Topical Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8
Henry Blackaby, the author of Experiencing God, tells of the time his church in Canada started their first mission. They had no money to move the mission pastor or pay him the $850 per month he would need, and no idea where to get such funds. So they asked God to provide, and the mission pastor agreed to come on faith.
As he was on his way, Pastor Blackaby received a letter from an Arkansas church he did not know, giving him $1,100 for their ministries. A few days later he received a phone call from a person whose pledge was just enough to complete the money they needed for the pastor’s salary.
As he got off the phone, the mission pastor drove up. Henry asked him, “What did it cost to move you?” He said, “Well, Henry, as best I can tell it cost me $1,100.”
God is so good, so powerful, so able to meet our needs. And so we are continually tempted to come to him for what he does more than for who he is.
The ancient Canaanites worshipped Baal and Ashtoreth, believing these gods would make their lands fertile and their crops abundant. The Egyptians worshipped the sun and other heavenly bodies for the same reason. The Greeks worshipped or at least placated Zeus so that their lives would be blessed and prospered.
Muslims seek heavenly reward from Allah, and Jews from Yahweh; Buddhists seek Nirvana through their meditations and asceticism; Hindus seek moksha, which is union with ultimate reality through manifold reincarnations.
And Christians seek God’s help through church attendance and worship. We want our children to prosper, our finances to grow, our bodies to be healthy, our families to be happy, and we come to church in the hope that God will bless us in return. Not all of us do this consciously, but most of us have this understandable and all too human motive in our hearts.
Today I want to convince you that there’s more to God than what he does. I want to show you who God is. I think you’ll know what to do in response.
Who is God? (vs. 1-4)
Three stands for perfection in Scripture. In the Hebrew language, anything repeated three times is raised to the highest level. We say “good, better, best.” They would say “good, good, good.” And the third time means the very best.
Only once in all the Bible is an attribute of God raised to the third power. This attribute must therefore be the highest and best single description of God, and the foundation for all the others. This characteristic will define, better than any other description, who God is. And we have that characteristic, that word, before us today.
First let’s enter the scene, standing alongside Isaiah the prophet. If Isaiah could see God in the midst of his circumstances, we can in the midst of ours.
It is the year 736 B.C. Uzziah had ruled Judah for 52 years; he modernized the army, conquered the Philistines, extended commerce, and brought peace and prosperity such as the nation had not known since Solomon. But now King Uzziah is dead.
So Isaiah comes into God’s presence with grief and fear in his heart. Grief, because the king was his cousin. Fear, because hard times are ahead. Uzziah’s young and untested son Jotham has ascended the throne, war-clouds are gathering to the North, and economic storms are beginning to brew.
The great king is gone from his throne, so Isaiah goes to a higher throne and a higher King. And in his grief, pain, perplexity and fear, he sees him. If you would come to God today in the midst of your pain, anger, hurt, or fear, you will see him as well.
Here’s what we see.
“I saw the Lord,” Isaiah says (v. 1). Not his face, for no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20). But we are in his presence.
We see his throne “high and exalted.” In the ancient world, the higher his throne, the greater his power and authority. And “the train of his robe filled the temple.” The longer his robe, the greater his power.
This scene is occurring in the Most Holy Place, a room in the Temple thirty feet by thirty feet in length and width, by forty-five feet in height; God’s robe filled 40,500 square feet of space.
“Seraphs” fly around him. They are mentioned only here in Scripture; their name means “to burn.” And they burn with the presence and awesomeness of the God who is “a consuming fire” (Hebrews 13:8). The closer we get to fire, the hotter we become. So with them.
They cover their faces, an Oriental expression of humility in the presence of a greater person. They cover their feet in expression of his holiness as well. Moses took off his shoes when he was standing on holy ground; the seraphim have no shoes, so they cover their feet.
And they shout to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty.”
In the Hebrew, we actually hear them as one says, “Holy”; a second replies, “Holy”; and a third cries, “Holy.” They repeat this again and again and again.
Nowhere does Scripture say that God is “love, love, love,” or “light, light, light,” or “fire, fire, fire.” But it says that he is “holy, holy, holy.”
And not just here. In Revelation 4:8 we read of heavenly worshippers, “Day and night they never stop saying: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.'” All of heaven is shouting his holiness, even right now.
This word “holy” translates the Hebrew “qadosh,” which means to be clean, hallowed, pure, sacred, different from all else.
No genie in a bottle, here. No mere problem-solver, or dispenser of blessings, or tool for our use, or means to our ends. The only One in all the universe who is holiness to the highest degree, sacred, hallowed, pure.
Who are we? (v. 5-7)
As we stand before him, we see who God is. And we see who we are. The great Jewish scholar Rudolf Otto stated that every authentic human experience with the divine must result in feelings of awe, majesty, vitality, otherness, and compelling fascination. He called this God the “mysterium tremendum,” the “numinous,” the “wholly Other.”
Isaiah was more confessional: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” The Hebrew could best be translated, “I am doomed!” This priest, royal family member, and prophet now sees himself in light of God’s holiness. The closer we get to God, the further away we realize we are. The stronger the light, the more obvious the dirt. In the presence of holiness we feel our sinfulness.
Before we could come to God with self-congratulatory sentiments, proud of ourselves for going to church or praying or reading Scripture, feeling that we deserve God’s assistance in light of our religiosity. But not now. Not now.
W. E. Sangster was a great preacher and writer, a man whose public ministry was applauded and congratulated by the world. And yet he once encountered the holiness of God so fully that he was moved to write this private confession. His words may make you as uncomfortable as they do me:
“I am a minister of God, and yet my private life is a failure in these ways: (a) I am irritable and easily put out. (b) I am impatient with my wife and children. (c) I am deceitful in that I often express private annoyance when a caller is announced and simulate pleasure when I actually greet them. (d) From an examination of my heart, I conclude that most of my study has been crudely ambitious: that I wanted degrees more than knowledge and praise rather than equipment for service. (e) Even in my preaching I fear that I am more often wondering what the people think of me, than what they think about my Lord and His word. (f) I have long felt in a vague way, that something was hindering the effectiveness of my ministry and I must conclude that the ‘something’ is my failure in living the truly Christian life. (g) I am driven in pain to conclude that the girl who has lived as a maid in my house for more than three years has not felt drawn to the Christian life because of me. (h) I find slight envies in my heart at the greater success of other young ministers. I seem to match myself with them in thought and am vaguely jealous when they attract more notice than I do.”
The more clearly he saw the holiness of God, the more clearly he saw his own unworthiness before him.
But this holy God loves us anyway. Knowing our sins and failures better than we know them, he loves us more fully than we can love ourselves.
He sends one of these burning seraphs with a live coal in his hand, a coal so hot even the seraph had to use tongs to pick it up. The coal burns away the sin from Isaiah’s preacher lips.
See how this cleansing is an expression of God’s love. The coal came from the altar of sacrifice, proving that forgiveness is not cheap—it came at the expense of the sacrifice laid there, and ultimately the sacrifice of God’s own Son for us.
Immediately God calls this now-cleansed preacher to proclaim his judgment, justice, and holiness. And Isaiah does.
And what God did for Isaiah, he has done for us through Jesus. He has forgiven every sin we have confessed to him, and purified us through Jesus’ sacrifice. He has given us eternal life with him, and called us to serve him. To the degree that he loved Isaiah, this holy God loves you and me today.
So, why worship this God? Why attend church services? Why read Scripture? Why give? Why pray? Merely for what he does for us, or for who he is?
Consider this fact: God made us to love him. Before he wants us to ask for his help, he wants us to give him our love.
Listen to his pleas: “love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life” (Deuteronomy 30:20); “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and might” (Matthew 22:37).
If you were standing before God, could you describe your relationship with him by saying, “I love you with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength”?
Henry Blackaby is right: “Everything in your Christian life, everything about knowing him and experiencing him, everything about knowing his will, depends on the quality of your love relationship to God…A love relationship with God is more important than any other single factor in your life” (Experiencing God 44, 45).
Consider this fact as well: God loves you, and proved his love on the cross. Scripture says, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:9-10, 19).
Can we make such a holy, loving God only the means to our ends, a tool for blessing our lives, a genie in our bottle? Or must we come to him with adoration, awe, and gratitude?
Elie Wiesel lost his entire family in the Nazi concentration camps. His first memoir of these horrors was titled Night, one of the most powerfully moving books I have ever read. In it he tells the story of a young boy who was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to die. The prisoners were made to watch as he was hung.
Wiesel describes what happened: “For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard [a] man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows” (Night 62).
The Jewish writer was more right than he knew. Wasn’t he?