect world, and emptied Himself of all power upon the cross so that in Him we could be made holy, freely forgiven of all our sins.
And before I go any further, I think I better ask: Do you know this grace for yourself? Maybe you’ve been coming here for years, and you’re known as a faithful churchgoer. Maybe you’re someone who’s just looking and are still wondering what it’s really about. Whoever you are, wherever you stand before the Lord, you need grace. Grace is not a fancy word for the faithful few. As Isaiah’s vision shows us, it’s what we all need. All we need to do is follow Isaiah’s example and just let God touch our lives, to say “Yes” to His forgiveness, to His power to save and to heal. So let me ask: have you said, “Yes” to Jesus and asked Him to be Lord over your life?
There are two answers to that question. If the answer is “No”, then today I urge you to come and pray with me after the service. The gospel is good news and it demands a response. Not next year. Not next week. You never know what this changing world will bring. But now, today. It is the best thing you can ever hope to do, to invite Jesus to be Lord over your life.
And if the answer is yes, I want you to notice one really important thing from these verses. Isaiah has confessed his sin, and the sin of the people. His sin has been taken away. But what of the people’s sin? They have no idea just how mighty and powerful is the Lord. They have received no vision. They do not see the need to confess their sins.
That’s why, thirdly, Isaiah discovers that he worships a sending God.
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!”
Now if you read the commentaries on this passage some say Isaiah received his vision right at the start of his ministry. Others say that it took place later on after all that’s happened in chapters 1 to 5. Personally, I think this discussion misses the point. If we have said “yes” to the grace of God, then we need to have an ongoing vision of this God who is powerful and so mighty, and yet so gracious.
You see, so often people fall away from the Christian faith, even after many years of loyal service, because quite simply their view of God becomes so small and so restricted. And a little God quickly becomes an unimportant God amid the cares and concerns of this passing world. No, if we want to move forward as the people of God and if we are to fulfil His plans and purposes for us here at St Barnabas we need to keep alive a vision of all the wonder and majesty and splendour of the God we worship. So that when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send?” we can only reply, “Here am I. Send me”.
We don’t have time to look at the rest of this chapter. I would say for now that when we are sent by the Lord, we won’t find that we automatically become successful in the world’s eyes. In fact we may, just like Isaiah, find hearts that closed and ears that are deaf to our message. We may, just like Isaiah, be forced to cry out, “How long?” as the gospel that we share falls on stony ground. But we go forward in faith in the knowledge there is no greater privilege we can enjoy and no greater service we can offer than obeying the Lord God Almighty, trusting that in His time and in His purposes He will produce a harvest.
Isaiah has a big vision of the Lord Almighty. He discovers a God who is holy, a God who is forgiving, and a God who sends. Is that the God you worship today? How will you respond to His grace? And will we follow His call to serve Him whatever the cost?