Encountering the Holy One

February 10, 2019

Reverend James R. Henry

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

 

Isaiah is encountered by God, “the Holy One”, and his whole life is forever changed. God, through a vision, shows himself to Isaiah.

Prior to the advent of Christ, God had revealed himself in various and striking ways to the prophets. Isaiah’s experience cannot be a fixed formula for us today, but it is instructive to us. Whatever the details here, actual or dreamed; whatever the means, God made Himself known to Isaiah in a way that brought him to:

· First – a deeper impression of God.

· Then – a clearer understanding of himself

· And Finally – a larger perspective of life itself

FIRST – A DEEPER IMPRESSION OF GOD

Isaiah comes to a deep sense of the Divine. It was not that Isaiah had now come to understand God. Rather he is awestruck by this incomprehensible God and overwhelmed by the holiness of God.

The scene was the royal temple in Jerusalem. Someone described it as the place where heaven and earth touch. It was the center of worship for the ancient people of God. The worship of God was the centerpiece of their very existence and it framed the whole of their lives. Isaiah had come to the temple to worship God and was confronted by the manifest presence of God.

He describes this Divine Being as one of unlimited and sovereign authority, sitting on the throne of the temple, high and lofty, the splendor of his glory filling the entire temple. It was as though the hem of his robe extended everywhere, his rule being universal. Even the seraphs, the huge winged attending creatures carved on the sides of the throne, came alive and covered their faces in worship before this Holy One. And they sang in antiphonal chorus that threefold Sanctus, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of this glory.” Isaiah said that the whole place seemed to quake in response and the smoke of the alter incense billowed and permeated the whole temple. The whole temple and everyone and everything in it seemed to come alive in expressed awe and adoration in the presence of the Holy One.

It was an overwhelming experience for Isaiah. However anyone may seek to describe God, at the heart of Isaiah’s account is a powerful assertion of God’s holiness.

“Holy” carries the idea of that which is separate; apart; beyond. It is a moral quality that is principle to every aspect of Gods distinct nature and character. God’s love is pure and absolute. God is absolute moral perfection in his truthfulness, faithfulness, grace, mercy, patience, constancy, wisdom, justice, goodness, generosity, and in his love. Earlier, we sang, “Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love, and purity.”

I’m afraid that the concept of holiness in our culture has come to be thought of as something strange and seemingly quaint. It has been banalized and reduced to something religiously weird; some sort of pious abstraction that is eccentric and likely obnoxious. We often speak of it in a negative way in reference to one another. “She is so holy! “Why does he have to be so holy about it?” Eugene Peterson, in his book, The Jesus Way, recalls Ellen Glasgow’s line about her Scots-Calvinist Presbyterian elder father, “He was full of rectitude and rigid with duty… entirely unselfish and who in his long life never committed a pleasure.”

We often evidence our failure to comprehend the holiness of God by our glib and careless references to God, more in jest than sincerity, making more joking reference about God than prayers to God.

Peterson characterizes the true sense of God’s holy presence: “It’s the very moment we find ourselves in on more than ourselves.” That’s a good way of saying it. It’s when we are awed by the realization that we are a small part of a larger moral order of life; something much greater than our own individual interests and desires. It’s when we realize that we are not the center of the universe, and there is so much more to know and to be and to become. It’s when God meets us, and we are separated from our self-centeredness and all our pious pretensions, and we begin to live life within the reign of God; on God’s terms rather than ours. However, it is to be described, it is always transforming. You cannot know God and not be changed!

In any kind of encounter with God the Holy One, God is telling us who he is. God is not the formulation of our conjecture, nor some sort of perplexity to be solved. The holiness of God is a radical holiness. God is so above and beyond us, yet so compelling; so wild, yet so wonderful. In short, God is… well, God! And Isaiah is absolutely awed! He comes to a deeper impression of God; a deeper grasp of God’s reality; a new sense of God’s holiness.

SECOND – A CLEARER UNDERSTANDING OF HIMSELF

Isaiah now comes to a clearer understanding of himself. His initial reaction to this awesome vision of God, the Holy One, is to see himself in truth, as a moral creature standing in the presence of absolute holiness. And as such he says something like this; “Woe is me, I am anything but holy … not just small in contrast to God’s greatness; not just weak in comparison to God’s absolute power and authority; but I am morally impure, lost in my own sinfulness and captive to my own selfishness, denuded of every vestige of self-righteousness pretense.”

He says, “Who am I to stand in the presence of God the Holy One? I can claim no righteous standing here. Yet, here I am!” Yet is a powerful grace-word. “I am a man of moral failure and I live in a culture of immorality, yet my eyes have seen the King, the very Lord of Hosts! God the Holy One comes to me in grace and shows himself to me. I am a man full of sin and guilt, yet God is forgiving me and cleansing me!” God says, “Your guilt has departed, and your sin is blotted out.”

This is not self-improvement. Isaiah, in his own moral inadequacy is opened to God’s mercy and forgiveness and cleansing. It’s all of grace. Isaiah is indeed “finding himself in on more than himself.” He knows the weight of sin, yet also the lift of forgiveness. He knows the torment of guilt, yet also the freedom of forgiveness. He knows who he is in the ultimate context. He knows who he is as he stands before God. He has come to a clearer understanding of himself, and to a true self-image.

THIRD – A LARGER PERSPECTIVE ON LIFE ITSELF

Then Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me.” Having come to a deeper impression of God, and a clearer understanding of himself, he now comes to a larger perspective of life itself. He now begins to see the whole of life in a new way, and he sees himself in the totality of it. He begins to take hold of his calling in life. He is called to “something more than himself”, and into the service of God.

This whole experience is not some sort of spiritual high that lifts us above the world around us and we join the club of the spiritually elite. We, with Isaiah, are called into something more than ourselves; more than our personal interests and pursuits. We are called into the service of God to participate in the work of God.

Note here, a kind of progression and order in this whole episode suggested by the word then in verses 6 and 8. First, Isaiah is impressed with God. That’s where it starts. And accordingly, Isaiah is overwhelmed by a sense of his own moral inadequacy. Then he is graciously forgiven. Sin and guilt are removed. Then God issues a call to service, and Isaiah now responds, drawn by the grandeur of holiness and the grace of forgiveness. He is not driven by guilt nor the threat of punishment, nor pushed by fear. He responds in loving devotion to the one who has forgiven him of so much.

So, how did it all go? God says, “I’m in a jam. I need help. So much to do and I can’t do it alone, so who will go for me?” And Isaiah pops up and volunteers, “I’ve got gifts and talents you need, Lord. Let me help you. I can be a great asset to your enterprise.”

No! Not at all. Not if we grasp the content of it all and see the order and progression of God’s encounter with Isaiah. It was rather like this. Drawn by the grandeur of God’s holiness and the grace of God’s forgiveness, Isaiah says, “He am I, Lord, as I stand in your holy presence… nothing of my own to offer, but in the grace of your forgiveness… in simple responsive love… here am I, send me.”

That’s the stuff of Christian mission and service. That’s the impulse of Christian discipleship. That’s what keeps us going in discouragement. That’s what keeps our hope alive when nothing much seems to succeed, and little seems to be happening. And isn’t that what our Christian life of faith is all about … coming to a deep and proper impression of God, and a clear understanding of ourselves in relation to God, and a corresponding perspective of the meaning and purpose of life itself?

We get it backwards, don’t we, when we try to motivate people by challenging them with the immensity of need and by intimidating them into a feeling of false guilt if they don’t respond to our call. Then we try to equip them to do what they would rather not do.

May God, the Holy One, be please to encounter us again and again, bringing us back to Himself, confronting us in fresh ways with the glory of his holiness and, if need be, the awfulness of our sinfulness, that we might experience anew the forgiveness of God and our acceptance in His righteousness. And may we thereby be nerved and energized by loving devotion to serve him faithfully and joyfully.

Amen.

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