Thank you again Dr. Swain. I invite you to turn with me in your Bible this morning to the book of Isaiah, chapter six. Our Convocation sermon this morning, will be from Isaiah chapter six verses one through eight. Read with me together, “In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of his robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out 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 trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, ‘Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.’ Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”
Let’s pray. Father, we bow in this moment. We pray, Father, in the minutes to follow that you would consecrate for yourself people anew. Set us apart for greater service. Set us apart for more marked devotion and commitment to you. We pray these things with earnestness in Jesus’ name, amen.
Thinking this morning in our time together briefly about consecrating ourselves unto the Lord. To consecrate simply means to set apart, to sanctify unto, to recommit yourself unto. It is fitting and right this week that you do this, that we do this at the beginning of the academic year for all of us faculty, staff, students, onlookers, trustees, lay people, all who are here today. Because regardless of where you are in Christ and regardless of what your calling in ministry is or isn’t, all of us, as believers in Jesus, if we want to be more faithful to serve him and more fruitful in that service, a renewed setting apart moves us in that direction. Moreover, to do that, it’s good to come to terms with these passages and Scripture that remind us anew of the character of God, the character of Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit that confront us anew with the holiness and the sovereignty and the power and the majesty of our God and we must confess this is a need, an urgent one, but it’s also a counter intuitive reality.
The society in which we live in 2019 is not given to pausing and thinking about weighty things. Busyness, clutter, triviality, entertainment, all of those things occupy our time and fight for our attention. Thus, to pause and reflect on the grandeur of God is something of an interruption, but a needed interruption. Moreover, to think about this passage and our calling is helpful to remind us of the gravity of our work.
When people asked me to describe Midwestern Seminary, there are a lot of different ways I describe it, but one of the most frequent ways, I say, is the campus is a cheerful place. People are happy. If you were to be on our campus, you would sense people who love being here, love God’s calling on their lives, and there’s a winsomeness and a cheerfulness in this place. If you were to eavesdrop on the Vivion House tonight, what would you hear coming from the Allen family? Probably the most common noise is laughter. We’re a happy people. I’m a happy man, though I’m serious about that work. And it seems to me there is indeed a biblical reality to that. We are called to a winsome seriousness, a cheerful devotion, a happy sobriety of who we are in Christ and what He has called us to do. But there is a weight and a gravity behind all of this.
This struck me anew over the summer. I had the opportunity to preach in a number of different Southern Baptist churches. Often, as you do, after you preach, you’re out in the big foyer area visiting with church members and greeting folks who want to come up and say hello. I was there, my wife was nearby, and this young man came up to me. He was probably early twenties. He had a big ole smile on his face. And he came up to me and he said, “You are awesome.”
And I said, “What was awesome?”
He said, “You were!”
And I said, “Well, that’s kind.”
And he said “I’m, going to do what you do.”
And I said, “What’s that?”
He said, “I’m going to be a pastor, I’m going to be a preacher. Like what you do! I want to do that! That was awesome! So what do I have to do to be a pastor?”
And, I said, “Well, you know, there’s a process there. It’s not like you just announce it in exuberance in the foyer. Number one, God has to call you to ministry. God has to call you to that. That’s not something that we can humanly engineer, but God has to call you to ministry. Secondly, Holy Scripture has to verify that calling. 1 Timothy 3 in places states that your life must align with that. Thirdly, a church has to recognize that and see that and affirm that calling in you. Fourth, you have to be prepared for ministry. And that’s usually a process of mentorship. And often, studying at a seminary, like the one where I serve. Fifthly, there’s got to be a church who believes in you. And wants to hire you and they actually call you to come serve on their ministry staff.”
And he said, “That’s all it is?! I am in!”
Let’s start this over. You’re not hearing me well this morning. He was a sweet young man, and who knows what the Lord is going to do or not do with him, but I was struck in that moment anew that ministry is actually a very serious matter, is it not?
Now as I speak to those in the room today and those watching via live stream and video later, there is a variety of calling. Some of you in the room this morning are dead-set on the mission field as quickly as you can get there. Others of you are dead-set on the pastorate as quickly as you can get there. Some of you in the room come to seminary this morning feeling God’s call, having been affirmed in that call by a church, but to be candid, that’s a little opaque, and a part of your time here is to visit with professors, and build friendships and involvement in a local church. That helps to clarify your calling and give direction. We’re here to do that.
All of you in the room today are not here for ministry. You’re just in town visiting your friend or you just kind of popped in and you want to see what’s happening at Midwestern, and we thank you for joining us. No matter where you are on that spectrum, it is fitting and right and good to get a refresher in God’s character and to be set apart for Him.
What is going on in Isaiah five and six? Well, we see a prophet who has a dramatic encounter with the Lord in chapter six. Now we tend to see chapter six and think about this prophet, Isaiah, who needed this encounter. He needed an awakening. He needed some sort of renewal, some sort of repentance to take place. He needed that. And the truth of the matter, is we all need that.
A. W. Tozer famously observed, “The most important thing about you is what comes into your mind when you think about God.” John Calvin famously wrote in his Institutes, “You really can’t know yourself rightly until you know and see God.” So much about us fights against pausing and reflecting and being challenged by passages like this. What is more, we acknowledge that there is a particular offense in these verses to modern man, right? Because it collides with our culture and our personal senses of morality and what we want to do, or not do, with our bodies, and our lives, and our sexuality, and all the rest. But we declare this morning that this passage is good and fitting and right and worth being trumpeted from a thousand mountaintops.
Isaiah chapter 6: Here is the King of Judah. We know Uzziah has just abdicated his throne by death. History teaches us that King Uzziah died in approximately 739 BC. He became king at the age of 16 and reigned for some 50-52 years, to be exact. His reign was largely successful, largely faithful compared to other kings, but in his later years, as so often happens, pride festered in his heart. He became a law breaker. He brazenly entered the temple, treading on ground reserved for the priest and God judged him and struck him with leprosy and Uzziah died. Nonetheless, Uzziah was a popular king and his death sent shock waves throughout the kingdom. The throne was now vacant. The people were anxious about their future.
Moreover, they were under a threat. The Assyrian Empire was on the move. They were the dominating power in the region. In due time the Assyrians would overthrow them and conquer them and occupy their land to deport many of their people into slavery. And so this is a time of great crises.
Additionally, it was a season of moral confusion and spiritual decay. There was a sense of crisis in the air. The people needed fresh vision of God. Now Isaiah, as is so often the case, he was dialed in on what was wrong with society. As seen in chapter five, he was accomplished at assessing and critiquing what was wrong with his fellow countryman. Places like verse eight of chapter five: “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, until there is no more room so that you have to live alone in the midst of the land!” In other words, this is basically like materialism. Woe to you who are stockpiling things and adding house to house and thing to thing. He’s calling out materialism. Verse 11: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink.” And verse 22: “Woe to those who are heroes in drinking wine and valiant men in mixing strong drink.” He’s calling out drunkenness. Verse 18: “Woe to those who drag iniquity with the chords of falsehood, and sin as if with cart ropes.” In other words, woe to those who indulge in a hedonistic lifestyle. It’s about indulging and pleasing the self. Verse 20: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.” Woe to you moral relativists. You’re reinventing social norms to fit your own standards and liking, rejecting the biblical standards. Verse 21: “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight!” Woe to those who are filled with pride.
Thousands of years later, man hasn’t changed much. If we’re honest, preachers haven’t changed much. Because this preacher Isaiah, he is dialed in on what is wrong with society, and he is dropping thunderbolts, lightning bolts at it. And we all confess this morning as evangelicals, as Southern Baptists, we are pretty good at announcing what is wrong with the culture, what is wrong with Washington, what is wrong with politicians, what is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
That’s a part of the role of the prophet, yes. But something happens in chapter six when he sees the Lord. His urgent concern is not over what someone in another town is doing. It is over what is in his heart. It is not over what is wrong with the relativists or the hedonists or the materialists or the drunkards. There’s this urgency over what’s wrong in his life. There’s a crisis that he stumbles into and that leads us now to chapter six.
The people want a vision and they get one. In the year of King Uzziah’s death, the prophet sees the Lord sitting on a throne. Now these eight verses, just think of them in two kind of broad swaths. First, is the consecration Isaiah experiences in verses one through seven. Then in verse eight, the commissioning Isaiah receives. This consecration Isaiah experiences is in the year of King Uzziah’s death. I’ve referenced him. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted with the train of his robe filling the temple. What does he see? Who does he see?
Well, evidently the prophet is now bug-eyed. He gets a glimpse here of the Lord. Now to those of you who have your Bible open and who read it regularly, as I trust we all do, sometimes you see the Lord, capital L, capital O, capital R, capital D in your Bibles. This is a reference to YAHWEH, the God who is I AM, the God who revealed himself to Moses in Exodus chapter three, the personal name of God. Other places, it is capital L, lowercase o, r, d. This is the title Adonai, which means king or ruler. One is his name: YAHWEH. One is his title: Ruler.
Now the gospel of John even gives us more clarity on what Isaiah is seeing, whom Isaiah is seeing. He is the Lord Jesus Christ. He looks and he sees that the throne is occupied. Again, let’s just pause here. Everything seems zany. Politics. Culture. Everything seems topsy-turvy. Everything seems out of control. The Middle East, Asia, South China, Europe, South America. It looks like it’s accelerating at a pace of more and more disruption, more and more unpredictability, more and more volatility. It’s easy to ask who in the world is on the throne, but Scripture teaches us the Lord is on the throne.
Additionally, many times in ministry, you find yourself, we find ourselves in a topsy-turvy context. It seems like it’s out of control. God, what’s going on here? I’m at this church and they’re being mean to me. And where am I? What have You called me to do? It’s easy to almost conclude that God is impotent and is not able to affect His will or He’s preoccupied with another galaxy somewhere. But I want to remind you that this Lord who’s on the throne is a personal Lord, He is the one who has called you. He is the one who has set you apart. He is the one who is reigning over all.
Now what we see here, then, is this description that begins to amplify the character of the One on the throne. This train, He’s lofty and exalted, He’s up high. You look up high to Him, you don’t look down to a potent, but you look up. This one is elevated all the more. And the train of his robe fills the temple. The train of the robe is a sign of regality, of sovereignty, of majesty. And the bigger the robe, the greater the One who wears it. So Isaiah sees this robe is flowing through the temple, filling the temple. There’s no mistaking who is on the throne, the majesty of the One on the throne, the power of the one on the throne.
But as though that needed to be clarified, verse two teaches us, shows us that there are these seraphim, these angelic beings who are, who are above Him, each having six wings. And what are they doing? Well, with two they cover their face. Why? Because the One they’re in proximity to, they are not worthy to see. With two they covered their feet. Why? Because feet are a sign of uncleanliness. With two they flew, they’re hovering around, they’re floating around, flying around and they are saying an antiphonal response back and forth, back and forth, calling out to one another again and again and again: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts.” Holy, Holier, Holiest is the Lord of hosts. And they’re occupied with this.
They’re startled by this, they’re taken aback by this. And it just keeps going back and forth, back and forth, echoing through the chambers of the temple. Why? Because that is the attribute they are most struck by in that moment and in that place. And not to play games with this, you know, but again, they’re not yelling, love, love, love or grace, grace, grace, or peace, peace, peace. Or there’s a lot of things they could be saying. They’re struck by holiness.
Then, they declare the whole earth is full of his glory. So I mentioned already, Isaiah chapter 6 tells us that they are seeing the Lord Jesus Christ, this preincarnate vision of Jesus and his glory is on display, and they are smitten by it. My mind races to the isle of Patmos when John, in exile there, who wrote of this scene in Revelation Chapter 1. When he encountered the risen Lord on Patmos, what did he do? He fell down like a dead man. A similar response to these seraphim.
Do you see the position he sat in? One of unmatched holiness, unmatched majesty. There is a clear distinction. He’s set apart from every created being, including even the seraphim. Notice verse three. They call out, they’re declaring back and forth, back and forth, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Now, I don’t know about you, but, I think I might get bored doing that day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, eternity pass, eternity future. But, then I am reminded, if we were to somehow enter that scene and go up to one of the seraphim and tap him on the shoulder and say, “You know, aren’t you tired of saying that?” Are you kidding me? They would respond, “The holiness that is before us is so unspeakable, so unfathomable, so incomprehensible that we have not, we will not get over the character of the One whose presence we are in.”
Verse four, what happens here? “The foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke.” The scene that shakes the temple, and there’s smoke there, not produced by fog machine. There’s smoke there produced, generated, by the presence and activity of the Lord.
How does he respond? We’re about to see that Isaiah quickly is sobered. His first response is, “Woe is me.”
I love reading presidential biographies and I can always have one or two going. To me, one of the most interesting and tragic presidents we’ve had in American history is Richard Nixon. If you look at what he accomplished, before my time, I wasn’t born yet, but reading, I mean, his administration accomplished a lot. He liked to play on the grand stage: international activity, going to China, negotiating with the Russians, navigating Vietnam and all the rest. And the great irony of Watergate is if anyone didn’t need to break into the DNC to get reelected, it was Richard Nixon. They won, he won in a dramatic landslide that really had nothing to do with a few scraps of information from the Watergate Hotel. But the more you read about the Nixon White House, and memoirs, and people like Chuck Colson and others, you learn how everything that made the White House was choreographed. Chuck Colson wrote about how when President Nixon was going to meet with someone, they would put these people through the ringers. The White House staff would come in and show the guests this, and show them that, and butter them up. By the time they actually got to the Oval Office to meet with President Nixon after this, this multifaceted stage, choreographed process, you could have the mightiest man on the planet melt like butter before President Nixon. They were in awe of being with the president in that Oval Office.
That doesn’t compare one ounce to the throne room. Isaiah is struck, and his concern, note, goes immediately from chapter five and the condemnations of his countrymen to, “Woe is me.” This is, this is dramatic moment. This scares him to death.
Woe is a word of self-renunciation, of self-judgment, of self-condemnation. And it’s not, “Woe are they,” it’s, “Woe is me.” Not, “Woe is she.” It’s, “Woe is me.” I am ruined. I am caught off. I am destroyed. He’s not saying, you know, this is kind of intense and I might die or this is kind of intense, you know, this could be my death. No, he’s saying, I am like dead. “Woe is me. I am ruined.” Why? “Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live amongst a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
Why the lips? Unclean hands? Unclean feet? Unclean heart? Unclean mind? Why unclean lips? Could that be because we’re taught in Scripture from our Lord that the mouth reveals the heart? From the lips is the overflow of the inner being. Perhaps Isaiah is cataloging in a flash all those other words, all those critical statements, all those words of condemnation, those words of gossip, sorts of deceit, those words of pride. In all of that, Isaiah is struck by the holiness of God and he is smitten. He declares that he is a man of unclean lips and that has been made plain to him by the fact that he has seen the King, the Lord of hosts.
What happens? Does Isaiah fall into the abyss? Do seraphim come to him and say, you thought this was bad. But you think it’s bad now? It’s about to get worse. You’re about to get zapped by the one who occupies the throne. What happens here?
Verse six: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs.” I imagine Isaiah is scared spitless. In my imagination I would be scared spitless. If I were there, seeing this scene, and then a seraphim came at me with a burning coal, I’m thinking, this is the filming of my death sentence.
But the seraphim comes, in verse seven, and “he touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips. Your iniquity is taken away and your sin is forgiven.’” Here’s the glory of consecration. God has infinite grace. He doesn’t leave us in a state of contrition, and brokenness, and humility, and repentance. This is up. He’s not a God who holds our head underwater. He’s a God who lifts us up. He’s not a God who tortures us with the haunting of our consciences. He’s a God who forgives and lifts us up. He is a God who restores. We’re all here today as followers of Christ because in our own way, time, place, and setting, we have experienced that in conversion. And perhaps as we start a new academic year, we need to experience it again in consecration. I believe that the greater one is set apart by God, the greater one will be used for God. The lower one is brought in the presence of God, the higher one is lifted up for the cause of God.
Isaiah here is processing. He’s reflecting. He’s flying. Now, he’s been forgiven. Well notice verse eight. Verse eight: “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?'” That is a voice that is echoed through the ages and echoed into the lives and hearts of so many of us in the room today. For me, I was in college contemplating walking away from my college basketball scholarship and college basketball team. I had been converted my freshman year in college, began to sense in my own, unknown way a call to ministry in my sophomore, junior year. It became more pronounced, more intense, and more clear. There was a moment of crisis in Romans 10, and I Timothy one and two, and II Timothy, and Titus, and processing. And then, in my own way, hearing and receiving that call: “Whom shall I send?” And in that context, law school began to seem awful trite for me. In that context, a career in politics or some other profession, seemed very second class. For me in that moment, it was just the natural, obvious, clear, “Here am I! Let me volunteer! Here am I! Here am I! Send me!” You felt that somewhere along the way, so many of us have. To be used most effectively for the Lord in such service, we must first be brought low before Him in consecration. That’s what Isaiah says, “Here am I. Send me!”
My first commencement I preached was here in December of 2012. We were in the old chapel, which is now the Spurgeon library. We were in there, packed in there for commencement, and I preached that morning. In the sermon, I challenged the graduates who were there. I said, “You know, don’t be a minister who is about the business of building his resume. Don’t be a minister who is here merely to get credentialed. Don’t be a minister who’s about calculating, strategizing about, ‘I can do three years here’ and, ‘I can get promoted there,’ and, ‘four years there and I can go here.’ Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t.” I said, “Here’s what you do. Toss your resume to the wind, drink a six pack of Red Bull and just go preach to anyone who will listen.” And I still believe that and still maintain that. The passion to go, and to preach, and to teach, and to minister ought to bring about us a little bit of reckless abandonment. As a footnote, I got a letter in the mail a few weeks after that commencement sermon from an elderly lady who rebuked me for encouraging our graduates to drink alcohol. I wrote her back, very sweetly, informing her that Red Bull was a caffeinated drink, not an adult beverage. I would still say that to you this morning, but not on the back end of things at commencement, but on the front end of things at convocation.
Let’s be a people who are serious, who are cheerful, who know that calling, who believe that calling, who’ve encountered the Lord. When we go about life and ministry with ambition and drive in good gospel ways to such a degree, there might be an uncle, or a daughter, or parent, or friend who thinks, “You know what? He kind of acts like a religious fanatic on occasion.” That’s okay.
Would you pray with me? Father, we come to You this morning. We pray in need, a prayer of consecration. Father, help us to be faithful. Help us, Father, to be cheerful warriors who are pursuing you, living for you, going about the business with a weight, but with the joy, knowing and believing this year is going to be a great year for growth and for church and kingdom impact. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.