God’s Power is Awesome
It could only be described as an assault on all five senses. If you’ve ever been to a demolition derby or a drag race, you get an idea of what I’m talking about. The thundering engines through the straight pipe exhaust can be felt, not just heard. The flames shooting out of the exhaust, and the pyrotechnic displays are meant to dazzle and wow the eyes. Then there’s the smoke, smoke from blown engines and smoke from squealing tires. It’s a dense cloud that can not only be seen, but you can smell it and even taste it. And through it all, your face is being peppered with bits of dirt, road grit, or tire rubber. And this is fun! Many people who love cars, racing, speed, or things that go boom go to these kinds of events to enjoy themselves.
This is perhaps the closest thing I could compare to the intense sights, sounds, smells, and heart-pounding adrenalin that Isaiah must have experienced when he was taken in the spirit to see God’s throne room. Only, this display was not for entertainment value. This display was meant to show that he was way up here and you, well, you aren’t even supposed to be here. All this power, all this might, all this glory, would stop the heart and drive the life out of anyone who is unworthy.
This kind of display had been seen before. … In part. It was seen when the Tabernacle was finished. When Moses set up the courtyard around the tabernacle and altar and put up the curtain at the entrance to the courtyard, finishing the work, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:33-35). It was seen again when Solomon’s temple was dedicated. The ark of the covenant was brought into the inner sanctuary of the temple and placed beneath the wings of statues of cherubim. All the priests there had already consecrated themselves for this occasion. And hundreds of these priests joined in unison – harps, lyres, cymbals, and trumpets – and they sang “He is good; his love endures forever” (2 Chr 5:13). “Then the temple of the Lord was filled with the cloud, and the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the temple of God” (2 Chr 5:13-14). In both instances the priests had to flee before God’s presence and could no longer do any work. This display shows both God’s power, and his all sufficiency. Even though his glory was veiled in the dense cloud, the priests still trembled at the sight.
What was it like for Isaiah to stand before this presence? He saw the Lord, “high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Is 6:1). The train of his robe signifying his honor, nobility, dominion and supremacy filled the throne room so that Isaiah barely even had a place to stand. “Above him were seraphim” – that word “seraph” simply means “fiery being” – “each with six wings” – and yet even these majestic, fiery beings humbled themselves in God’s presence – “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying” (Is 6:2).
Then, their voices boomed to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Is 6:3). Did you realize that’s the same song we sing right before communion, when the veil is removed, and the elements are about to be consecrate? The place shook! In all my years of choir traveling to various churches and singing with varying sizes of congregations, there have been a few times I can remember when the room began to shake. Although, to be honest, it wasn’t from the hundreds of voices gathered together. The only times I’ve actually felt the room shake was when the organ included a 16’ or even 32’ stop. That’s a pipe that’s 32 feet long! And yet, these fiery beings could shake the doorposts and thresholds with their very voices.
Then, like a magic act you weren’t willing to be a part of, the room was filled with smoke. I can only imagine the panic and desperate fear coursing through Isaiah’s entire being, “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” (Is 6:5). What exactly did he see? He actually doesn’t describe the Lord himself. It sounds impressive, yes, with the description we have recorded. But what was it really like being there, seeing the fiery beings, feeling the foundations of heaven shake as your nostrils are filled with smoke. What was it that caused a righteous and godly man like Isaiah to cry out in terror and fall with his face to the ground? It was God’s holiness. Holiness really just means “set apart”. It was God’s “set apart-ness” – how he is way up here, in regards to his perfection. In fact, the seraphim repeated it 3 times – he is three times holy. Set apart, infinitely separate and above all creation. The divine and eternal Creator, the Lord God is simply unique, without equal, without peer. And Isaiah just gazed upon his glory.
God is separate, perfect in every way, without sin, and powerful. Every human being is far from God. We are imperfect, flawed by sin, and weak. Even all the armies of all times and the frightening power of the artillery shells you’ve probably heard this week, or the power of nuclear energy are small and unworthy of comparison to God. Isaiah knew, as every sinner knows when confronted with the searing honesty of God’s law, that he was by nature sinful. It’s like going from regular, analog TV to 4K HD TV. You know a big change happened when HD TV came out. Suddenly you could see all the little wrinkles on the actors’ faces. Suddenly you could see all the little freckles and blemishes that for decades of TV had gone unnoticed. But now, with HD and 4K TV, there’s no hiding it. You see it all! Every last defect. And that’s what God’s law brings to light – especially when brought face to face with the searing holiness of the lawgiver. Isaiah reached the conclusion that every human must reach: “Woe to me! I am ruined!” God’s almighty power threatens every sinner with eternal separation and punishment.
Isaiah had nothing to offer God that would appease him. He was empty-handed. He had no words to speak that could change the situation. Isaiah’s best was nothing in the presence of God’s absolute holiness and power. Isaiah knew that no one could see God and live (Ex 33:20). Peter reacted much the same way in the Gospel reading (Lk 5:4). Both Isaiah and Peter were “righteous” men in a community sense. They were hardworking and religious. Yet their personal righteousness could not hold up before God. I know I’m no Peter. And I’m no Isaiah. But no matter the comparisons we could do between me and you or any other person on this planet, there’s only one whom we are to compare ourselves to. God himself says, “Be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Lev 19:2). No trains that fill this sanctuary here. No dazzling glory from which people shield their faces here. And I know why. I’m sinful. It is impossible for any sinner to stand in the presence of the holy God unless the Lord removes his sin.
The seraph used two words to describe our sinfulness: “guilt” and “sin.” These two words, although they appear fairly synonymous, actually cover two aspects of sinfulness that even the most righteous would be convicted of. The first, “guilt,” is the natural bent toward evil. The wickedness and evil of our sinful condition before sin is even acted out. Thus, the Psalmist writes, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps 51:5). Ever since I was conceived I have that natural inclination, that natural bent toward evil. Then the word, “sin.” Yes, it’s a general word in English, but the Hebrew word used has the idea of archery in mind. An archer, though he tries, cannot hit the bullseye every time. That unintentional, “missing the mark” is the idea of this word for sin. We try, but we mess up. Both words would describe a man like Isaiah, who otherwise led an outwardly upright, godly life. Nevertheless, in the glare of God’s law, in the throne room of his holiness, man’s righteousness can only leave him terror-stricken. He needs the cleansing power of God’s forgiveness. “Woe to me, I am ruined.”
Immediately, however, help comes for Isaiah from the altar of God’s grace. No human hand could reach out to a holy God. The difference between sin and holiness is too great for human effort. God must reach across the difference between his own holiness and human sin. The Lord sent one of the seraphs and by word and action dissolved the great separation. “One of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Is 6:6-7). God gives sinners just the cleansing they need. Here, a coal from God’s altar burning so intensely that a fiery being had to use tongs to grab it, yet in this touch to his lips God extended his mercy and grace – burning away only his guilt and sin, while leaving Isaiah unharmed. Later, it would be the intense agony of the cross and crushing anguish of God’s wrath – yet in this moment too, God extends his mercy and grace, crushing your guilt and sin while leaving you unharmed. Your guilt is gone forever, and all new infractions covered with more grace. “Where sin abounded, grace abounds all the more” (Ro 5:20)
Note, that up until this point, Isaiah has not done a thing except cry out in anguish at his sinfulness. This is all we can offer in our sinfulness as well. A cry for help. A plea for mercy. Yet that is all God wants – a heart empty that he can fill with his love. “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:16-17).
This “all-around cleansing” hot coal of the gospel from God’s altar would rightly make Isaiah a saint in God’s eyes. Isaiah could now stand in God’s presence and get a glimpse of his glory through the cloud of smoke. This same ember of God’s cleansing promise would also keep Isaiah faithful for 45 years of difficult prophetic work. In fact, not only would it sustain him for his work, it set his heart afire with the love of an eager volunteer.
If you thought the voice of the seraphs was terrifying as it shook the foundations of heaven itself, I can only imagine what the voice of the Lord himself would sound like! Except, Isaiah didn’t have to fear. Nor do you have to fear. “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (Is 6:7). God’s power is awesomely terrifying for sinners, but it’s also awesomely comforting for saints who have been cleansed by God. With this newfound confidence and fire burning in Isaiah’s heart, when he hears the Lord’s call “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” he eagerly responds, “Here am I. Send me!” (Is 6:8).
What was so awesomely terrifying for Isaiah to behold became so awesomely powerful in his call to serve. I know who goes before me. I know who stands behind. The God of awesome power is always by my side. Therefore, whom shall I fear? Kings whose dominion is bordered and whose authority has limits? My God’s train fills heaven and he is three times holy – set apart, above and beyond all rulers and powers. Shall I fear false prophets who state their lies and then try to make them truth with their many words? My God speaks a simple word – “See this has touched your lips,” “it is finished” – and it IS so, because his word is truth.
Brothers and sisters, this is your awesome God. He stands beside you with his word of atonement. He goes before you in the word of hope on your lips. Are you prepared? Are you ready to stand in awe at the work he does through you? “Whom shall I send. And who will go for us?” “Here am I, send me!”