Isaiah 6: 1-8
6 In the year that King Uzziah died, I had a vision of the Lord. He was on his throne high above, and his robe filled the temple. 2 Flaming creatures with six wings each were flying over him. They covered their faces with two of their wings and their bodies with two more. They used the other two wings for flying, 3 as they shouted,
Holy, holy, holy,Lord All-Powerful! The earth is filled with your glory.
4 As they shouted,
the doorposts of the temple shook, and the temple was filled with
smoke. 5 Then I cried out, Im doomed! Everything I
say is sinful, and so are the words of everyone around me. Yet
I have seen the King, the Lord All-Powerful.
6 One of the flaming creatures flew over to me with a burning coal that it had taken from the altar with a pair of metal tongs. 7 It touched my lips with the hot coal and said, This has touched your lips. Your sins are forgiven, and you are no longer guilty.
8 After this, I heard the Lord ask, Is there anyone I can send? Will someone go for us?
Ill go, I answered. Send me!
In the grand order of things it's really not that long ago that the perceived wisdom was that this earth of ours was flat. Imagine yourself several hundred years ago looking out at the sea, or at a broad expanse of landscape stretching out towards the horizon -and what would you have thought? Can you think of any reason why you mightn't have accepted quite freely, that what you were stood on was a world that bore more than a passing resemblance to a Frisbee - and presumably a world that you could quite easily fall off, if you ventured too close to the edge. What would you have thought then, of someone coming along and suggesting that you'd actually got it all wrong and in fact the world wasn't flat but round, like a ball, with people possibly living on the other side?
Well, it couldn't be, could it - they'd just fall off, it stands to reason.
It wasn't until intrepid explorers tested out the theory, and found that what was thought to be the edge of the world really wasn't, and that they could carry on sailing all the way round and back to where they started without falling out of their ship, that the general population started thinking that there might be something in this round world nonsense.
A flame is something we rather take for granted (light candle), and if I look at the flame closely I can see two distinct components; an almost transparent inner, and a bright yellow outer part. Science has told us that the inner part is a mixture of gas and air at a relatively low temperature, whereas the yellow part is at a very high temperature - and I can believe that through my own experience of heat and fire. But then science goes on to say that there's a third element to this flame which is invisible. Well, if it's invisible how do they know about it is the obvious question?
Apparently the best way of demonstrating that it's there is by the effect that it has on other objects (take cold metal and pass it over the flame to obtain a deposit of soot)
We tend to believe what we can see - somehow it's safer that way. We leave it to the scientists to speculate what might be, and stick to what we're familiar with. We'd rather not venture too far in case we get too close to the edge and fall off into well, who can say.
And what we can see we call 'reality'.
Isaiah was very much like us in that respect.
Tradition has him as a cousin of the King Uzziah who died at the beginning of this passage, and a nephew of the High Priest, which would certainly explain why he had such ready access to both king and priest as we find in these early chapters. In 2 Chronicles he's called the scribe or keeper of the official chronicle of that king. He was married to a prophetess and had two sons, and had a ministry which probably extended over at least 40 years. Quite an influential sort of fellow, you might think - one who would be careful to protect his position within such circles? But no, Isaiah gets cracking from the word go, no punches pulled - you can almost picture him pointing the accusing finger towards his listeners.
Strangely, if you look at these first few chapters you will find that Isaiah actually starts prophesying right from verse 2 of chapter one. And yet here we are, several pages on at chapter six reading about Isaiah's Great Commission as if it was only just happening.
"Then I heard the word of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?'
And I said, 'Here am I. Send me!'"
So does that mean that for the first five chapters, and for whatever time span that involved, Isaiah was operating unofficially as a Prophet?
Well, there's an explanation of this mystery provided by some commentators, and it's this: Before the events described in chapter six, Isaiah might well have been totally wrapped up in the events of the royal court - understandable if he was indeed related to the king. These were the people that he'd grown up with, watched rise in power and influence, friends and possibly even family. That's not to say that the harsh words that he has to say to the people in those previous chapters are not relevant to what follows, indeed they sound all too relevant.
Isaiah had visions of a rebellious nation who had forgotten their God and were going their own way, following their own half-baked religion and ceremonies, and Isaiah brought the word of the Lord to them, saying that although they were a disgrace he wanted them back, and was prepared to forgive and forget in order that they might once again look to Him, learn from him and - as chapter 2 ends 'Come O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.'
They're not happy words that Isaiah has to share here, and they were certainly not the words of one who was trying to be careful not to upset anyone - the people are warned in no uncertain terms what fate awaits them if they refuse to heed the prophet's words.
And then we come to Chapter six and it's almost as if the story starts all over again. Isaiah has delivered the message that he feels God has told him to give to the people - harsh words, but fair - and now God is going to ask Isaiah to start again, from square one, rather like being asked to fill in the application form again for the job you've been doing for several years.
What a strange thing to do?
The king has died - we don't know what effect that has had on the people or on Isaiah, it's just presented to us as a fact. And Isaiah has another vision - but this time it's not nation-centred, but very much God-centred.
Isaiah was a God-fearing man, he was a man of great faith - we can see that from the previous chapters. He was a man with a very definite sense of mission - and yet here he experiences something totally new. His understanding of God suddenly shoots several floors up from where it had been. And why? Because Isaiah glimpses something of the glory of his God. And in glimpsing something of the glory of God, Isaiah also realises just how far from that glory is the heart of a mere man - albeit a very religious one, and one who until that moment thought he was very much in tune with God.
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."
It's often only in the brightest of sunlight that we realise just how dusty the house is - I speak from experience. On a cloudy day the specks of dust and dirt just don't show up and we can go about our daily lives without realising what's accumulating right in front of our eyes. When the sun's shining through a window, quite often it seems as though the whole room is misted up with dust particles as the shafts of sunlight pick out what was until then invisible.
Believe me, it's perfectly possible to do the same with our lives. Isaiah certainly found that out in a big way. We might not have the vision of God's glory that so affected Isaiah's life, but that doesn't mean to say that if we did we'd react in any different way. It would be very presumptuous indeed for us to say that our lives are in any way more 'holy' more 'righteous' or indeed 'better' than someone like Isaiah.
Isaiah's life became, if you like, even more God-centred than it already was. When the symbolic moment within his vision happened and a seraph touched his lips with the burning coal, saying
"See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."
then Isaiah's life was changed forever. His understanding of God and his understanding of mankind was forever altered by the touch of something which until then had been outside of his experience.
And here we go back to our original analogies. We no longer believe that the earth is flat because experience has shown us that what we think of as the horizon is not the edge of this world; we can sail or fly beyond it without falling off the edge. And that experience changes our understanding of the world in which we live.
We no longer believe that the sun revolves around the earth, because satellite images show us something of the reality of this universe, and this knowledge alters our understanding of the place our planet has in the bigger picture of a solar system.
We look at a simple thing like a flame and think that all is as we see it, that there are no secrets, nothing to be discovered, and then find that there is more to be uncovered - and each time we learn more we use that experience and knowledge within our daily lives.
Isaiah shows us that the same is true of God. His picture of God was a good one - it was good enough for him to have an effective ministry of prophesy - but the picture was incomplete. Once he glimpsed the glory of God, once his lips were touched by those flaming coals then his ministry was changed forever - empowered, supercharged, if you like. We only have to look at the rest of the book of Isaiah to see the effect that it had on his life.
Head knowledge is very important, but it's no substitute for experience. And an experience of the power of God in our lives is something which cannot leave us unchanged.
Can you remember the moment that you realised that there was more to life than the world seemed to offer?
Can you remember the moment that you realised that there was more to being a Christian than going to chapel every Sunday?.
Can you remember the moment that you made a conscious decision to put your trust in Jesus as your personal Saviour?
Were those moments just that .. moments in time which passed like so many others?
Or were they milestones in your life where, perhaps not in the grand style of Isaiah, you realised that you were in the presence of God and that knowledge, that realisation actually made a lasting impression and difference to your life. I hope that the answer is 'YES!' because Isaiah is our witness today that a life that is touched by the presence of God is a life that is changed, a life that is different, a life that - however righteous and holy it might have been previously - still has room for expansion.
If your answer to any of those questions was 'No!' then you need to look more closely at this reading from Isaiah 6 and ask yourself the question 'Why?'
You need to be a little self-critical about your faith or search for faith. 'I've never known the presence of God around me in the way that the bible describes .' 'I'm a regular worshipper, and I've never felt unworthy in the way that Isaiah talks about ..' 'I can't remember ever feeling that God wanted me to do anything in particular ..'
Perhaps if those are our immediate impressions then it's time we did something about it. At this moment in the church's calendar we think particularly of the three persons of the Godhead, the Trinity. If we are bold enough to call ourselves Christians, then we are acknowledging that God is Lord of our lives, that we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and that we know the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
And that cannot leave our lives the same as they were before. It is impossible.
Isaiah was already the equivalent of a good and conscientious chapel-goer. He was doing what he felt called to do for God. And yet God felt the need to take him back to square one, to reassess his life and to start over again. And what a difference that made to his life and his ministry.
We might consider that we've got as far as we intend to go with our Christian walk. That we're comfortable with where we are and don't need any more challenges, thank you very much. Perhaps that's what Isaiah was thinking before chapter 6. He had a bit of a shock coming!
Our walk with God is not a once in a lifetime experience and then sit back and enjoy the scenery. Sometimes God says to us, as he did to Isaiah 'You need to be better focussed. You're too concerned with the day to day business of state or church, and you've lost sight of your true mission.'
Sometimes we need to open ourselves to what God would reveal to us. It may be a painful process as it was for Isaiah, but it has to be done. Sometimes we need to acknowledge that we've rather lost the plot and need to be empowered, shown what our priorities are and given the power and strength to accomplish them.
'Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying; "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"'
What would your reply be?
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© John Birch