Encounter with God leads to repentance
| Psalms 29
|Sun, June 18, 2000
|I looked up "angel" on the TV guide online. No less than 7 shows happen in
the next 48 hours about angels. For all intents and purposes, our culture
is becoming increasingly educated about them. In fact tomorrow night there
is a documentary on angels; it is part three of a series on the life and
times of angel encounters. I wonder if any of you have been watching it.
Its promo promises "accounts of encounters with angels as told through
interviews, re-enactments and images." I wonder what we would learn. Will
it be stories of tenderness? Will it be stories of personal transformation?
I have to admit that I feel a bit sceptical about the stories our culture
usually tells about angels. I’m not likely to tune in tomorrow night, for I
have my own preconception about what I might encounter. Too often the
stories go no deeper than a warm feeling of a doting guardian who spends all
their energy focused on our problems. They are imaged as sweet and kind,
and harmless; like a precious moments character. And rarely do they point
us to a scene like the one we encounter in the book of Isaiah – of mighty
praise of God.
And I got to thinking about what would happen if Isaiah’s story made it onto
such a documentary. Here the winged heavenly beings are named seraphim.
First thing is, the documentary would lose its innocuous "G" rating. For in
Isaiah’s vision we have the song of the seraphim, rocking the foundation of
the temple. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full
of his glory." The heavenly praise is too magnificent. The brilliance of
God’s true holy nature unsettles and uproots. The room is filled with
smoke, and it shakes the walls of the holy temple, as though bursting out
beyond it. The psalm picks up the power of this passage. The voice of God
is likened to the thunder, the breaking of trees, the flashing forth of
flames of fire.
It reminded me of what Ed said last week at Pentecost. That maybe "Holy
Ghost" helps us to better understand the strangeness, the scariness of a
Spirit who leads us in ways we had not imagined, and who we cannot
It is this God to whom the seraphim raise their voice. I think it’s fair to
say that Isaiah is caught off guard. He came with good intentions to
worship, some scholars say, even to take his turn in temple leadership as a
priest. And in the midst of his best intentions, he is met by the living
God. This throws all of his notions of what he was doing there, out the
window. Four little words begin his story. "I saw the Lord."
The throne is above him, the hem of the garment surrounds him, and the
heavenly choir sings. And instead of standing and clapping, instead of
reciting his encounter to Dateline or Oprah, instead of designing an
ornament for the Christmas tree, Isaiah metaphorically "hits the deck."
Isaiah cries out "Woe is me! I am lost…I am a man of unclean lips…I live
among a people of unclean lips…"
Isaiah has observed all of the holiness rituals and purity laws of the day,
to be in the temple. Washing, eating, dressing meticulously…and yet, even
after all this cleansing, he cries out, "I am a man of unclean lips!" In
Matthew’s gospel Jesus says that what is on our lips displays what is in our
heart. And in the brilliance of Isaiah’s vision of God, he is brought to
his knees to declare the Sin around him, and the Sin within him.
William Willimon, a professor at Duke University, writes, "that the
Christian doctrine of sin adheres to our notions of God rather than to our
ideas about humanity. When we say "sin" we're not talking about the result
of natural human anxiety about the limits of being human, or occasional
foibles and slip-ups. We are saying that face-to-face with the awesome
righteousness of God, the holiness of Jesus, we fall to our knees. We [are
confronted by] the great gap between who we are and who God is. To be
brought close to the claim, "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty. The whole
earth is full of his glory!" is to cry, ‘Woe is me for I am one of unclean
lips and dwell amid a people of unclean lips.’"
Such a stark, honest confession may sound strange to our ears. This is a
uncomfortable step, we often would like to avoid. Like the current
commercial of the new college graduate who, when asked by his parents what
he is going to do next, responds that he’s going to skip years of work and
just move straight to retirement. All of us from time to time squirm at the
prayer of confession, or the scripture, like today’s, that speaks of the
deeds of the body being put to death. We’d like to jump from our opening
scene in the temple with Isaiah, from the choir’s opening introit, right to
commission of Isaiah to spread God’s word. But to do so would be to miss a
step that cannot be skipped. For the good news of what God is up to in our
world IS to tell the story of pardon through the work of Jesus Christ, God’s
This week as I visited a mother she received an anguished call from her
teenage son. He had gone to school to write his math exam for 2:00, only to
discover the door locked as the exam had begun at 1:00. The mother
counselled her son to take his petition straight to the principal, but
cautioned him that since the rest of the class was in writing, the principal
was unlikely to allow him to write later. But she said he must go and beg,
on the slim chance that he would be given the opportunity to be let in for
the last ½ hour of the exam. The son was in agony; how could he confess his
mistake when there was so little, or no chance of hope.
This is the spirit of fear that Paul writes about to the Christians in Rome.
He urges that this kind of fear has no part of our new life in the Spirit.
We have been given the spirit of adoption, we have become God’s children.
For our reading from Romans today that began "so then" is in response to the
first part of chapter 8 which begins "there is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus." And many of us know the familiar words
that the chapter ends with as well, "for I am convinced that neither death,
nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor
anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of
God in Christ Jesus our Lord." The good news is, that we confess our sin in
the assurance that we do so before a forgiving God. We need only to throw
"our lives open to the mighty rushing wind of God’s Spirit"
Isaiah meets God in the temple and receives forgiveness through the
cleansing of a live coal. The seraph declares, "Now that this has touched
your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out." And each
Sunday we come seeking the same. As a by-product of our faithful worship we
sense Sin as a huge gap between us and our loving, forgiving, seeking
Savior. And we Christians confess only because of a prior confidence in a
forgiving, gracious God. And each week, we are offered the saving word of
God’s deliverance. We glimpse the costly grace offered to us and to the
world in the cross. We see the face of God offered in love and forgiveness
through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we
are indeed children of God.
The result of the forgiveness that Isaiah experiences is a "new capacity to
hear the Lord’s word and an immediate spontaneous response of willing
obedience." For to utter with Isaiah, "Here I am Lord," is to have been
cleansed in the fire of repentance. To have seen more clearly who we are,
but more importantly who God is. Such an utterance comes "not as a human
achievement but rather as a divine gift, gracious by-product of being met by
a loving God."
"Most of us have seen no vision comparable with Isaiah’s vision, nor has
God’s voice spoken to us as clearly as it spoke to him, and none of us has
met Jesus in the flesh…[so how is it that we encounter God?]. Paul suggests
the answer. Each of us can be ‘converted’ by the holy Spirit, enable to
recognize God as our Father, and to discover that his glory, partially
revealed in the whole creation, is fully revealed…in the human face (the
personality and character, the life and death, the resurrection and
ascension) of Jesus Christ. When we cry "Abba Father" it is God’s Spirit,
the Holy Spirit, bearing witness with our spirit that we really are God’s
Isaiah’s story of meeting the Lord doesn’t end with his own conversion
though. His repentance manifests itself in concern for his neighbour.
Having tasted the sweet forgiveness, he is eager to serve God in telling
others. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of
his glory." In this assurance we can lift our face and say to the Lord,
"Here I am, send me!"