After Carla and I had been married for one year, we went on a summer mission trip. After a week or two of orientation, we were sent to Northern Saskatchewan where we spent two weeks at a camp and then a month in Isle a la Crosse. It was our task, in that community, to be a witness for Jesus. During the month that we were there, I felt that we accomplished very little. We did not have a good handle on how we were supposed to witness. We tried several things and made a few contacts but really didn’t know how we were to go about the task. At the end of the summer, we determined that we were not missionary material.
Since that time, I have wondered if that was really the right response. I think we came to that conclusion because we focused on our inabilities.
Have you ever felt totally inadequate to do God’s work? Perhaps you have been asked to teach a class or been challenged to witness to a neighbour or you have an opportunity to serve God on a mission trip and you have a sense that you really can’t do it. Where does the power to serve God come from?
This morning we want to begin a series of messages on Isaiah which will take us to the middle of September. With 66 chapters, it is obvious that we will not be able to cover it all, so the approach that I have chosen is to take 12 passages which represent 12 major themes which we find in Isaiah. As we look at these passages, we will learn what God had for Isaiah to say to Israel, but, we will also hear God speaking to us. Isaiah is a wonderful book containing strong words of judgement, but also full of the good news of salvation. It will encourage us and call us to faithfulness. There will be 5 of us handling the different passages and I trust that you will grow in your faith and in your love for the Lord as we look at God’s word in the book of Isaiah.
This morning, we will look at Isaiah 6 and will get an introduction to Isaiah and His message. As we examine an encounter Isaiah had with God, we will learn where the power to proclaim God’s word comes from.
In Isaiah 6:9-13, God tells Isaiah about the message he is to proclaim to the people. What we will see is that Isaiah was up against a difficult task.
Before we look at the message of Isaiah, however, I think it will be important for us to understand where it fits into the history of Israel. Therefore, I would like to remind you of God’s plan for his people by giving you a brief overview and where Isaiah fits.
After people fell into sin and the sin of the people became so great that God had to destroy people in the flood, the descendants of Noah once again populated the earth. It was God’s desire to create a people for himself and he began to do that through one man who trusted God and that man was Abraham. Abraham’s family grew and eventually ended up in the land of Egypt and there became a great nation, but also a slave nation. When they cried to the Lord, God heard them and with a powerful hand, brought them out of Egypt and into a land of their own and made them his special people.
Later in their history, they wanted to be ruled by a king and Saul became their first king. He was not a man who followed the Lord and so God made David king. During the time of David, Israel was in its golden years. It became a great nation and prospered. Solomon followed David as king and the nation continued to prosper, but at the end of his life, he began to drift away from following God faithfully. As a result, the kingdom was divided in two and Rehoboam became the king of Judah(the two southern tribes), whereas Jeroboam became the king of Israel(the ten northern tribes.)
In the years that followed each of the two parts of the kingdom of Israel had a succession of kings. Some were faithful to God and others were not. During this time many of the prophets proclaimed God’s judgement on the people of Israel and warned them that if they did not turn from their faithless ways, God would destroy them. God began to do this when in 722 he sent the Assyrians to destroy the northern 10 tribes which were known as Israel. The Assyrians came right to Jerusalem and even began to lay siege to Jerusalem, but God spared the southern part of the nation, which was known as Judah. But the people of Judah, with some notable exceptions, did not turn around and follow the Lord and so eventually Babylon came and destroyed the nation in 587 BC at which time they were sent into exile for 70 years.
Isaiah 1:1 tells us that the work of Isaiah took place during the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. This is the approximately 40 year period preceding the time when the Assyrians came to Jerusalem and tried to take it but failed. The prophecies are warnings to the people of Judah to turn around and follow the Lord and they pertain to the period when the Assyrians were a threat, but also into the time when the Babylonians were beginning to make their appearance.
To this historical situation, Isaiah was to proclaim God’s message. What a powerful, but also difficult message it was! God’s message is outlined in Isaiah 6:9-13.
There we find that it is first of all a message calling for repentance. He is to call the people away from their sin and their wandering ways. Many prophetic words like this appear in the book and in three messages, we will examine them. The sins of Israel are the same in many ways today and for the next three weeks, we will hear that God hates false religion, dependence on things other than him and the many other ways we disobey him. Isaiah has many such messages of warning and calling the people to turn from their sin.
But God also tells Isaiah that the message he proclaims will not be well received. There is an interesting pattern that takes place in verse 10. There is a literary device called chiasm which is kind of an A-B-C-C-B-A pattern. It takes place here in verse 10 where he talks about their hearts, then ears, then eyes and then reverses it and talks about their eyes, then their ears and then their hearts. The thrust of the message is that as Isaiah preaches and the more he preaches, the people will not listen and eventually as they refuse to listen, they will become incapable of listening. The preaching of Isaiah, because it will be refused, will result in hearts that are dull or as the Hebrew actually says, “fat.” That is, hearts that are so insensitive to the voice of God that the fat of disobedience will prevent the word of God from penetrating them. Their ears will become dull. Like our ears can become dull if they become too full of wax, so their ears will become dull because they are filled with the din of their disobedience. Their eyes will become smeared over. You know how sometimes at night your eyes become so full of gunk that you have a hard time opening them in the morning? That is what will happen to them as they refuse to listen to the word of God. This warning was given to the prophet to let him know that the refusal of the people to listen was not a sign of the prophets failure nor an indication that God was mean. It was a warning to reveal what is in their hearts. And it will reveal that they do not want to hear from God.
This passage from Isaiah is repeated by Jesus in the New Testament to explain his use of parables which obscure the truth from those who have hard hearts. It is also used by Paul, in Acts 28, to explain to the Jews why he was turning to the Gentiles, because the Jews did not listen to the words of God. (Matt 13:14,15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:40; Acts 28:26,27.)
These verses are worth listening to today especially by people like us who have heard so much of the word of God. If we have not obeyed that word, it is possible for our hearts to become fat, our ears dull and our eyes smeared over because we are not open to God’s word for us. It is, however, written to Isaiah to help him know that all his 40 years of preaching, calling people to repentance would result in very little change. He had a hard message to proclaim and there would be few who would listen to it.
When Isaiah then asked in verse 11, how long he would have to preach this hard message, God had more bad news for him. The hardness of people’s hearts will result in the destruction of the nation. In fact, the passage warns not only of destruction once, but twice. If the bulk of the nation was destroyed in the Assyrian attack and only a small part, perhaps a tenth remained in the land, the warning is that even that tenth would be destroyed, which is what happened when Judah was also destroyed. Can you imagine if someone came to proclaim a message to us that more torrential rains would destroy our crops and after that an early frost would destroy anything that did grow and after that the price was going to drop even lower? Can you imagine if someone came and prophesied that all our houses would be destroyed and we would have to flee for our lives because of war? How popular would such a prophet be? But that was the message that Isaiah had to proclaim.
Yet in the midst of that message there was also a glimmer of hope. When we moved into our house, there was a large elm tree in our yard that was dead. That fall, I cut it down and only the stump was left. This spring, I noticed that a little elm tree was growing out of that stump. It is truly amazing that out of something that was dead two or more years ago, life should now come forth. That is the message to Isaiah in verse 13 that out of the dead stump of a nation destroyed twice over, a remnant would grow up once again. That prophecy, is of course fulfilled in the church that has come out of the dead root of Israel because of the work of Jesus. As we examine Isaiah, we will also hear the wonderful message of God’s restoration.
Except for this little glimmer of hope, a message which finds its way into a number of places in Isaiah, most of the message of Isaiah is a message of warning, repentance and judgement. It is a hard message, but the message which Isaiah was to proclaim to his people.
Although our situation is different, there is this similarity that we also often proclaim a message to unhearing people. Why is it so hard for us to proclaim God’s word in the world?
A few weeks ago during the gay pride week, a few prophetic voices were letting people know that not everyone thinks that homosexual activity is just an alternative lifestyle, but rather that it is sin. I suspect such a voice of truth was criticized. Much of the scientific community affirms the theory of evolution and yet we hold fast to the truth that the world was put in place by a loving creator. In these and other areas, representing the truth of God in our world is not easy for us and whenever we try to represent it, we carry a message that is not well accepted.
As Christians we are accused of being intolerant because we believe that Jesus is not just one way, but is the only way of salvation. How do we proclaim that message in a world that lifts up tolerance and relativism. In our world today, you can embrace anything except to say that there is only one way. How do we witness and share the truth of God in such a setting?
When we offer the gospel, we offer a gift. Yet most people have a hard time accepting salvation as a gift. They feel it must be earned in some way. How can we make the gift of God known as the good news that it is?
Also very difficult in our world is offering the wonder of life to those who think they already have it. The affluence and pleasure seeking which our world is filled with makes it almost impossible to show people that we have found life that is filled with abundance and joy and that they need what we have. Most people laugh at such a notion because they think they are doing OK.
I Corinthians reminds us of the difficulty of gospel proclamation when it says in I Corinthians 1:23, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,”
What will make it possible for us to proclaim God’s truth to our world? What made it possible for Isaiah to proclaim such a hard message?
The answer is found in the first part of the chapter in the divine encounter which Isaiah had. I don’t know if this was Isaiah’s initial call or a confirmation of his call that came later in life, but I think it would be safe to say that it was the power and motivation behind his preaching.
The vision of the throne room which Isaiah had must have been an amazing experience. I appreciated when Bryan read it last week for our invitation to worship. Just the experience of seeing the Lord must have been overwhelming. The description, although sketchy, contains some powerful images. Brides like to have long trains on their dresses and the longer it is, the more impressive it is. If we think like that then a train that fills the temple is a “wow” event. The description of the heavenly creatures called seraphs is also amazing. We have never seen such a creature. I don’t find it very helpful to try to interpret the meaning of their wings covering their faces and feet, I prefer to imagine the wonder of them and the mystery of the presence of God which they communicate.
The cry of the seraphs is awe inspiring. In the Bible when a word is repeated twice, that is for emphasis. When it is repeated three times, then we better sit up and take notice. This is so especially when the word is “holy.” God is so amazingly and wonderfully set apart from all that he has created that at the mere thought of this our mouths must drop open and we must simply stand and stare at the wonder of God.
The physical manifestations of shaking and smoke also contribute to the mystery and wonder of the holy presence of God.
What did that image do for Isaiah who was about to be told he had a hard message to proclaim? I suspect that it sustained him for much of his ministry life.
Few of us will such a vision of God, but God is more than willing to let us know Him and has already revealed himself in amazing ways. It is a view of who God is that empowers the message we proclaim. Too often our eyes are shut to the glory of God, but if by God’s grace His word or his Spirit reveals to our hearts the wonder of our God, we too will be sustained to proclaim the glory of the grace of God. If all we see is this world, we will not be strongly motivated to serve God. If we know God and how amazing he is, we will be strongly motivated to serve.
May we seek God and search for Him so that we can see Him and be encouraged to declare his glory even to an unbelieving world.
But, we need to recognize that the first thing that happened to Isaiah when he saw God was not that he rejoiced at His glory. The first thing that happened was that he saw himself for who he really was. He was not pure and strong and capable rather, he was utterly ruined. He cried out, “Woe to me!” … “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.”
What an important place for him to come to. To recognize his brokenness would mean that he could never rely on his own ability or goodness to empower his prophecy.
I told you about our experience of missionary work earlier. I think that my real failure was not in missionary work, but in trying to rely on my abilities. I have to confess that often I have offered my abilities to God and have relied on my abilities and have not been willing to trust my weakness to Him and trust that by His power He will do great things in spite of my weaknesses.
We will be able to make God’s good news known to a hard world if we begin from the place of our weakness rather than from the place of our strength. God wants us to recognize that we are able only in his power. Paul says in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Being aware of our brokenness, our sinfulness and our inability is a good place to be because it allows us to rely on God and to lean on Him instead of on our strength, purity and goodness.
The response of God to Isaiah’s admission was that God cleansed his mouth. God took his sins away. As a result, he was not ruined, but rather could stand in God’s presence accepted by God because of grace.
We stand in such a place of grace and ought to be more aware of it than any Old Testament person. We have experienced the amazing work of God in purifying us from our sins. The price God paid for this to be applied to us is high - nothing less than the blood of Jesus.
If we want to experience power in our proclamation of the message of God, we need to go back often to remind ourselves of the glory of the gospel that has been given to us. That is why an evening like today when we will observe the Lord’s Supper together is an important time to be reminded of the cleansing that has taken place. Coming to the place of brokenness and then experiencing the grace of God is the only power available to give us courage and ability to make God known to a world that doesn’t want to know.
Another benefit of accepting grace is that no accusation of failure or sin, will have much of an effect. Sometimes politicians run into trouble if a bad incident from their past surfaces and suddenly they are not respected as leaders any more. That can never happen in the church because all of us must come to the place where we know we are utterly lost sinners and must then receive God’s gift of salvation. Then if something from the past appears we say, “yes, but God has forgiven me” and we go on in ministry, not in our purity and power, but in God’s. This power was very evident in Paul’s ministry. He recognized that he was the worst of sinners having even killed Christians, but he was forgiven and by grace he could minister powerfully.
That was the reason for the call of Isaiah as he was sent out to proclaim the hard message. That is the reason why we too need to be broken and restored by God before we can effectively make Him known.
The final empowerment that happened for Isaiah as he proclaimed the message of God was the sending act which took place.
When the invitation went out, Isaiah, having seen God, recognized his brokenness and his cleansing, he was ready to respond to the call of God. When God asked, who will go? Isaiah was willing and said, “here am I send me.”
To the willingness, we then have the divine commission and Isaiah was told to “go.”
All of us who have been cleansed by God must ask, “Am I willing?” and “What is the commission God has given me?”
As we read Isaiah 6, there are many things we could focus on, but let me ask just two questions.
What is our response to God. Are we like the people to whom Isaiah was called to preach? Are we a people who have heard God’s word again and again and it has made no difference in our lives? What a frightening place to be because a hard heart only becomes harder with rejection of the truth it is given. If you are rejecting God’s truth today and think that you will accept it another day, you are in great danger. If you harden your heart, refusal only serves to harden it further. The invitation is to respond to what God is saying to you today.
The other lesson that is such an encouragement is a lesson for those who are serving the Lord. What is God’s call in our life? Some of you are going to be involved in summer ministries whether VBS or Camp or short term ministries. Or perhaps even missionary service. What is the power center out of which you will carry out that ministry. Will it be out of your own purity and power or will you recognise your brokenness and understand the power of God in your life which will allow you to make him known no matter how difficult the circumstances, no matter how hard the hearts to which you speak.
May God guide each of you to see Him, to accept His cleansing and to serve Him with the power which he provides.