A Big Glorious Vision of Worship

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
    the whole earth is full of his glory.”

At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:1-8, NIV)

Uzziah was a king of Judah who reigned for fifty-two years. For most of his rule, he followed God faithfully. Under Uzziah the Jews had enjoyed the best political stability, economic security, and consistent worship of God since the days of King Solomon, hundreds of years before. 

Yet, if one were to look below the surface of Judah, it was also a time of spiritual complacency, apathy in worship, taking prosperity for granted, and self-centered – often oppressing others. The nation needed a fresh experience of God, and it came through the prophet Isaiah.

The essence of worship is a recognition and celebration of the triune God. Worship is a relational rhythm between God and humanity in which God self-reveals and people respond.

Worship is an experience of seeing and hearing divine revelation; repenting from wayward actions; and renewing missional service.

Worshiping the triune God ideally happens every day. It’s a lifestyle – not the result of one cleverly planned hour on Sunday. The people of Isaiah’s day were going through the ritual motions of worship without having their hearts in it. Worship was a kind of rabbit’s foot for them in which, if they had regular attendance within the temple, they believed they could do whatever they wanted with their lives outside the temple. 

As a result, the people did not see or hear God in their worship. Authentic worship of God does not have to do with the environment, the fellowship, or the music. True worship of the triune God is a heart desire to see and hear God. 

If worship does not happen in the sanctuary, that is because worship fails to occur daily life. Real worship is a life-changing encounter with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It experiences God’s revelation and changes our view of him. Bona fide worship leads to repentance and changes our view of self. True worship brings spiritual renewal and changes our view of mission and service.

Revelation: Worship Changes Our View of God

Isaiah saw a vision of God in the majestic divine throne room. It was a grand and transcendent vision of a God who dominates the entire setting. The train of God’s robe filled the temple. This is Isaiah’s way of saying the vision was incredibly large. If the train of his robe fills up the temple, then God is an immense Being. Gaining a vision of God’s hugeness is what causes our human problems to be seen as small. 

One time the Assyrian King Sennacherib invaded the land and approached Jerusalem during the reign of Uzziah’s great grandson, Hezekiah. The Assyrians were the dreaded horde of the ancient world, and it seemed no one could withstand them. So, the people prayed:

King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to heaven about this. And the Lord sent an angel, who annihilated all the fighting men and the commanders and officers in the camp of the Assyrian king… So, the Lord saved Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib king of Assyria and from the hand of all others. God took care of them on every side. (2 Chronicles 32:20-22, NIV)

Isaiah’s vision included seraphs – angels with the job description to glorify God with ceaseless praise. Their physical description symbolizes their function: covering their face symbolizes humility in God’s presence; covering their feet identifies it as holy ground; and flying symbolizes their work to do God’s will.

The seraphs have two-thirds wing power for worship, and one-third wing power for work. If this is any indication how God’s creatures are to conduct their lives, we as humans have a great deal of adjusting to do to accommodate the worship of God.

The sound of worship that came from the seraphs was proclaiming God’s holiness. Isaiah’s view of God changed as a result. As he saw God’s glory, Isaiah saw God as much bigger than he had before. For example, European visitors who come to the United States sometimes have no frame of reference as to how spacious the geography of our country is.

Some have a notion they can make day trips to places like San Francisco, Houston, or New York City because where they live is much more geographically compact. But once they get here, they experience the land in all its glory, and they gain an appreciation for the bigness of America. We all need to experience God’s glory and see God’s holiness because it will cause us to repent of old ways of seeing.

Repentance: Worship Changes Our View of Self

Isaiah was reduced to nothing after seeing a vision of the holy God. Humans cannot see God’s glory without also seeing their sinful selves. Isaiah’s response to God was not praise, but confession. Show me a proud, self-centered, and arrogant person and I will show you a person who has not seen God. Isaiah was unable to cleanse his own sin. Isaiah needed God to purge and purify his uncleanness. The New Testament says:

If we live in the light in the same way as he is in the light, we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from every sin… If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from everything we’ve done wrong. (1 John 1:7, 9, CEB)

Seeing God completely unravels us, for we see our depravity for what it truly is:

  • When the Apostle Peter saw the Lord’s immensity and power through a miraculous catch of fish he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” (Luke 5:8) 
  • When the Apostle John had a vision of Christ’s glory, and heard his voice, he fell at the Lord’s feet as though dead. (Revelation 1:12-17)
  • When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God and saw the appearance of God’s glory, he fell facedown. (Ezekiel 1:25-28)
  • Even Daniel, perhaps the most righteous prophet of all time, when seeing a vision of God’s glory, fell prostrate with his face to the ground, totally overwhelmed with God’s holiness and his own human sinfulness. (Daniel 8:15-18)

There is wickedness and indifference in the world. People do not see God’s glory and holiness. Because, if they did, they would be totally undone and see the foulness and degradation of hate and injustice. They would turn from apathetic and complacent ways of living. The world and the church need a vision of a holy God that comes from meeting with God. Isaiah saw the Lord. And because he repented, he was then able to hear the voice of God.

Renewal: Worship Changes Our View of Service

God is calling us. God’s voice has gone out. If we do not hear it, it’s because we have not experienced God’s self-revealing and have not responded with repentance. Apart from worship, we are unable to hear God. While Isaiah was worshiping God, he saw, responded, and heard the Lord. The early church heard the voice of God to service and mission:

The church at Antioch had several prophets and teachers…. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them, “Appoint Barnabas and Saul to do the work for which I have chosen them.” Everyone prayed and fasted for a while longer. Next, they placed their hands on Barnabas and Saul to show that they had been appointed to do this work. Then everyone sent them on their way. (Acts 13:1-3, CEV)

Isaiah was willing. He didn’t ask any clarifying questions. He neither inquired what the mission would be nor questioned God as to the plan. Isaiah plainly said, “Here I am, send me.”  It was an unconditional response to hearing God. Isaiah made no deals with God, did not try and negotiate terms of service. Isaiah simply told God he was willing to be sent. 

Many people fill their lives with stuff and activity. And they are unable to hear the voice of God. There’s just too much noise drowning out God. We have uncritically, without any discernment through prayer and worship, filled our lives to overflowing with never-ending things to do. And we have even sanctified it and called it holy, as if God’s will for us is to be constantly on the go.

Someday, we must give an account of our lives. God will ask why we did not take a risk, get involved, and go out into the world with a deep sense of mission. Too many people will say, “I never heard the call!” Yet, God was calling. “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” says the triune God.

Conclusion

God’s glory was revealed to Isaiah. Isaiah responded to that vision with confession and repentance. This brought a renewed sense of mission to his life. Isaiah was then able to hear God’s voice calling him to service. It is not our ability God cares about. Because God can equip anybody for any type of work. Instead, it is our availability God cares about.

We need to put ourselves in a position to see and hear God. The obstacles to visioning God’s glory and hearing God’s voice are legion: inattention to God’s Word and God’s creation; no mindfulness to the Holy Spirit; intense, constant, and prolonged preoccupations; lack of availability to the ways of Jesus; little sleep; unhealthy habits; a dull spiritual sense; lack of personal and divine awareness; a paucity of spiritual practices and disciplines; and a failure to be able to experience a vision of God.

God has graciously revealed himself to us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is not so much a doctrine to believe as it is a powerful reality to live into. If we see and hear God today it will cause us to repent and be renewed in mission and service.

*Above painting of the prophet Isaiah by Marc Chagall, 1968

Isaiah 49:5-15 – Restoration

Even before I was born,
    the Lord God chose me
to serve him and to lead back
    the people of Israel.
So the Lord has honored me
    and made me strong.

Now the Lord says to me,
“It isn’t enough for you
    to be merely my servant.
You must do more than lead back
survivors
from the tribes
    of Israel.
I have placed you here as a light
    for other nations;
you must take my saving power
    to everyone on earth.

Israel, I am the holy Lord God,
    the one who rescues you.
You are slaves of rulers
and of a nation
    who despises you.
Now this is what I promise:
Kings and rulers will honor you
    by kneeling at your feet.
You can trust me! I am your Lord,
the holy God of Israel,
    and you are my chosen ones.”

This is what the Lord says:
    “I will answer your prayers
because I have set a time
when I will help
    by coming to save you.
I have chosen you
to take my promise of hope
    to other nations.
You will rebuild the country
    from its ruins,
then people will come
    and settle there.
You will set prisoners free
from dark dungeons
    to see the light of day.

On their way home,
they will find plenty to eat,
    even on barren hills.
They won’t go hungry
    or get thirsty;
they won’t be bothered
by the scorching sun
    or hot desert winds.
I will be merciful
while leading them along
    to streams of water.
I will level the mountains
    and make roads.
Then my people will return
    from distant lands
in the north and the west
    and from the city of Syene.

Tell the heavens and the earth
    to celebrate and sing;
command every mountain
    to join in the song.”
The Lord’s people have suffered,
but he has shown mercy
    and given them comfort.

The people of Zion said,
“The Lord has turned away
    and forgotten us.”

The Lord answered,
“Could a mother forget a child
    who nurses at her breast?
Could she fail to love an infant
    who came from her own body?
Even if a mother could forget,
    I will never forget you.” (CEV)

Restoration is a major theme in the prophetic books of the Old Testament. In today’s lesson, God speaks of bringing Israel back to her original calling and purpose. This would be accomplished through the nation of Israel and focused upon God’s Servant, the Lord’s Messiah. The scope and vision of what the Savior would do is enunciated by God: rescue people, lead them home, and show unending mercy. The Servant of the Lord is made a light for the nations so that God’s salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.

Messiah is more than a Jewish thing. The Christian tradition discerns Jesus as the Servant, the Savior of both Jews, and Gentiles – Christ is given to reach the entire planet. The incarnation of Christ was meant for more than gathering Israel together, as if it were some sort of Bill Gaither Homecoming tour. Rather, Messiah’s place and power is so significant that it is to be shared with everyone in the world.  Although Israel was to be a holy entity and separate from the surrounding culture, their mandate had always been to be a light to the nations.

This has great import for Christ’s Church and every individual believer in Jesus. The church is much more than a country club which only caters to club functions and members. The church is a missional community with an outward focus, as well. It has always been God’s vision to reach the nations. The Lord wants more than one group of people; God wants everyone. Along with caring for its own, the church is designed as a missionary enterprise which puts significant resources into shining the light of Christ to every nook and cranny of creation.

However, we are a wounded people living in a culture whose first response to differing voices is to accuse, attack, and injure. Our hurts are carried by all of us collectively and personally, and it gives rise to bitterness, isolation, and resentment. When our hope runs dry, we become marked by cynicism, apathy, and escapism.

The vision of Isaiah gives us an alternative approach. Reflection on God’s mercy, salvation, and loving guidance leads to repentance; repentance of our unholy thoughts, words, and deeds leads to a restoration of our true calling as missionaries of faith, hope, and love to the broken world around us. Restoration brings healing of the stresses and anxieties that plague our planet, and ourselves. 

Since God has a missionary heart, all of God’s people are missionaries to the world. It behooves each believer, then, to be taught, trained, and led into God’s restorative mission to the nations. Let us build caring relationships and extend loving actions both to those within the church and toward those outside of Christian fellowship so that God’s intentions are carried out. For we know that not one person on planet earth is forgotten by God.

Restoring God, you bring us back to close relation and fellowship so that we might extend your gracious purposes throughout the world.  Revive us again, God, so that we can hear your call to the nations through our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Mark 2:18-22 – Structuring for Mission

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” (NIV)

The late newspaper columnist, Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby,” made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind, reorient, and reframe our call in this world and our charge for the church. Christ’s Church does not exist on this earth primarily for the healthy Christian’s benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the welfare of doctors or insurance companies.

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the good news of God’s kingdom in both word and deed. Jesus came to restore lost sinners, redeem wayward sons and daughters, renew bodies and souls, and reform calcified religion with grace and truth.

Physical, spiritual, and emotional sickness is ubiquitous throughout the world and even the church. Many people are just not healthy. Some are sick because of destructive coping strategies; some are brokenhearted and dispirited; others are plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus is the source of healing and change and he invites us to admit our needs and come to him. Conversely, others are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. For those folks, now is the time to roll up our sleeves and participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Jesus came to this earth to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission. Christ used the occasion of John the Baptist’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

Jesus was letting his followers know that after he leaves this earth, things will need to change for the mission to continue. For example, when my wife and I raised our girls, our family dynamic was a certain way because we had them in the house. But when the empty nest phase of our lives finally came, I can tell you there was plenty of fasting that went on in our home. We live differently now, just the two of us. Our daily life structures have changed significantly.

The two illustrations Jesus used, of cloth and of wineskins, emphasize that old and new wineskins are incompatible – old and new pieces of cloth do not go together. I frame it this way with my own metaphor: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The incarnation of Christ was neither about perpetuating the status quo, nor to make a few cosmetic changes and minor adjustments to what was already going on. Instead, Christ came to fulfill the old and do something new so that it could accommodate his mission on this earth.

The perspective from the New Testament book of Hebrews is that the entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were:

“…superficial regulations that are only about food, drink, and various ritual ways to wash with water. They are regulations that have been imposed until the time of the new order.” (Hebrews 9:10, CEB)

“Because Christ offered himself to God, he is able to bring a new promise from God. Through his death he paid the price to set people free from the sins they committed under the first promise. He did this so that those who are called can be guaranteed an inheritance that will last forever.” (Hebrews 9:15, GW)

First, Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). Then he said, “Look, I have come to do your will.” He cancels the first covenant in order to put the second into effect. (Hebrews 10:8-9, NLT)

“When it says new, it makes the first obsolete. And if something is old and outdated, it’s close to disappearing.” (Hebrews 8:13, CEB)

The following three activities are necessary for Christians if the mission of Jesus is to occur:

  1. Develop intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Holy Scripture puts us in a position to know Christ better and affords the ability to know and respond to what is important to Jesus.
  2. Establish relationships with one another. That is, relations which avoid shallow interactions and instead help each other to spiritually grow, thrive, and flourish by holding one another accountable for the mission of Jesus.
  3. Build new relationships with those on the rim of society. People on the outside of power structures and lacking any leverage toward advancing their own needs could use some connections. Our world and our communities are filled with sick, underprivileged, hurting, lonely, oppressed, forgotten, and unhealthy persons. They don’t need slight alterations to their lives but the kind of radical change that comes from the strong meat-and-potatoes of God’s gospel of grace working through a wild bunch of sold-out-to-Jesus Christians. 

Are there any structural things we need to let go so that mission and care can happen in this world? How might the structure of our prayers change if we were to focus on what is important to Christ’s mission? In what ways will we work toward a structurally just and right society which champions the common good of all persons?

Gracious God of all creation, create generations of people transformed into wholehearted lovers of God, encountered by the living Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Contend with those who oppress others and multiply the good and the beautiful in us all. Bring the fullness of your benevolent rule and reign to this world. May we exist for the purpose of enjoying God, loving others, and joining Jesus in the restoration of all things. Amen.

Philippians 1:15-21 – On Living with Purpose

St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt, 1627

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preaches Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)

 It was the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan who said, “There is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.” The ability to have disinterested attention from others and freedom from selfishness comes from a place of humility and strength – the power to know oneself well and be secure in that knowledge, as well as the humility to care more about an important cause than self.

The Apostle Paul had so learned humility from his Lord and was so thoroughly convinced of the gospel’s centrality that he did not care who got the credit when it came to proclaiming Jesus. Paul was quite aware of the varied motives of preachers other than himself. And much to the astonishment of many, he cared little about receiving personal credit even though recognition went to others who likely did not deserve it.

Paul had such a disinterested stance toward receiving accolades from his preaching because his burning, driving, constant, and passionate pursuit was the proclamation of Christ – and he cared little who did it, so long as it got done. He wanted the entire world to know Jesus Christ crucified, risen from death, ascended, and coming again. It seems Paul would have done anything toward this overarching purpose and dream, draining himself of every drop of self-centeredness in order to champion the cause of seeing people repent and believe the gospel of forgiveness and realize new life in Christ.

I freely admit that my own heart resonates deeply with Paul’s – I am absolutely enamored with the person and work of Jesus. Along with Paul, my desire is ardent to see God’s grace in Christ transform the world with a collective and miraculous enlargement of heart toward our fellow humanity. In fact, my longings for this are such that I sometimes lay awake at night wondering how to introduce Jesus to others through basic kindness and altruism. I want the great cause of my life to meet the world’s deep need with the deep love of Jesus Christ. 

From decades of personal and anecdotal experience, I can say that attention and recognition are far too overrated – and giving up one’s life for a cause greater than oneself is much too underrated. If you and I really want to find our lives, we must give them up. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Thus, we have nothing to lose.

 Gracious God, thank you for the example of your servant Paul.  I rejoice in what you did in and through his life.  I am available for your purposes.  Use me in the advance of your gospel of grace so that I might fully participate in your grand forgiveness mission.  Amen.