The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, June 7, 2009. The text for this week’s message is Isaiah 6:1-8.
Today is the first of three weeks in which we are going to spend a little bit of time in the Old Testament. We are going to look at Isaiah’s vision in the Temple, the anointing of David by Samuel and the well-known story of David and Goliath over the next few weeks and explore some of the topics that will help us see how God has moved in the past and maybe even get an idea of how He might be moving even today. The key, as always, will be whether or not we are ready to listen to the Word and apply it in our lives. Will we be able to wave our hands and say, “Here I am! Send me.”?
The passage begins with something that is rather unusual for any of the prophets – an approximate date. He tells us that his vision occurred in the year that King Uzziah died. And what that does, more than anything else, is give us some kind of idea as to what was going on in the world around the time that Isaiah was doing his ministry. Around the time that King Uzziah died, the Assyrians were beginning to become the regional power.
The death of King Uzziah marked the end of an era. While Uzziah was king, Israel experienced a bit of a rebirth. He became king at the age of 16 and reigned for 52 years. We can read in 2 Chronicles a little more about Uzziah and what he did. But the summary is that he built up Israel and made it into a prosperous nation once again. However, Uzziah’s pride got the best of him, and it cost him. He ended up with leprosy and spent the last several years as king with someone else actually in charge. The point here is that Isaiah’s ministry happened in a very difficult time. Yet, it is in this incredibly difficult time that Isaiah has this vision and eagerly answers the call of the Lord.
Isaiah’s vision begins with seeing the Lord sitting on the throne. It’s a spectacular vision. The glory of the Lord fills the place. His robe fills the Temple. The seraphim, angels whose names come from the Hebrew word for “flames”, are all about – six winged creatures, who cover even themselves in the presence of the Lord. If the angels cover themselves in the presence of God, how should we feel? Can you imagine what Isaiah was seeing here?
He was probably just sitting around, maybe he was praying, maybe he was reading Scripture. The text doesn’t actually say what he was doing, and I have a feeling that is because, in that moment when the vision came to him, whatever it was that he was doing didn’t matter anymore. That is what it is like when we enter into the presence of the Lord. I’m not suggesting that a vision like Isaiah’s is common to the Christian experience, but there certainly are times in our lives when we know that God is present, and we know that we are in the presence of the Lord. And when we are in the presence of God, nothing else matters.
We all have worries and concerns in life. Things are difficult all around. There are people worried about whether or not they’ll be able to pay their bills or buy groceries at the end of the week. There are people that have been desperately looking for a job for months, only to fall short time and time again. There are people who have concerns much larger than that. But when we are in the presence of God, none of that matters. I’m not saying that suddenly our concerns go away, but when we know who is in charge and begin to place all of our trust in Him, then the peace of God, which Paul tells us passes all understanding, that peace helps us get through the difficult times. Here’s the thing, you don’t have to be sitting in the church building for this to happen. Isaiah was probably in the Temple at the time, but where he was is less important than what he was doing. He was putting himself in a position to be in the presence of God. When we do that, we are more likely to encounter God in a profound, life-changing sort of way.
In this vision, the seraphim are singing a hymn. They are singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory!” The holiness of God is so incredible that the angels mention it three times at the beginning of their song. The holiness of God is what separates the Creator from the creation. All of creation has been tainted by sin because of the Fall, which we read about in Genesis 3. Because of this sin, we cannot enter into the presence of God. Did you notice Isaiah’s reaction? “Woe is me! I am lost!” Isaiah knew that God’s holiness was far beyond any good that he could have had on his own. Isaiah knew that he could not stand in the presence of God. Isaiah was probably a pretty good guy, but in the presence of God, he immediately recognized his sin.
That’s another thing that being in the presence of God does for us – it helps us realize the true standard of holiness. I heard a story once about two guys having a conversation. They were talking about the nature of God and the importance of relying on Jesus for salvation. The first guy said that he figured he probably led a good enough life to get into heaven. As he said this, they came upon a pillar outside of a building. The second guy said, “Oh yeah, how would you rank yourself in human history? Let’s say the bottom of the pillar is reserved for the really bad criminals in this life, and somewhere around the top are some of the really good people – you know, like Mother Teresa and other people who have given their whole life to doing good things.” The first guy looked at the pillar and said, “Well, I don’t want to be too prideful, so I’d say I’m somewhere about three-quarters of the way up or so. I’ve lived a pretty good life.” The second guy looked at him and said, “That’s not bad, but the standard is the sky.”
If we spend too much time comparing ourselves to those around us, we lose sight of what the standard really is. It’s not about being better than “those” people. It’s about living up to the standard that has been set by God. When we are in the presence of God, we realize that we have severely overestimated our own goodness. We might be the biggest ant in the hill, but we’re still ants. If we fail to realize that simple fact, then we are in for a big surprise when we do finally stand before the Lord.
What I find perhaps most interesting in this passage, though, is what happens next. Isaiah recognizes his sinful state. He realizes that his life has been lived in sin and has been surrounded by those in sin. He knows that being in the presence of the Almighty God just might be his undoing, but God doesn’t leave him there. God comes to Isaiah right where he is, but doesn’t leave him in his sin. No, one of the seraphim comes to Isaiah and touches his lips with a burning coal from the altar.
Now, first of all, I imagine that hurt. Think about this for a minute. Seraphim comes from the Hebrew word for fire. I can’t say with a high degree of certainty, but perhaps that is because the seraphim appear as a type of fiery figure. And this particular one had to grab the coal with tongs. Can you imagine how hot this coal must have been?
I’ve never kissed a burning hot coal, but I can’t imagine that it would feel good. And perhaps that is pointing to the fact that getting rid of the sin in our lives isn’t easy. In fact, getting rid of the sin in our lives ended up costing Jesus his life. One thing that we see consistently throughout the Old Testament Law is that sin is costly. The temporary sacrifices of the Temple were sacrifices that cost the life of an innocent animal. I don’t think the sacrificial system was put in place as a form of animal cruelty, but as a way to show us the serious nature of sin. Getting rid of sin is painful and costly. We are fortunate enough to live in a time in which grace and mercy have come through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, we should never forget about the high cost of sin.
After touching Isaiah’s lips with the burning coal, the angel says, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah’s sin was atoned for, not by anything that he did, but by what was done for him, another important lesson that we need to remember here. Our sin has been atoned for through the costly life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not something that we did, but something that was done for us. Our task is to be like Isaiah – recognize our position before the Lord and then accept the atonement that has been provided for us. And notice that it’s not just the sin, but the guilt as well. I’ve said before and I’ll probably say again, we carry around our guilt when there is no need to do so. We have been forgiven. Embrace the new life that you’ve been given and stop carrying around the guilt that weighs you down. When you give control of your life to Jesus, your sin has been atoned for.
It’s at this point in the vision that Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord for the first time. He has been forgiven. The guilt and sin in his life have been removed, and he hears the voice of the Lord. The question is, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And here’s a shocker for you – that’s the same question that God is asking us today. In the midst of this crazy world, God is still asking the same question – whom shall I send?
I was talking with some friends who were visiting a couple weeks ago, and one of them said that she had been reading a book, which is now on my ever expanding reading list, and the author said that sometimes he wants to ask God why there is so much bad stuff going on in the world. But he’s afraid to ask that question because what if God turns it back around on him? The point is not that we can single-handedly take care of all the bad things going on in the world, but we can do something in our little corner of the world. We can be like Isaiah – confessing our sin before the the Lord, being cleansed by the Lord and then throwing up our hands, shouting “Here I am! Send me!”
What are the things going on right now in your corner of the world that could be better if we only lived out our faith and shared it with those around us? What are the things that we can do as the representatives of Christ in our community to really be the representatives of Christ? Let me make something very clear, we are not saved by what we do. We are saved by the grace and love of Jesus Christ. But we show our faith by how we live. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? But God is asking, “Whom shall I send?” Who is willing to recognize their place before the Lord? We are sinful people and we live among sinful people, but God hasn’t left us there. Like Isaiah, God has provided us with cleansing. The question now is – who is willing to step out of their comfort zone and take part in what God is doing around here? Who is willing to not just go to church, but to be the church?
That’s the challenge that we really have to face this week. Has church become too comfortable? Has it become part of your weekly routine, or is it something more important than that? Is your life different because you come here, or is coming here just a part of your life? I have to tell you, if you don’t walk out of here every once in a while a little troubled by the message, then I’ve messed up somewhere along the way. There are some weeks that I walk in here troubled by the message because God is constantly challenging me through the Word, and if I haven’t passed that discomfort on to you, then I apologize.
What is it that’s holding you back? When God asks, “Whom shall I send?” will we simply look around and wait for everyone else to raise their hands, or will we follow the example of Isaiah? Will we eagerly raise our hands and say, “Here I am! Send me!” Or will we fall back into the comfortable patterns that we’ve established? Are we going to be willing to step out and do what it is that God would have us do, or are we going to miss out on some opportunities because we would rather stay in our comfort zone? It’s a decision that each one of us has to make, and ultimately, it is a decision that will affect not only your future, but the future of this congregation in terms of what God has in store for us.