A Call to Duty
May 24, 1998
Scripture: Isaiah 6
Memorial Day is for remembering. We remember loved ones who have died. We remember great events that have taken place. We remember those who have given their lives for great causes out of a sense of duty and ethic. We remember because it behooves us not to forget. In remembering we maintain a continuum of belonging and purpose, honor and destiny. Without these things our lives fade into oblivion and meaninglessness. Time and tedium take their toll on our remembrance. We must keep the vision alive lest we forget. We must not only remember those who have gone before us in carrying the vision, but we ourselves would like to be remembered for faithfully carrying it.
Let us honor our veterans today. Will all who have served in our armed forces please rise so that we can remember you and thank you. How did you receive your call to duty?
In 740 B.C. Isaiah received a call to duty in a heavenly army. And I believe that God has some things he would like us to remember about that call. We live in a culture as besieged by immorality as in Isaiah’s day. The first five chapters of the book give us the message as the reason for his call. They are perhaps placed first because the message is more important than the messenger. There has been an attack. There has been an offense and offense is called for against it. God will be justified. There is a vision of the effect of victory in chapter two and four, but the battle to achieve it will be long and arduous. Chapter five reminds the people of what God has done for them before now and lists their incomprehensible sins in response. We see woes:
The Slum Landlord (5:8-10)
The Giddy Playboy (5:11-17)
The Syndicate Hoodlum (5:18-19)
The Behavioral Psychologist (5:20)
The Pink Professor (5:21)
The Besotted Judge (5:22-24)
But then we see Isaiah, representing those called of God, sinners awakened from their culture to sound the alarm. We must remember Isaiah because we must be like him. We serve in the same army and live in the same camp. In chapter 6 we see, as Isaiah did, who God is, who we are, what we must do about it. And we have the privilege of serving directly under the Captain that he anticipated beginning in chapter 7 & 9 and fully declared in chapters 42-53.
I. The Source of the Call (vv. 1-4)
Remembering Our Power: A Holy God
1 ¶ In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.
2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying.
3 And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory."
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
A. Confronted by the sovereignty of God (vv. 1-2)
Sovereignty is the powerful nature of God. Israel had become too complacent in its security to heed the warnings of God and too corrupted in its prosperity to escape the wrath of God. King Uzziah was a good king for 52 years but became proud and profaned the temple, was given a holy dose of leprosy, and finally died in shame. When our last hope is stripped away is when we can see God. This is Jesus (John 12:41). Robe: S. Rev. 1:13. Seraphim: S. Rev. 4:7 (lion=kingship; ox=strength; man=intelligence; flying eagle=honor); they worshipped God, proclaimed His holiness, and declared His sovereignty over all the earth.
B. Confronted by the holiness of God (v. 3)
Holiness is the moral character of God. It is this and not, for instance, love or justice that they extol. Even sinless creatures such as these cover their faces in humility and their feet in modesty before His Holiness. Even they cannot look upon Him in His glory for He alone is the holy of holies. God is both transcendent (holy in his being) and immanent (glorious in his doing). Holy x 3 = Trinity.
C. Confronted by the worship of God (v. 4)
We tremble with fear and awe, but at the same time we are fascinated by his holiness which is desirable, promising and compelling. It is the ‘reverent fear’ spoken of in 1Pet. 1:17 when we shut our mouths, cover our feet and close our eyes before the sovereign holiness and glory of God. It is like entering a planetarium from the busy street - the universe opens before us and we see the greatness of God in our smallness. But worship is not a focus upon ourselves but upon the greatness, goodness, grace and character of God. We should come, waiting upon him and a visitation of his Spirit, expecting a glimpse of his glory. It is in his holiness that our holiness begins. We receive the promise that we can be holy because he is and he has commanded it in 1Pet. 1:16. It is not an option. Like any good father, our heavenly Father wants his children to be as he is (1Cor. 7:1).
II. The Effect of the Call (vv. 5-7)
Remembering Our Place: A Humbled Servant
5 ¶ "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
7 With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."
A. Convicted of sin (v. 5)
1. Feeling our anguish (v. 5a)
The closer to the light, the clearer the dirt. Like the Edgar Allen Poe story, “The Telltale Heart,” in which he murders a man who has a vulture-like eye that haunts him, buries him beneath the floorboards, and sits over him on a chair as the police investigate. His conscience reconstructs the mans heartbeat in his mind as he sips tea with the police as if nothing happened and he cries out that he is the one who has done it. In the presence of a holy God we are utterly ruined and have no recourse but honesty and repentance in agreement with God about sin. We realize with Isaiah that we are unworthy to join the seraphs in crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In every documented conversion of major spiritual leaders from Augustine to Spurgeon and into the modern day, there is agony of soul: the stab of conscience, the shame of inward uncleanness, the remorse for sin, the sensation of being lost and alone. We may struggle most of our lives to row against the current of God’s grace but finally in desperation we cannot continue to oppose God and let ourselves, exhausted, go over the falls and into his arms. We can no longer trust ourselves but only God. We have been brought to the brink. Our spiritual sensitivity to sin (and grace on the other side) gets dulled because we have lost sight of a holy God. Like Isaiah, we may need to see his holiness, feel the shaking pillars and smell the rising smoke of the cleansing fire to cause us to cry out, “Woe is me, for I am undone.”
2. Accepting our responsibility (v. 5b)
There is nothing left but to confess sin. There is no room left for shifting blame. Isaiah is saying that he has no place in the presence of God, no right to praise God, no authority to speak for God. It is out of the heart that the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34; 15:8, 18). Isaiah is confessing that through his lips, his telltale heart (Jer. 17:9) has betrayed him. Isaiah has been pronouncing ‘woes’ upon the people. He was called to speak for God, but upon seeing God’s holiness and glory he asks, “How can I speak for God without a heart like God?” If their is sin in our hearts, our lips will betray us. We live in an age where we can easily become victims of a theological bluff that makes sin a nonfatal sickness for which someone else is responsible. There is the theology that objectifies sin, the psychology that explains it, the sociology that excuses it, and the economics that pay for it. Isaiah calls the bluff, and in the presence of holy God confesses responsibility for lips that betray a telltale heart.
3. Admitting our influence (v. 5c)
Although sin is primarily personal, we cannot deny that it has social impact. When we see the holy character of God we also see the pervasive influence of our sin. There is sin at the very heart of the culture of which we are a part. 70% to 95% of those who commit domestic violence and abuse have learned it from direct experience or observation (another school shooting in Springfield, OR - 19 shot, 4 dead). The breakdown in personal morality has a social price we cannot count, or even pay. We, like Isaiah, must admit our own influence, confessing the sins of his ‘woes’ upon others that we have done ourselves that have impacted our family, congregation, community and culture. All this is necessary in order for Isaiah to be made useable by God - to establish biblical credentials for ministry. Until he confessed sin he was neither ready nor worthy so be called a prophet of God - and likewise we as disciples of Christ.
B. Cleansed by fire (vv. 6-7)
1. The fire that purifies us (v. 6)
If all we get in seeing God is despair in clarity of sinfulness we will be destroyed. We must also see grace. It is God who cleanses us for service. The blood of bulls and goats (Heb. 10: 3-4) is temporary. God has provided for us permanence, but we must continually return to the eternal sacrifice (Heb. 10:10). God cleanses with fire from the altar of that sacrifice the source of our uncleanness. If our spiritual cleansing is partial, our spiritual consecration is dull and our commitment shaky. The only complete and permanent cure for sin is the life-changing fire from his altar of his sacrifice for sin. We do not like to admit that our sin requires such a sacrifice of violence to God himself. As a prophet who would speak for Isaiah’s lips had to be clean, and if they were clean, his whole being was clean. Each of us has a point of vulnerability that Satan attacks and God redeems. For Job, it was his righteousness; for David, it was his lust; for Peter, it was his self-confidence; and for Paul, it was his zeal. In each case, the point of personal vulnerability is the entry point for cleansing (Baker book, illus.).
2. The fire that ignites us (v. 7)
Once Isaiah had been touched by the fire that purified him, he was ready to hear God speak with the fire that impassioned him. Passion is another of those missing dimensions of many contemporary Christians. Martin Marty says that we live in a time when the “civil have no convictions and those with convictions are not civil.” Only fire from God can ignite ‘convicted civility,” the critical balance between the passion for truth and the compassion for persons. One loving heart must set another on fire. To be baptized by fire means to be ignited with the positive energy of righteousness, a consuming flame of purity. When Isaiah answered, “Here am I, send me,” he put the poor stick of himself upon the flame of God and became a part of an incendiary fellowship that would ignite the world. Trueblood once wrote, “A good fire glorifies even its poorest fuel.” Satan flees before people who give themselves as kindling to be ignited by the fire of God. In C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape instructs Wormwood that, “A moderate religion is as good for us as no religion at all - and more amusing.” S. Rom. 12:11.
III. The Content of the Call (vv. 8-13)
Remembering Our Purpose: A Hard Message
8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!"
9 ¶ He said, "Go and tell this people: "'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'
10 Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."
11 Then I said, "For how long, O Lord?" And he answered: "Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged,
12 until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.
13 And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land."
A. Answering his call (vv. 8-10)
We must get up from our fallenness and go in God’s power. The common factor in a call to ministry is a passion, however obtained, that there is nothing else in all life as worth doing as proclaiming the gospel. Isaiah has seen God’s power, experienced God’s grace, and now has a message that will condemn all who do not follow suit. He is given a hard message that will harden the hard but one that will also hold out hope as long as necessary even for the few of the few (Rom. 7:8) (experience passing out tracts on Lawrence). It used to be the truth of Christ’s message that offended but now it is the exclusiveness of the message. It is the fire that refines us. The romance is gone. Only the fire of unquenchable devotion remains. As the final proof of the touch of fire upon Isaiah’s lips, he is called to be faithful to the Word of God even though he will not live to see the prophecies fulfilled.
B. Persisting in his call (vv. 11-12)
Because God is faithful to us, we must be faithful to him. Dr. Brushaber once answered a question about the will of God with the statement, “When God calls us, he also releases us.” Isaiah said he was willing to go and received a message that would neither be heard nor headed. So he naturally asked, “How long, O Lord?” God effectively says, “Until I release you.” This live coal from the altar burned in him with unquenchable devotion until the holy seed of hope burst forth with prophetic visions of a Savior whose name is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). S. Is. 61:1-2; Lk. 4:18-19.
C. The promise of his call (v. 13)
There is a time in human affairs when nations stand in judgment and God shuts down the growth of evil, i.e.: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Israel. But it is possible to seek personal reaffirmation and revival even in the midst of a declining culture. This is our call to duty.
During Pastor’s Conference, one of the speakers said that we must have revival so the people of America will come to their knees. But I found myself saying under my breath, “No. We must be brought to our knees first. Then we might have revival.”