A sermon on Isaiah 6 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 16 December, 2018
If you cut a pine tree, the stump will die. Cut off from the trunk, the branches and the leaves, it will slowly rot and return to the soil. Cut down a gum tree or many deciduous trees like oak and beech and spruce, and the stump won’t die. Instead, it will shoot new branches that will live and grow.
In fact, this is what happens in what is called coppicing. In coppicing, a mature tree is cut close to the ground. It shoots new branches which are harvested after about 8 to 10 years. The stump then shoots again and it is harvested time and again. Because it will keep happening while there is life in the roots.
In Isaiah’s day, God’s people in Judah and Israel had grown into a tree that was sick and diseased. They were full of idols and injustice and the poor were treated like slaves in their own land. God’s plan was to cut them down with his judgment before they fell and threatened his purpose to bring blessing to the world through them. Judah and Israel would disappear from the map of the world as independent nations. They would become like a stump. But God’s promises to his people were the life in the stump and it would grow again.
This is what we see in Isaiah chapter 6. Let’s look firstly at the fallen king. Chapter 6 verse 1 says,
In the year that King Uzziah died.
Uzziah had been king for 52 years. His reign had been long and peaceful and prosperous. In the early part of his rule, he had been faithful to God. 2 Kings chapter 15 says that
he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD.
He reorganised the army. He refortified the country. He conquered the Philistines and the Arabs and made the Ammonites pay his tribute. Pride, however, led to his downfall. He entered the temple to offer incense like he was a priest and the Lord judged him and Uzziah lived for the last 11 years of his life with leprosy. He wasn’t a perfect king. But he’d been a good king and he’d been the only king that a lot of people could remember, when at the age of 68 he had died.
It’s the kind of thing that makes people nervous. When life has gone in the same direction for a long time, one sudden change at the top can make people wonder where life will go next. Here’s a similar example from Australian politics. John Howard was Prime Minister for 11 years. A lot of people didn’t like him, but most of them respected him and to give him credit, during his leadership, life was predictable. Life has certainly felt a lot more chaotic without him. We’ve gone through five Prime Ministers in the same time. In fact, it has reached the point that I get a daily update of who the Prime Minister of Australia is.
In the uncertain times following the death of King Uzziah, Isaiah saw a vision of God. Let’s look secondly at the eternal king. Isaiah chapter 6, verses 1to 4 say,
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
It was a vision of the eternal king, filling his earthly palace, the temple, seated on his throne in glory, surrounded by his servants the seraphim. These seraphim are not cute cherubs. They are angels, but that doesn’t make them fairies. They are the kind of creatures that, when they appear or mortal human beings, inspire fear and dread. The angel appeared to Mary, in Nazareth, and his first words to her were, “Do not fear.” The angel appeared to the shepherds of Bethlehem, and his first words to them were, “Do not be afraid.” And yet these angels in Isaiah’s vision were afraid to look at the glory of God. With two wings they covered their faces, hiding God from their eyes. With two wings they covered their bodies, hiding themselves from God’s eyes. It’s just a good thing that they had two more wings with which they could keep flying. But this is what it is like to be in the presence of the holy God. It is like feeling transparent, physically, morally and psychologically naked before the searching gaze of our creator. Where no secret remains hidden. Where every thought is exposed. Where every sin is weighed in the balance. It is like being under the microscope where every detail of life becomes crystal clear and every unholy thought and word and deed is laid bare.
Many people want to feel close to God. Some people demand that he show himself to them before they will believe. But for Isaiah, it was an experience that brought him to his knees.
“Woe to me!” he cried. “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.”
In the light of the holiness of God, Isaiah saw clearly the darkness within him. Like a window that looks clean until the rays of the sun shine through it and show up every bit of dirt and grime. This is what it is like to come face to face with the glory of God in Jesus Christ. In his love, we see our hate. In his humility, we are confronted by our pride. By his faithfulness, our unfaithfulness is exposed. And his perfection highlights all our imperfections. In Jesus Christ we see our true selves, who we were made to be. And we come face to face with how far short we fall.
Since he was a prophet, Isaiah was particularly struck by his unclean lips. Called to proclaim the Word of God, he became all the more aware of the lies he had told. Sent to be a blessing, he was ashamed of the curses that he had pronounced. And he felt utterly lost before the majestic holiness of God. Like he was going to melt under the heat of the judgment of the Lord. This is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom.
But what Isaiah’s vision teaches him is that the judgment of God did not break him, but it mended him. Its heat did not burn him, but it purified him. Its searching gaze did not strip him naked, but it clothed him in the Lord’s forgiveness. Verses 6 and 7 says that
one of the seraphs 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.”
God’s judgment is not judgmental, but cleansing. His holiness is not holier than thou, but forgiving. His righteousness does not demand that we be right, but it puts us right with him, and restores us to his fellowship. Like a friend who tells us who we really are, not who we pretend to be, but not to put us down, but to lift us up. Not to make us worse, but to make us better. This is what it is like with the Lord, except a hundred times more. His judgment is healing. His correction is restoring. His rebuke is the first step to life. And his forgiveness does not weaken us, but makes us strong. Isaiah confessed his unclean lips to the Lord, and so the Lord purified his lips so that he could speak in his name. Isaiah was forgiven, not in order to live as he pleased, but in order to serve his Lord.
What Isaiah experienced in his vision, is what we experience through Jesus Christ. Our sins, our burdens, our shame, our guilt are taken from us and nailed to the cross where they are put to death and destroyed so they can no longer harm us. In the Lord’s forgiveness we leave them behind to go on on life’s adventure without them. Not in order to live as we please, but in order to serve our Lord.
Let’s look thirdly at Isaiah’s ministry. Verse 8 says,
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
The Lord was looking for a messenger and Isaiah was quick to volunteer. This is what it is like for those who experience the Lord’s cleansing judgment, his grace that makes us strong, his truth that sets us right. It becomes like a virus. You could call it Gospel Pox. And we just want to let others catch it. Isaiah certainly wanted others to have what he had.
And yet it was a hard ministry that the Lord was calling him to. He said,
“Go and tell this people: ‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
The sad reality for Isaiah was that he was not going to live to see the benefits of his ministry. As the Lord’s prophet he was to announce a judgment on the Lord’s people that would not be welcomed or appreciated and he was to announce a future blessing that was still centuries over the horizon. For the Lord’s messengers are called to speak the truth whether it is heard or believed.
Isaiah’s natural reaction was to ask, “For how long, O Lord?” And the Lord answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.”
This then was Isaiah’s ministry. The nations of Israel and Judah, the Lord’s people, who had been blessed to be a blessing, were like a sick old tree. Not a blessing, but a danger. Chosen to bring glory to God’s name, they were bringing shame on God like a paedophile priest. Before it fell down and just rotted away, it had to be cut down while there was still life in its roots. So that not in Isaiah’s lifetime, nor in the coming decades, but centuries in the future, the stump of Israel would put off branches and grow again.
The tree of Israel was sick with idolatry and injustice. The rich got richer and the vulnerable were easy targets. But the life in the roots were the promises of God. Long ago the Lord had said to David,
Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
And the Lord keeps his promises.
This is what we celebrate at Christmas. The ministry of Isaiah fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The tree of Israel was cut down, left like a stump in the ground. But in the birth of Jesus we see a branch from David shooting from the stump. As the angel said to the shepherds,
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ, the Messiah, the Lord.
Jesus Christ is the tree under whose branches we find rest. For in his words we hear the Lord’s truth. In his deeds, we see the Lord’s power and love. In his death, we see our past. In his resurrection, we see our future. His Spirit is our life and breath.
Uzziah was not the perfect king and neither is Scott Morrison. But Jesus is. All other leaders will disappoint us, the bad ones will make our lives worse, and even the best ones will come and go. But Jesus Christ is the eternal king. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the tree who will never fall and will never be cut down, and in his shade we will find perfect rest.