The grace and mercy of God

Sermon: Sunday, 14th May, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Isaiah 6:1-8

If we want to change our physical health for the better, we all know that there are certain things we need to do. We need to take regular exercise and get our hearts going. We need to eat a nutritious and balanced diet. In short, we need badminton and broccoli, or walking and watermelon. It takes time and effort. But if we exercise and eat well, over time, our bodies will change for the better. However, we’re not in church to think about fitness today, and I’m no physical trainer. I want us to think instead about what brings about spiritual change. Because the transformation which Isaiah goes through in this passage is one which we can experience too. What is it that transforms him? What is it that he needs? Isaiah is changed by seeing who God really is, and by seeing God’s glory and majesty and holiness, he comes to see his own sinfulness, inadequacy, and then experiences God’s mercy. Here’s the thing- in order to know ourselves properly as people, we need first to know God- who he is and what he has done. God must be the starting point of our thinking, and if he is not, we will have a distorted view of reality.

1. Measure yourself properly

“Nearly all the wisdom we possess consists of two parts, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves.” (John Calvin)

In order to know ourselves properly, we need to see God. Only when we see God do we really see ourselves. When we see how utterly different he is: purer, higher, more loving, we might then see how in comparison, we are sinful and limited creatures, undeserving of his good gifts. Let me illustrate this. When we play the guitar, we might at first think that we are pretty good players. But then we hear someone else with a surpassing ability. They are a virtuoso. And when we hear them playing, we realise that actually, we can’t play very well at all. It is a reality check.

When you compare yourself to other people in your family or those who live on your street, you might think that you are a pretty good person. But that’s not who we are supposed to measure ourselves against. If we measure ourselves against God’s standards, we have to agree with Paul, who says, ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…’   (Romans 3:23)

This happens to Peter in Luke chapter 5 after the miraculous catch of fish. Peter is so impacted by Jesus’ power and greatness that he begins to see his own spiritual condition. ‘When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’   (Luke 5:8) And when Isaiah receives this wonderful vision containing true knowledge about the extraordinary holiness of God, it gives him insight to see himself as he really is, a man of unclean lips: ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips….’   (Isaiah 6:5)

2. The greatness of God

Isaiah is so privileged to see this vision of God.

“In vision, Isaiah is elevated to the throne-room of Heaven.” (J L Mackay)

It’s a magnificent vision for us to reflect on and chew over this morning. So often our minds are caught up with trivial things like hobbies or sports or celebrity gossip or just the mundane things of life. This morning, we get to think about what God is really like. And we don’t have to guess. Knowing God isn’t about each of us making up our own ideas about what God is like and believing those. To know God properly, God must tell us what he is like. We need revelation from God. And that’s exactly what we have here.

Isaiah begins by telling us (verse 1) that King Uzziah has just died. That might not seem significant to us, but it is. Because Uzziah had reigned as King for 52 years, and most his reign had been great. There had been victories in battle, huge and successful building projects, and progress in agriculture. However, his long reign ends on a sad note. ‘His fame spread far and wide, for he was greatly helped until he became powerful. But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense.’   (2 Chronicles 25:15-16)

With all his power and wealth, Uzziah grew proud and ended up doing something which greatly angered the Lord. He did what only the priests were allowed to do, and entered the temple to burn incense. He ignored God’s clear commands about how he was to be worshipped, thinking he could do as he pleased. The Lord punished Uzziah for his pride. ‘King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in a separate house—leprous, and banned from the temple of the Lord.’   (2 Chronicles 26:21)

So, when Isaiah comes to the temple, Judah’s king is now dead. What’s going to happen in the nation? It must have been an unsettling time, especially with the king ending his reign separated from the people, and under the punishment of God. It is a time of national mourning. Perhaps Isaiah himself was disillusioned. I’m sure the nation felt uneasy. It must have felt like the end of a successful era. What now? It is as if the Lord directs Isaiah’s eyes away from the empty human throne, and lifts them to the real place of power, the throne of Heaven. Human rulers come and go. In the end, they all succumb to death. But the true King of Kings is eternal. He does not die. It reminds me of the words of the Psalmist: ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.’   (Psalm 146:3-5)

Sometimes we get disillusioned with the politics in our own nation, especially when decisions are made which flout the clear commands of God. We too need to remember and be encouraged by the great fact that Christ remains upon the throne. He is the one with ultimate power.

Where is the Lord’s throne? It is ‘high and exalted’, far above all human power. God’s sovereign rule is totally supreme and unmatched. He is in complete control. He is so vast that even the train of his robe fills the temple. In other words, God cannot be contained. He has no limitations. Remember Solomon’s prayer as he dedicated the temple: ‘But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you.’   (1 Kings 8:27)

Next, we’re introduced to angelic creatures called seraphim, or ‘burning ones’. They are flying – ready for action, ready to obey the command of their master. Now, these seraphim are perfect creatures; they are not sinful as human beings are. Nevertheless, they must cover their faces with their wings in the presence of God. What does this tell us? It tells us of the great divide there is between the eternal Creator and the creatures he has made. He is worthy of our worship and respect as the only eternal one. He alone is God. God is so glorious, that even these perfect heavenly creatures need to protect their eyes from the blazing light of God. Is this the God you worship? I still remember going out and buying six pairs of special glasses for the solar eclipse. We cannot look directly at the sun. It damages our eyes. It is just too bright. God is far more glorious than the sun.

The seraphim are calling to one another, perhaps in antiphonal singing – back and forth. Imagine hearing this heavenly choir! ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’   When we think of holiness, we often think of moral purity – there is no sin in God. And that is undoubtedly true. But it also speaks of God as the ‘separate one’, set apart from all the creatures he has made. He is the unmade one. He is infinite, eternal and utterly unique. He is ‘other’.

Friends, God’s holiness is a central part of his character. That’s why the angels repeat the word, not just twice but three times. There’s no other quality of God repeated three times in all of the Bible. Just his holiness. Repeating something was the main way Hebrew writers would emphasise something. Remember Jesus would say, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you…’   to underline just how important something was. Well, God is holy, holy, holy. And we see the glory of this great God in the wonder of his creation. We see it in the stars and the rivers and the mountains. And we see the glory of this great God in the way he comes in Jesus Christ to save lost humanity from their sins by dying on the cross.

The temple is filled with smoke.

” [This smoke] fills the divine presence with the aura of mystery and wonder. Much had been revealed to the prophet’s eye. But more remained elusive, hidden from view.” (J L Mackay)

I think this is an important point. God is revealing to us what he is really like. But we can never have full understanding of God. There are still areas of mystery and that’s ok. At our Christianity Explored course, we were thinking about how the teaching of the trinity falls into that category. We worship a God we cannot fully understand. If we could fully understand God then we would be God.

3. The grace and mercy of God

As we have already seen, Isaiah responds by confessing his sin. ‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips…’   (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah is a well-respected statesman with access to the royal court. To most, he would have been the paragon of virtue. But when he measures himself against the holiness of God, he is totally shattered. He comes apart at the seams. He pronounces a curse against himself: ‘Woe is me… I am ruined.’

‘If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?’   (Psalm 130:3)
Job goes through the same experience: ‘You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’   (Job 42:4-6)

When Peter, Job, the Psalmist, and Isaiah consider God, and measure themselves against his standards, all they can do is admit their wrongdoing. They don’t make excuses. They don’t blame their circumstances or other people. They begin to understand the fact of the human condition – without God we are lost in sin!

“For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.” (R C Sproul)

Here’s the good news: the holy God is also a God of grace. What is God’s answer to sin? God’s answer to our sin is sacrifice.

“God takes immediate steps to cleanse Isaiah and restore his soul.” (R C Sproul)

Isaiah cannot possibly clean himself up. That’s impossible. But one of the seraphs comes with a hot stone from the altar in his hand. A stone from the altar – the place of sacrifice. And he touches Isaiah’s lips and says, ‘Your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.’

Your sin is atoned for; a sacrifice has been offered for your sin. Blood has been shed for your sin. The lamb has died for your sin and God’s anger has been turned away. Something has been done by God (you have had no part in this) which has dealt with your sin. You are now clean and your sin has been covered over. God had done it all.

How can a hot stone take away Isaiah’s guilt? Of course, a stone cannot really take away Isaiah’s sin. Nor can the death of an animal. These things are just symbols and signposts, pointing us forward to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He is the true sacrifice for our sins. His blood is what really covers our sin, when we come to receive Jesus as King and Saviour. ‘Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.’   (Acts 13:38-39)

God saves sinners! He does take away your guilt and sin. If we trust in Jesus – what a truth – all our sins are taken away. No matter how many things we have done wrong and how great our guilt may be- in Christ our sins are forgiven. ‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.’   (1 Peter 3:18)

Think for a moment about the message the seraphim has for Isaiah: ‘Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’   Wouldn’t you like to hear those words from God today? You can! It is possible right now to experience what Isaiah does – if we admit our guilt and cry out to God to clean us.

Notice Isaiah’s willingness to serve his King. He moves from brokenness to mission. The Lord commissions Isaiah to be his prophet. In one sense, he is a pattern for us all. Like Isaiah, we are those broken by sin, but renewed by the atoning work of God, and commissioned with the Great Commission, to tell every man, woman, boy and girl that we have good news for them.