The Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
In an age where we always want to look to the future and create something new and remarkable, the church insists on looking to what happened in the past. This seems so counter-cultural and many might think what we do is irrelevant for our contemporary society!
Take for example our Old Testament reading for today…what has a prophet’s vision from 740BC have to do with us here and now?
A man named Isaiah has a vision of our Lord God sitting on his throne in the temple in the same year King Uzziah died, which was over 2700 years ago. But why is this important for us to know about this date and this King?
Well, this King Uzziah [pronounced: you-zy-ah] was one of the few kings who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He reigned over the kingdom of Judah from the age of only 16, for 52 years; a reign that is recorded in the second book of Chronicles, chapter 26. Uzziah was instructed in the fear of the Lord by the prophet Zechariah. As long as he did the right thing by the Lord, God made him prosper. God helped him against Israel’s enemies the Philistines.
But King Uzziah also failed. This great and faithful King had failed to obey God because of his pride and he was unfaithful to God. He entered the holy temple to burn incense.
We might wonder what the matter with this is. What’s wrong with a king entering the temple to burn incense?
Well, it wasn’t his job. It was the priest’s job to offer incense and administer the sacrifices to God. The king’s job was to rule as God’s right hand and ensure the people worshipped God rightly. King Uzziah had overstepped his God-given authority, and he was afflicted with leprosy.
Because of his leprosy he was considered unclean and unholy, which meant he wasn’t allowed anywhere near the Temple. He was no longer welcome into God’s presence because of his leprosy, but had to live in a separate house. In fact, his son Jotham had to rule for him.
Soon there would be no King to rule over Judah as the people would be taken away into exile…at least until the promised Messiah came to rule over God’s people once again.
It’s in this context the prophet Isaiah had this vision, knowing if he failed the Lord in any way like King Uzziah did, he was likely to taste God’s judgment. Not only this, but he knew no-one was allowed to see God and live. God was holy, and unholy people would perish in God’s presence. Isaiah realised he was impure in a place which demanded perfect purity.
So, as soon as he saw this vision (and realising he wasn’t perfect, pure, or holy), he cried out in fear for his life because his lips were unclean and he lived in a land where the people also had unclean lips. He was terrified and thought he was going to die in the presence of such holiness!
The word ‘holy’ means ‘to make separate’ or ‘to put something aside for a special purpose’. Therefore, if God makes something or someone holy, he’s setting it, or them, aside for a special purpose and not for common use. A contemporary example of ‘holiness’ would be a pure white wedding dress which is set aside for that special wedding day. This means you wouldn’t do the gardening in it! Similarly, if God makes us holy, this means we’re set aside to live according to his holy ways.
Also, in regard to holiness, note the threefold repetition of ‘holy’ as a description of God.
When something is repeated in the bible, the emphasis is increased, but also the worth of that being spoken about. An example of this is when a child writes a letter to his or her mother saying ‘I love you very, very, very much’, every ‘very’ would increase in value; doubling and doubling again.
So God is holy, holy, holy…but Isaiah isn’t. God is perfectly pure; Isaiah isn’t. As a result, Isaiah is terrified of God and fears death. But then one of the seraphim flies toward the altar. Scripture tells us a seraphim is described as a creature having six wings. In Hebrew, ‘saraph’ describes burning or cauterising, so you could argue these winged creatures were glowing or alive with fire.
One of these flying creatures called a ‘seraphim’ went to the altar of incense to grab a burning coal, and then touched Isaiah’s lips with it saying, “This has touched your lips. Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for”. Through this small yet highly significant act, Isaiah was forgiven, purified, and made holy so he could stand in front of a holy God without fear.
Next God asks whom he can send to his people. Who will go to be God’s holy presence and holy mouthpiece among a people of unclean lips?
Amazingly, Isaiah; this man who was only seconds ago shaking in his boots out of fear and trepidation, sticks up his hand and says: “Send me!”
What we don’t hear today is the message he was to proclaim. It wasn’t going to be easy!
The words he was to speak at this time in history was very critical and condemning of the people he was to preach to. The people were hearing, but not understanding; seeing, but not perceiving. It seemed like a futile and thankless task. And how long was he to preach to this stubborn people of unclean lips? Until the land, its cities, and its people lie in waste and they’ve been taken away into exile.
It seems proclaiming God’s word was to be a total waste of time, but this previously frightened prophet, made holy by God, went and did what he was told.
Now, what’s this got to do with us today? What can we learn from the past to inform our present situation?
Well, today we’ve come into the presence of God almighty who is holy, holy, holy. We’ve already called on the name of our holy God and he’s giving us his full attention. As we come into the presence of our holy Triune God, some of us may be afraid.
Some of us may be afraid of God’s anger or punishment. It could be we’ve fallen short of his expectations. We’re not perfect, even though God demands our perfection. Even one slip-up deserves God’s righteous judgment.
It could be our lips have become unclean because of dirty jokes, abusive words, put-downs, or lies. Similarly, our hands are unclean because you’ve taken what isn’t yours to take. Our feet have walked the ways of the world instead of walking the ways of God. Our eyes may have willingly looked upon sexual content. Our mind is corrupted by impure thoughts. Whatever it is, we may feel unholy, unworthy, and unwelcome by a holy God!
It could also be some of us might be afraid to come into God’s holy presence because we feel unclean. In this case it may not be what we’ve done, but what’s been done to us. For victims of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, this feeling of uncleanness and unworthiness is very strong. Not only are our lips unclean, but other parts of our body feels like it crawls with self-disgust. How can we come into the presence of a holy God who demands purity when you’ve been defiled by others?
Well, no matter how afraid we may be, we stand in awe of a holy God and declare God’s holiness along with the seraphim. We join their chorus as we say or sing ‘holy, holy’, holy’, magnifying praise to our almighty God.
Our holy God also comes to us, his church of today and makes us holy through the waters of baptism, through hearing and believing the Word of God made flesh, and through our eating and drinking in faith at the Lord’s Supper. This is how people with troubled consciences can come into God’s holy presence to be forgiven their sin, and to be cleansed from the impurity of others. Here we meet the God of holiness and we’re forgiven, cleansed, refined, and purified!
Then, surprisingly, God sends us back out into this unclean world to live holy lives and speak holy words of grace and forgiveness to others who are afraid and defiled!
As people made holy by God, we try not to live the ways of a dirty world, or speak their lies, but with the Holy Spirit’s help we attempt to live the ways of God.
God calls us to be holy messengers to others around us, no matter how foolish and stubborn they are, so that we can show and tell them what we’ve seen, heard, and experienced; so that we can tell them of his enduring and eternal holiness, goodness, mercy, forgiveness, and love.
Don’t let the shame of past sins or fears silence you! God has purified us and made us you holy to serve those around us in word and deed. Amen.