A Holy Response
Scripture: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. ‘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.’ Then one of the seraphim 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.’ 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!’”
The other day I read a story about two brothers who were always getting in trouble. When something went missing around town, or some act of vandalism happened, the boys’ mother always suspected the two of them. Knowing about a pastor in town who was very successful at disciplining children, the mother decided to take her two boys to him. She took the younger boy, who was 8, to the pastor in the morning. The pastor sat the boy down in a chair across the room from him and asked him, “Do you know where God is?” The boy refused to answer. The pastor then said, in a slightly raised voice, “Where is God?” The boy still refused to answer. Finally, the pastor got up walked across the room to where the boy was, and shouted “WHERE IS GOD?” This frightened the boy so much that he ran out of the church and all the way back to his house, and hid in a closet. When his older brother found him, he asked, “Why are you hiding in the closet?” The boy replied, “We’re in big trouble this time. God is missing, and they think we had something to do with it.” Let me assure you today that God is not missing, but He does have a message. These two boys misunderstood something about God, and it evoked an improper response on their part.
The passage that I would like us to look at today comes from the book of Isaiah, chapter 6, verses 1 through 8. This is, in my opinion, one of the most amazing passages of Scripture from one of the most amazing books of Scripture. Isaiah is perhaps, after Elijah, the most famous prophet of the Old Testament, and there is good reason for that. The prophecies that Isaiah wrote around 700 years before Christ are absolutely amazing. However, we will not be looking at a prophecy today. We will be looking at Isaiah’s call.
God’s calling of Isaiah is perhaps the most famous of all the prophetic callings in Scripture, and for good reason. In God’s calling of Isaiah, God reveals His holiness and majesty in an unmistakable way to Isaiah and, ultimately, to us. It is this glimpse of God’s holiness that I want us to grasp today.
I have a fairly close relationship with the book of Isaiah. When I was younger, he was the only Old Testament prophet that I knew had prophesied about the coming of Jesus Christ. I especially enjoyed the later passages of this book, which brought me comfort and encouragement. Isaiah 53 has always been one of my favorite passages of Scripture.
I recently went through some personal struggles, and the book of Isaiah is where I turned to for comfort. In this book of Scripture, I have found comfort, joy, assurance, and, most of all, the holiness of God. It is this latter topic that will be covered by the sermon this evening. I did not have a strong understanding of God’s holiness before I read and studied this passage. Of course, I knew that God was holy, but this was just head knowledge until I began to look deeply at this passage. This passage has helped me catch a glimpse of the majesty and magnitude of God’s holiness.
This glimpse of God’s holiness is something that I hope everyone here catches by the end of this sermon. If we don’t catch this glimpse of God’s holiness, we will miss out on an amazing vision and risk falling short of what we are called to do. I am convinced that the reason that the church has been less than effective in the United States in recent years is because many have lost the glimpse of God’s holiness. We want to have this vision because it brings health and wholeness to the Body of Christ.
There is a story that has been told about a man who went to the doctor because he was experiencing pain all over his body. His hand hurt. His side hurt. His back hurt. His stomach hurt. His head hurt. Finally, the man when to the doctor about his problems. After several x-rays and several other tests, the doctor concluded that the patient had a broken finger. The rest of the problems the man complained about were merely his guesses about what was wrong with himself. I believe that if we had a better glimpse of God’s holiness, we would give up anything, or go anywhere, just to respond appropriately to it. Our failure to glimpse God’s holiness is, in this analogy, our broken finger. We think that our problems are several other things—not enough small groups, the wrong type of music in worship, or the wrong curriculum in the youth group. However, all of these are symptoms, I believe, of something much bigger. Join me and we will seek to rediscover God’s holiness together and respond to this understanding in a way that honors Him.
If we want to understand God’s holiness, we should look to a time when God revealed His holiness.
God makes it abundantly clear to Isaiah and to all who read of Isaiah’s experience in this passage that He is holy. God is perfectly holy. He is holy in His very nature. In fact, it is impossible for Him to not be holy. I believe that this plays out clearly in the text in front of us.
The first thing that we notice in the text is that God is majestic, seated on a throne. Isaiah writes, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” In order to appreciate this statement, it is important to understand something about King Uzziah. King Uzziah was a prosperous king of Judah. Under his reign, the people experienced stability and peace. However, in his later years, Uzziah’s pride got to him. God punished Uzziah for his pride, and Uzziah ended his life as a leper, a ceremonially unclean person, cut off from his people.
Uzziah reigned for fifty-two years. There were individuals who had spent their entire lives under the reign of King Uzziah. Yet when Uzziah died, naturally there would be questions concerning the future of the Kingdom. Isaiah likely felt these tensions, as well, so he went to the temple, and there, God responded to Isaiah by giving him a glimpse of His holiness. We can now see a clear contrast between Uzziah and God in this passage. Uzziah is dead, but Yahweh is alive. Uzziah’s majesty is no longer seen, but Yahweh’s majesty is seen. Most important for this message is the fact that Uzziah, the unclean king, is dead, but Yahweh, the perfectly holy God, is still alive and on the throne.
The next scene that we see play out involves angelic beings called seraphim proclaiming God’s holiness to one another. We read, “Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’” This is perhaps one of the strongest illustrations of God’s holiness in all of Scripture. We often think of angelic beings as holy beings, but these holy beings, privileged enough to serve in the presence of Yahweh, proclaim only God’s holiness. A.W. Tozer makes a remarkable statement about this. He writes, “We must not think of God as the highest in an ascending order of beings, starting with the single cell, and going on up from the fish to the bird to the animal to man to angel to cherub to God. God is as high above an archangel as above a caterpillar, for the gulf that separates the archangel from the caterpillar is but finite, while the gulf between God and the archangel is infinite” (Tozer, 70). In other words, Yahweh is holy to the maximum degree! His holiness is inherent in Himself, and He Himself is infinite. No other being, whether man or angel, can lay claim to this. He is infinitely more holy than we are, and yet He allows us to catch a small glimpse of His glory here.
Furthermore, the angels were calling out God’s glory, declaring it not once, not twice, but three times. In Scripture, it is common for an important statement to be made twice. This is one way that we know it is important. However, as R.C. Sproul points out, “Only once in sacred Scripture is an attribute of God elevated to the third degree. Only once is a characteristic of God mentioned three times in succession. The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love; or mercy, mercy, mercy; or wrath, wrath, wrath; or justice, justice, justice. It does say that he is holy, holy, holy and that the whole earth is full of His glory” (Sproul, Location 405). God is perfectly holy! His holiness is so great that the angels that are granted access to His presence must cover their eyes lest they look on Him in all of His holiness. Their voices made the thresholds of the temple shake and filled the temple with smoke. Yet as grand as these seraphim are, they are absolutely nothing in comparison with Yahweh.
This passage also teaches us that, when we catch a glimpse of God’s holiness, it reveals what is in us. Look with me at verse 5. Isaiah responds to his vision of God’s holiness by recognizing his own sinful state. The amazing thing is that Isaiah was already following Yahweh, the God of Israel. He was not an individual with no relationship with God. Rather, his contact with God’s holiness brought on a deeper realization of the sinfulness even within the human being who had a relationship with Yahweh. We, who are made a little lower than the angels, and who are in a state of sinfulness, become even more aware of our sinfulness when we become aware of God’s holiness. When we see our sinful condition, we see the need to be justified and sanctified. God’s holiness exposed Isaiah’s sinful condition.
God, however, did not leave Isaiah in that sinful condition. Continue to read with me in verses 6 and 7, “Then one of the seraphim 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.’” It would be wrong to assume that Isaiah knew about his sinfulness, but God did not. Of course God knew! However, God would rather cleanse and sanctify an individual than He would to condemn an individual, and this is precisely what He did with Isaiah. The coal that was taken from the altar was likely from the sacrifice that was offered to atone for the sins of the people. In addition to being a shadow of the ultimate Sacrifice for all sin, this passage shows the application of the sacrifice to cleanse and sanctify Isaiah.
The last thing we see in this passage is how Isaiah responded to this revelation of God’s holiness. Isaiah responded by accepting Yahweh’s call on his life. Notice that Isaiah did not yet know what that call was when Yahweh called him. He just knew that he had to respond. The response of Isaiah was simple and straightforward: “Here am I. Send me!”
Finally, I want everyone to notice the order in which these events took place. First came a recognition of Isaiah’s sinful state. Then came cleansing and sanctification. Then came the call. This is how God worked then, and it is how God still works today. God brings us to an awareness of our own sinful state, then we receive justification and sanctification by faith, and then God sends us.
Why does any of this matter? Does it matter that God is holy? The answer is a resounding “YES!” Holiness has a moral dimension, meaning that a perfectly holy God will always be perfectly good.
So, who benefits from our understanding God’s holiness? To put it simply, three groups benefit. We, ourselves, as individuals, benefit because we see ourselves in an appropriate light. Our view of ourselves becomes undistorted in light of God’s holiness. All of our pride can do nothing but melt away. Second, the church benefits. As I said before, I believe that the primary problem the church in America has is that it has lost its glimpse of God’s holiness. Regaining this vision can only serve to strengthen the church. Finally, the world will benefit. As we catch a glimpse of God’s holiness, that vision will affect the way in which we live—including every aspect of our lives. This will invariably leave its mark on those with whom we come into contact, many of whom do not know Christ. So, in short, everyone will benefit from our understanding of God’s holiness.
Now that we are beginning to understand God’s holiness and its importance, what does this mean for our lives?
I would like to remind everyone again that God is not missing, contrary to what the boys in the opening story thought. Rather, He is seated on His throne, high and exalted, with awesome angels singing about His holiness. We see how the angels are responding, but how are we to respond?
One piece of information that I have not shared yet is that, immediately after Isaiah responds, God informs him that the people he will be sent to will not respond properly. (Isaiah 6:9-10). Their hearts will grow hard, and will continue to grow harder with the message that is preached by Isaiah.
Another piece of information that I would like to add here is that there were professional holy men, such as priests, during Isaiah’s day, whose sacrifices and offerings God considered “meaningless” (Isaiah 1:13). God rejected these offerings because their heart problem was not solved. These professional holy men were simply going through the motions, but were neither cleansed nor sanctified.
Thus, it seems that we can fall into one of three camps: First, we can respond like those who would hear the message that Isaiah preached. We can reject the message and harden our hearts, to our own condemnation. Second, we can respond like the professional holy men of Isaiah’s day, going through the motions but experiencing no inward cleansing, no sanctification. Again, this is done to our own demise. The third option is to respond like Isaiah did, allow God to cleanse our hearts and sanctify us, and then use us for service.
How about you? How will you respond to God’s holiness? No one is exempt from responding to the message of God’s holiness, yourself included. The question is not whether you will respond, but how you will respond. You have three options. There is no fourth. First, you can respond like the professional holy men of Isaiah’s day, who go through the ritual but do not cry for heart cleansing. You can go through the motions, but experience no cleansing and no sanctification. You will thus be in no state to be used by God. Second, you can respond like those who heard the message of Isaiah. You can respond like those who rejected his message and hardened their hearts to their own demise. These also rejected the need for cleansing and sanctification. None of these were able to respond as Isaiah did, which is the final option. You can respond like Isaiah, ask God to cleanse and sanctify you and, when He does, cry “Here am I, send me!”
If you would like to respond like Isaiah did, the first thing to do is to examine your heart. Pray with the Psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Let God reveal to you the things in your heart that need changed, and let Him purge away those things and sanctify you. Then you will be fit to respond as Isaiah did, “Here am I! Send me.”