Going by Grace

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 18, 2021.

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. 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. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 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!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

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.”

And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains. when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump (Isaiah 6:1–13).[1]

A Regal Vision

Earthly kings are born and die, their reign constrained by time. The King of heaven is neither born nor dies nor is he constrained by time or space but is eternal. This is a never-ending reality of which the Prophet Isaiah is reminded, peering into the throne room of heaven. What he beholds is a regal vision of the exalted One upon his throne, whose royal mantle reveals his majesty.

Above the Lord upon the throne stand the “seraphim,” a plural word meaning flaming or burning ones. They are apparently fiery, six-winged angelic beings in constant motion, covering face and feet while flying. They are supernatural yet submitted, ready yet reverent, serving not straying, flying never fleeing, collectively calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” It is a trifold pronouncement, or qadosh, declaring the Lord’s absolute perfection: his perfect holiness, power, and glory. But note that the revelation of his glory is location specific. He who is unceasingly worshiped in heaven is praised for the revelation of his glory on earth, a foreshadowing of what is to be revealed to Isaiah.

As the seraphim’s anthem echoes throughout the throne room, the threshold trembles under the weight of worship. Smoke fills the room, as it did first in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple, a sign commanding solemn reverence and awe. Like the priest through the veil ministering in the Holy of holies, Isaiah is in the presence of the Lord.

How, then, does Isaiah respond in the presence of his God and King? Does he declare his good deeds? Herald his holiness? Proclaim his purity? Hallow his heritage? No. When confronted with perfect holiness, Isaiah sees himself perfectly, confessing, “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!” As the King James version translates it, he is “undone.”

But God, being rich in mercy, does not leave Isaiah to his woes or to wallow in his sin but provides the purifying power of his grace, leading Isaiah not only to repentance but forgiveness. For, the Lord is faithful and just to forgive and cleanse (1 John 1:9), which he does, purifying Isaiah’s mouth to go and preach the prophetic Word of God. From the flaming coal of the altar of heaven to the lips of sinful Isaiah, the seraph tells him the gospel truth: “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” a depiction that looks from the altar of heaven forward to the cross of Christ.

While God’s revelation to Isaiah is unique to his calling and commission, it is not dissimilar to how he deals with us. He calls us and reveals his holiness to us that we may worship. But we cannot: We too are sinners, separated from God. But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love, saved us, not according to our works but by his grace through faith (Eph. 2:4-9), enabling us, like Isaiah, to proclaim the excellencies of our God and King (1 Pet. 2:9). We are, only then, enabled to worship and serve the Lord by his grace. And it is by God’s grace that he enables Isaiah, with a heart ready for worship and lips purified for preaching, to confess, “Here am I! Send me.” And so, he who saw a regal vision now willingly receives a wretched commission.

A Wretched Commission

The commission Isaiah receives is to a specific people, his people, even his own generation. It is not to a people far but near, not to a people unknown but known. He knows their history, their practices, and their character. They are his countrymen, and unlike any country before or since, they are a nation set apart by and for the Lord. Yet, they do not show it: consistent with their sinful nature, their lives do not reflect their heritage or their God.

The state of the nation, of course, warrants a prophetic cry, a call to repentance, but that is not Isaiah’s commission. Instead, he is to keep calm and carry on, preaching to the children of Israel, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Consider this one sentence sermon carefully, as it summarily addresses both the mind and heart: They are hearing but not understanding; they are seeing but not perceiving. It is a wretched assessment, coupled with repetitive irony, not a call to listen to or look at but, “Keep on…keep on…” And this is but the beginning; there are more sermons to come yet with the same message.

The Lord instructs Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” Hearts dulled, ears heavy, eyes blind, defines success for Isaiah’s preaching. But what is the point? What is the purpose of this preaching?  It is judgement upon the spiritually deaf and blind. But rather than a national call to repentance, Isaiah is commissioned to fan the flame of judgment to come, “lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” In other words, Isaiah is to preach in such a way that they will not turn to the Lord and be healed. It is a wretched commission indeed!

It gets worse. It is not a one-Sabbath-sermon but a one-topic series. Isaiah is to preach with dulling, deafening, blinding intent until judgment comes. The only way Isaiah will know that the series is complete is when “cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste.” Isaiah will only know that he may move on when “the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” Sadly, Isaiah still will be preaching the same sermon series though a tenth of the people remain in the land, and like the stump of an old hardwood tree, “it will be burned again.”

I cannot imagine what Isaiah thought when he received such a wretched commission, and yet he was, by God’s grace, faithful to his calling. And while we need to be careful not to over-exegete a passage dealing with God’s judgment upon ancient Israel, nor consider their plight analogous to a modern nation, notably our own, we need not dismiss it either.

For example, the commission God gives to Isaiah, though difficult to comprehend, reveals that God is faithful to his Word, regardless of man’s opinion or response. The people see evidence of God’s Word and ignore it; they hear the truth of God’s Word and disregard it. Therefore, God is delivering the curses that he promised according to his Word. God told Israel that his judgment would be a “sign and a wonder” upon them and their descendants “forever,” because they did not serve the Lord with “joyfulness and gladness of heart” despite his abundant blessings (Deut. 28:46-47). What Isaiah preaches may be shocking, but it is not surprising. God is faithful to his Word, even when we are not.

Second, we see that God calls the one who has received his grace to faithful proclamation. Note that what Isaiah preaches is not dictated by popular opinion but what God commands. The message he delivers, as counterintuitive as it may seem, is directed by God. The cultural circumstances Isaiah encounters have no bearing on what he is called and commissioned to do. His calling is not to change the culture but to obey the Lord.

Third, we see that in order to faithfully proclaim, Isaiah is not absent but present in society. God does not sequester Isaiah for preservation; he sends him to a sinful people. This is a relevant reminder for all of the redeemed: The Lord does not reveal himself to us to be of the world but most certainly to be in it. We are not to ostracize ourselves from society but be salt and light in it (Matt. 5:13-16). Rather than cluster in a Christian commune or hole up in a holy huddle, we should heed God’s instruction to exiled Israel, as relevant today as it was in Babylon:

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:5-7).

This doesn’t mean that we become “worldly” in the sinful sense of the word, but we should pray to our heavenly Father a prayer such as this:

Let us live out of the world as to its spirit, maxim, manners, but live in it as the sphere of our action and usefulness; May we be alive to every call of duty, accepting without question thy determination of our circumstances and our service.[2]

As we are faithful to pray such a prayer, the Lord will be faithful to remind us of his gracious provision, to be with us always “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).                

A Remnant Salvation

What remains of Israel after God’s judgment is dismal and desolate: a burned oak tree cut to a stump. Like the lifeless landscape of a war-torn battleground, a stump of a tree remains, nothing else. There are no green buds, revealing life, only the charred remains of what was. Yet, there is life; a remnant remains, a seed that will grow into a tree. It is a “holy” seed, in the sense of set-apartness. And like Isaiah, the seed’s holiness exists by God’s grace.

It is in the seed that we see that God preserves a remnant regardless of cultural circumstances. The cultural condition of Israel looks bleak; God’s provision is not. God’s work on behalf of his people should never be judged based on societal circumstances or even our perception of them. For, it is from that holy seed, preserved by God, against all odds, that a Savior was born, who is Christ the Lord. From that holy seed came the One who lived a perfectly righteous life, died an atoning and sacrificial death, and resurrected from the dead, conquering both sin and death. By God’s grace, those with ears to hear and eyes to see look to him in faith and are saved to eternal life.

Now, consider this truth in light of Christ’s commission to his church: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18–20). Is Christ’s authority conditioned upon societal circumstances? Is the gospel advanced only if culture is accepting of it? Are disciples made through the means of societal submission or cultural conformity? Are the sacraments of the church subject to popular opinion? Are the commands of Christ taught only if they are willingly received?

If we are to go into all nations, making, sealing, and teaching, our going must be motivated by something greater than subduing or separating from cultural circumstances. Running for the hills to hide every time the winds of culture change is not what Jesus meant by going and making disciples. And mourning the supposed demise of the church because of political change does not testify to the truth that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Christ. Our going, like our redemption, is to be grounded in the grace of God in Christ. It was only after the Lord revealed himself to Isaiah, giving him the grace to confess and be forgiven, that he could say, “Here I am! Send me,” and be sent into the most difficult of circumstances. When our hearts are captivated by our cultural circumstances, we tend to retreat into protectionism, but when our hearts are captive to the grace of God, we will have a heart for our neighbor and the nations.

To be clear, this sermon is not intended to be a pep talk for mobilizing missions but to direct you to glory much in grace. It is indeed a privilege to participate in advancing the gospel, for it is the Good News of God’s grace to a lost and dying world, but as we consider the greatest need of our neighbor and the nations, let us remember that it is God who preserves a remnant, a holy seed, and only by his grace. Leading us consistently to say,

            Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,

            That saved a wretch; like me!

            I once was lost, but now am found,

            Was blind, but now I see.[3]

And in seeing, let us also say by God’s amazing grace, “Here I am! Send me.”

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Arthur Bennett, ed., “Second Day Evening: Bounty,” in The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 385.

[3] John Newton, “Amazing Grace!” in Trinity Hymnal, rev. ed. (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 460.

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