But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. —1 John 1:7
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. There is nothing in God that should make us defensive and cautious. We see that most clearly in Jesus, who was God-on-display. Is there anything about Jesus you would change, if you could?
God is also in the light, right out in the open. He is not hard to find. We experience God when we stop hiding in the shadows of denial and come out into the light of honesty with him and with one another. That’s where we find fellowship and cleansing – out in the light, where God is.
Fellowship is more than saying hi, important as that is. Fellowship is sharing together the deep things of our hearts – our longings and fears and hopes, and how God is helping us. And cleansing is more than believing the gospel as a concept, important as that is. Cleansing comes down when we trust Jesus with our sins and failures and regrets, so that we put them right out there in the light, and we find him waiting for us to cleanse it all away. Yesterday I received an email from Justin Taylor with a quote from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the British preacher from the 1800s. It’s about the return of the prodigal son:
I will tell you the way I think the father behaved towards his son who had been dead, but was alive again, who had been lost, but was found. Let me try to describe the scene. The father has kissed the son, and he bids him sit down; then he comes in front of him, and looks at him, and feels so happy that he says, “I must give you another kiss,” then he walks away a minute; but he is back again before long, saying to himself, “Oh, I must give him another kiss!” He gives him another, for he is so happy. His heart beats fast; he feels very joyful; the old man would like the music to strike up; he wants to be at the dancing; but meanwhile he satisfies himself by a repeated look at his long-lost child. Oh, I believe that God looks at the sinner, and looks at him again, and keeps on looking at him, all the while delighting in the very sight of him, when the sinner is truly repentant, and comes back to his Father’s house.
God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. Is there any reason for you not to be completely open to God right now?
We’ve seen from the apostle John that walking in the light is Christianity (1 John 1). We’ve seen how Jacob came to the point in his life where he needed God too much to keep up appearances. He decided to believe in God’s grace and get real with God, and God blessed him there (Genesis 27, 32). We’ve seen how David showed us the way into the happiness of God’s forgiveness. It’s when we stop being mule-like and stubborn and silent, and we trust God enough to confess our sins, and he proves to us how forgiving he really is (Psalm 32). Today Isaiah tells us his own story. The Old Testament breaks down into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, the Writings. Jacob’s story is in the Law. David’s psalm is in the Writings. Now we go to the Prophets, because walking in the light is taught throughout the Old Testament. It’s what Jesus and the apostles taught. Walking in the light is the gospel way to live. It’s the Immanuel way to live. It’s the gift we give to our city – a new culture of honesty with God and with one another, where everyone can grow. Now let’s go to Isaiah chapter 6.
Isaiah would have fit right in here in this amazing city. Isaiah was talented, he was smart, he was sincere, he was religious, he was influential. The Talmud says he was in the royal family, so he enjoyed a privileged life. He lived in Jerusalem, at the center of his culture. He had access to the inner circles of power. He was an ethical, impressive man, like so many men in Nashville. Then God surprised Isaiah. God became real to him. God came to Isaiah not when he had spiraled down into the gutter. Some people find God there, but not Isaiah. He was worshiping one day. He was in church, as we would say. And it was there that he realized he’d been walking in a darkness he wasn’t even aware of. Everything he had going for him had blinded him. Then he finally saw God with clarity. He finally saw himself with clarity. And God forgave him. God gives himself away to us through forgiveness. It’s the only way to break through to reality with God. Billy Graham once said that the problem is not to get people saved; the problem is to get people lost. How are you lost today? How do you need to be forgiven today? Let’s go before the Lord now with total openness to whatever he wants to say to every one of us.
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. —Isaiah 6:1
The year that King Uzziah died was the end of a long era of peace and prosperity. Next week will be the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the end of such an era in our nation. It was when Isaiah saw the earthly king dying that he also saw the heavenly King ruling. One part of walking in the light is that, whatever happens here on earth, we look to the unchanging rule of God.
This breakthrough for Isaiah happened in the temple. What was the temple? It was a miniature of the throne room of God above. It was an earthly model of the heavenly reality. It was meant to be a window, so to speak, through which people could look out by faith into ultimate reality. But it was possible to go to the temple and not get it. It was possible not to engage with God but to settle for the temple itself. It was possible to use the prop, so to speak, as a substitute for the reality. But in a way, that was understandable. How can people who have never experienced God know how real and wonderful he is? Many people in churches today are like that. Isaiah was like that. He was sincere. He was trying to do the right thing. But this time, for Isaiah, it was different. This time God broke through to Isaiah. His eyes were finally opened. What did he see?
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. —Isaiah 6:2
“Seraphim” is not an English word. It’s a Hebrew word. It isn’t translated into English, because we don’t know the exact meaning. But “seraph” comes from the Hebrew verb “to burn.” Isaiah is describing these angels as he saw them – living flames of white-hot devotion to God. These angels are sinless. But still, they humbly cover themselves in the presence of God. They cover their faces, because they don’t deserve to look at him. They don’t cover their ears, because they want to obey him. But even these perfect beings are unworthy in the presence of God. The all-holy God in whom there is no darkness at all is entitled to the worship of the angels not because they have sinned but only because he is God and they are not God. God is the one everything else is here for. It’s amazing that anyone in Nashville wakes up on a Sunday morning and asks himself, “Am I going to church today?” Are they living in another universe? Do they know who God is? Do they know who they are? The difference between God and us, the difference between God and even the angels, is not that he is at the top of an ascending order of beings and we are further down on that scale, with goldfish still further down below us. The difference between God and us is not a matter of degrees; the difference is infinite. God is in another category altogether. That’s what the angels are saying and celebrating:
And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” —Isaiah 6:3
The two key words, obviously, are “holy” and “glory.” What do they tell us about God? First, what does it mean that God is holy, holy, holy? It means he is intensely sacred. It means God is not like us. God is God, he will true to himself as God, and that puts him out of our league. God himself says, “To whom then will you compare me? says the Holy One” (Isaiah 40:25). When we see God clearly, we realize he is not what we expect. He is superior even to our highest conceptions of God. I have never once in my life ever had even one thought that was worthy of God and consistent with who he really is. God is so superior to us he is dangerous – not because he’s bad but because we are weak. The all-holy God is dangerous to us the way fire is dangerous to wood. That means God has no competition. When he revealed himself at Mount Sinai, the mountain “trembled greatly” (Exodus 19:18). The Bible says to us, “Tremble before him, all the earth” (Psalm 96:9). That’s what we all need in Nashville today – a new vision of God as he really is, so that we get down low before him where we belong, where we are blessed. It’s the only place of blessing. We need to lose our glib ideas of God and see him for who he really is. That happened to Isaiah. His sincere but shallow idea of God evaporated, and he saw what real worship is like. This is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that an adjective is used three times in a row. “Holy, holy, holy” is not additional, it is exponential. It’s infinite x infinite x infinite. God alone is God. Some of us feel stuck where we are in ourselves. The truth is, we don’t need techniques for sin-management. We need to stare at God until we start changing.
Secondly, what does it mean that God’s glory fills the earth? After all, God is invisible. But his glory is the open secret of everything we can see. Everything visible is what he made. It displays his worth, his drama, his majesty, his intensity, because God is the only one who carries real weight in this world. It is not sin that fills this world; God’s glory fills this world. And all the human sin, though real, is parasitic, trying to hang on and survive off of an independent, healthy, uncaused, free super-Being named God. All the false glories of this world, robbing God of the attention and fame and recognition and love and obedience and worship he deserves – our fraudulent self-glorification is not just bad; it is weak and dishonest and temporary. God was here first, and he’s here to stay.
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. —Isaiah 6:4
The angel’s voice shakes the temple to its foundations. I remember Saturday mornings as a boy, watching The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers and Superman on TV. The problem was the weekend warriors of the Air National Guard flying their jets over our house, breaking the sound barrier and rattling the window panes in our family room. Maybe you’ve seen the art of Peter Paul Rubens. His angels are chubby babies with wings. But I don’t think the real angels are like chubby babies. I think they’re like jet fighters breaking the sound barrier. So at this point Isaiah forgets himself and blurts out the only thing he can think of:
And I said: “Woe is 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; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” —Isaiah 6:5
For the first time in the book of Isaiah, the prophet himself speaks. What is the first thing to come out of his mouth? A prophetic woe against himself. What does he finally see? That he’s not worshiping God in any way consistent with who God really is. He is not worshiping God with white-hot intensity, like the seraphim. Isaiah finally sees who God really is and who he really is. He sees that even his worship needs to be forgiven. God is holy, and his own lips are unclean. Isaiah sees that he may be an insider in Jerusalem but he has no place before God. He even sees that he, the aristocrat, the intellectual, is no better than anyone else. He’s an unclean man in the midst of unclean people. He sees the only thing in this world worth living for – John’s gospel says that Isaiah was seeing the glory of Jesus (John 12:37-41) – and he knows he has no share in it, he is disqualified, and he admits it. He not only thinks it, but he says it, so that others can hear it.
Isaiah is beginning to walk in the light. He’s beginning to see his need for grace. Gerhard Forde, the Lutheran theologian, puts it plainly:
We have an incurable tendency to refuse to listen the words of God and instead to translate them into something we are going to do, indeed, can do. This is what we always do with the law. We translate it into a do-it-yourself kit for salvation. It is as though we think we are going to do God a big favor by living up to what is demanded of us and even, possibly, to put him out of the salvation business by accomplishing all or at least part of it ourselves – even if that turns out to be just a teeny-weeny little bit.
Isaiah is getting beyond that now. His worship had been a way for him to keep up his good accounts with God. But now Isaiah is ready for grace. Not that he planned it that way. We never do. As I said, he just blurted out the obvious: “I’m not who I thought I was. I don’t have the relationship with God I thought I had. I have a need I’m only beginning to get in touch with. What does God have for me now?” In my mind’s eye, I see Isaiah trying to remain inconspicuous, off in a corner of the throne room, taking all this in. But now he’s gone and done it. Now everybody knows he’s there and how inappropriate his presence is. And one of these jet fighter seraphs peels off from his flight path around the throne and dives straight at Isaiah:
Then 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.” —Isaiah 6:6-7
The angel handles the burning coal with tongs not because it’s hot – after all, he is a burning one himself – but he handles it with tongs because it’s holy. He doesn’t deserve to touch it. But he brings it, at God’s command, to an unclean man and touches him with it at that man’s point of real need. It’s a picture of the gospel. God found a holy way to forgive our sins. God found a way to show us mercy without lowering his own standards or violating his own conscience. At the cross, the ultimate altar, the blood of an innocent Lamb was shed for guilty sinners. The wrath of God was unleashed on that Lamb, who himself said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Our sins have been paid for, and God’s holiness has not been compromised but vindicated and honored and satisfied, so that now God can forgive sinners and be happy about how it glorifies him. God won against us through our Substitute at the cross, so that God could win for us in our hearts today, in all our need. What Jesus finished at the cross can touch us today where we need it most. The whole point of being a Christian is to feel loved by God, to feel hope and peace and joy. That’s why the angel touches Isaiah. He’s applying the holy blood of Jesus to a guilty man. What difference does it make?
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” —Isaiah 6:8
How did Isaiah get from “Woe is me!” to “Here I am!”? Too many people are stuck in “Woe is me!” We must experience that woe. But it’s not where God wants us to stay. How did he change Isaiah? God pressed the gospel into Isaiah’s heart at his very point of anxiety and shame. It always happens that way – the real us out in the light of the real God. Don’t be afraid to face that. Paul Tournier, the Swiss psychiatrist, wrote, “A diffuse and vague guilt feeling kills the personality, whereas the conviction of sin gives life to it.”
What is God saying to us today? Just this. We’re only beginning to see who God really is and who we really are. Let’s never complacently think we have him all figured out. Let’s stay humble before him. Let’s stay open, guided by the Bible alone. Let’s welcome the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit, because there is more mercy in Christ than sin in us.