The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 6, 2022
In Ravenna, Italy, there is a mausoleum whose vaulted ceiling features a mosaic masterpiece of Christ in heaven. Many first-time visitors, however, are not initially impressed. For it’s hard to get a good look at the mosaic hidden by dark shadows inside that dim building. When, however, a switch is flipped, a burst of lights aimed at the mosaic illuminates the iridescent tiles, and people gasp in stunned awe. The lights stay on for just a moment, and then the sublime artistry disappears once more into the darkness. Only those who wait for each burst of light as it comes take in much of the mosaic’s magnificence.
In the same way, to take in the splendor of God, we must wait for what bursts of light come and make the most of them when they do. You and I may never have a vision of God like Isaiah’s, but we all must have a view of God like Isaiah’s. Nothing matters more than our appreciating how exalted and magnificent is our God. It determines the strength of our faith, and of our soul.
When John Piper preached on Isaiah’s vision, he decided to forego making any application to personal need and instead to focus entirely on the revelation of God’s holiness. He did so fearing some might find his sermon ethereal, impractical and irrelevant.
Unbeknownst to Piper at the time, there was in the congregation a young father who’d just learned his child had been sexually abused by a close relative. Several months later, that father pulled Piper aside and told him what they’d gone through. He said, “It’s been the hardest time of my life. Do you know what got me through it? Isaiah’s vision of God’s holiness! It’s been the rock to which I have clung, and it’s kept me from drowning in a flood of tears.”
When God revealed His holiness to Isaiah, Judah was undergoing a hard time. King Uzziah, whose long reign had brought the nation much military, economic and political success, had just died; and a grieving people were fretting about a future without him – not realizing Uzziah had died under God’s displeasure for proudly presuming privileges in defiance of God’s sovereign will.
In that context God gave the prophet Isaiah a vision of who He, the true King, is. Isaiah saw God elevated on “a throne, high and lofty” and adorned in glorious garb of such grandeur that just “the hem of his robe filled the temple”. Seraphs – angelic beings on fire with godly zeal whose name literally means “burning ones” and whose flames of spirit-filled the temple with smoke – hovered near God on one pair of their six wings in order to wait on Him, covered their eyes by another pair to avoid seeing more of His glory than they could handle, and covered their feet with still another pair to signify their unworthiness even to draw near to serve the Supreme Being.
A seraph called out, with a voice so big and mighty that it shook the temple to its foundations, saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
If we were asked to describe God, most of us would speak of His being loving, all-powerful or all-knowing before we’d even think of speaking of His being holy. Yet, His holiness is all that seraph spoke of!
So what does it mean to declare God holy? That God is wholly other, like no other, utterly alien in some ways to every other being (including those bearing His image)! God’s holiness conveys His transcendent greatness.
In the Bible, God’s holiness is His foundational and central quality; and the Bible refers to God’s holiness more often than to any other aspect of Him.
God’s revelation of His holiness both awed and appalled Isaiah. It knocked him back on his heels in fearful dismay. It made him painfully aware of how small, unworthy and even tawdry he was by contrast. Thus, Isaiah’s initial words in response to the seraph’s assertion were not those of praise but of despair. “Woe is me” he cried out. “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Since Isaiah realized what Jesus would later teach: that what is on our lips indicates what is in our hearts, Isaiah realized that at his core he was a flawed individual, surrounded by equally flawed folks; and that none of them had any right to be in the presence of One of such pure and perfect holiness. Why, Isaiah was amazed to still be alive after his eyes had seen God, the high and holy King!
The rest of the story tells of how one of the seraphs flew over to Isaiah with a hot coal from the temple altar. He touched the hot coal to Isaiah’s lips. It did not burn his flesh but it did burn away his guilt. In gratitude for such grace, Isaiah stepped forward to go for God to bring that grace to others.
But that is a story for another day. On this day, let us not rush past Isaiah’s rational and righteous fear before God’s infinite holiness.
God invites us to approach Him in a trusting way, but it is wrong to approach God in a chummy, presumptuous way. God is so immeasurably greater than we that we don’t belong in His company unless He gives us the right we don’t deserve and never could.
Taking in God’s holiness gives us that poverty of spirit that, Jesus said, makes the kingdom of heaven ours. Our awareness of His highness and our lowliness brings home that our only chance with Him rests upon His illimitable grace. But because His grace is as illimitable as His holiness, by that reason alone we are justified to have illimitable hope and joyful expectancy!