Isaiah 6:1-8 We picture heaven as a peaceful English countryside full of beautiful flowers and green grass because we have seen some illustration or painting that shows it that way.
We picture the angels as Clarence from “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Or we picture our dear, departed relatives with beautiful wings and white gowns and serene smiles because that is the way that Bill Keane portrays them in the “Family Circus” comic strip.
Many of us picture God as some kindly old fellow up in the sky with a twinkle in his eye always ready to pat us on the back and say “there, there–it’s not as bad as all that”. Someone, who, if we are really honest with ourselves, looks a lot like Santa Claus.
Of course none of this is true at all. We’ve created it in our minds. We design a heaven and a god and heavenly beings that is really nothing more than a projection of ourselves and there is a grave spiritual danger in this because what happens in these scenes is that we then become the gods of this little heavenly world that exists only in our imaginations.
Heaven becomes a place that we like–where we would feel comfortable. Angels become creatures whose primary purpose it is to serve us-- not God. And God becomes someone whose job it is to approve of us and to welcome us no matter what we’ve done.
If this is the way that we picture these heavenly realities–then the devil is pleased because this is nothing other than a satanic lie that is given in the place of the truth which is found only in Holy Scripture-- particularly in our text today–through the eyes of Isaiah who saw the truth about heaven and reveals it to us. He says:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: With two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.
Seraphs, a type of angel, are not chubby little children, but mighty beings with six wings whose complete focus is the worship and praise of God–beings who serve humanity only at God’s direction–beings, who must hide their faces in the presence of the Lord’s holiness and glory.
Heaven is not fluffy clouds or a peaceful English countryside but a majestic throne room like no other with the thundering sounds of worship and the smell of incense.
And the focus of heaven is not you or me-- but God alone whose holiness and glory fills it all. How must Isaiah have felt to see and hear these incredible things? How would we feel? Where do we fit into that biblical picture of heaven?
Let me give you some mental pictures to impress upon you some sense of how he must have felt. When Caroline and I visited Niagra Falls I remember being stunned by the raw power of water rushing over those falls–to fall in and go over the falls is almost certain crushing death. Others of us have stood at the edge of the
Grand Canyon and been amazed by the sheer magnitude of
something that large. Others of us have
flown on airplanes and have seen in a mere glance hundreds of square miles and
thousands of people below.
When we experience these things in the natural world we begin to get a sense of how small and insignificant and weak we humans really are–and then to realize that there are billions of us on the face of the earth at this moment and human history extends back in time with the countless generations that have gone before us--we begin to see that in view of space and time-- we humans really are a mist that is here today and gone tomorrow.
How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the unapproachable light of the One who created space and time? How much more do we see the truth about ourselves in the very presence of the living God surrounded by his holy angels who said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory”. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
Holiness–the perfect holiness of the Triune God-- is the defining feature of heaven and the LORD can never be praised enough for it. The praise of men and angels for all of eternity will never be enough to sufficiently praise God for his holiness.
This word for holiness in the original Hebrew not only means his sin-less-ness but it also means “set apart”—that which is wholly other than everyone and everything else. God is holy. In the beginning, man knew this.
Mankind was originally created in the image of God—knowing him as he desires to be known—wanting to do his will--righteous and holy in his sight.
But on account of the Fall, now we have a sinful tendency to make God into our own image of him. You hear people say things like: “You have your god and I have my god”–or-“my god would never do this or do that”.
But the True God is not a reflection of ourselves. He is not a puppet on a string who serves at our command or a lucky charm we pull out in hard times expecting a miracle. He is holy-- and completely set apart from us-- and we will never have God on a leash or locked up in a box. We can not and must not demand of him: justice or love or care as we see fit. God is God–and we are not.
To stand in the presence of the Holy Living God of the universe is to lose-- once and for all-- the silly and self-serving pride and pretentiousness of our human nature and Isaiah’s words capture this awareness.
“Woe to me!” For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
This is God’s judgment upon all people and standing in the presence of the Holy Trinity, Isaiah knew it. He was struck down by his own sinfulness and wickedness. All pretense of his own goodness or holiness dissolved in the presence of perfect goodness and holiness that is found in God alone.
We too are people with unclean lips and unclean hands and unclean hearts and unclean minds-- and to stand in the presence of God is to know that painful truth about ourselves and cast aside all foolish notions of self-righteousness.
Isaiah knew it in that moment. Peter knew it that day in that boat–Go away from me Lord I am a sinful man! And we know it about ourselves as well.
Between us and the Holy Living God of the Universe is a chasm of sin that we can not traverse. We can’t stretch out our hand and grasp onto God. We can not cross that divide by our own efforts. We can not bridge it by our own self-righteousness for in God’s sight that righteousness is nothing but filthy rags.
“Woe to me–I am ruined!” is the cry of despair of every sinner who see his own efforts to come to God on his own-- crumble into dust. But the Good News for us today is that what we can not do for ourselves–God does for us. Isaiah says that:
One of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
All Isaiah could do was cry out in horror at his own sin–he couldn’t demand that God do anything–he couldn’t choose to do anything–it was God alone who, in mercy and grace and love, brought atonement to him.
The angel was sent by God to mediate Isaiah’s atonement. He brought purifying fire from the altar of God’s grace and removed Isaiah’s guilt and covered his sin. Atonement–the task of bridging the gap from God to man–the task of making the two one, is the work of God alone.
What we see God do for Isaiah in these verses is a picture and a promise of what God would do for all people.
Out of love for world, God sent his Son Jesus into human flesh to make atonement for the sins of all people. He alone is the mediator between God and man. Christ alone is the refining and purifying fire that Malachi prophesies. He is the One of whom John speaks when he says that: the coming One will baptize you with fire. It is in Jesus’ shed blood alone that our guilt is taken away so that we can now serve him in his mission. Isaiah says that:
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
At the atoning touch of God, Isaiah was no longer the man he was before. The one who cried out in fear “Woe is me–I’m lost!” is now the one who unashamedly answers God’s call and exclaims in joy and gladness “Here I am send me”! The one who cowered in fear approached the throne of God’s grace with confidence. His sins taken away and his guilt covered-- he was a fit instrument for the Lord’s use.
The same is true for us. On account of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we are not the same kind of people as we were before. Courage replaces our fear. Willingness replaces our unworthiness. We don’t have to live our lives in shame over the past. God does not want us to carry a load of guilt or let it hinder our life in him because it has been covered forever in the shed blood of Jesus.
And because of God’s gift of cleansing—because the holiness of the Lord himself is bestowed upon us as a gift through faith in Jesus-- we too can answer God’s call and say, “Here I am–send me”
“Here I am—send me” into all the places and relationships where he calls us to be his people. Amen.