Three steps. That’s what the advertisers always promise, right? Three easy steps to lose weight, stop smoking, write a best seller or … (fill in the blank).
But what if it’s not just a personal crisis you’re trying to solve. What if it’s a national crisis? That’s just the way you and I might feel about the 2020 election. It’s also how our prophet, Isaiah, must have felt the year King Uzziah died. (Listen to our church’s sermon on Isaiah 6 here.)
Our country experienced a similar crisis when FDR died in 1945. He had been president since Inauguration Day 1933. During those twelve plus years, he had led the nation out of the Great Depression, through two New Deals, and reluctantly into World War II. Ahead lay Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the end of the war, but FDR didn’t live to see them.
What do you do when a long term leader dies in the middle of a national crisis?
Step 1: Stop
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is Stop. I don’t know about you, but I tend to run in circles when a crisis hits. My first instinct is to panic. To “run for all the exits at once” as my husband says. He’s seen me do it, and once he finishes laughing, he tries to help me stop.
Instead of panicking, maybe you’re more likely to take action in a crisis. “No use crying over spilled milk” as my mother-in-law used to say, rolling up her sleeves and grabbing a towel.
Last week we read Isaiah’s Prologue (Isaiah 1-5), where the prophet over viewed the sad state of his nation. God’s people were in a moral crisis. Their sins weren’t just personal, they were national. Consequently, their crisis didn’t simply affect their personal reputation, it slimed their God.
Does the prophet now hand us his own, human three-step action plan? Not at all. No mere earthly plan can meet the need. No mere human leader can address the evil in our hearts.
Rather, Isaiah–and we, his readers–are ushered into the heavenly throne room. It is there that we meet the King of kings on his throne. This is no “Game of Thrones” scenario, full of the intrigues and dalliances of an earthly palace. No, this throne is holy. And it is not up for grabs. Neither is it in peril of being lost or corrupted.
Isaiah sees the King “sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up (Isaiah 6:1).” It is a vision of the King of all kings, eternally seated on the Throne of all thrones.
The vision is not a call to action, but a summons to stop. And bow.
Step 2: Look
The second of our three steps is Look. “I saw,” Isaiah says, but what did he see? Let’s look:
- The Seated Lord
- The Hovering Seraphim
- The Filled Temple
The scene is vertical–a portrait, not a landscape. The seated Sovereign of the universe reigns from the highest throne. How many steps might lead up to such a throne? We aren’t told. But we are told about the angels. The plural of seraph is seraphim. Their name means “burning ones” and their rank is highest among the angels, hovering in God’s very presence above his throne.
For some reason, I always picture 6 of them (probably got that number from their 6 wings), but there were actually an uncounted multitude.
Picture with me this undulating mass of heavenly beings. CS Lewis has furnished my imagination for this scene with the “eldila” of his space trilogy. In Out of the Silent Planet he describes them as beings of pure light who appear as flickers or shimmers within the natural light. Feel the heat of their burning presence.
See their wings, not just two, but six. Why would they need six wings to fly? They don’t. They need only two to fly. The other four wings seem to be used for some kind of angelic modesty. They cover themselves: two for their eyes, two for their feet. Though they are the burning ones, they live in the presence of the Holy One.
What kind of God is this, that angels must hide their eyes?
Our vertical portrait is full to the bursting. In fact “filled” or “full” is used 3 times in only 4 verses: The King’s train by itself fills the temple. The King’s house, his heavenly temple, begins filling with smoke.
But the third “filling” isn’t visual. It’s sound.
Step 3: Listen
Close your eyes and listen. The seraphim are chanting, back and forth, back and forth.
What are they saying, these angels?
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”
This antiphonal call is constant. Emphatic. And utterly true. It’s what Isaiah, you, and me need to hear before we vault into action. Our God is holy–utterly separated from the ugly taint and the corrupting power of sin. He is unimaginably pure.
But he’s not just Holy. He is Holy, Holy, Holy. He is the superlative of holy: Holy, Holier, Holiest. This is the only time in Scripture that we see one word, repeated three times. Are we as stunned as Isaiah? Suddenly, he sees himself, not as a man of God, but as a fellow sinner.
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…
How can a sinner dare to speak for the Holiest One? Only after that One atones for his sin through sacrifice. “Here am I,” says Isaiah (I picture him jumping up and down), “Send me!”
Hearing Means Doing
What do we do with this passage? Are we who are cleansed by the blood of Christ also called to bear witness to him? We are indeed. That is the best response to our national crisis.
But what if no one listens? That, perhaps, is our greatest fear.
Isaiah’s message fell on deaf ears, too. Israel refused to repent under Isaiah’s prophetic ministry, just as God warned him (Isaiah 6:9-12). In fact, their stubborn unbelief would lead to national ruin. They would become like an enormous tree chopped down and reduced to a dead stump. See it for yourself, grey and lifeless.
But look again. What’s that growing from the base on the backside? It’s a twig, tiny but alive! That’s the sliver of hope Isaiah sees, and we know the name of that hope: Jesus our Messiah.
If this Holy, Living King can bring life from death, then surely he can help us bear witness to that Life in our nation’s critical illness.