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::: Music ::
Choir: Holy is the Lord (Schubert) - call to worship
I See the Lord (Falson)
Choir: Sanctus (Bean/Gray) - anthem
Choir: Kyrie (Bean/Gray) - song of confession
O Jesus, I have Promised (ANGEL'S STORY)
Holy is the Lord (Tomlin)
:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
Today’s text from Isaiah 6 contains what is probably the most well-known “Here I am” passage. It’s the first one I thought of when I thought of this series. But there is so much going on. It really begins with a staggering vision of God. Like the burning bush, you might think of it as God saying “Here I AM!” And that encounter is powerful and overwhelming for Isaiah. It ends with his response back to God: “Here I am; send me.” What I want to highlight today with that interaction is the importance of worship as a key means of encountering God. Specifically, I want to try to answer the question: “How do we grow closer to God?”
An Encounter with God’s Holiness (vv.1-4)
As the chapter opens, Isaiah has been about the business of prophesying God’s message to Israel. God’s words (through Isaiah) are interrupted by this vision in chapter 6. In the vision, Isaiah sees God seated on a great throne in a temple. It is as regal and imposing a picture as can be imagined. God’s seat is high above and the train of his robe is so full and long it fills the temple itself. And there are strange angelic creatures, seraphs, flying around and singing praise to God. Their singing was so powerful that it shook the doors and thresholds, causing the temple to fill with smoke. The closest thing I can imagine comes from “The Wizard of Oz” as the travelers first discover the great Oz. Only this vision is for real! There is no mechanical deception, but the real and all-powerful God of the universe. The song of the seraphim reveal the truth of the moment: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The first part of Isaiah’s experience was an encounter with God’s holiness. Isaiah saw the majesty and glory of God and was awestruck. We as human beings (and Americans, especially) have lost the concept of God as holy. We have achieved great things: governments, societies, art, culture, architectural marvels, and technological wonders. We have even walked on the moon! What is left for us to marvel at? The very nature of God’s holiness is that God is so righteous, just, loving, pure, powerful, and transcendent that the divine nature sets God apart from humanity, how can we experience God today? And yet the consistent testimony of scripture is that humanity does encounter God in our finite existence. God created the earth and heavens that we might witness his handiwork. God revealed holy law and charged his people with being a holy people. Christ came that we might know God and holiness through Christ’s righteousness. And eternity will be a grand declaration of praise of God’s holiness.
This is the first part of growing closer to God. You can teach information all day long, but I believe each person must encounter God in some way for faith to form. Must we wait for supernatural visions to experience God’s holiness? No.... but our eyes, ears, and hearts must be open and ready to see it. But, to what end???
Confession of Sin (v.5)
Isaiah’s reaction to God’s holiness is important. It warns us that God is beyond our own invention or comprehension. Rather, the human reaction to God’s holiness is, as Isaiah did, to fall down in ruin. And this reaction comes out of conviction that our own shortcomings mean our ruin in the presence of God. None of us is worthy to stand before God. No one merits it. All Isaiah could do (except possibly running away) was confess his sin.
In trying to think of a way to illustrate this, I remember times when I have heard someone speak and become aware that are extremely intelligent. Or I’ve heard a musicians whose skill far exceeds mine. And suddenly that intelligence or skill I was somewhat proud of feel meager indeed. This is not something the person wishes upon me; it is just the natural reaction to extraordinary gifting. I think God’s holiness is like that. We may spend most days thinking we are pretty good, pretty right; but if we were to encounter the pure, untarnished holiness of God, we’d become keenly aware of our sinfulness: selfishness, idolatry, deceptiveness, and more.
This is the second part of growing closer to God. This is crucial because it is our indication of our yearning to know and be near God, though we realize we fall short. And its natural expression is confession… to declare in some way that God is worthy and we are not. It would be a bleak place to be except for what comes next…
Forgiveness of Sin (vv.6-7)
The third part of Isaiah’s experience comes entirely from God’s direction. It is forgiveness. In the vision, one of the seraphs flew to Isaiah with a burning coal from the altar. The seraph touched it to Isaiah’s lips saying, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” It is part of the good news of God’s love and grace that God chooses to forgive and cleanse us, particularly when we humble ourselves in confession and repentance.
Have you ever been truly forgiven for something? Do you know what that feels like? I don’t mean saying “I’m sorry” and someone saying “that’s okay.” I mean acknowledging that you have wronged someone and deserve judgment or whatever is coming to you and they offer authentic mercy and forgiveness. It’s amazing. It’s surprising. It’s humbling.
In fact, we often get the sequence turned around. We think that if we can be good enough God will be pleased with us. We can earn His love. But the reality is that we can’t and that God has loved us anyway. If you can actually hear that and receive it, it is transformative. And it creates the true motivating reason for doing good: gratitude.
A Thankful Willingness to Offer Ourselves (vv.8-10)
Finally, in verse 8, God calls Isaiah to (further) service, saying, “Whom shall I send?” The fourth part of growing close to God is thanksgiving and a willingness to serve. Isaiah responded enthusiastically to God’s call, answering, “Here am I. Send me!” His response to God came not from duty or guilt, and not from trying to win God’s approval, but out of gratitude and thankfulness. And this is the pattern of spiritual growth set before us in scripture. Encounter with God leads to confession and repentance, and upon experiencing God’s gracious forgiveness, it leads to grateful service.
As with previous biblical characters we have studied, God’s mission for Isaiah was a daunting one. God said (vv.9-10) that the people wouldn’t understand. But Isaiah was to carry on anyway. It was a particular ‘brick’ in the house in the Kingdom God was building.
I don’t think Isaiah’s vision was a one-time thing, or meant just for Isaiah. Scripture challenges us to discipleship: that is, to grow in faith and relationship with God. Worship, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and service are all a part of spiritual growth. So, in answer to the question, “How do we grow closer to God?” the vision of Isaiah is a pattern to emulate and even seek out. How do we do that?
How Do We Grow Closer to God?
God does not hide from us. God makes Himself available – and we either run or fall to our knees in repentance. We do not have to wait for special moments. Coming into God’s presence is built into our lives weekly.
One of the chief purposes of Sunday worship is to lead us through this pattern of encounter, confession, repentance, forgiveness, and grateful response. This is not the only place this happens, but it is one that happens regularly! If you weren’t aware of the intention behind this, take a look at your bulletins. We gather in God’s presence to worship and praise, with a desire to encounter God. The natural and intended consequence is our own confession and repentance. We place that after the reading and proclamation of the Word. The reminder of God’s gracious forgiveness follows that time of confession. After that we have an opportunity to respond in faith through the time of offering. Then we are sent forth with a mission. Every week we do this. It’s not a bunch of haphazard parts, but an intentional walk through the same kind of experience we read about in Isaiah 6. Our desire is that you encounter God and that He transforms and uses you as He did Isaiah.
How do we grow closer to God? We respond to each and every opportunity to praise God and experience his holiness. We treat worship services like training events -- each one full of the potential of growing and maturing in faith. And it is just when we have experienced the full cycle of spiritual growth and are saying, “Here am I, Lord; send me” that we come face to face with God again and find a new opportunity to grow and mature. Amen.