In Over My Head
Welcome to Bridgeway Church. My name is Mark Pfaller – I am a pastoral intern at the Vine Community Church in Cumming, a church planter with the PCA, and, of course, family with Keith and Amanda. Today we will be studying Isaiah chapter 6.
We live in a day that make the message of Isaiah 6 particularly powerful and urgently needed. We live in an age, a culture, that has reached new heights of narcissism and self promotion. High school teacher David McCullough captures this cultural phenomenon in his 2012 Wellsley High School commencement address entitled “Your not special”. He begins by saying:
Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur… you’re not special.
We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”
Everyone and everything, even our Christianity, is about whats in it for me. How does this make me more popular, how does this make me more money, how does this advance my career. Everyone who has an Instagram feed or a linked in profile knows exactly what this kind of self promotion looks like. But I want to be clear, this self absorbed attitude is not isolated to the young graduates of this high school, it is part of the culture that all of us participate in.
What I want for us today is that we would go with Isaiah into the throne room and see with overwhelming clarity, its not about me. Its about the glory of god. Lets read, Isaiah chapter 6 beginning in vs. 1.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”” (Isaiah 6:1-8)
In Isaiah’s vision, there are 2 prominent features, 2 particular pieces of furniture in this room, that Isiah highlights for us that I want to look at in more detail in our time together: 1st the throne, and 2nd the altar.
1. The Throne
Lets first look at the throne, beginning in verse 1. In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne
This vision of God begins by describing the Lord “sitting upon a throne” – God is high and exalted, he is the king sitting on the throne. Why does Isaiah get this vision of God? The glory and majesty of a king upon his throne?
Consider Moses – what was the vision of God that he received? Moses was a man who lived many years in the wilderness with the people of God, and the glory of God passes by Moses in the cleft of a rock, on mount Sinai, in the wilderness.
Or consider Jacob, whose name means “deceiver”, who instigated and endured so much strife in his family – what was the vision of God that he received? Jacob wrestled with God. God condescends to us to reveal his glory in a way that we can understand who he is and what he wants to communicate to us.
Specific to Isaiah, by the design of God, this vision of the king on the throne had an incredible impact on him. Biblical scholars believe because of his elegant writing and rich vocabulary that growing up Isaiah was very well educated. Isaiah’s profession was that of teacher and prophet in Israel and he had ministered in this role before King Uzziah for years before the occasion of the king’s death mentioned in vs. 1. So to be in the throne room – this is Isaiah’s home court, this is what he does for a living. But the king on this throne is unlike any Isaiah has ever seen.
When Isaiah describes God in verse 1 we see the English phrase “I saw the Lord”, this is the translation of the Hebrew name of God Adonai, which means sovereign, one possessing supreme or ultimate power.
Isiah here doesn’t call God Elohim, the name of God used in Genesis 1 of the creator of the heavens and the earth. He doesn’t use the name Yahweh, which is a Hebrew word that means “I am”, revealing the eternally self existing one.
No – the name is Adonai. There is an escalation here from ““king Uzziah”, the ruler of Israel, to Adonai, the supreme authority, the king of kings.
As Isaiah looks upon this king, the entire throne room is filled with the “train of his robe”, indicating the glory of this king, the glory of his presence, filled this place. But these words are not enough…The seraphim that attend to this king, cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts the whole earth is full of his glory!” they tell Isaiah, God’s glory doesn’t just fill the throne room, all the earth is filled with his glory.
As Isiah looks on this scene, he says the threshold shakes at the voice of the seraphim: think of the panic and fear of an earthquake, that is what Isaiah is experiencing. Isaiah describes himself in this moment saying “I am lost”, “I am undone”, “I am finished” – RC Sproul in his famous sermon from this passage describes Isaiah here as “coming apart at the seams”.
∎ Holy Fear
Isaiah had entered this environment that is unlike anything he had ever experienced. The seraphim, who are inside this throne room, attending to the king –had 6 wings, not just 2 wings, like every other winged creature Isaiah had ever seen, 6 wings. With 2 of these wings they flew, but they had 2 additional wings, exclusively to cover their face, that keep their eyes from seeing the glory of God. These seraphim, as creatures, were made for this environment, but what about Isaiah? Isaiah on the other hand, his environment is “from a people of unclean lips”! Isaiah considers himself, his own unworthiness and concludes I am unfit to be here – I am coming apart at the seams.
There is a sense in this scene of Holy Fear. Its not just respect or reverence, Isaiah is way past this. This is not Isaiah evaluating God and saying “yeah, that’s pretty good”, as if it’s a song that you hear and you like it, so you hit that little heart button. And, its also not just that he agrees objectively that yes, he is greater than I am. Its past all of these ideas to holy fear. There is a sense of I am in way over my head.
∎ Over my Head
Do you know where the expression “in over my head” comes from? It dates back to the 16th century when most people did not know how to swim and because of this they would wade into the river perhaps up to their ankles or maybe their knees, so they could safely exit. But imagine you didn’t know how to swim, you walk out into this swift moving river and step off a rock on the river bed into the deepest part of the river, and you sink down into the water, because the river is now so deep that it is way over your head. Put yourself in that river, not knowing how to swim, swept away by the current – how do you feel? This is Isaiah in the presence of God – overwhelmed. Even though we come to the place, like Isaiah, that we say, I am in over my head, I want us to see that this may be way over my head but its exactly where I need to be.
∎ Isaiah’s profession
There are two areas of Isaiah’s life that God very directly puts his finger on in this passage, that I believe are also so applicable for us. First, is Isaiah’s profession. His calling. Isaiah was a teacher and prophet in Israel. And when the glory of God is revealed, the first words out of his mouth are “I am a man of unclean lips!” Isaiah is feeling the conviction of “I haven’t fulfilled my calling as a prophet like I am supposed to.”
Think in your life: what is your calling, your purpose in life? Maybe its your profession? Maybe it’s a life goal that you are looking forward to in your future? I don’t expect, for most of us, this is some sinful thing, like, I really want to be a drug dealer. Its probably something that in itself is a good thing. But, as you bring this into the presence of God, it becomes very clear that our vision, our goals, our destiny is one thing. And its not a promotion at work, Its not some crazy thing on your bucket list. Its the glory of God. Period.
The second application is from the escalation in verse 1 from king Uzziah, the ruler of Israel, to Adonai, the supreme authority, the king of kings. Think of who king Uzziah represents in Isaiah’s life. Somebody with a position of influence in Isaiah’s professional life, Somebody that Isaiah respected. Isiah is very deliberate in this vision to show that Adonai has NO rivals, there is no one like him.
Think in your life: who are the people that have a place of influence in your life? People that you want to have approve of you. Could be your boss at work, could be a family member, could be a new friend that you really want to impress. Now picture coming face to face with the glory of God like Isaiah did. What happens to the influence these people have over your life? God is saying to Isaiah, he is saying to us, there is only one whose approval you seek, only one that you should fear. He is the one true king and he has no rivals.
I am jealous for us, that we would experience this flood, this raging river of God’s glory, and come to the place that even though it is very much over my head, its exactly where I need to be.
2. The Altar
Lets now look at another prominent piece of furniture in this vision: the altar. Verse 6 says: Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.
We just looked at verse 1 at the incredible picture of this king on his throne and now we see some of the most curious decorating choices ever. God has decided to put an altar in his throne room. Where sacrifices for sin are being made. Have you ever seen a palace of a king, the office of a president, including an altar? You’ve not ever seen anything even conceptually like this. This would be the equivalent of a judge’s court room, that as you enter the court room has a service desk passing out get out of jail free cards. Because the purpose of the altar is to sacrifice for sin, that we could be forgiven and enter into this holy place.
∎ God initiates
And this work of forgiveness is exactly what is happening in verse 6: one of the seraphim with a coal from the altar brings this work of atonement to Isaiah. Notice in verse 6, who initiated this process? God sends one of the sariphim away from ministering to himself, to minister to Isaiah in his need. Theologian J Alec Motyer analyzes this verse in his commentary, saying:
One of the seraphs flew, i.e. by the command of God (cf. verse 2). The initiative has been heaven’s all along; revealing (2–3), excluding and condemning (4–5) and now sending the seraph to the one he has chosen to save.
Notice the progression Motyer is describing: God reveals his glory in verse 2, then, excludes Isaiah in verse 4: smoke, obscuring his vision, the threshold shakes, prohibiting his entry. Now, in verse 6, Isiah receives forgiveness and because of this saving work, he is brought near enough to the throne to hear the king say “who shall go for us”. The entire movement of this passage is that Isaiah could draw near to God.
∎ Price paid
The depth of commitment that God has made to put this altar in his throne room is really hard for us to grasp. Because what was the sacrifice on this altar? How quickly, and righteously, could this King, sit on his throne and execute judgement against Isaiah, against us. We of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips. What is the sacrifice on that altar? Revelation 5 provides in explicit detail this exact scene: God sitting on the throne, the seraphim calling out holy holy holy…but Revelation 5 completes the picture with one detail: I saw before the throne a lamb standing, as though it had been slain. The sacrifice on that altar was the lamb of God, the only son of God who gave his life for me at the cross.
This was not the whim of an interior decorator slipping in a crazy piece of furniture…this is the heart of God for us on full display, to make a way for us to enter his presence.
That is the point of this vision for us. Its not to terrorize us and scare us away. Its not to show Isaiah Im great and your not. The point is that though you are fallen and unworthy in your sin, I have made a way. The reason that God sent this vision to Isaiah is that we would see his glory and draw near.
∎ The Chapel
I want to add a brief editorial note at this point, because, I don’t want to give the impression that everyone needs to have an identical throne room encounter to what Isaiah had. We already talked about the examples of Moses, Jacob, Isaiah, they all had a different encounter. What was true is that they sought the face of God and received this glorious presence of God. These men seeking the face of God and receiving this glorious presence and work of God in their lives. And that is what I want for us.
RC Sproul, in his book “The Holiness of God”, describes his Isaiah 6 encounter with God. He was awakened by God in his dorm room at midnight, walked in the darkness to the chapel on his college campus to meet this holy God. He describes his experience this way:
I was in a posture of prayer, but I had nothing to say. I knelt there quietly, allowing the sense of the presence of a holy God to fill me. The beat of my heart was telltale, a thump-thump against my chest. An icy chill started at the base of my spine and crept up my neck. Fear swept over me. I fought the impulse to run from the foreboding presence that gripped me. The terror passed, but soon it was followed by another wave. This wave was different. It flooded my soul with unspeakable peace, a peace that brought instant rest and repose to my troubled spirit. At once I was comfortable. I wanted to linger there. To say nothing. To do nothing. Simply to bask in the presence of God.
When I was in college, although at that point I had never read his book, I had a very similar experience to RC. I was living on campus it was late at night and I was feeling this need to seek God, but I was a very new Christian, so I didn’t know much about what I was supposed to do. So I did what I thought people did when they were seeking God, I went to the chapel to pray. I went to a catholic college, so they had a small chapel in the middle of campus. It was exactly what you would think: wooden pews, stained glass windows. Given how late at night it was, I was thinking I hope I don’t get arrested for trespassing – that would have definitely messed up my prayer time. There was absolutely nobody anywhere, I walk in the chapel, it was very still, very quiet. I went down to the front to pray: I got down on my knees, then on my face. And God sent his presence. It was a powerful, holy moment.
So, your experience, it may or it may not look word for word like what we see in Isiah 6. But what I do want for us is that we, like Isiah, would enter into this glorious presence of God.
But in scripture, God’s people have not always accepted this invitation. Remember the vision of God that we talked about for Moses? This story from the book of Exodus at Mount Sinia doesn’t end the same way for Israel as it did for Isaiah. There are 3 different occasions that Moses come down from meeting with God on mount Sinai.
One time, Moses came down the mountain to the people of Israel, the glory of God was still shining on his face. But when Israel sees this glory, they said Moses cover your face, we are too terrified to draw near.
Another time, Moses was on Mount Sinia and there was thunder and thick clouds surrounding the mountain, much like the scene Isaiah describes at the throne room. Moses descends down the mountain and invites the people to draw near to God on the mountain. But in fear they run away.
A third time, while moses was up on the mountain, it goes terribly wrong. There is a golden calf, and the scripture says “…they ate and drank and rose up to play” – what does that sound like? Its like we have a scene that looks something like a Frat party, with Aaron, Moses brother, as the ring leader of this Frat party – hes like the guy working the keg, spraying beer all over everybody. Then Moses comes down the mountain and I think its safe to say, the party came to a stop at that point. Their hearts were not prepared to meet with God.
Think about your own life. What might be keep us from drawing near? Maybe there is something in my life that im holding on to that I don’t want to give up. We resist this encounter with God because we don’t know what the raging river of God’s glory is going to carry away.
Or maybe its just, I want to be in control of my own life. In general, we don’t sign up for this feeling of being out of control, of being swept away by the river. We want to have a plan, stay in control, and in the same way, we want God to fit into our plans, and not the other way around.
We have been experiencing today from Isaiah 6, this glory of God, this presence of God – and it is over my head, it is an overwhelming encounter. Because God is awesome. His glory fills heaven and earth. Even though this is over my head, this is exactly where I need to be. But consider what the altar tells us. Not only is this where I need to be. The altar tells us this place in God’s presence, before his throne, this place that is over my head –This is exactly where I was made to be. I was created for this purpose – to be in his presence. God made a way through his son that in our fallenness, in our un-fitness to enter into his presence, he made a way through the blood of his own son on that altar.
Listen – This is not me trying to lure you into some obscure, sketchy biblical teaching. This is the purpose you were created for. So much so, that God made a way that you could come into his presence, at the price of his own son.
I want to close our time by praying with David his prayer in Psalm 27: You have said, “Seek my face.” My heart says to you, “Your face, LORD, do I seek.”