High and Lifted Up

Sermon by David Strain on Oct 29

Isaiah 6

Now if you would please take a copy of God’s holy Word in your hands and turn with me to the prophecy of Isaiah. That’s how you will all say it when you get to heaven! Isaiah, chapter 6! Page 571 in the church Bibles if you’re using one of those. In one of his letters to the humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, Martin Luther offered as an indictment of Erasmus’ thought a comment that probably diagnoses the causes of so many of the spiritual diseases that continue to plague our Christian lives even today. He said this. “Your thoughts of God are too human.” “Your thoughts of God are too human.” When friends pushed back with skepticism on Sam Patterson’s vision for the founding of Reformed Theological Seminary, he replied similarly with a question that ought to haunt us at a time when we have never been so preoccupied with ourselves. He asked, “How big is your God? How big is your God?”

“People are starving for the greatness of God,” John Piper has written, “but most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God’s greatness may endure for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul. Show me Thy glory!” Show me Thy glory. The hidden cry of all our hearts tonight, the deepest need of every soul, is for a fresh sight of the glory of the Triune God of holy Scripture.

And so as we turn to the exposition of the Word of God, I want you to direct your gaze to one place where we are given such a sight here in Isaiah chapter 6. Before we read it together, would you bow your heads with me briefly as we pray?

O Lord, before us is Your inerrant Word. Open our hearts, our understanding, that we may receive its truth, bowing before You in Your glory and in Your grace, come to know You as You come to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. For we ask it in His name, amen.

Isaiah chapter 6 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.’”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and authoritative Word.

A clear sense of the weight and the wonder of the glory of God was the genius of the Protestant Reformation. The chief end of God, the authors of the shorter catechism might easily have said, the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. God is radically God-centered. And because He is, because God's glory is the goal of all that God does, we never will be satisfied or at peace until we join Him in fulfillment of this one great purpose – the adoration and the exaltation of God. Soli Deo Gloria, glory to God alone, is not a mere slogan inserted to crown the other more important solas of the Reformation that we have been celebrating tonight. It is, rather, the explanation of why salvation is by grace alone – Sola Gratia – through faith alone – Sola Fide – in Christ alone – Solus Christus – as He comes to us in the Scriptures alone – Sola Scriptura. God works the way He does, He saves the way He does, that He might be exalted.

And in our passage this evening, the prophet Isaiah comes to understand that in a very dramatic way. Doesn’t he? And while we don’t see what Isaiah saw that night, we, like him, are gathered here in the presence of this same almighty Lord, nevertheless. And so what I want to do is very simply to try and identify some of the facets of the glory of God that the prophet saw; to turn the diamond and let it shine just a little for all of us together this evening. Four things in particular to see. God is holy. God is King. God is near. And God is gracious. He is holy, He is King, He is near, He is immanent, and He is gracious.

God is Holy

First of all, then, notice what we learn here about the holiness of God. God is holy. Look at the song of the seraphim, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory!" The three-fold repetition is important. Isn't it? In the Bible, repetition is used for emphasis. It highlights what we mustn't miss. He is not just holy; He is holy, holier than anything or anyone. He is holiest of all. God is superlative holy. The word "holy," as you may know, means something like, "separate" or "distinct" or "other." And it is not so much, therefore, a distinct attribute of God as it is a way to describe every attribute of God. It's not just that God is love. It is that He is holy love. His love belongs on a different plane and is of a different order than ours. It's not just that He is wise. It is that He is holy wisdom; wisdom of a category and a character altogether distinct from our own. God isn't like us. Do you see? You can't say "God" by shouting "Man" loudly. He is holy, holy, holy! Someone once asked Saint Augustine what God was doing before creation, to which he famously replied, “Creating hell for people who ask questions like that!” God isn’t like us. There is a glorious incomprehensibility to Him and to His ways that we cannot penetrate into the mystery of His thrice-holy being. Speculation is blasphemy before the holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.

Response of Unfallen Creation

Before we move on, will you notice please the three orders of creation that respond to this vision of the holiness of God in our passage? First of all, notice how unfallen creation responds; these angelic beings. Look at what they’re doing as they worship the Lord. “With two wings each covered his face, with two he covers his feet, and with two he flew.” Their wings are constantly beating. Imagine a hummingbird hovering, poised to dart this way or that, ready to go at the will and decree of God in fulfillment of His design. But why are they hiding their faces? They have nothing about which to feel ashamed. They have no sin. In fact, the name that Isaiah gives them here, “seraphim,” means “burning ones.” So here are these extraordinary, beautiful, astonishing, glorious creatures shining with unfallen, pristine majesty of their own; burning and blazing in a holiness of their own. There is no sin in them, and yet even they must veil their faces before the majestic holiness of the God of all glory. There is a creature-Creator distinction that puts the Lord God in a different category; a category of one. And so they hide their faces. They also, notice, they hide their feet. Here is modesty and reverence. Think of Moses putting off his sandals at the burning bush because the presence of God made even the dirt he was standing on into holy ground. The reaction of unfallen creation – the seraphim.

Response of Inanimate Creation

Then there’s inanimate creation. Notice in verse 4, “the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke” like a struck bell. The fabric of creation itself reverberates in the presence of the majesty and the holiness of the one who made it. Unfallen creation; inanimate creation.

Response of Fallen Creation

And then thirdly, there's the reaction of sinful, fallen creation; the reaction of the prophet. Verses 4 and 5. What is the effect of the shaking thresholds? These doorposts that are trembling and the smoke that fills the temple – what's the effect of that on Isaiah? Well, it all has the effect of prohibiting his entry. Doesn't it? The doors are trembling so the prophet can't get close. He can't pass the threshold. The place is full of smoke to obscure his vision so that he may not see. He is being shut out. He cannot get near to this God. And while the seraphim are filled with joyful songs, look at the words of the prophet in the presence of God. “Woe is me, I am lost, I am ruined, I am silenced with the silence of the grave! 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 of hosts!” He is a prophet of God. He is a preacher of the Word. He is the vehicle, the instrument of divine revelation to the people of God. And here he is, in God’s presence, in the temple, and he’s not with his eyes closed and his hands in the air. He’s not swaying in ecstasy in the warm glow of the presence of God. Is he? He is in the dust, overcome at the sudden sight of himself that he now receives.

Word of Judgment

And so he pronounces a word of judgment upon himself. If you look back at chapter 5 just for a moment, we get a sample of his preaching ministry to the people of God. Here’s the kind of things he was saying in his sermons to them. Chapter 5 verse 8, “Woe to those who join house to house.” Verse 11, “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may run after strong drink.” Verse 18, “Woe to those who draw iniquity with cords of falsehood.” Verse 20, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” Verse 21, “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes.” Verse 22, “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine.” Woe to you people! And maybe, in comparison with them, the prophet vindicates himself and thinks, “You know what? I’m not so bad, next to that guy!” But now, at last, here in the temple, when placed against the backdrop of the blazing, white-hot majesty of the thrice-holy God, he sees the truth. He sees the truth. And now he says, “Woe to me! I am lost.” He sees that the holiness of God excludes him, condemns him, and here he is, cowering now, braced for his own destruction.

Fascinatingly, if you look at his confession of sin, he acknowledges in particular two things. First, notice his characteristic sin comes at the place of his primary giftedness and ministry. Isn’t that interesting? You see that in the text? He is a preacher, a prophet. He is to speak the Word. But he has unclean lips. How often our gifts become the primary place of our habitual sin and our greatest stumbling.

And then secondly, notice that, before, whereas he pronounced judgment on others, now he pronounces judgment on himself for sharing in precisely the same sin he sees in them. He thought himself previously better than they. Now he knows that before the holiness of God he stands in as much need as they for grace. He is a man of unclean lips and he lives among a people of unclean lips. He’s no better than they. The same sin and the same woe belongs to us all. When we meet the God of Scripture, the Holy One, we come to see ourselves as we really are. And it’s not a pretty sight, is it? He doesn’t help us with our self-esteem. He doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves. No, He shows us as Jack Miller famously put it, that we are “much worse than we realized.” The shrine to our own glory that we have been so carefully constructing for so long crumbles before the holiness of Almighty God. Isaiah sees the God who is holy.

God is King

Then secondly, he sees a God who is King. The God who is King. This all takes place, verse 1, “in the year King Uzziah died.” 2 Chronicles 26 is where you can read about King Uzziah’s story. His reign began really well. He was a godly king and the land, the people, knew blessing and prosperity under his leadership. But 2 Chronicles 26:16, “When he was strong, he grew proud to his destruction. For he was unfaithful to the Lord his God and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.” Only the priests were allowed to do that and they were horrified and they confronted him. And Uzziah boastfully refused to listen to them and when he did, the judgment of God fell, leprosy broke out on his forehead, the priests thrust him from the temple. He has to live the remainder of his days, as it were, in a leper colony, in a house separated. He is now unclean, you see. That’s what sin does to us. It’s what Isaiah realizes it’s doing to him. He is unclean, just like King Uzziah, and by nature just like you and me. He has to live his days until he dies cut off from the temple, cut off from worship, cut off from the people of God.

So the king is a symbol of the backsliding of the people. And now he’s dead. It is as though the judgment of God has reached its highwater mark. Jotham, his son, must take over. Meanwhile, just across the border, the superpower of the day, the Assyrian Empire, is mast and poised for invasion. It is a moment of terrible national insecurity. The king is dead, the enemy is coming, so Isaiah heads for the temple. He’s there presumably to cry out to God for mercy, for grace, for deliverance for his people. He doesn’t realize that mercy and grace and deliverance must start with him. Just as we need to realize it must start with us.

Suddenly, the familiar sights of the temple fade from view; overlaying them all now is the scene of the heavenly throne room itself. The king is dead, but now he sees instead the Lord God Himself sitting on His throne; the train of His royal robe filling the temple. His eyes, he says, “have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” It is an overawing sight of transcendent majesty. Earthly kings rise and fall, don’t they? Presidents come and go. The structures of society can crumble. The future can look ever so bleak. Dark clouds, the dark clouds of calamity may wait just over the horizon. But brothers and sisters, God has not abdicated His throne. God has not abdicated His throne. He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth. Before Him, the nations are as a drop in the bucket. He is the true and final King and sovereign that Isaiah needed to see and be reminded of. And I dare say, so do we! The Lord is still on the throne! And because the Lord reigns, and only because the Lord reigns, we can say with the psalmist, “Therefore, God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth gives way, though mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, and though mountains tremble at its swelling. We will not fear, God is our refuge and strength.” Because He reigns! God is holy, and praise the Lord God is sovereign. He is King!

God is Near

Then thirdly, notice God is near. God is near. Look again at the song the angels sing in verse 3. "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of your glory!" Here's the difference between Christianity and the other religions of the world. Islam, for example, has an idea, a doctrine, of a transcendent deity. But he is not a god who ultimately may be known. The chasm between him and his creatures, in Islamic thought, cannot be bridged. There's no fellowship with Allah. Eastern religions, on the other hand, they see the divine in everything. God is nature. God is the cosmos. I'm God. You're God. The distinction in their thinking between the Creator and the creature has collapsed completely. He's absorbed into the way things are, and our goal is to be absorbed into him. Now a god who is all sovereignty and transcendence but who is unknowable is either a tyrant or he is altogether irrelevant. Or a god who is indistinguishable from creation itself isn't worth seeking or serving or caring about.

But the Triune God of holy Scripture is both transcendent in majesty and He is near to His creatures. “The whole earth is full of His glory!” the angels sing. Creation is redolent of its Maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God.” His invisible attributes are clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things that are made. “The world,” as John Calvin once put it, “is the theatre of God’s glory.” But as Isaiah discovered, the nearness of the holy God of glory who is the great King is not necessarily good news for us. “A Calvinist,” B.B. Warfield, the great Princeton theologian of the 19th century, “A Calvinist,” he wrote, “is the man who has seen God and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner.” That was precisely Isaiah’s experience. Wasn’t it?

God is Gracious

And that brings us to the last thing to see about God here. He is holy, He is King, He is near, but what takes all of that and changes it from damning, bad news for sinners like Isaiah, like me, like you, and turns it into glorious good news is the God, the God who is holy and sovereign and near at hand, this God is also gracious. He’s full of grace. Listen to the rest of Warfield’s quote. “A Calvinist is the man who has seen God and, who having seen God in all His glory, is filled on the one hand with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless, this God, is a God who receives sinners.” He is a God who welcomes rebels. Here is the prophet cowering in shame and guilt before the Lord, and look what happens. Verse 6 and 7, “One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand the burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar, and he touched my mouth and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.’”

Picture it – speeding toward him as he waits for his own destruction, comes one of these “burning ones,” these seraphim, and they’re holding a fiery coal taken from the altar of burnt offering. And he sees this flaming thing speeding toward him as he waits for what he thinks is his end. This is it. This is the moment of his final doom, surely. And the coal is pressed to his lips, which is where he said his habitual sin found its common expression. Surely the searing agony of it would mean his end. But it’s not a moment of condemnation, is it? Why not? Why doesn’t the burning holiness of God that comes speeding toward him, this fire, destroy him? Why is this a moment of extravagant grace, guilt taken away, sin atoned for?

It's possible because this coal, notice, comes from the altar, from the place of sacrifice. The benefits of atoning sacrifice are being applied directly, quite literally here, to him! It's interesting to me – this is slightly speculative but I can't help myself – it is interesting to me that at the same time as the angels are singing the praises of God's holiness, well before Isaiah has confessed his sin, it's just then the temple fills with smoke. Could it be, perhaps, that the smoke that obscures the prophet's vision was, in fact, the smoke of a sacrifice, a burnt offering placed on the altar in anticipation of the prophet's need? Isn't that actually the Gospel message after all? It's Romans 5 verse 6. Isn't it? "While we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. One will scarcely die for a righteous person, though perhaps for a good person one would dare to die. But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, before we knew we needed it, Christ died for us." Provision was made for our salvation. Full atonement in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ.

That's part of the great wonder of our passage, actually; no small part of the wonder of the Gospel. That the majestic person sitting on the throne Isaiah sees, and the sacrificial victim to whom the altar and the burning coal points us, are in fact one and the same person. They're one and the same person. In John's gospel, chapter 12, this passage is quoted. And then, John says in verse 41, "Isaiah said these things because he saw Jesus' glory and spoke of him." The thrice-holy King, whose glory fills the whole earth, before whom the angels sing, at whose presence creation itself reverberates in joyful praise, is also the God, not only the one who sits on the throne, but who hung on the tree. The God who comes Himself in pursuit of us to reconcile in Jesus Christ the world to Himself. There is, for you and for me, in the Lord Jesus Christ, every provision made that sinners might not be shut out but brought near. And as Isaiah receives the grace and cleansing and pardon of God from the altar, from atonement, from Christ, now suddenly he hears the voice of God for the first time. Now, suddenly, he's invited in. In fact, he's commissioned and sent out with good news!

Brothers and sisters, many of us have already come to know the redeeming grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ and you hear the voice of the Master, the great King, and you join the angels in singing praises at His holiness and not the prophet believing that in His presence you will be destroyed because you know you have been reconciled to Him. For you, the One who sits on the throne is Abba Father. If that is true for you, then you now need to hear the commission and call of God to take this glorious good news and go proclaim it to the ends of the earth. There is a commission to those who have been called. You may go and proclaim Christ.

But it may be the case for you that you know nothing of the cleansing grace Isaiah discovered. You may be here and you are confronted with your need of mercy. You know yourself to be a guilty sinner in the sight of a holy God. Me too. Me too. Isaiah points us to the one place we can find redemption, deliverance, hope. He points us to the altar. He points us to the cross. Turn to Jesus Christ, the great King, the Lord of glory, and the atoning sacrifice, the Lamb who was slain. He is a perfect Savior of sinners and all your heart needs. Our God is holy. He is a King. The King. He is near. And that can be good news because He’s also gloriously, marvelously, gracious.

Let’s pray together.

God our Father, we adore You for Your lovingkindness in sending forth Your Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law that we might receive the adoption as sons. That we, who were hateful rebels, might be adopted into Your family. Who were once shut out and now may come near. As we have heard Your Word, would You send us with joy, resolved to serve our Savior, to proclaim the unsearchable riches of Christ to all who will hear? And we pray for any in our midst who do not know Jesus, who know themselves to be unclean and feel themselves under a sentence of woe in the sight of God. Bring them, even now, to the foot of the cross, that there they may meet Christ and have their guilt taken away and their sin atoned for. For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen.

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