November 10, 2016 by jmar198013
Manuscript of my sermon for Sunday, November 13, 2016. From our ongoing fall series at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”
The text this week is Isaiah 6.1-8.
An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.
“The king is dead; long live the King!”
Last week, we met a prophet named Jonah. And when God specifically called Jonah to go proclaim the word, Jonah ran off in the opposite direction.
In today’s lesson, we meet the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah simply overheard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah volunteered: I’m here; send me.
How different those two prophets are!
Our story today takes place in the year of King Uzziah’s death. Some context. Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah, and his sad story is told in 2 Chronicles 26. He reigned for five decades, and the early part of his rule was marked by faithfulness to God. But as soon as he became powerful, says the Chronicler, he grew so arrogant that he acted corruptly (2 Chron. 26.16). One day the priest Azariah, backed by eighty other priests, protested Uzziah’s corruption. And the Chronicler tells us that, While he was fuming at the priests, skin disease erupted on his forehead (2 Chron. 26.19). Uzziah lived the rest of his days as a leper king—unclean and cut off from his people. Because the king was quarantined, his government was administered through his son, Jotham.
Uzziah’s reign was marked by prosperity and military might. The Chronicler even brags about how the king set up clever devices in Jerusalem on the towers and corners of the wall designed to shoot arrows and large stones (2 Chron. 26.15). But just as Uzziah died, a new threat was looming over the people of Judah and Jerusalem: the Assyrian empire. The nation was in turmoil. They had lived in stability and security for five decades, and now all that was under threat.
That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s world when he found himself among the divine council in a vision. I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple. Isaiah reports that God was surrounded by winged creatures—seraphim—who shouted to each other, saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
The seraphim were calling God by his warrior name: YHWH of heavenly forces. Isaiah’s vision, in the midst of the turmoil brought about by the Assyrian threat and the death of King Uzziah, reminds him that God is still on the throne. The days are evil and threatening, but YHWH is still God, and YHWH is a warrior. The future of God’s people has never depended on any ruler but God.
In other words, the opening words of the story of Isaiah’s vision are meant to inspire hope. The king—Uzziah—is dead; long live the King—YHWH! 
Holy, Holy, Holy!
The winged creatures who were stationed around God are called seraphim. The word comes from a Hebrew verb meaning to burn. During Israel’s time in the wilderness, they had gotten angry at God and Moses and threatened to mutiny for the umpteenth time. So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people (Num. 21.6 RSV) to purify them. What’s interesting is that the word used for the fiery serpents in that story is also seraphim. Later on, Isaiah will have visions of flying serpents who come in judgment on God’s enemies (Isa. 14.29; 30.6). Those flying serpents are also called seraphim. So these winged creatures flanking God in his temple, where he’s on his throne, aren’t just any band of angels. They’re heavenly ministers of judgment and purification.
The seraphim have six wings. Isaiah describes how they used their wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about. This is important, and I want us to understand the significance. They have two wings surrounding their heads—just like the priests in the temple covered their heads with a turban while they did their work. But it wasn’t actually their feet they were covering with two wings. You don’t cover your feet God’s presence. Remember, when God met Moses at the burning bush, he told him to take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground (Exod. 3.5). Likewise, the priests in the temple didn’t wear shoes while they served God. Feet was a Hebrew euphemism for private parts, and the priests in the temple wore special covering for those. In Exod. 28.42, God tells Moses to make linen undergarments for the priests, to cover their naked skin from their hips to their thighs. So what we’re seeing here is that Isaiah is having a temple vision, and the seraphim are using their wings to cover themselves in God’s presence, just like the priests in the temple.
Again, we’ve heard that the seraphim in Isaiah’s vision were shouting back and forth: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces! They repeated the word holy three times to emphasize this aspect of God’s character. We usually think of holiness in terms of something being set apart, which is fine. But God’s holiness isn’t just about being separate. There are some who preach that God can’t be in the presence of sin or sinners because God is holy, but that’s not the case. True holiness is not defiled in the presence of sin or sinners. But it can and does rub off and make what was unholy, holy. That’s why God says: I am the Lord, who makes them holy (Lev. 22.6).
In fact, the book of Isaiah has much to say about God’s special holiness. For instance, Isa. 5.16, says: the Lord of heavenly forces will be exalted in justice, and the holy God will show himself holy in righteousness. Righteousness and justice in the Bible mean doing right by the underdog: helping the poor, defending the defenseless, standing in solidarity with the hurting. YHWH, the heavenly warrior, is holy precisely because he is a God who fights for those who can’t fight for themselves.
What makes Israel’s God, Isaiah’s God, and our God holy is what sets him apart from the gods and rulers of the nations. The heart of our God and King is with the poor and the hurting and the neglected—not just the strong and powerful. God calls us as his people to be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy (Lev. 19.2). Being holy like God is holy means that my heart is with whoever God’s heart is with.
The earth is filled with God’s glory
The other thing Isaiah heard the seraphim shouting was: All the earth is filled with God’s glory! The Hebrew word for glory means heaviness. It’s about being able to feel the gravity of God’s presence. It’s about being overwhelmed by the weight of God’s awesomeness. The whole earth is always full of God’s glory—this sense of abiding presence that assures us that we’re not really alone in this. Most of the time, we are simply not aware of it, but it’s always there. We get lost in the haze of routine or shame or apathy or fear and we don’t notice God’s glory all around us all the time. So it’s good to be reminded.
But there’s something even deeper going on here. This phrase filled with God’s glory is a peculiar one in scripture. When Israel was still a wandering nation, they built the tabernacle—a tent for God to dwell in and travel with them wherever they went. And Exod. 40.34 says that the cloud that had traveled with them since they left Egypt covered the meeting tent and the Lord’s glorious presence filled the dwelling. King David’s son Solomon later built the temple in Jerusalem as a permanent dwelling for God. The day the temple was dedicated, the same thing happened: a cloud filled the Lord’s temple. The priests were unable to carry out their duties on account of the cloud because the Lord’s glory filled God’s temple (2 Chron. 5.13-14). So this phrase, filled with God’s glory, is tied closely to God’s dwelling among his people in the tabernacle and the temple.
So if all the earth is filled with God’s glory, that can only mean one thing: our world, our cosmos, our universe is all God’s temple. Later on in Isaiah, we overhear God tell the prophet exactly that:
Heaven is my throne,
and earth is my footstool.
So where could you build a house for me,
and where could my resting place be?
My hand made all these things
and brought them into being. (Isa. 66.1-2)
If a temple is where God dwells; and the heavens are God’s throne, and the earth is God’s footstool, that can only mean that the universe we inhabit is God’s temple. Everywhere we can go is God’s temple. And so our entire cosmos is filled with God’s glory. God’s presence is always all around us.
Try to take that in. You really can’t. But try.
Basically, here’s what the seraphim were proclaiming as they shouted about the holy Lord of heavenly forces, and all the earth being filled with God’s glory: Our God YHWH is a righteous warrior-king who is present everywhere, all the time.
The force of those words caused an earthquake in the temple. Isaiah says that the doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting. Because the truth they proclaimed rocks everything to its core. And then Isaiah reports that the temple was filled with smoke. Like the glory cloud that went with Israel as they wandered in the wilderness, and filled the tabernacle and the temple at their dedication. Isaiah knows the Lord is in this house, but now the presence of God is overwhelming him.
May the presence of YHWH, the holy King of heavenly armies, overwhelm us, too. And may we be shaken to our foundations, just like the temple. Just like Isaiah.
A man with unclean lips
Isaiah was shaken to his foundations and overwhelmed by God’s glory. As the doorframe shook and the smoke filled the temple, he cried out a confession: Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces! Sin can never overwhelm what is holy; indeed, sin cannot stand in the presence of holiness.
As Isaiah was overwhelmed by God’s glory, he was also overwhelmed by the weight of his own sin. He became acutely aware of his own distance from God’s holiness. It’s like he felt himself start to disintegrate and fall to pieces on the ground. I will go so far as to say that Isaiah’s response to seeing God’s glory is the only appropriate response there is: confession. Once you truly become aware of God’s presence all around us, once you feel the weight of his glory, what can you do but be overwhelmed and confess your sin?
The cloud that filled the temple shielded Isaiah from seeing God fully. That’s what protected the prophet from actually falling to pieces in the presence of God. God had told Moses: you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live (Exod. 33.20). God surely didn’t want Isaiah to die in his presence. God’s holiness is bent on saving us and setting us free, not destroying us.
Specifically Isaiah confesses: I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. He confesses his sins, and the sins of his people. He and they have used their words to to bully, to deceive, to curse others instead of blessing them. He and they have used language that divides rather than unites; that hurts rather than heals; that tears others down rather than building them up. The things we say matter, and they matter to God.
In response to Isaiah’s confession of sinful speech, one of the seraphim—those fiery ministers of judgment and purification—flew toward the prophet, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs. The altar is a symbol of God’s presence, where heaven mingles with earth in the fire and aromatic smoke of sacrifice. Then Isaiah says: He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
1 John 1.9 says, if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. That’s what Isaiah experienced as the fiery coal touched his lips. The sin was forgiven, and burned away. Isaiah was not destroyed, but his sin was. One of the prophets says that God is like the refiner’s fire, refining his people like gold and silver so they can present a righteous offering (Mal. 3.2-3). That’s what God did for Isaiah in our lesson today. And he is faithful and just to do the same for us.
The confession that brings forgiveness can often be a painful process. I’m sure that the coal on the prophet’s lips was excruciating while it touched him. But it is the painful confession that saves us and sets us free. Like Jesus said: the truth will set you free (John 8.32).
In God’s presence may we, like Isaiah, learn to confess painful truths, trusting that God is always faithful to forgive us, and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong.
I’m here; send me
Here’s what we finally learn from Isaiah and his vision. When we confess our sin, God is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us. But forgiveness and cleansing aren’t just so we can feel better and live without guilt or shame anymore. That’s important, of course. But we are forgiven to be set free. And we are set free to serve. Like Paul told the believers in Rome, you have been set free from sin and become slaves to God (Rom. 6.23). We are freed from sin and shame so that we can be free to serve God and others.
That’s exactly what happened for Isaiah. No sooner than the coal had cleansed his unclean lips, Isaiah heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah realized then that he hadn’t simply been forgiven and set free. He was being called. He was being commissioned.
And so he replied: I’m here; send me.
And in the midst of troubled, uncertain times—for the next forty years or so—Isaiah was God’s prophet. God made Isaiah’s lips clean, so that he could be God’s lips, speaking God’s message. Sometimes, Isaiah spoke words of confrontation and judgment. But just as often, he spoke words of hope, comfort, and healing into the dark, disturbing, confusing days in which he lived.
Church, like Isaiah, we live in unsettled and unsettling times. Things are changing, which is a constant in our world. But so many feel left behind. Lost. Unheard. Many are afraid of what the future holds for them, if anything. Many live in despair. In fear. In rage. In confusion. We also live in a time when so many unclean lips go unchecked, and the words they speak do real harm. We are surrounded by the walking wounded. In such a time, may we be people with clean lips. God is calling: Whom should I send, and who will go for us? God needs us to be his lips, to speak words of hope, comfort, and healing to our wounded neighbors. To use our words to build others up, not tear them down.
There’s an old prayer that’s often attributed to Francis of Assisi. It’s not nearly that old, but it’s one of my favorites. It goes:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
God is calling us, his people, to be his instruments of peace. His invitation extends to us, from Isaiah’s day to our own: Whom should I send, and who will go for us?
May you and I—all of us—respond as Isaiah did: I’m here; send me.
 David W. Baker, “Isaiah,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Volume 4: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, ed. John Walton, 31 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009).