ISAIAH 6: THE GLORY OF GOD
You cannot meet with God and not be changed.
That was the experience of men and women in the bible, of people like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Mary, Peter, and Saul
And today - as we begin to prepare for Advent and for Christmas - we are looking at an encounter, a meeting with God that changes Isaiah's life.
Although this is in chapter 6 of Isaiah, it is in fact the beginning of his ministry. It is how God called him to become a prophet
Three words that sum up our reading: Vision, Confession, Commission
God opens the eyes of Isaiah, and he sees a vision of the glory of God.
It is a vision of God who is seated on the throne and who is 'high and exalted'. Above the throne are the 6 winged Seraphim. They have covered their faces with their wings. And they declare, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory".
This is a vision of the God who is totally other to us. He is the Lord, the "I am who I am", the one whose reference point is Himself: there is nothing outside Himself that He can identify Himself by. And He is Almighty: there is no power outside of God that is beyond God. He is beyond all our concepts and thoughts; He is beyond our human logic; He is beyond being; He is beyond personality
Paul writes to Timothy: "God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no-one has seen or can see."
And yet this is also a vision of a God who is astonishingly close. This is a vision of a God who is totally other to us and to creation, but who also chooses to touch the earth. "The train of his robe fills the temple". The angels declare, "The whole earth is full of his glory". And as God touches the earth, the earth shakes.
His glory does already fill the earth. Psalm 8 tells us, "The heavens declare the glory of God". The reason that we cannot see that glory is because we are blind. His glory is there: there in the wonders of a dew drop, of frost, music, tiny creatures; His glory can be seen in the faces of people who have turned to Him; His glory can be seen in acts of love and self sacrifice and courage and perseverance.
We need to pray that God will open our eyes that we might see His glory.
In Isaiah's vision, he sees heaven touch earth. For us, as Advent draws closer, we remember - as the angel comes to Mary, and as that tiny seed is implanted deep into her body - heaven again touches earth.
Calvin wrote that you cannot separate knowledge of God from knowledge of self.
Isaiah sees the glory of God. He also sees himself as he really is.
V5: "Woe to me! .. 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".
It is very easy to point the finger at other people. We can show how we are so much better than they; or we can claim that they are at fault for my mistakes and my failures.
In chapter 5, Isaiah has declared woes on people (v8, v11, v18, v20, v22: it is a series that continues in 10:1,5). But here, right at the heart of these woes on others, God turns the spotlight on Isaiah. And he declares, "Woe to me".
When we begin to see God as he is, we begin to see ourselves as we are: with all our pride, fear, guilt, resentment, lusts, self-centredness.
And it is significant that Isaiah picks on the sin of 'his lips'. Isaiah probably was either a senior court official or someone who was senior in the temple. Words came easily to him. They were part of his life. And Isaiah realises that that which should have been his glory, is in fact his shame.
When people see God, they see themselves. One man writes,
"What's the natural response when you've seen God? You're convicted of sin. "Woe is me, for I am undone." The closer I walk with God, the more quickly I feel my sin and realize how much I need God.
It's like a huge mirror with a great big light over it. When we stand away from the mirror, things look pretty good: suit looks in order; tie looks straight; the hair, what's left of it, is combed.
But as you begin to move towards the mirror, things begin to show up. The suit has a spot on it. The tie is a little bit wrinkled. The hair is out of place. The closer we get to the bright light, the more we realize our defects. It's the same way when we get close to God. When we get close to him, we realize how much we need him and how far we are from him. We're convicted of our sin."
We can tell people that they are sinners: we get exhausted, and they get cheesed off with us. I guess it what people expect the church to tell them.
We can tell ourselves that we are sinners. We do that most Sundays. It doesn't seem to make much difference
In the end we need God to convict us of sin: For David it came through the prophet Nathan; for Isaiah it came in his vision; for Peter it came through a miraculous catch of fish; and for the tax collector in the story that Jesus told, we don't know how it came: he simply hid his face from God, and prayed, "God have mercy on me a sinner".
And it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin: who shows us just how awful what it is that we do or have done. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to glimpse God, and who begins to help us to see ourselves as we are. It is the Holy Spirit who helps us to glimpse the chasm of hell that is between us. God is there - we are here, and in between is an unbridgeable canyon.
But I do not wish to leave us there, separated from God, because God does not leave Isaiah there.
There is a canyon between God and us. It is a canyon that we experience every moment of every day. Because God is eternal and holy and because we are mortal and sinful, we cannot see God, we cannot hear God, we cannot know God. Isaiah declares later, "Your sins have separated you from God".
But, the angel comes to Isaiah. Heaven comes down to earth. The canyon of hell is crossed. The angel brings a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice. It is a symbol of the sacrifice that has been accepted. And the angel touches Isaiah's lips with the burning coal, and declares, "Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for".
And for us, heaven has come to earth - not by means of a vision - but in a concrete historical event: the first Christmas. And the barrier that stood between us and God has been broken, not by a coal from an altar on which an animal has been sacrificed - but by the death of Jesus. And we have been forgiven: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness".
Isaiah sees God. Isaiah sees himself. Isaiah repents and hears that his sins are forgiven. But there is more.
V8:"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And Isaiah says, "Here am I. Send me!"
He doesn't actually know what it is that God wishes him to do. It is simply that he has seen God, he has heard God and he knows that he has to say 'yes' to God.
God is not looking for people to do great things for him. John Piper writes,
The difference between uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that the uncle Sam won't enlist you unless you are healthy and Jesus won't enlist you unless you are sick. What is God looking for in the world? Assistants? No. The gospel is not a help wanted ad. It is a help available ad. God is not looking for people to work for him but people who let him work mightily in and through them.
God is not looking for superheroes. God is looking for people who are profoundly aware of their own sinfulness and weakness, and who are also aware of his love and mercy.
And God is looking for people who will say 'yes', even before we know what it is that he is calling us to do.
Isaiah was not given an easy job. His call was a call to speak, to preach. But he is called to preach so that people will not understand (v9) (I think that many of us clergy have that gift in abundance). He is called to speak, knowing that his message will be rejected and that he will be rejected.
We know what God is calling each one of us to be: he would have you as his child, holy, growing daily inwardly more beautiful, and outwardly more fruitful; he would have you grow in self-sacrificial love; he would have you be like Jesus.
But we do not know what God is calling each one of us to do. For each person that call is different, for each one of us is unique. God may well use your strengths and interests and desires. But he may also lead you in a completely new direction.
For some, it might be the call to devote yourself to the care of a sick or disabled child or parent; or to be a mum or dad; or to work for him where you already are; or to take on a new work; or to commit yourself to some work that the church is involved in, or some voluntary work, or to set up a new Christian ministry; or to preach and teach.
We sometimes need to be prepared to say 'yes' to God, even before we have heard what the actual calling is. Alison and myself were taught this lesson when we began to think what we should do when I finished my curacy in Ipswich. We started to look at the possibility of working in Russia. We wrote around and received little encouragement (at the time, nobody was sending people to Russia for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time). But we wrote to one man, Michael Bourdeaux, who wrote back: he knew of nothing at the moment, but he added, "Make your commitment and say your prayers". So we did. We said 'yes' without knowing where we would be going or what we would be doing; and God opened the door.
Isaiah had a vision - not of something, but of someone, of God. It was a vision that sent him to his knees. He confessed his sins and heard that he was forgiven. And when God said, "Who shall I send", he said, "Send me". He met with God and he was changed.