Sermon text: Isaiah 6:1-13
God used the first seven verses of today’s Scripture to revolutionize my faith almost thirty years ago. I was teaching a study by R.C. Sproul called, The Holiness of God. It was a needed balance to my view of God which, in the tradition of many “mainliners” of my generation, understood God exclusively in terms of his attribute of love. When I say, “his attribute of love,” what I really mean is what we usually think God’s love ought to be like, in our humble opinion. For many of us who grew up in church, the unconditional love of God is almost synonymous with the unconditional niceness of God.
God used Sproul’s book and study on the holiness of God to awaken me. I discovered God is much larger than I imagined. Sure, I had read A.W. Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy, but goodness, I was still in my 20s and barely understood most of what I read there. Sproul’s book put the cookie jar on the bottom shelf so I could get to it. To think of God as “holy, holy, holy” was something I hadn’t thought much about. If asked, I may have used the word “holy” to describe God, but I would have been guessing at words out of my ignorance.
The Holiness of God
I came to understand that God’s holiness, like all of God’s attributes, is essential to who God is, and not some second tier, take it or leave it, attribute. His holiness signifies both his otherness and his moral purity. To stand before such a holy God, one can’t help but react the way Isaiah did. Who could look upon our holy God and not cry out that they are ruined, undone, disintegrated?
Every sinful thought, word, deed, and desire that our lives have been built upon would overwhelm our hearts and minds were we to stand before such God. The guilt would be more than we could possibly endure. Isaiah’s cry was recognition of his guilt and his repentance of it. Thus, in our Scripture, the angels took the searing coal and applied it to the lips of Isaiah to symbolize his purification and atonement. His guilt was taken away and he was forgiven. Is there better news than that?
Lesson 1: My Sin
God used this scene from redemptive history to do several things in my life. First, he taught me about his holiness. For when a person comes to understand the true holiness of God’s nature, it shouldn’t be a big jump to understanding how unholy we fallen and sinful sons of Adam and daughters of Eve really are.
Yet, Peter reminds us of God’s command from the Old Covenant to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:16). Holiness is not optional. In fact, the Book of Hebrews reminds us that without this holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
Lesson 2: Grace
The second, and even more unexpected aspect of being introduced to God’s holiness in this very startling way was how God used it to show me what his love for me really means. I believe I was at a place in my life where I really believed God’s love was my due. It was God’s job to love me. It was entitlement thinking on my part.
However, as God’s providence would have it, at the same time I was teaching a class on his holiness, I was also teaching a class on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. And there I started digging into what grace really means. I began to understand what every confirmand we have celebrated at my church was taught… that grace is the unearned, unmerited, undeserved favor, blessing, and power of God. God first loved me because it is God’s character to love, but not because God is required to love me. God’s holiness, from which his justice flows, calls for my sin to be punished.
The Wages of Sin
My sin… our sin… is antithetical to the holiness of God and, as those created in his image, is displeasing to him and, to put it bluntly, tells lies about who he really is. Everything an image bearer does reflects on its Creator. It says something about the one who created it. When we sin, we’re saying something untrue about the One who made us. This is the human condition. This is why Isaiah cried out,
“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 was not only that Isaiah was a fallen, sinful man, but so were his fellow Israelites. So are we all.
That is part of the reason we cannot look upon the unveiled presence of God and live. He is too pure and holy. But Isaiah’s vision of the King was just that, a vision. Isaiah was a humble man, he therefore recognized this qualitative disparity. And so, he cried out. I too cried out when I recognized how good and gracious God’s love to me really was. When I truly understood God had loved me my whole life. I couldn’t help but think of how undeserving I was.
This was not a “worm theology” where I saw myself as worthless. But this was similar to Isaiah’s revelation in which he understood himself to be unworthy to stand before the King. That is how I felt. Yet, that is exactly what made God’s love for me all the sweeter. That is what made it precious to me. That is what humbled me and melted my pride in a way that remains a vivid memory in my heart and mind.
Our Response to Holy Love
After an experience like this, Isaiah couldn’t help but answer God’s call to serve him. That should be what each of us does in response to God’s holy love. When we have truly understood God’s holy love for each of us, we should tremble, rejoice, fall before him, and give our lives to him. That appears to be what Isaiah did. God asked for a servant to bring a hard word to Israel, and Isaiah stepped up. He answered the call. His calling would be to deliver a message of judgment.
There is no generation in which judgment is a welcomed guest. There is a reason we have the saying, “don’t shoot the messenger.” Isaiah wasn’t called to bring Israel his own assessment of how things were going and what was going to happen to them. Instead, he was bringing them God’s divine evaluation. And it wasn’t good. There would be judgment for Israel. This would not be a time of “superficial deliverance.” This would be what we sometimes refer to as “tough love.” All would be laid waste. Yet, “destruction is never God’s last word.” Hope would remain.
A holy seed, a faithful remnant of God’s people would remain, from which the Messiah, and ultimately, deliverance and redemption, would come.
I think I often forget there was a time when God’s people awaited the first Advent of the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the living God. His coming was prophesied as early as Genesis and would be the hope of God’s people in every generation after. God would continue to provide foreshadowing and prophecies of the coming Messiah throughout the Old Covenant. We would learn where and when he would be born, to whom, the royal line he would belong to, and why he was coming. Recently, a religious leader in our denomination said,
“It is not important that we agree on who Christ is. …God became flesh, but not particular flesh. There’s no particularity around that. God became incarnate in a culture, but not one culture.”
The Scandal of Particularity
But Israel’s Messiah, was just that… the Messiah of Israel. This anointed One, this Messiah, was of the seed of Eve, the seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the line of King David, and remained the hope of Israel, a hope that existed only because God preserved a faithful remnant who did not bow to false gods and live in rebellion to him.
This Messiah’s Old Covenant lineage is highlighted in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. And during the season of Advent especially, we remember that this Messiah would be born to a Jewish mother. The father who raised him and gave him his name was Jewish. And he would be named Jesus, because, the angel told his parents, he would save his people from their sin. The scandal of particularity matters a lot.
Joy to the World
Yet, by God’s grace, the deliverance, redemption, and reconciliation he brought with his coming did not remain for Israel only but became a sacrificial and loving offering for the whole world. Thanks be to God. God’s love is holy… and his holiness is loving. They are inseparable and intricately connected because they are who God is, along with all his other attributes. They aren’t merely what God does, but who God is. And we are created in his image. We too are called to be holy as God is holy. We are commanded to love God and neighbor because God first loved us. Our lives of holy love should reflect God’s character and goodness in our lives. It’s my prayer for my church family, and the church at large, that God’s light would shine through us so brightly, that when others see it, they will not be able to help but give our Father in heaven all the praise and glory.
Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.