A Perfect God

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I remember one holiday when I was home from university. I had loads of work to do, so I set myself to get up early, nip down for breakfast, then bury myself in my room. And on day 2, there was a knock on my door. It was Dad. And he said, 'Look, you come home. You eat our food, use our house, borrow our car. And you don't even say good morning.' He left it at that, for effect. And it was one of those uncomfortable moments of seeing another person more clearly, and realising how they see you.

Well, that's a tiny picture of the encounter we're going to look at this morning - when Isaiah saw God, and realised how God sees us. And it was the most uncomfortable experience of his life - but life-changing. So would you turn to Isaiah 6. (This is one of a series on what God is like, and this morning's title is A Perfect God.) Isaiah 6.1. Isaiah writes:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…

The year that King Uzziah died was 740 years before Jesus. He'd been king of God's Old Testament (OT) people for 52 years and people thought things were good. And if you'd asked why, they'd have said, 'Well, no. 1, the economy, stupid. [They were well off.] And no.2, the 'biannual survey'. [Temple attendance was strong.]' So for both reasons, they thought God must be pleased with them. Until God showed one of them - Isaiah - what he, the LORD, is really like and how he really saw them. So as we follow through Isaiah's encounter with God:


First, REALISE GOD'S HOLINESS (vv1-4)

1In 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. 2Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3And they were calling to one another:

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;

the whole earth is full of his glory."

4At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. (vv1-4)

Ie, v1, 'In the year that King Uzziah died, God showed me (in some kind of vision) who is really King, and what really matters - and it's not how well off I am or my church attendance - the sort of things you can pick up in surveys and draw in graphs. It's whether or not I recognise God to be the King of Kings and treat him as I should. And these seraphs - angels of some kind - are object lessons of how God should be treated, v2:

2Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, [ie, they serve God humbly, self-effacingly] and with two they were flying [ie, they serve God willingly - hovering around ready to do anything the Lord wants, at any time].
3And they were calling to one another:

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;

the whole earth is full of his glory."

Isaiah spoke Hebrew, so I guess, for his sake, the angels did. And in Hebrew, there's no word for 'really'. So if you want to say, 'really holy' you say, 'holy, holy'. And if you want to say, 'really, really holy', you say, 'holy, holy, holy.'

The word 'holy' basically means 'separated' or 'distinct' or 'set apart'. So the seraphs are saying that God is absolutely distinct from us, in that he's morally perfect. You and I are moral compromisers. Take just one example - the area of speech. We've all told lies, exaggerated stories, been economical with the truth, broken promises and been hypocrites (ie, said one thing and done another). Whereas God cannot do any of those things. Because it would be for him to go against his very nature. He's morally perfect; he's holy. 'God is light,' wrote the apostle John, 'And in him is no darkness at all.' (1 John 1.5) Whereas we're grey even at our very best. Verse 3 again:

"Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;

the whole earth is full of his glory."

Ie, in some way, he's present everywhere, all the time. So that everything we've ever done, everything we've ever said, everything we've ever thought has been done or said or thought in his presence.

Imagine that, like in that film The Truman Show, every moment of your life had been filmed from birth. Video. Soundtrack. But also a thought-track. And a motives track. And a feelings track. And imagine we could slot it into the data projector right now and press play… That's the knowledge God has of every one of us. Which brings us to:


Secondly, REALISE YOUR SINFULNESS (v5)

Verse 5 is Isaiah's response to realising God's holiness:

"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."

'I am ruined,' is the kind of thing you say if you go bankrupt. It means, 'That's the end of me. I've had it.' '…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.'

I was talking to a surgeon a while back - during some industrial action in one of the Newcastle hospitals. And he said that while they'd had stand-in help he'd found a pair of blood-covered surgery shoes just shoved in a cupboard. And he was indignant - and rightly - that anything unclean should come within a mile of his operating theatre.

And that's a tiny picture of how Isaiah suddenly sees the situation. The Lord is morally absolutely clean and will not tolerate anything unclean. And Isaiah, like all of us, is morally unclean. So surely we've had it. Just take that one example - the area of speech - again. 'I am a man of unclean lips,' says Isaiah. 'I've lied, I've exaggerated stories, I've been economical with the truth, I've broken promises and I've been a hypocrite.' And God can't just say, 'Well, let's pretend it didn't happen,' or, 'Let's say it doesn't matter.' Because otherwise someone could say to God, 'But don't you care about truth? Aren't you going to uphold truth in your universe?' And the answer to those questions is 'Yes' because God is just to the core and he won't tolerate wrong in any area.

'So surely I've had it,' says Isaiah to himself. 'Because surely nothing unclean can come into God's 'theatre'. I'm bound to be judged and thrown out.'

Realising our sinfulness is the first step back into relationship with God. And it comes from realising God's holiness - when we stop measuring ourselves by our own standards, or by our society's standards and we stand absolutely alone before God and let his perfection measure us. And if you struggle to accept this negative side of the Christian message - if you don't yet see yourself as Isaiah saw himself - can I challenge you to come and hear more of the Bible and to read some of the Bible for yourself. Because that's the only way to see God as he really is, and therefore to see yourself as you really are.

But to those of us who are believers - who've come to realise our sinfulness - can I say: that's an experience we never grow out of. In fact, the better people know the Lord, the more they realise their sinfulness. So that sometimes people who've quite recently come to faith get the feeling that they're actually getting worse.

I remember having a wisdom tooth out under local anaesthetic and I didn't feel very much at the time. He pulled, stitched, and off I went. And then the anaesthetic began to wear off. And I felt progressively dreadful. Not because I was getting worse - I was actually getting better - but because I was becoming more aware of the damage that was there in the first place. And it's like that with our sinfulness. We undergo the spiritual 'operation' of coming to faith in Jesus. And then the anaesthetic begins to wear off our consciences - and we become sensitive to God's holiness and to our sinfulness in a way we never were before. And we often feel worse. Not because we're getting worse. But because God is gradually making us aware of how much damage there was in the first place that needs forgiving and changing.

And sometimes the Lord uses one particular sin, or one ongoing struggle with sin, to show us what he showed Isaiah in v5. For Isaiah it was the area of speech. And if you're a believer, you'll know the particular areas of your life that the Lord has used and is using to show you your sinfulness. And he only shows us our sin in order to deal with it deeply - which brings us to:


Thirdly, TRUST GOD'S FORGIVENESS (vv6-7)

6Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

The temple building was a gigantic 'visual aid'. There was a place at the front called the Most Holy Place, which represented God's presence. And it was shut off by a massive curtain - a visual aid that basically said, 'No entry to morally unclean people.'

My Dad worked in the nuclear industry and I guess he saw a lot of 'No Entry' signs - 'Don't come in here, because human beings cannot survive this radioactivity.' And the temple curtain said, 'Don't come in here because sinful people cannot survive this holiness. They're bound to be judged.'

But if Isaiah looked the other way, out into the temple courtyard, he'd have seen an altar, with a fire on it. And that fire was a visual aid of God's holiness. Just like fire and paper cannot co-exist - one consumes the other - so God and sinful human beings cannot co-exist; one judges the other. But on the altar the priests would place sacrifices. They'd take a sheep (say); lay their hands on its head; confess over it the sins of the people; and then kill it and put it on the altar to burn. It was a visual aid of the fact that God could provide a substitute to face your judgement in your place. And from that altar, v6:

6…one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." (vv6-7)

Ie, the seraph said, 'Look: God has done something so that the judgement you fear - and deserve - has been taken away.' And, end of v7, 'atoned for' literally means 'paid for'.

Now all that, back in OT times, was just a visual aid to show in principle how sinful people could come back into relationship with a perfect God. But a sheep can't pay for human sins. Only a human being can substitute for a human being. And it would need to be a sinless human being who had no sin of his own to pay for. Ie, it would need to be a human being who, morally, was infinitely in credit with God and who was willing and able to pay off our moral debts. Ie, it would need to be Jesus - the perfect Son of God who lived the perfect life we couldn't live, and then died in our place on the cross under the judgement we deserve. Jesus - the sacrifice to which the OT visual aid was pointing forward.

So back then, Isaiah had a seraph come to him with a live coal from the place of sacrifice, saying, 'See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.' Today, we have the gospel message come to us from the place of sacrifice - Jesus dying for us on the cross - saying, 'See, his death has touched your entire life; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.'

And God calls on us to trust that. So if realising our sinfulness is the first step back into relationship with him, the second is to trust his forgiveness - to trust that what Jesus did on the cross paid for all our sins - past and future. And that is also an experience we never grow out of. The better we know the Lord, the more we realise our sinfulness, the more we know our ongoing need to trust his forgiveness.

I remember helping a friend to take an old banger to a car auction. It was a Mark 1 Vauxhall Astra estate, and almost everything that could be wrong with it was wrong with it. And at the auction, you were given a piece of paper to fill in and stick to the windscreen. And on it was a box saying 'All known faults'. And there were so many that we had to go back inside and ask for another sheet. Well, to our astonishment, the car was sold even before the public auction stage. And we wanted to meet this guy who, as far as we could see, needed his head examined. And it turned out he was a Vauxhall Astra estate enthusiast. They do exist. I've met one. 'I love these cars,' he said. He had five already. And it dawned on me as we were talking that not only did he understand exactly how much the 'All known faults' (the past) would cost to put right; but he could also anticipate everything that would go wrong in the future - the clutch in 6 months, the head gasket in 9 months, and so on. And he anticipated the whole cost and was prepared to pay it.

And so it is when the perfect God brings sinful people like us back into relationship with himself. God can fill in an 'All known faults' box for each of us for our entire past far more exhaustively than even we can ourselves. And he can anticipate every way in which we'll fail him in future - between first coming to faith and meeting him in heaven. And he paid for the lot at the cross. So that in his great love he can have us back into a relationship in which we need not fear that he might give up on us. So we can live, as the woefully imperfect people we are, in relationship with this most perfect of Perfectionists - forgiven, loved, secure. And that is life-changing.

So trust his forgiveness. It maybe that some of us need to do that for the first time this morning - in which case please take away one of these Why Jesus? booklets from the Welcome Desk, which explains how you can do that. It may be that some of us are stuck at the v5 point - realising our sinfulness ('Woe is me'), but if the truth were known, quietly despairing about whether God can forgive us. Well, the answer comes loud and clear from Jesus' death on the cross for us: yes - whatever it is on your conscience, it can be forgiven. And for those who've heard that message from the cross and trusted it, the thing to do is to keep trusting it. Trust his forgiveness again and again and again. Because as well as being holy, holy, holy he is forgiving, forgiving, forgiving. Thank the Lord that both are true.

Lastly and briefly:


Fourthly, OBEY GOD'S CALL ON YOUR LIFE (vv8-13)

Isaiah was both typical - he's one of us, a fellow-sinner - and unique - he was a prophet. And v8 onwards is first and foremost about the unique side of Isaiah:

8Then 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!"
9He said, "Go and tell this people…

So he gets a direct, verbal call to be a prophet. And he receives words from the Lord to pass on to the people. That's unique.

But what we can apply to ourselves is this. Once anyone has realized God's holiness and realized their sinfulness and trusted God's forgiveness, they have a gospel to share. And part of God's call on our lives is that we do indeed share it. And we need to say to ourselves, as doubtless Isaiah said to himself, 'What God has done for me, he can do for any of the people around me.' Remember v5: 'I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.' Conclusion: if this perfect God could forgive me, he can forgive any of them because I was, and am, basically no different from them. But, sadly, that doesn't mean they'll listen. Verse 9:

9He said, "Go and tell this people…

`Be ever hearing, but never understanding;

be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'

10Make the heart of this people calloused;

make their ears dull

and close their eyes. [Which is a strong way of saying, 'As you preach, they will harden their hearts against what you say.' Ie, Isaiah's preaching will in a sense harden peoples' hearts - although people remain responsible for the fact that they harden their own hearts against what they hear.]

Otherwise they might see with their eyes,

hear with their ears,

understand with their hearts,

and turn and be healed."

11Then I said, "For how long, O Lord?"

And he answered:

"Until the cities lie ruined

and without inhabitant,

until the houses are left deserted

and the fields ruined and ravaged,

12until the Lord has sent everyone far away

and the land is utterly forsaken.

13And though a tenth remains in the land,

it will again be laid waste.

But as the terebinth and oak

leave stumps when they are cut down,

so the holy seed will be the stump in the land." (vv9-13)

When people hear about this perfect God, they respond in one of two ways. Either the way Isaiah did - realizing God's holiness, realizing his sinfulness and trusting God's forgiveness. Or they deny that there's such a God or such a problem as sin or such a need for forgiveness - and they harden their hearts and end up under God's judgement and ultimately, 'sent… far away' (v12).

And after Isaiah, that's what happened to most of them. God judged them and sent them into exile. But there were a faithful few (last line of v13) - a 'stump' left after the nation had been 'cut down', from which one day would grow a 'shoot' called Jesus (see Isaiah 11.1 and 53.2). And he would die on a cross and rise from the dead so that sinful people like Isaiah, and you and me could come back into relationship with a perfect God.

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