It is not an easy thing to follow Jesus; in fact it is impossible to bear witness to whom (sic) he really is without a powerful personal encounter with Jesus in both his majesty and his humility. This depth of insight is at the heart of this week’s section of The Story, a chapter dominated by the writings of Isaiah. In a way that is unparalleled in the Old Testament this prophet was given a vision of the grandeur of God and his lowliness. At the end of the Bible God himself defines prophecy in this way; “the essence of prophecy is to give a clear witness for Jesus.” (Rev 19:10). Isaiah is an extraordinary example of such prophecy, and the experiences of his life can help us as the people of God at St Mark’s to have a fuller vision of Jesus. It is such a vision of the greatness of Christ that will empower us to become a prophetic voice into our community today. The key to understanding all forms of prophetic ministry is the call from God to become a prophet.
The Call of Isaiah
2,750 years ago Isaiah entered the temple in Jerusalem as a priest and came out as a prophet. Here he shares his own story; “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.” (Isaiah 6:1 ESV). Isaiah is first struck by God’s exalted position then his utter and dazzling incomparability; “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.” (6:2-4 cf. Rev 4:8). In the presence of God the “holy angels” (cf. Mark 8:38) cannot restrain their praise of the LORD’s absolute purity. The angels may be filled with joy but Isaiah’s experience is totally different. Here are his emotionally charged words:
“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!”” (6:5). Isaiah is confronted with the intensity of a holiness he cannot measure. A revelation of the holiness of God always creates inside his servants a tremendous tension, a yearning desire to be united with him and an overwhelming sense of unworthiness for such intimacy. (This sort of tension is a healthy sign of God’s work in our lives cf. Gal 5:17.) Isaiah feels so unworthy that it seems like he will be crushed to death in the presence of the LORD, this is not surprising for the Hebrew word for “glory” means “weightiness”. Spontaneously the priestly Isaiah shouts out using the ritualistic language of the Old Testament declaring himself “unclean”, impure and defiled. He is most conscious of his “unclean lips”, of his complete unworthiness to join in the praise and worship of the angelic choir whose words fill the temple. He is also conscious that the people of Israel are in no better state than he is; “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips”. Jesus confirmed Isaiah’s verdict on the state of people’s lips.
The Jews of Jesus day were just as religious and ritualistic as those of Isaiah’s time; here is what he said to the Pharisees, ““You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’””(Matthew 15:7-9 ESV; Isa 29:13). These were people who had the outer form of godliness but whose lives failed to show its power (2 Tim 3:5). At another time Jesus explained, “What you say flows from what is in your heart.” (Luke 6:45). What each of us speaks about most confidently shows us what is closest to our hearts. What do you speak about most passionately – family, fishing, football, finance, work, houses, cars… or Christ? The call of God will dramatically change Isaiah’s own heart giving new clarity and authority to his words. But first let me answer a question that may be on your mind.
Is the God of the Old Testament prophets the same God we worship through Jesus Christ today? Can his holy and glorious presence still make us feel like we are about to die? The answer is a categorical “Yes!” I was faced with a crisis some years ago and needed to make a decision very quickly about the direction of my life. As I started to pray about God’s will my awareness of the presence of God grew stronger and stronger until I thought I would die. I asked the Lord to lessen his hand on me because the presence of his peace had given me an answer to the right way forward.
The LORD did not leave Isaiah wallowing in terror but immediately “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.”” (6:6-7). The coal was taken from the altar of incense, whose clouds protected the priests from the risk of death in the close presence of God (Lev 16:12-13). The red hot coal touching Isaiah’s lips cleanses by means of atonement. The Hebrew word for “atonement” means “to cover over”, God has covered over Isaiah’s guilt so that he knows himself to be guiltless in the presence of a holy God. His relief must have been overwhelming and he now been prepared to hear the words of God in an entirely new way. Like Isaiah our confidence to witness for Jesus needs to flow from a total experience of forgiveness. (Donna and I were at a friend’s birthday party last night and she was recounting how Jesus touched her life one day and she came home to her family saying, “I’m clean, I’m clean.”)
Now Isaiah receives his commission to be a prophet; “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.””(6:8). Once the terror of judgement was lifted off Isaiah he was bursting to do the will of God whatever it took. Jesus taught the same thing, whoever has experienced great forgiveness loves God greatly, and whoever has experienced little forgiveness loves only a little (Luke 7:47). Anyone who has experienced the delivering power of God’s grace willing wants to be a witness for Jesus.
The Servant of the LORD
I now want to switch to our main reading of today, Isaiah 52:13-53:12; in this passage Isaiah proves himself to be the greatest Old Testament prophet of the cross. The subject of this part of The Story is the Servant of the LORD, an anonymous figure through whom God will bring deliverance to Israel and healing and justice to the nations (42:1-9; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). The section begins with an unexpected link to Isaiah’s vision of God.
Isaiah had seen the LORD on his heavenly throne “high and lifted up”, now he is moved to announce that God’s “servant … shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” (Isaiah 52:13 ESV). This announcement is remarkable for a prophet in Israel; a human being will come to share the status of the Sovereign of the universe. The unique message of this passage is that the lifting up of the Servant will come through extreme empathetic suffering on behalf of others (52:14; 53:2). This is the only place in the Old Testament where one human being is said to carry the responsibilities of the sins of others; “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v.4) “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” (v.5), “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (v.6), “he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people” (v.9). Although the Servant is uncomplaining and sinless (v.7, 9) God crushes him and puts him to grief (v.10). The miraculous result of the Servant’s suffering is our salvation; “He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. (v.5), “because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins” (v.11). This is the most profound prophecy of the sacrifice of the cross found in the Old Testament but it goes on to speak of the resurrection.
“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors (v.12).” The “high and lifted up” Servant is Jesus, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven where he shares the throne of God.
One final passage from Isaiah throws even more light on why Jesus was elevated to share the glory of God. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the crushed, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15). On the cross Jesus spirit descended into the depths of lowliness and was totally crushed as he expressed the depths of the Father’s love for the lost and broken. In the resurrection God’s Spirit revived the human spirit of Christ and filled him with his own eternal glory. It is just as the apostle Paul said, Christ Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:8-11 ESV). Through willing sacrifice Jesus has taken away the power of guilt and been united with the eternal glory of God the Father on our behalf .
The book of Isaiah stands out in scripture because of its discernment of the true greatness of Jesus. John’s Gospel provides an insight into the prophetic power of Isaiah when in a passage dealing with Jesus’ rejection by the crowds John quotes from Isaiah chapter 6 and comments, “Isaiah said these things because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke of him.” (John 12:41 ESV). The glory which Isaiah saw in the temple was that of Jesus! The vision of the incomparable majestic LORD of Isaiah’s call and the testimony of the humble, broken suffering Servant are both witnesses to Jesus. How can the exalted image of God in Isaiah’s temple vision be the same person suffering without glory on a cross?
Our minds strain to hold these two extremities together; but an answer is found in Jesus’ own words from the cross. ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). Unlike us Jesus never gloried in reputation, family, friends, finance or any earthly achievement. The Son’s only glory was his Father (John 8:54) and it is the presence of the Holy and Righteous Father which he sacrifices on our behalf on the cross (John 17:11, 25). The glory which Jesus had always enjoyed amidst the praise of the holy angels, the glory which Isaiah had seen in the temple, was now stripped away from him as he bore our guilt and uncleanness. On the cross Jesus bore all the terror that Isaiah felt in the temple, and all the terror of all humanity in the presence of a holy God. Jesus was not left bearing our uncleanness, the writer of Hebrews explains, “What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honour.”” (Heb 2:9). Through his humiliation Jesus is now high and lifted up. This is the pathway on which Jesus calls us.
Not every follower of Jesus is called to be a prophet, but all Christians are called “to give a clear witness for Jesus” which is “the essence of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). It is the calling of the Church to tell the world about the Saviour who glory was crucified for their sake. Why does the average Australian Christian struggle so much to speak to others about Jesus as the great and lowly person that he truly is? The strong words of the apostle Paul point us to the reason, “But God forbid that I should glory/boast, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Gal 6:14). In the language of the prophets, the central problem of the people of God is always idolatry.
Each of us has dimensions of our thought lives which are higher and more important to us than our thoughts about Jesus (1 Cor 2:8; 2 Cor 10:5). I remember how painful it was to accept that God didn’t want me to accept a career as a scientist, and then years later how to follow Jesus meant to turn away from a comfortable life as a professional theologian in a prestigious institution. What is most real in your experience, most intense in your speech and your greatest passion? Whatever that thing is it is your idol. For men it is often work or sport, for women children and grandchildren, for religious people their religious practices, I have ministered to plenty of burnt out pastors whose idol has been their ministry. Church is a regular idol, this is why many Anglicans express much more confidence in talking about their church life than in speaking to others about Jesus.
Jesus said, ““If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.”” (Luke 14:26). To live out this commandment we need to have a meaningful with Jesus “high and lifted up” as Lord of all. Let me share with you why I am so passionate about this. About 20 years ago a group met to pray 12 hours a day for a week, the last day was terribly difficult, some people walked out, others argued and the spiritual oppression was severe. As I sought the Lord with all my heart there was suddenly a supernatural appearance of Christ “high and lifted up”, ascended above all things created, restoring order to all the dimensions of culture – arts, government, law, business, education….etc.
The world today, our husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, relatives, friends, workmates, desperately need the revelation of God. Not a God so far away as to be useless, nor a God so conformed to our cultural values as to be harmless. Our world needs a revelation of a God who is both utterly holy and majestic AND “familiar with grief”; the world needs of Jesus. If we are true disciples of Christ we like Isaiah have had our lips cleansed and our guilt taken away, we are the ones who can “give a clear witness for Jesus” which is “the essence of prophecy”. Surely this is God’s his call on St Mark’s. The most powerful symbol in our church building is the altar, an altar is a place of sacrifice. Jesus placed the glory of his Father on the altar of the cross so that we might live (Heb 13:10), as we approach the altar shortly what can we place on it at the feet of Jesus. What are those precious things, idols, that are more important to us than the crucified Lord, it is as only as we surrender them to him that we will have a revelation of Jesus as the “high and lifted up” who alone deserves all the glory.
 The Story is an abbreviated version of the Bible our congregation is reading together.