The other day I had an exciting new experience – my first Skype video call. Not all of you will know what I mean by that. This is like a telephone call, but it’s made over the internet, from computer to computer. It’s free (which is good when your son is at University in Spain). And what is more, not only could we talk to him, but we also got to see him on the screen, making faces at us. In the nicest possible way.
Now for that to work, we were dependent on Ben to make contact with us. Unless he decided to show himself, we wouldn’t know what he was wearing. Unless he decided speak, we wouldn’t know what he was thinking. If he’s offline, we can speculate about what he’s up to till the cows come home, but we’ll be guessing. But when he comes online, and sits himself in front of the video camera, then we can see him. And when he talks into the microphone, we can hear him.
It’s the same with God. Kind of. We cannot know what God is like unless he shows himself to us. We cannot know what God is thinking, or hear his voice, unless he speaks to us. But that is what he’s done. He’s done it through the prophets of the Old Testament, by appearing to them in visions and by speaking to them so that they can tell us. Supremely, he’s shown himself to us in the person of his Son Jesus and by his Holy Spirit inspiring the apostles to write the New Testament which tells us what Jesus said and did and explains the significance of it all. If you want to know who God is, this book tells you. If you want to meet God, then God’s Spirit uses this book to introduce you to him.
So here’s an example – this evening we’re looking at Isaiah 6 – the account of the commissioning and call of Isaiah.
Here we have a breathtaking view of the behind-the-scenes story of Isaiah’s prophetic ministry. What did he find out about God that made him who he was?
There is a series on the BBC the name of which they abbreviate to WDYTYA. In full, that’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Each week a different celebrity delves into his or her family background to try and discover the history that makes them who they are. So, for instance, David Tennant, otherwise known as Doctor Who, ‘decided to abandon his tardis’ (as the BBC puts it) and investigate his own history. But if Dr Who wants to know who he is, then he’s missing the key piece of intelligence. You’ll never know who you are until you know who God is.
So what did Isaiah find out about God that made him who he was? The answers are here in Isaiah 6. Here you can see what makes a great servant of God.
But we can’t just be spiritual couch-potatoes as we watch what happened to Isaiah. We’re involved. This chapter also puts us under the spotlight. The question is: what goes on behind the scenes of our lives? Here is the encounter with the living God that was formative in Isaiah’s life and work. What’s been formative in your life? Think about that as we see what happened to Isaiah.
I want to look at what this chapter tells us about who God is in three sections. Firstly, in verses 1-5, ‘He is glorious’. Secondly, in verses 6-7, ‘He is gracious’. And thirdly, in verses 8-13, ‘He is a God who calls us to serve him’. So then: Who is God?
First, HE IS GLORIOUS
This is verses 1-5. Verse 1:
“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…”
Uzziah died about 740BC – and the death of King Uzziah was deeply symbolic. He had reigned over an outwardly prosperous nation for 52 years. He started well, as a young King - living in obedience to God. “But after Uzziah became powerful,” as 2 Chronicles 26.16 records, “his pride lead to his downfall.” He did not lose his religion, but he began to think he could bend the rules that God had given with impunity. As a result he was struck down with leprosy and excluded from the temple for the rest of his life. He was unclean. And that was how Isaiah saw the whole of his nation. They were unclean. Pride was their downfall. Unless God acted, the nation would follow Uzziah in to the grave. But God does act. What does he do? He begins with a revelation of himself:
“I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”
(Isaiah 6:1) And the seraphs above him were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
There are two main things to see there.
First, God is sovereign. He is the Lord. He is on the throne – reigning, in absolute control. He is high and exalted – outside of and above his creation. But his train filled the temple – he is not isolated and remote but he meets his people at the place of sacrifice. What does the New Testament make of this? John 12.41 says (just after the account of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem – and after this chapter has been quoted):
“Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”
Isaiah’s vision was a vision of the glory of Christ, the son of God. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus is Lord. The amazing thing is that we can share that same vision that Isaiah has as we see Jesus in the pages of the New Testament. But there is one difference. The vision that we can have is so much greater and clearer than his. That is our privilege. Isaiah saw a blur. We see Jesus in sharp focus. And he is the sovereign Lord.
Secondly, Isaiah saw that God is holy. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.” In Hebrew, a word is repeated for emphasis - but this is the only place in the whole Old Testament where there is this threefold repetition, so this is uniquely emphatic. God is absolutely holy. What does that mean? Holiness is basically separateness, or distinctiveness. And there are here two main ways that God is distinct, and holy.
For one thing, he is beyond our understanding. We can only know what God is like because he stoops down and reveals what he is like to our puny minds. He is like Jesus.
And for another thing, he is absolutely morally pure. Even the best of us are impure and unclean, like King Uzziah. And if our impurity comes into the presence of God’s purity, we will die. That is frightening. No wonder Isaiah responds as he does to this vision of God – sovereign and holy:
“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.” (Isaiah 6:5).
The sight of the glory of God is always, at first, devestating. It does not puff people up. Their response is not: “Wow, how beautiful!” or “Seeing that is a real boost to my self-esteem!” Isaiah’s cry is right in line with the rest: “Woe is me!”
Woe is the opposite of blessing. In other words it means: “God’s curse is on me!” The depth and reality of sin become undeniable. The issue is no longer, “How can God possibly condemn me?” It simply becomes: “Is there any way that I can escape from justice? How can I be saved?” Peter said to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5.8) When John saw Christ in glory he fell at his feet as though dead (Rev 1.17).
A word here about my own experience. The Holy Spirit decided really to grab hold of my life when I was in my early to mid-teens. From then on, I have basically known, despite a lot of ups and downs in my faith of my own making, that ‘for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain’ (to use words of the apostle Paul). But for the first few years of my Christian life, despite a profound commitment to Christ, I found that if anything I got more and more miserable. Why? Because I became overwhelmed with a sense of the holiness of God and at the same time became more and more aware of the depth of my own sinfulness. Sure, there were other things going on too, but looking back, that was at the heart of it. And looking back, I think God put me through that so that in due course I could grasp much more deeply just how wonderful it was that my sin had been paid for once for all at the cross of Christ, and I was free.
The destruction of our self-righteousness through the sight of the glory and holiness of God is what has to take place before the construction of a new man or a new woman can begin. That is what the next section is about. Who is God? First, he is glorious.
Secondly, HE IS GRACIOUS
Read on to verses 6-7:
“Then one of the seraphs [that’s a heavenly creature] 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.”
The Lord’s response to Isaiah’s despair is not condemnation, but atonement. This was the most profound experience of Isaiah’s life – it is here above all that he experiences the grace of God. Atonement is the process by which we are made “at-one” with God again. Atonement reconciles us to God. It is the response of God’s grace to the ruination that we bring on ourselves by sin.
There are three stages by which this atonement is made effective in Isaiah’s life. They apply in our own lives as well.
First, God provides atonement. This is an act of sheer grace. The live coal is taken from the altar by the seraph. The altar of the temple was the place where the sacrifices were made that dealt with sin and that made forgiveness possible. The fire that consumed the sacrifice on the altar symbolised the wrath of God against sin and the judgement of God upon sin.
Atonement is provided through the appropriate sacrifice. But there is only one sacrifice that can deal with sin once and for all – and that is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. There on the cross the curse – the woe – fell on Jesus, and atonement was provided for the sin of the whole world. There is now, if you like, an unlimited stock of live coals on the altar for the seraph to take and touch each one of us with. And that is the second stage.
So, God provides atonement at the cross of Christ. Secondly, God applies atonement. This, too, is an act of sheer grace. Isaiah’s sinful mouth was touched by the coal from the altar of atonement. In the same way, as we throw ourselves in despair on God’s mercy, the Holy Spirit enters our lives and applies what Christ has done personally to us.
In an air-sea rescue, the provision of the helicopter makes the rescue possible – but the rescue is not effective finally until the shipwrecked sailor is winched to safety.
God provides atonement. Then God applies atonement. And thirdly, God explains atonement. The Lord, through the seraph, tells Isaiah exactly what is going on. “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah doesn’t have to speculate or try and work it out for himself.
This is very important for us. The New Testament does not just tell us that Jesus died. It explains his death. He died for our sins.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us… “(Galatians 3.13)
We need to know that. That is what the death of Jesus on the cross is all about. So God gives us that explanation of atonement in the Bible. This is not human insight or speculation. It is God’s explanation of what he has done. Without it, we could not respond properly to what God has done for us. Without it, we could not tell other people how and where to find atonement for themselves.
Out of his sheer grace towards us, God provides atonement; God applies atonement; and God explains atonement. To be on the receiving end of that atonement is to experience directly for ourselves that God is a God of grace. He is gracious.
I can pinpoint the time when the weight of grief I felt at my sinfulness fell away and I knew, deep down, that I was forgiven and washed clean and that because of Christ and the cross I was acceptable to God the Father. I was nineteen, and on a church weekend away in Yorkshire. Why is it that so often God chooses to work when we’re on weekends away? It was a very quiet, completely unemotional experience. But when I got back to University, without my saying anything, people started asking me what had happened to me – what had changed. And I have never been the same since. Almost overnight, I knew much better who God was, and who I was. My serious involvement in Christian ministry began soon afterwards.
Now, nobody needs to go through any particular experience. God works in each of us differently. But we do need to know, deep down, that God is glorious and holy. We do need to know that, though God made us, we are profoundly sinful. We need, as it were, to stand on the edge and look into the jaws of hell. And then we do need to know that God is gracious and that through faith in Christ and the cross we are utterly forgiven and acceptable to him.
Who is God? He is glorious. He is gracious. Then:
Thirdly, HE IS A GOD WHO CALLS US TO SERVE HIM
We’re looking now at the rest of the chapter, from verse 8 through to 13. 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.” He said, “Go…”
Note four things here.
First, it is by atonement that God both qualifies us and motivates us for his service. If we are not reconciled to God, then we can be no use to him. And if we are not reconciled to God we will not want to be of use to him. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5.14:
“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all…”
It is only when his mouth is touched with the burning coal that Isaiah’s “Woe to me! I am ruined!” becomes “Here am I. Send me.”
Secondly, it is God who chooses us and calls us. The Lord knew who he was talking to here. It wasn’t as if he was just musing to himself, “Well now, let me think, whom shall I send? Oh! You Isaiah! Well, I hadn’t thought of you – but I suppose you’ll do.” The Lord is provoking a response of commitment from Isaiah (as he does with us) – but the initiative for choosing and calling comes from him.
Thirdly, God looks for a response from us that is total. When God says, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” he is demanding a response of the whole of someone’s life. Isaiah’s response is complete. He does not offer some of his time, some his talent, some of his money. He offers himself. No limitation. No conditions. We have to ask ourselves whether we do the same.
And fourthly, God makes clear to us what we can expect. The Lord makes very plain to Isaiah what lies ahead of him in his ministry and it is not a pretty sight.
In verses 9-10 he makes clear that Isaiah can expect his message to be rejected. Hearts will be hard. Ears will be closed against him. His message will be an instrument of judgement. Isaiah will not live to see the hope fulfilled.
In verses 11-13 the Lord makes clear that Isaiah can expect his country to be destroyed and destroyed again, leaving a pitiful remnant.
And at the end of verse 13, the Lord makes clear that from that remnant will come hope. He can expect a new King – a messiah.
You need a searing experience of atonement if you’re going to sustain a ministry like that.
But what should we expect? We know the Messiah has now come – but we do await his return. That Messiah has warned us that there will continue to be wars and rumours of wars up to the end. So that should be our political expectation. Should we, like Isaiah, expect our message to be rejected? The answer to that is no. Certainly we should not be surprised when some reject it. And we should not be surprised when the going is hard. It will be. But, unlike Isaiah, we should be expecting the gospel to be believed and accepted ever more widely.
This is exactly the point that Paul makes from his prison cell in Rome right at the end of Acts. Most of the Jews he tries to convince about Christ won’t believe him. And he quotes Isaiah 6.9-10 to them and says that the Holy Spirit spoke the truth to their forefathers when he said that, through Isaiah. Then he says (this is Acts 28.28):
“Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
Our expectation should be conversions and church growth. We should have the same determination as Isaiah. But we need not have the same expectation of almost total rejection. Colossians 1.6:
“All over the world this gospel is growing and bearing fruit.”
Someone who has listened to God’s call to serve him and who has gone recently is Frankie Lewis. Some of you know her well – Frankie was a parish assistant here until this summer. She recently went out to Taiwan to teach English and to involve herself in the church there. As she left, she wrote a prayer letter, which I found quite moving. Let me quote a few bits from it. She asks,
‘Why am I going? You may be wondering why I’m leaving behind a family, friends and a church that I love to go to a country far away where the climate, culture and language are different… East Asia is home to 1/3 of the world’s population, over 1 billion of whom have never heard of Jesus… Without God and without hope, they face an eternity without Christ… Although it is hard saying goodbye I’ve been challenged that Jesus is to be my focus… Jesus is Lord to be obeyed, proclaimed and imitated, yet He is the companion who strengthens me and the compensator for our losses. I know that this year will be hard at times so please pray that I delight in the Lord, His grace, His Word and his sufficiency… I’ve been reading Hosea… “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them” (Hosea 14.4). Praise God that we know that this promise is true because God’s anger at our waywardness was placed upon God’s son Jesus. Pray for adjusting to life in Taiwan… and through it all that I trust in Christ and glorify Him.”
There is a young woman who knows who God is, and therefore who knows who she is, and what her life is all about. She knows that God is glorious, and that God is gracious, and that he is a God who calls her to serve him.
Do you know who God is? Have you seen the glory of God? If you have, then your pride and self-righteousness will be shattered. Have you experienced the grace of God? Have you responded to the call to serve God? You won’t do that unless you have first experienced the grace of God. A true response is a total handover of our lives to the Lord, who wants to use us in his great programme to spread around the world the knowledge of who he is. Lord God show yourself to us, and speak to us, so that we might see your glory, and experience your grace, and respond to your call. In Jesus name. Amen.