Dual level preaching
Isaiah 9: For a child has been born — for us! The gift of a son — for us!
Sometimes the prophet does exactly what we generally think of a prophet doing: he speaks of the future. Isaiah says that even when oppressors come and seem to destroy everything that God will have the last word. That Word, Isaiah says, will be in the person of a Child who can rightly be called names like “Strong God” and “Eternal Father.” Have you ever wondered about the state of mind of men like Isaiah when they speak words like this? Does Isaiah see it all: manger, shepherds, and wise men? Or does he scratch his head and wonder why he just said that? I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I can give a very minor personal example of what I mean. A few weeks ago I was delivering my Sunday morning sermon and found myself emphasizing something that had originally been only a minor part of my sermon. Such an event is hard to describe to people who haven’t preached, but I think most everyone who has carried on spiritual conversations have, at times, experienced something similar. Honestly, as I thought about that sermon and remembered who was in the congregation I had the idea that maybe the Lord wanted to encourage a good person who was going through some challenges in their life. Still it never crossed my mind to “aim” that portion of the sermon at anyone. I was surprised that I had pursued that point as far as I did. A few days later, with no thought of that sermon, I was praying and dealing with what I thought was a totally unrelated issue. Suddenly, the words that I had said on Sunday morning came back to me and I realized that on an entirely different level they were meant for me! At that moment, the “deeper meaning” of what I had said became real to me. I think that prophets like Isaiah operate at that level when they speak of things like those in Isaiah 9. Had you had a frank conversation with Isaiah about his promise of the “gift of a son” I think he would have plugged it into some current situation in his nation. That isn’t to say he was ignorant of there being more than he could grasp, but that, for him, these words applied right then and there. Only as God’s plan is played out does the greater meaning of the old prophet’s words come to light.
Take Away: Even when we think we know what’s going on we’re often surprised to later realize that the Lord was working at levels beyond our grasp.
Free will and accountability
Isaiah 8: No, we’re going to study the Scriptures.
While telling of future events wasn’t the major job of most prophets, it’s the one we immediately think of when we think of the work of the prophets. Actually, these men of God mostly “forth-told” rather than “fore-told.” Even when they speak of the future it’s often spoken of in a conditional way: “If you do this, then that will happen; if you do that, then this will happen.” In fact, a major theme of these men of God is to remind the people of their free will. That doesn’t mean God is helpless, but it does mean, at least in this context, that the Lord allows people the freedom to decide, and then makes them accountable for their decisions. As Isaiah goes about proclaiming what’s coming if these people stay on the road they’re on, people say to him, “When I want to know what’s coming, I’ll go to a fortune teller or hold a séance.” Isaiah says, “If you want to know what’s coming, take a look in the Scriptures.” He isn’t saying that the Scriptures contain some kind of secret road map to the future. Instead, he’s saying that there’s plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that God won’t forever put up with their foolishness. Repeatedly, in the Scriptures, the Lord has warned them and it doesn’t take some supernatural experience to see what’s coming. Talk about a timeless truth, this is one! Today, I don’t need a fortune teller. There’s plenty of information already available to me in the Bible about how God responds to sin and rebellion. If I insist on ignoring God I don’t need a crystal ball to know what’s coming.
Take Away: The Bible is quite clear as to the intentions of the Lord.
Isaiah 8: Because when all is said and done, the last word is Immanuel–God-With-Us.
When the tiny nation Judah is under attack on two fronts Isaiah goes to King Ahaz with the promise that Judah will prevail and the attack will fail. Ahaz can hardly believe it. His nation is out manned and out gunned by the invaders. Isaiah tells him to ask for a sign, any sign, and it will be given him. However, Ahaz’s lack of faith is apparent when he off handedly says, “Oh, I won’t do that.” Isaiah tells him that the Lord’s displeased with his refusal to even bother asking for a sign, but that one will be given anyway. It’s here that we get into “virgin birth” talk. However, the promise isn’t for the Messiah to come, it has to do with current circumstances. Isaiah says that before a girl, now a virgin, can marry, conceive, and give birth (in other words, a poetic way of saying “nine months”) that those armies attacking Judah will be gone. To underscore the reason for this withdrawal the child could properly be named “Immanuel” or “God-With-Us.” Isaiah goes on to express God’s displeasure with Ahaz but, still, the bottom line remains. When all else is “said and done” “Immanuel” remains true, God is with us. When Christ is born this incident comes to mind and is played out in a very literal way. This time it is literally a virgin who gives birth, and this time it really is God who is with us. In these related incidents we see the dual nature of prophecy as there’s a very current application that’s echoed in an unimaginable way in a more distant future. We also see that, today, we can grasp this wonderful truth at a level Isaiah could hardly imagine: God is with us indeed.
Take Away: How wonderful to be reminded of Immanuel God-is-with-us.
No guarantee of success
Isaiah 6: …they won’t have a clue about what is going on…so they won’t turn around and be made whole….
Isaiah’s commission is powerful and associated with a vision of God’s holiness. The prophet is personally transformed by the grace of God and he’s ready to “go” for the Lord. However, the next thing the Lord tells Isaiah must be very difficult to swallow. In spite of his being a man with “lips touched with a coal from off the altar” his ministry won’t bear fruit. I know it takes commitment to step forward and say “send me” but how much more to go on this mission with the promise of failure. The Lord says that the people Isaiah goes to minister to will not respond. Why the Lord tells Isaiah this is a mystery to me. Why not just send him on without telling him of the failure to come? I have no answer. However, I do see one important thing here: I belong to the Lord and I have to leave the results of my ministry in his hands. For Isaiah the important thing is “going” — being faithful. That’s how it is for all of us who serve him.
Take Away: We’re called to obedient faithfulness. The results we leave in the hands of the Lord.
Cleansed and called and sent
Isaiah 6: Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?
Isaiah’s vision of God brings him face to face with God’s holiness and his own uncleanness. However, his cry for mercy is heard, and through the symbolism of fire from the altar, we see true cleansing for this man of God. Now here’s his commission. Immediately, I’m reminded of the need for “sent people” in the Kingdom of God. The need is great, and, as Jesus said, “The workers are few.” The Lord wants to touch every life on the planet in wonderful ways, but workers must be willing to go and work in the harvest. Also, we see that just any worker won’t do. The call comes after the cleansing, or, maybe as a part of it. A cleansed heart seeks only that which pleases the master while the carnal heart is divided between what self wants and what God wants. A soldier who filters every order he or she receives, deciding whether or not he or she really wants to obey isn’t going to be very effective in the heat of the battle. The call of God to go is for those who’ve died out to self and been purified by the work of the Lord. Finally, there must be absolute willingness on the part of the one called. The Lord doesn’t force Isaiah out into the difficult ministry to which he’s to give his life. Isaiah’s free will isn’t compromised. The call goes out for workers and Isaiah willingly steps forward with, “I’ll go. Send me!” Workers in God’s Kingdom are servants of the Lord, but we aren’t in bondage. We serve gladly and willingly.
Take Away: Workers in God’s Kingdom are servants of the Lord, but we aren’t in bondage.
God’s response to my need
Isaiah 6: Gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.
Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness breaks his heart. In light of that vision any claims to righteousness are blown away. His brokenness brings him to the place of honest confession which is just what the Lord’s waiting for. Immediately, the Lord takes action to cleanse him of his sin. Since this is a vision, there’s a lot of symbolism here. We have an altar of sacrifice with fire, which speaks to us of surrender and purification. There’s Isaiah’s direct reference to his “unclean lips” which refer to, not just a tendency to say the wrong thing, but his whole life, which he sees as speaking in ways that reflect a deep level of spiritual need. The thrilling thing is how the Lord responds to Isaiah’s cry of repentance. A heavenly being touches his lips with the burning coal from the altar declaring the wonderful truth that his sin is “wiped out” and his guilt is gone. Listen, I don’t have to pull some surprising insight out of this passage. In fact, it’s surprising enough just as it is. When I realize the purity of God and see my own deep failure…when I confess it, throwing myself on the mercy God…when I do that, I place myself in the only place where the Lord can help me. I can’t forgive my own sin and I can’t purify my own life, but when I “repent and turn” he immediately does for me what I can never do for myself. There’s no better word from the Lord than “gone your guilt, your sins wiped out.”
Take Away: As I confess my need the Lord does for me what I can never do for myself.
Moment of truth
Isaiah 6: Every word I’ve ever spoken is tainted…words that corrupt and desecrate.
Isaiah’s first reaction to seeing the holiness of God isn’t reverence or ecstasy. Rather, it’s horror. In view of a holy God he realizes his own lack of holiness. When compared to his fellow citizens, Isaiah’s a good man, even a righteous man. However, when he finds himself in the presence of God he sees himself as he really is, and that vision brings him to his knees. Isaiah’s words are deeply personal and my reaction to this passage, if it’s honest, starts with me and not with what I perceive to be failure in others. Jesus touches on this in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Also, I note that Isaiah doesn’t announce that he’s now going to commence a self-improvement campaign. Instead, it’s honest recognition of his sinful ways and deep sadness as he realizes just how broken his life is. Isaiah, in just a few words, says it all: “I’m doomed because everything about me, even my words, is unclean and unholy. Now that I’ve seen God I realize the depth of my lostness. In myself I see no hope whatsoever.” The hope of Isaiah isn’t found within himself. He knows it, and the Lord knows it.
Take Away: It’s only as we’re honest with ourselves and with the Lord that the Lord can begin transforming our lives.
Isaiah 6: Holy, Holy, Holy is the God-of-the-Angel-Armies. His bright glory fills the whole earth.
Isaiah is already a prophet of God when he has his vision of the holiness of God. However, it’s that vision that fuels his ministry and transforms his relationship with God. He sees worship taking place in heaven, with heavenly beings shouting out the holiness of God. Everything’s impacted by that holiness: foundations trembling, billowing smoke…and a humbled prophet of God. So what does it mean for God to be “Holy, Holy, Holy”? While I think the triple statement of God’s being holy is intended to cause us to think of his holiness as being complete and not meant to give pastors the makings of three point sermons I do see three aspects of the holiness of God. First, his holiness is that of purity. God is untouched by sin and sin is absolutely foreign to his character. Second, his holiness is that of separateness. God isn’t humanity multiplied. There’s an “otherness” about him and while we’re created in his image, there is that about God which is forever beyond our understanding. Third, his holiness is that of transcendence. Even as the brightness of the sun both warms the earth, giving life, and at the same time is so powerful as to be frightening to us, so is God’s holiness both beautiful and at the same time awesome and untouchable by us. Had God not revealed his holiness to us we’d have zero chance of even dimly contemplating it. Isaiah doesn’t write an essay about his thoughts on God’s holiness. Rather, he has a God-given vision of it, and once he has that vision he’s never the same.
Take Away: A God who is holy, holy, holy should be worshiped and feared.
Isaiah 4: Everyone left behind in Zion, all the discards and rejects in Jerusalem, will be reclassified as “holy.”
The intention of God is frightening. Jerusalem will be emptied out, cleansed of its sin. The people who were given this land as a gift of the Lord are going to be ripped from their inheritance. The only people not taken will be those the invaders don’t think are worth taking. These will be discarded and left behind like some broken household item that isn’t worth moving. It will be these survivors, these “worthless people” who will be the hope of life continuing in Jerusalem. God intends to take these who are considered unworthy and transform their lives, classifying them as holy in his sight. Our testimony isn’t as dramatic but it’s just as thrilling. The Lord takes us in our brokenness, our sin, our worthlessness and as we cooperate with him he begins to remake us. He transforms us, making us into new people. Jesus called that transformation process being “born again.” Oh, the grace of God — how powerful and how wonderful.
Take Away: We are made new by the grace of God, made holy in his sight, transformed by his power.
Isaiah 3: Those women are going to smell like rotting cabbages.
The books of the prophets are often hard to read, not because we don’t understand what’s being said, but because of the harshness of the message. Still, reading these words from a distance of centuries enables us to see some of the grim humor here too. In chapter 3 Isaiah talks about how the socialites of his day who pride themselves in their appearance and expensive perfumes will look revolting and smell like rotten cabbage. The common people of that day who see those in the upper class getting away with (literal) murder probably recognize the ironic humor in Isaiah’s words. Of course, this isn’t a comedy routine. These are real warnings that need to be taken very seriously. After all, the next lines of the prophecy describe death and mourning. Why is all of this going to happen? The answer is that Isaiah’s intended audience has fallen so in love with themselves that they’ve forgotten who they really are: a people who exist only by the grace of God. With that in view, I see that this isn’t punishment so much as it’s abandonment. That is, God isn’t going to ruin their lives. Instead, he’s going to let them continue down the path away from him to where that path leads. Modern Christians need to take a hard look at passages like this. We’re sometimes in danger of falling in love with our own spirituality. In time, we tend to claim responsibility for what good Christians we are and when we do that, this passage no longer contains ancient words directed to people who lived long ago. In the context of the passage I’m reading today, I can say that no matter how spiritual I might think I am I’m what I am by the grace of God. To cut myself off from that truth is to travel a road to an unwanted destination. Pardon the tenuous connection here but such a life “stinks.”
Take Away: Any good is my is because of the grace of God in my life.