WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU COME TO CHURCH
August 21, 2005
I have observed over the years in my own life, and I think in the experience of other people, that we come to church with all kinds of different expectations. Sometimes we come to church expecting to find familiar surroundings and a routine that we are used to, and it sort of makes us think that everything is going like it should in our lives. Sometimes we come to church expecting that somehow our attention is going to be drawn apart from what has been going on in our lives, and somebody is going to get our attention and inspire us and give us a blessing that we can take away from the meeting with us. Sometimes we may come to church thinking someone will entertain us put us in a better mood for the day.
Isaiah 6:1-8 lays before us what should be expected when we draw near to the Lord. The fact of the matter is that worship of the God of heaven is not meant to be something that is just kind of a gathering of friendly people so that someone will treat us right, although we hope that happens. It is not meant to be something sort of like a picnic which is informally enjoyable and gives us a pleasant experience. It is not meant to be something like a performance where everything is done to suit us. Worship of God has higher purposes than any of those things.
This passage has to do with the commission of the great prophet Isaiah. It occurs at a time around 740 B.C. It tells of the prophet’s vision of God, his cleansing from God and his appointment to God’s service. These events make such a profound impression on Isaiah that they change his life around and certainly affect the course of the history of his people. We want to observe here what we ought to expect when we come together as the church and when we draw near into God’s presence.
Grounded in Real Life
First, we ought to expect when we come to church for this to be the hub of our lives. Notice in Isaiah 6:1 that Isaiah tells us that this happened in the year that King Uzziah died. That just sounds like a point in time for us, but there is a lot more involved than that. King Uzziah was a good man and a good king who ruled in Jerusalem and Judah for 52 years. It was at a time when God used him to bring rich blessings into the life of his people. There was relative peace and the people prospered; things went well. The people had come to depend upon the leadership of this man. But when things were going well, King Uzziah got a little more proud than he should have been. He assumed for himself a right and a privilege which had only been assigned to the priests under the old covenant. He went into the temple and undertook to burn incense in the holy place himself. When one of the priests rebuked him for that and told him he was taking upon himself what did not pertain to him and that he had done wrong, the king, instead of repenting, grew quite angry. When he responded that way, God struck him with leprosy on his forehead. He was a leper for the rest of his life.
As his rule began to wind down and as his influence headed in the wrong direction, things started declining in the national life of Isaiah’s people. There was grief; there was discord; there was a wasting away of all of the prosperity which had existed before. That is the circumstance within which this whole meeting that we read about in Isaiah 6 occurred. Isaiah was not there to escape from life. He was there very much in the presence of real life and very much grounded in reality.
The first lesson for us to learn here is that when you and I come together, we are not ignoring our real lives. We do not come merely to take our minds off of life, but instead to be reminded of what is at the very center of our lives. I know what we mean when I hear us pray that we may take our minds completely off of our everyday worldly lives and to focus on remembering Jesus and coming before God. I know what we mean by that, but I hope it doesn’t leave the wrong impression. When we come together in worship, what we are doing is getting our lives back in focus. We are remembering what our priorities are in the real world and remembering that whatever our concerns are and whatever our griefs are, we still are loved. We are reminded that we have obligations to people and that other folks are counting on us. We are being reminded that there are more important things in our lives than just what we like or what we want for ourselves. Worship is grounded in the reality of life, and when we come, we don’t come to escape but to remember what the hub of it all is.
Confronted By The Holiness of God
Secondly, when we come to church, we ought to come expecting to be confronted by the greatness and goodness of God. Did you notice in the reading how this point is driven home in this passage? Isaiah may have been in the temple in Jerusalem when this occurred. We are not sure of that. But he saw what was going on in God’s temple even in heaven. He says, “I saw the Lord.” Do you realize what an astonishing statement that is? Paul makes the point in I Timothy 6 that this is a God no one can see. There is always the idea that nobody can see the Lord and live because His glory is so great. Moses was not able even to see all of God’s glory and live, but when he saw a little of God’s glory, it so changed him that he had to cover his face with a veil so that his people would not be frightened. But Isaiah says, “I saw the Lord.”
Look at the way the Lord’s greatness and goodness is emphasized in this passage. First he is on the throne, high and lifted up. Above all other authorities or powers or dominions, there is the almighty God sitting like a king in his power or like a judge in his authority already as someone before whom everybody would bow down. Notice that his long flowing robes, his train, so fills the room of the most holy place that there is no place to stand before the glory of this God. Notice that there are seraphs there. That is the only time in the Bible that particular term, seraph or seraphim, is used. The word means “burning one” or “fiery one.” Apparently these are the attendants of the Lord, the angels that he uses to send to accomplish his purpose. These seraphs are so impressed by the one on the throne that with two of their wings they cover their faces in humility. They are not able to look upon the full glory of God. With two other wings they cover their feet in humility and reverence and respect for him and with the other two they fly to do whatever he commands or sends them to do. These seraphs, this passage said, are continually singing. Their song repeated three times the holiness of God. What is praised is God’s name as the Lord, and God’s nature as the almighty God, the Lord of hosts, and God’s glory which fills all of his earth, as if to emphasize God’s tremendous holiness, his separateness, his unapproachableness, his difference from everything else. The holiness of God is sung. And the song is so great that the foundations of the building shake, the thresholds of the doors shake. We are reminded of what happened at Mt. Sinai as the earth quaked with the voice of God and then of the picture in Hebrews 12 as a foreboding of the judgment, the shaking of all things at the greatness of the one on the throne. And then the house is filled with smoke. Smoke in the Old Testament is apparently used to indicate the presence of awe or deep wonder at the hiddenness and the greatness of God.
Isaiah in God’s presence had his mind taken off of what his wants and needs were, and he is completely and totally impressed with the greatness and the goodness of God. Sometimes there is the thought, “Well, what am I going to get out of it?” as if that is the whole point of our coming together. The picture in the Bible is of a God who is so great and wonderful that he has to be praised. Worship is about ascribing or giving something to God.
In Psalm 29 there is a picture of God as if he were a great thunderstorm that might have gone across the face of the land back in those days. It talks about the noise and the sound and the power and the furry of that storm. That is what God is like. And so it says in Psalm 29:2, “Ascribe to the Lord the glory. Do his name.” In Psalm 116 there is a beautiful note struck by a man who has counted his blessings. Notice that he touches on it three times. In verse 12, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits?” Render means “What shall I give to him?” Verse 14 says, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.” Notice again the thought of giving something to him. Verse 17 says, “I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Notice again the thought of giving to him.
When I am impressed with God and when I am concerned with sending a message to him and with giving something to him, then it begins to have an impact on me to make a difference in me. We ought to expect to be impressed with the greatness and goodness of God when we come together with his people.
Impressed With Our Need
Next, this passage says that when we come before the Lord, we should expect to be impressed all over again with our need for a savior and with our dependence on him. In Isaiah’s case, you will notice that he responds to having seen the Lord by saying, “Woe is me!” “Woe” is a term which means that he knows that he is subject to calamity coming upon him. It is an expression of terrible fate. He says, “I am undone; I am lost.” The word means that he is coming apart, that he is cut off, that he is ceasing to be. He recognizes that as his condition. Look at the reasons why. First, he says, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” What made Isaiah think that? Did someone get up and call him a filthy sinner? Did someone get up and tell him how bad he was? No! He saw the greatness and goodness of God and then had to consider his life in the light of God’s holiness. He saw something about his words and his thoughts and his motives that day. He began to understand something that was altogether different from what he might have understood if he had been comparing himself to other people. With other people you can say, “Well, I am not as bad as, or I am at least as good as, old so-and-so.” But before God Isaiah saw vividly his own unworthiness and his own deep need. This is what I meant a little earlier when I said that worship can’t be about just being comfortable. There is something uncomfortable about having to uncover the corners of your own heart and life to see what is there in comparison to the unapproachable light of the holiness of God.
And then notice the second reason he is undone. He says, “My eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.” There is a thought to this that runs through the Bible. When Job, in his pain and questioning and his struggle, was crying out to God with all his questions, finally God appeared to him with questions of his own. And when Job had to consider the greatness and the glory of God, he put his hand over his mouth and he said, “I abhor myself. I uttered things I did not understand.” He despised himself. In Exodus 3 when Moses found himself before God, the Bible says that he hid his eyes because he was afraid to look on God. In Ezekiel 1:28, Ezekiel sees the glory of God and he says, “I fell on my face.” When Daniel found himself in the presence of God’s glory, he said, “All of my comeliness turned to corruption and I fell on my face with my face to the ground” (Dan. 10:8, 9). Are you beginning to see a theme? That’s what happens when people find themselves in the presence of Deity. They recognize their lostness, recognize the need for a savior.
I wonder if the reason why we know Isaiah as the Messianic prophet is not in the fact that Isaiah had seen his own lostness, and his words came from that background. When I come to church, even though it may not always be comfortable for me, I want to recognize my need for the cleansing, forgiving work of my savior. I want to understand that I am dependent on him, that I am so fortunate for the grace that Jim mentioned as he led us in prayer at the Lord’s Table. I have so much to be grateful for - that God would love me anyhow and would bless me as he has.
A Sense of Wholeness
Fourth, when we come together as a church we ought to expect to be able to leave with a sense of wholeness and peace in our lives. Let me show you what I mean by that. In this episode when Isaiah recognizes that he is coming undone, one of the seraphs, obviously at God’s bidding, flew to Isaiah, verse 6 said. He had in his hand a coal that he had taken from the altar. Maybe it was the altar of burnt offering where the sacrifices were made to atone for the sins of the people on the day of atonement. Those coals were taken into the holy of holies where incense was burned inside the veil (Lev. 16:12). This seraph flew to Isaiah and touched his mouth with that hot coal and said, “Your iniquity is taken away. Your sin has been atoned for.” In other words, Isaiah found out that, on the basis of a sufficient sacrifice which had been offered to atone for his sin, he was forgiven. He was cleansed. He understood that his guilt had been taken away and had been dealt with. Anything else that Isaiah does later on in his life, any message that he brought, any work that he did could not have happened without his knowing that he had been forgiven.
When we come together, then, we want people to see in view of real life the greatness and goodness of God which humbles all of us. It shows us our need for a savior. But we don’t want anybody to leave without understanding that a savior has been provided. Anybody can be forgiven and cleansed and given a fresh start in life!
It is interesting to me the application the New Testament makes of this episode in Isaiah’s life. It is in John 12. In this passage John says of Isaiah, surprisingly, that the glory the prophet saw was actually the glory of Jesus (John 12:40-41). Verse 41 says, “Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory (Jesus’ glory, the one in whom these people did not believe) and he spoke of him.” Notice just a few verses earlier what Jesus had said. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). John explains that he says this about being lifted up referring to the kind of death he was to die. Think about what we are learning here. When we lift up the glory of God we are lifting up the glory of somebody who paid the price for our sins by sacrificing even his own son to clean us up.
So we want, when we have been here together, to leave having been reminded that we have been loved, we have been forgiven, and we have been dealt with mercifully. That is what kind of God we worship and serve. That is who he is. That is how he longs to deal with every human being.
Sent To Serve
Then notice that when we have come together, we ought to expect to be sent out with an eagerness to let the Lord’s will be done in our lives. In Isaiah 6:8, Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord. The Lord here is assigning Isaiah a commission by raising a rhetorical question which he lets Isaiah answer for himself: “Who shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me.” At this point he didn’t even know what kind of job he was letting himself in for. It was a job! It was one where he wouldn’t be appreciated, where there would be some frustration and heartbreak. But notice his willingness, his eagerness, and the way he takes it personally. “Here am I; send me.”
Think of the times in the Bible where that “Here am I” shows up. Genesis 21 where Abraham is told to go out and offer his own son: “God says ‘Abraham,’ and he says ‘here am I.’” This is the response of a servant, in other words. He doesn’t say, “What do you want?” but just “Here am I.” In the case of Moses in Exodus 3:4: The voice out of the bush says, “Moses,” and he says, “Here I am.” With Samuel in I Samuel 3, God speaks in the night to Samuel. And Samuel is taught by Eli to say, “Here am I.”
When the gospel calls, it said “whoever will.” It is looking for people who will respond, “Here I am; send me.” It may be “send me to meet my responsibility in ever day life;” “send me to be a better husband and dad;” “send me to be a better wife and mother;” “send me to be a neighbor to my neighbors;” “send me to be a Bible teacher;” “send me to pass the gospel along to my friends I meet tomorrow.” One church that I know of put a sign above the door at the back of the auditorium which said, “You are now entering your mission field.” Everybody having been to worship had to go out that door under that sign. We need to go with the attitude of the great prophet Isaiah– “here am I; send me.”
What should you expect when you come to church? You should expect it to be the hub of your life, to be impressed with the greatness and goodness of God, to see your need for a savior, to be assured of forgiveness and to be sent out with a mission. Who will choose to be on the Lord’s side and let those things happen in life?