Sunday, February 5, 2012

Life Lessons from the Prophets: Isaiah - Isaiah 6:1-8 and 61:1-3

Today we are going to begin a new series, focusing on the prophets. These stories contained in the Old Testament about people who walked by faith and not by sight. The faithful followers that trusted God beyond comfort and beyond reason. To go against the grain is tough, but over the next few weeks we will look at three people who did, Isaiah, Elijah, and Haggi. Today we are going to begin with Isaiah as we look to his example of submitting to God; specifically how we submit, what has to happen for us to submit, and what our response should be to this submission.

An Inward Look
John Newton was the captain of a ship carrying captured men and women from Africa to become slaves in America during the mid-eighteenth century. He gave little thought to the enormous suffering experienced by his human cargo as they were torn from home and families and herded below decks of his ship. He gave little thought to the magnitude of the sin against God and humanity in which he was a willing participant. Until one day. As he watched his captive passengers share their meager food supplies and comfort one another, and as he heard them sing songs of their homeland, Newton's very soul was in distress. Overcome by guilt, Newton suddenly saw himself with new eyes. He realized that it was he and not his human cargo that was in bondage. It was he, not those in chains below deck, who could not free himself from the chains of slavery. He knew that he was doomed. Only by God's grace in Jesus Christ could he find forgiveness.

Of course, Newton did not "find" Christ. It was Christ who found him. It was the crucified and risen Christ who broke his chains of bondage to sin. It was the Spirit of Christ who brought Newton to his knees. It was the Spirit of Christ who led him to stop carrying human cargo and to speak out against the sin of human slavery. And it was the spirit of Christ who led Newton to respond by writing the words to a hymn that touches all of us, "Amazing Grace." Newton's words resound in our hearts: "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." John Newton, touched by the spirit of God, began to see himself and the world around him with new eyes.

Isaiah's Inward Look
The prophet Isaiah had a similar experience 2,700 years ago during a worship service in the temple in Jerusalem. He was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah, about 60 years after the prophet Elisha’s ministry in the northern kingdom of Israel. During Isaiah’s ministry the Assyrian Empire was conquering everything in its path. The southern nation of Judah had watched in horror as the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. And Judah was politically unstable because their king, King Uzziah, had just died.

The nation of Judah had reached a turning point. Would the people submit to God’s purposes for their lives and trust in Him for their future, or would they continue to try to go it alone and make shady deals with foreign enemies to keep themselves out of captivity? In the midst of this turmoil and crisis, the prophet Isaiah went to the temple to worship the Lord. What happened in the temple that day was the most significant event in Isaiah’s life and his ministry. No other people involved, no big showdown on a mountain, not a miraculous healing. Rather Isaiah is most remembered for an encounter that he has with God and what he learns from it.

I Saw the Lord (Isaiah 6)
Our Scripture lesson from Isaiah 6 tells us that in the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah worshipped in the temple and had a vision of the Lord God himself sitting on a throne. So great and mighty was God that just the train, the hem, of his robe completely filled the temple. Angels were all around, ministering to him and they even covered their faces and their feet in his presence. And the angels said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

In seeing this, Isaiah calls out: “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet I have seen the King the Lord of hosts!” Surrounded by God’s glory and holiness, Isaiah begins to realize he is unworthy of this great honor of seeing God. And then one of the angels takes a hot coal from an altar and touches it to Isaiah’s lips and cleanses him of his sin. And then the Lord called out, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I. Send me!”

This encounter with God in a vision is significant for Isaiah. He had spent the first part of his ministry concentrating heavily on the sins of other people, those who were without a doubt “blatantly” unrighteous. But all these obvious sins and moral failures keep Isaiah from recognizing that the sins in his life are just as horrible before God.

One of the obvious sinners that Isaiah sat in judgment of was his cousin, King Uzziah. For many years Uzziah had been a godly king, but like so many other kings before him, he forgot about God. He became so proud of all the mighty military successes and thought he was self-sufficient. In fact, he got so proud that he went into the temple and tried to burn incense on the altar of the Lord, instead of the priests. He paid dearly for it too.

Isaiah probably responded to Uzziah’s failures as we might, “I would never do that.” It’s easy to think of ourselves as righteous when we compare ourselves to others around us. But Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord changes his perspective. Think about what happened to him, the angel touched the coal and applied it to his lips, he was a prophet and his mouth was the tool of his trade. Even today we still use fire and heat to sterilize and clean things. Isaiah realizes in the very presence and glory of God that he is a sinner and God cleanses Isaiah’s mouth for his ministry.

The Result
So what was the result of this encounter? First, Isaiah’s sin was both taken away and forgiven. And second, Isaiah came to understand himself in a new way, as God saw him. And when God asks the question of who will go for him, Isaiah responds with his whole being - “Here I am, send me!”

Isaiah went on to minister for about another 40 years in Judah. Sometimes the people listened, but many times they did not. But Isaiah could be satisfied knowing that he had submitted to God’s purposes and done what God asked. According to the world’s standards of success, Isaiah’s ministry was a failure. But God measures our effectiveness by how our work aligns with His purposes. By this measure Isaiah was very effective for he fulfilled the purpose of God for his life. And today, thousands of years later, we are still touched by his life and his message.

Work in Us, Before Working Through Us
So how does any of this make a difference for us? Why do we need to look at Isaiah’s life and this particular event? I want to share with you one key lesson from Isaiah’s life: We must let God work in us, before God can work through us. Let me say that again because it bears repeating, We must let God work in us, before God can work through us.

God cannot use what has not been cleansed and purified. It was only after his encounter in the vision that Isaiah becomes truly usable for the Lord’s purposes and is given a new ministry similar to that prophesied about the Messiah who would come later. Our second Scripture lesson is a brief summary of the kind of things God asked Isaiah to do; preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for captives, and comfort those who mourn.

God has a plan for humanity. He created us to reflect his image and reign over his creation, but sin changed all of that. Genesis tells us that man was created in the image of God, but when Adam had children, they were “in his own likeness, according to his image.” They bore the fallen image of their father and so do we. The most amazing thing about our God though is that he’s gracious and merciful enough to meet us where we are. No matter how sinful we are, we don’t have to clean ourselves up in order to approach God or to come to faith or attend church. But once God meets us where we are, he wants to do a work in us. He never leaves us as he found us.

In order for God’s purposes to be fulfilled through men and women, there must be a recreation. That’s the whole point of the Christian life, the whole point of being part of a church. Once a person turns to Christ, the Lord wants to transform that person into the image of His son. He desires to change them so they can become agents of his love to those who don’t know. But before God can use us in the lives of others, he must change us. He must work in our hearts before he can work through us. Often we pray, “Lord use me,” yet we fail to recognize that the more important prayer is “Lord, make me useable.” Before Isaiah could say “Here am I send me” (6:8) he had to confess “Woe is me” (6:5).

Isaiah wasn’t the only one who struggled with this. John Wesley, the man we credit as the founder of the Methodist church had a similar issue. As a priest in the Anglican church, who had grown up as the son of a priest, John Wesley had great head knowledge of God. He was very methodical about his religion (that’s why we’re called Methodists; he had a whole list of things people should be doing). And then one night he went to a place called Aldersgate and heard the word of God preached and later he wrote in his journal that “his heart was strangely warmed.” He experienced God in a different way at Aldersgate and was never the same afterwards. He finally got it; that God needed to be able to work inside John Wesley’s heart before he could do a work through Wesley. And so John Wesley submitted himself to God’s purposes and here we are today.

I’ve seen the same kind of transformation happening in this congregation. I’ve seen people beginning to submit themselves to God’s purposes for their life, coming to understand that they need to continually be working on their own spiritual relationship to God, growing, being nurtured and fed through prayer and Bible study and Sunday school and relationships with other Christians. It is so wonderfully encouraging to watch and a blessing to be part of. But we cannot become complacent. We have to follow the example of these few, and all of us need to constantly submit and resubmit ourselves to God. Never be content that we are right, that we are doing everything correctly. Constantly and consistently, submit yourselves for examination before God. Always and everywhere conduct yourselves with an air of humility and sense of servanthood. We all need to continue in that spirit of asking God to work in us and make us usable so that we might serve Him more fully.

So how do we respond to all that? Maybe you are sitting there realizing for the first time, that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace. The first step towards becoming an acceptable servant of God is to believe on His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior from sin. You can do that today, right now in this place. There are no special words that must be repeated, just simply pray and confess your sin before God, accept Jesus Christ as your personal Savior and ask God to continue to work in you.

Or maybe you took care of that a long time ago. You became a Christian and have been in church for the last ten or twenty or forty years or more. But ask yourself, is your knowledge of God in your heart as well as your head? Do you allow God to work in your life? Will you submit to his purposes? If you need help reaffirming your submission or rededicating yourself to God's will, you can do that today, right here.

The Christian life is about transformation into the image of Christ. So ask yourself, what does God need to cleanse in you in order to be able to work through you?

God is still calling out: “Whom shall I send?” The question is, how will we respond?

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