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Isaiah 6: The Holy King
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re in chapter 6.
We’re in a series through the book of Isaiah, which is a book about humanity’s sin, God’s redemption, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
We spent the last several weeks talking about the distance between what the world is and what it’s meant to be. The only way we can be satisfied with the world as it is, is if we never look at what we were meant to be. It’s not just parts of creation, either, it’s everything and everyone—there is a distance; you can probably feel it—between who you are and the person God created you to be.
We, humanity, are meant to be a nation, together, who seek justice, correct oppression, who live in peace and righteousness, caring for creation and sharing our gifts and talents with each other, but we’re not. One way to help you imagine this distance between who we, humanity, are and who we were created to be—imagine a globe of the earth, with dividing lines all over it, lines forged in wars for land and borders, for country and belief, in genocide and imperialism. The whole earth is divided in sin, we may manage to change where the lines fall, but we can’t seem to ever change that part of ourselves which wants to fight and divide. Now imagine a globe only showing the things God made—the land, the oceans, mountains and rivers. The divisions he made, when he told the waters “this far and no further.”
We’re so far from what we’re meant to be that we are almost unable to imagine the way we were created to be. We’ve been looking at the globe so long with the national lines drawn on it, we’ve forgotten: that’s not how the world looks, in reality. We have no hope in ourselves of accomplishing justice, correcting oppression, or living in peace and righteousness. But there is good news. There is hope for us in God. He can teach us his ways again; he can restore and heal us. Since we aren’t able to make it across this gulf between who we are and who he created us to be, he came to us; he became like us when we were unable to become like him.
We need to hear the message Isaiah is preaching. The distance between the world now and the world made right is greater than you think. We’re not going to get there alone, but don’t despair; we’re not alone. Don’t hope in humanity—hope in God. He loves us and wants us to take part in what he’s doing.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 6; we’re going to read the whole chapter. [Isaiah 6:1-13] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Father, you are high and exalted; Christ, by your sacrifice we are made clean; Holy Spirit, you are a fire in us; I pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free.
I had a conversation with another pastor this week about how I am decidedly not cool anymore—in case you don’t know, I was cool briefly in college. Now, though, I stopped smoking. Instead of going to live shows all the time, I go to sleep at nine because I have work in the morning. I don’t understand fashion, like at all. If I have a day off, I go play with AJ in the park, or cook, or read fantasy novels, or all three.
I don’t seem to care about the things the rest of the world cares about. I only even know what the rest of the world is interested in from news and magazines at the grocery store. To give you an example of my uncoolness, hot take—I don’t care about the British royal family, and I don’t really understand why other people care. I mean, I care about them in the sense of I care about humans in general, so I care when they get hurt or mourn, but that’s where my caring stops. I don’t think they’re important. Change my mind.
It’s just—they don’t seem to do anything. They’re in the same category in my mind as the Kardashians and Snookie. The debates right now about who should be the next king are in my mind like debating who should be the next host of the price is right—it just doesn’t matter, friends, to the world as a whole.
What’s of far greater interest to me, being incredibly not cool, is reading about medieval and ancient royal families. And I’m definitely not saying this is a better system of government, I’m just saying ancient kings and queens, whether or not they deserved it, had some power—they were important, and so I find their stories interesting. I think this is also the reason why I like reading fantasy novels—because they’re always on some kind of epic quest, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
I promise I have a point: we need to understand that kings and queens in ancient times mattered more than we are used to kings and queens mattering. Most of the world’s powerful nations today are ruled by at least a group of people. It was not always that way. Imagine one person with the unquestioned might and resources of the United States of America. No congress, no protest, only rule. Ancient kings opinions were not debated in houses of parliament, they were proclaimed to the people as law. They could give orders to burn cities to the ground, or build new cities, and it was done.
So when Isaiah begins the account of his call with the phrase “in the year king Uzziah died,” that means something for the world. For Isaiah, personally, a lot of scholars think he was a member of the royal family, so this loss would have been the loss of a loved one. But for Judah as a whole, it was unsettling. Uzziah was for the most part a good king, and had become very strong in his time—he reigned for over fifty years. His son, too, was a good king, but weaker. Uzziah’s death was really the beginning of the end of the nation of Judah.
There was another king at the time in Assyria, to the north of Israel, known as Pul, who had ascended to the throne who was violent and aggressive and viewed mercy as a mixed message to your enemies—better to show no mercy so there is no question of your intention. He learned that if he could not just defeat enemies, but demoralize them, slaughter them, destroy every inhabitant in increasingly creative and horrible ways, if he could shock the world by how cruel he was willing to be, he could merely stage his armies outside of a city and they would surrender, which was much less costly than a siege.
Around the time Uzziah died, Pul began a march toward Jerusalem. And I’m talking about all of this for a reason, too. When kings have that kind of power, it matters who is king, and a large part of Isaiah’s point in chapter 6 is: God is king. God is king.
As much as Uzziah’s character determined the vitality or decline of Judah, as much as Pul’s character determined the peace or chaos of the land, if God is king over every nation and age, his character will be determinative of the course of the entirety of human history, in every age.
In the same year king Uzziah died, in Isaiah’s mourning, in his fear of the future of his people, he looks to Zion to see who will take the throne next, and God, himself, is seated there. And the temple, which would within a few generations be destroyed, does not contain him. In fact, the whole temple is filled just with the hem of his robe. God’s armies are surrounding him, singing of his glory, and they are terrifying—the word seraphim literally means fires, burning ones, flames. Merely their voices as they sing are shaking the foundations of the city and threatening to tear it apart.
There is no army which could defeat this king. There is no nation which could withstand him. This is the God who will be whoever he will be and who will do as he wills. He will have mercy on whom he has mercy.
Isaiah collapses, terrified, and suddenly convicted. After all the woes he just pronounced on the people of Judah, he pronounces a woe on himself, “woe is me,” he says because I am as unclean as all of the people around me. Lord, God, please give us today Christians and pastors willing to say “woe is me.”
We need to remember, church, you and me, that God is king. We spend so much time focused on earthly powers and rulers, we forget who is actually sovereign over the world. God is king.
There are many things in this world that are terrifying, overwhelming, we don’t see how we’re going to recover. Just the disease, loss, and instability from this past year—I remember moments of terror, and feeling like the world was not going to be able to recover from this, that I was not going to be able to recover from this, and what I needed in that moment was knowledge that God is king, and he’s more powerful than any of the people, larger than any of the circumstances, that had made me afraid. This scene in our passage seems to ask: what is it, exactly, you think God is not able to do? Defeat an army? Place a good king on the throne? Bring a nation back from exile? Bring a people back from the dead?
There is literally nothing beyond his capability. If Israel falls it is because God has deemed it right. This vision is God telling Isaiah, and through him, us, I can do whatever I please, but I am not going to do what you want. We are his children, and like any good father when we pray, he likes to tell us yes, but we are not really telling him what to do. He is not our servant, rather we are his. And it’s ok to mourn when what he does in the world is not what we want, but we should still trust him that, even when he doesn’t do what we would want, he is still good. Like children who learn to mind their parents even when they don’t understand their parents’ reasons. God is high and exalted. He understands things we don’t. He knows better than we do, and he’s good. We can trust him.
Isaiah’s response to the Lord’s question, translated “here I am,” is literally what a child or servant would say to the person who has charge of them when they call. It’s like when we teach children, when we call them, to say, “coming, dad.” “Here I am” was the ancient Hebrew way of saying, I’m listening; I’m waiting for your instruction.
I want you to notice, too, God doesn’t give Isaiah a call Isaiah likes. The Lord tells him, go and tell your own people, I’m going to allow their destruction. In v.11 we see Isaiah’s response to the call, which is to quote the Psalms of lament: “How long, O Lord?” he asks. He’s mourning the task God is giving him. But we know Isaiah did as the Lord called him regardless, because we are reading the record of his obedience. We have this book because Isaiah followed the call of the Lord even though he did not like or understand what the Lord called him to do.
There have been many times in my life I haven’t liked or understood the task God placed before me. I wanted to raise children, but I did not want to deal with the effects of trauma. I wanted to serve a church, but not in the city or nation I came from, and not as the pastor. I wanted love and friendship, but not the pain at losing both. I wanted to be close to God, but I didn’t want him to convict me of sin and change me. I’ve never once wanted to be taught humility, or to understand shame, or to wade into the pain and darkness of the world to sit with people there and help them stand.
Maybe God has called you to do something difficult, even mournful, and not at all what you would have chosen. We have to learn to trust him, like children should trust good parents, that even if his actions upset us, he’s right to do them. And besides, he’s king. If he wants to use your life to save people you don’t even care about, like Jonah, he’s able and right to do it.
That kind of power should amaze you, maybe even make you a little nervous. There’s a reason why America isn’t supposed to have a king. Having that kind of power means your will and actions drastically determine the welfare of your people. A good king can make a people thrive, but an evil king can plunge a people into oppression, injustice, violence, and cruelty. So when we see God on his throne, high and lifted up, the natural question to ask is: who is this God? What is his character? Is he good?
In answer, my second point from the passage is simply: God is holy. God is king, and God is holy, and holy is a word I know I need to explain.
You don’t hear the word holy much outside of church and expletives these days, but it was a common word in Isaiah’s day. Holy just meant anything that was divine. Every family had gods they would worship, and they would tell stories about the deeds of these gods. Usually the gods would do the same things people would do, but gods were just a lot better at it, like superheroes. If you needed to fight in a war, you might worship a god who supposedly was a great warrior so he would fight alongside you. If you wanted to have a baby, you could sacrifice to a goddess of fertility, who may be said to have the best or the most children. If you wanted to win a race, you sacrificed to a God who could run really fast. Sometimes the stories were about great men and women who became holy, meaning they lived such excellent lives they became gods and goddesses, themselves.
Isaiah is trying to say his God is something else. Repeating the word holy three times to describe Isaiah’s God was emphatic, meaning he needed a new category. If you thought you knew what God was going to be like, what decision he would make, what he would do—think again. This God is high and exalted, not like us. He’s not going to do what we tell him to do just because we offered him a sacrifice, went to church, threw some dollars in the offering plate.
And we can’t possibly live well enough to be holy in the same way he is holy. He doesn’t have powers like a superhero, he has all power, and he’s not just the God of Israel, he’s the God over every nation. Which means, he’s not playing favorites among the nations or among people. Despite what your coach told you, God isn’t going to help you win your sports game, because he’s the God of the other team, too. If you sin, this God will judge you, because while you are his child, the person you sinned against is his child, too, and he’s not going to let wrong go unanswered.
God is holy, holy, holy. New category. This God does what he wills, and he will be who he will be. He is not going to do what you want all the time, or what you would expect, or what would help you, but he is going to do what is good and right, and there is nothing and no one who will be able to stop him from doing it.
Isaiah’s response to an encounter with this holy God is conviction. Woe is me, he cries, because an encounter with holiness has made him realize just how profane he is. He’s meant to be a prophet, but his lips, his words are just as false as everyone else’s. He recognizes that he is just as sinful as everyone else around him, and then we learn something else about this God who does as he wills and who will be whatever he will be.
What this unstoppable God wants to do, this king who has all power, is to redeem and restore the world to the way it was meant to be, to the way he is. Can you imagine what this story would be if the God who has all power were like the other gods? If he fought on Israel’s behalf until they ruled over all the nations, if he never judged them for their misdeeds, and so Israel’s rule became oppressive and cruel, and if that throne were everlasting?
But no, our God is holy, holy, holy. He wants to heal and restore, not only his people, but all the people. But it’s not going to be easy. In fact, there will be pain in it. He takes a coal from his altar and touches Isaiah’s lips with it, which would have been in that day the way you would heal the deepest wounds a person could sustain, you cauterize them. It was incredibly painful, and left scars, but you would have saved the person’s life.
The Lord tells Isaiah, after he’s done this: there, “your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” I cauterized your wound. Now you can live. It’s only after this application of the fire of the altar of God that Isaiah is able to serve the great king, the one with all power who, instead of conquering and subjecting the world, is choosing to heal it and set us free.
This passage is, in essence, a promise God is making, which is fulfilled in Christ, whose sacrifice on the mountain, when applied to us, will make us clean; and the forgiveness is not accomplished without pain, but he bears it. And it did leave scars, which he still has. And it saved all of our lives, if only we will trust in him. Trust that he is a king who laid down his life for his servants, a father who loves and disciplines his children, a thrice holy God who became like us when we couldn’t become like him, the sacrifice on his own altar that makes us clean.
He is a God we can trust, a God we should worship, a God who, when he calls you, even if we’re in the depths of some kind of hell, you can hear him and say woe is me, but I’m here. Here I am. If you make me clean, I’ll be clean indeed. I’ll be able to speak your word. I want to invite you today to worship a God who is king, and holy. Pray with me.