When Elvis Presley died there were a lot of different ways in which the news was covered concerning the reactions of the people who really loved him and revered him and almost made him a god. One of those people was a man of whom the press wrote quite a lot of words and every once in a while still do. His name was Dennis Wyse. And Dennis Wyse really, really loved Elvis Presley so much so that not long after Presley died he went and had his face lifted, as they say, by a plastic surgeon and his hair contoured so that he took on a remarkably similar appearance to Elvis Presley. In fact, for a few months made a dollar or two making appearances where people loved to see some kind of phenomenon like that. When interviewed as to what would drive a man to reshape his face to look like Elvis Presley, he revealed that Presley had been his model, his idol for many years. Let me just read to you a paragraph or two as I took it out of The Boston Globe some time ago. He said,
Yes sir, Presley's been an idol of mine ever since I was five years old. I have every record he ever made twice over, pictures in the thousands. I have books, magazines, pillows, even a couple of books in Japanese and Chinese about him. I have three leaves from the front of his house. It was embarrassing to me. When I was in school the kids were always teasing me. When Elvis was wearing white boots, I went out and bought white boots. The kids called them fruit boots. Teachers would always send me to the office because my top two buttons were unbuttoned. I'd button them up, and when no one was looking I'd unbutton them again.
No sir, I never saw Elvis Presley. I saw him on the stage four times. Once I tried to run up to the stage, and once I stood up on the wall of Graceland, the Presley mansion, and tried to see him. For twelve hours I stood trying to get a glimpse of him. But he had so many people around him that you could never get close.
I read those kind of words and I have a suspicion that those are the kinds of words that one reserves for the worship of God. The reshaping of one's facethe gospel talks about being conformed to the image of Christ. Saving artifacts, mementos, every word, every scrap, every hint of a man's presence, it's as if one were worshiping a god. And the most tragic words of that particular article clipped from the Globe are those which say "I never got close to him. I never saw him. I never knew him."
You see, the uniqueness of a Christian gospel is that people purport that they can have an experience with the everlasting God that in a very rich and real sense confounds the unbeliever, we can know God. There's a sense in which we can say we have seen him. I find, frankly, a little bit trite the bumper sticker that says "God is not dead; I talked to him this morning," but you understand the theology behind a phrase like that. Our God is alive. And one does not need to stand behind a wall or buy a ticket to watch him perform, as it were, on a stage. And that is one of the most precious and most basic truths that there is in the reality of the gospel.
Tragically, however, not many people brood upon it. In this particular verse back in Old Testament times Isaiah the prophet is passionate that people know not only who God is but where he can be found. And the verse is very revealing. It's not only an Old Testament verse, but its truths are beautifully New Testament in scope and concept and ought to be a large part of the sense of our faith as we come to God through his Son Jesus Christ. Maybe the key word or two in Isaiah 57:15, which is worth circling if the Bible you have is your own, are the words I dwell.
The child asks a parent, "Daddy, Mommy, where is God? Where does he live?" And here Isaiah is giving us some significant kinds of answers. When he speaks of God, he quotes God as saying I dwell. How shall one talk about that verb? First thing you might want to say is that the phrase I dwell does speak about the fact that our God is alive, that he is person and that he's alive today. He's not like some of the enormous statues and idols that people have to go to in the Far East, prostrate themselves before but with no real sense that their god is alive. This is a God who dwells, who's alive. But even more than that, he's a God whose dwelling place we ought to know about. And Isaiah quotes God in this prophetic revelation as being found in a couple of places, and that really is the outline of the verse.
Let me suggest to you that the verse, as you enter into an exposition of it, can be broken down into two basic themeslofty places and lowly places. In those two locations our God can be found. That is where he makes his presence known.
When I first began to meditate upon the significance of that statement, I must confess to you I became very agitated within my own spirit. And it began to occur to me that many, many Christians as they approach and wrestle with the whole subject of Where can God be found? really do not have an appreciation of what it means to worship God in a lofty place. And, frankly, given some of our spiritual dynamics today there are a lot of people who don't appreciate the fact that God is found in lowly places. We find it convenient to find him in some kind of middle ground which is neither lofty or lowly.
We will find God in the lofty place of majesty
Isaiah wants us to realize first and foremost that God dwells in a lofty place. The word lofty in my translation simply suggesting the notion that our God in his majesty and his power is above us. And of course, in those days of Isaiah's world the number one being in his sense, a king, always sat above the level where everybody else sat. The king had an elevated position. And Isaiah is deeply concerned that the people of his generation get back on track in their understanding of God as being in the lofty position, the upward position where power and majesty is always seen.
If you break down his comments about the lofty places you'll discover three things in Isaiah's theology about God. He says, first of all, beginning in that early part of verse 15, "Our God is high and lofty." I've already tried to make that point. Secondly, "our God inhabits eternity." Thirdly, "our God is one whose name is holy." Three incredibly difficult concepts for my finite mind to fully grasp. There's a dramatic breakthrough in one's spiritual struggle when you realize that all too often we have brought God down inadvertently to the middle ground. Or, to put it another way, we have taken him out of his lofty place, at least in our minds, because it's too difficult to imagine him being there.
Many of you are well versed in the works of Dr. A. W. Tozer. In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, he says this:
The church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble as to be utterly unworthy of thinking worshiping men. This the church has not done deliberately but little bit by little and without her knowledge. [He goes on] The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians, is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us. A whole new philosophy of Christian life has resulted from this one basic error in our religious thinking. And with our loss of the sense of the majesty has come the further loss of religious awe and consciousness of the Divine Presence. We have lost our spirit of worship and our ability to withdraw inwardly to meet God in adoring silence.
Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience life in the Spirit. The words "Be still and know that I am God" mean next to nothing to the hustling, bustling worshiper of the middle period of the twentieth century.
Mind boggling observations. His majesty is so incredible that our mind cannot contain it. We must only bow in awe before it. Isaiah says our God dwells in high and lofty places. Get it straight, Jerusalem.
And then he goes on and he says, "Our God dwells in eternity." He's not bounded by time. That's an incredible problem for me. Time is my worst enemy, unless I use it properly and discipline myself. But our God dwells above time. Isaiah has watched in his lifetime four kings come and go. Some of them die in miserable ways. But his God is above death; his God is above time. Unlimited, unbounded by those things. He's a great God.
And finally he says, "Our God is one whose name is holy." That word holy is a special Isaiah word. All the way through this book of sixty and more chapters Isaiah has referred to God as the holy One, the high and holy One more than forty times. It becomes, as some have said, a prophetic signature. Why is it so important for Isaiah to say these things? My suggestion to you. Because in his lifetime he has watched human power fail so miserably.
If you go back in your Bible to the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, he gives you his spiritual autobiographywhere he got his start. He starts by saying, "In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lifted up." There's that high and lofty concept again. "His train filled the temple, and above him stood the Seraphims, each with six wings, two covered his face, two covered his feet, with two he flew." And what did they say or sing? "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory." What a hymn. I think Isaiah is telling us something at the beginning and the end of his bookthat over and over again he is overwhelmed by the holiness of God. What does that word mean? How does one grasp it?
A couple of ways that the meaning of it may come home to a few of us. The first in terms of an analogy. It's a poor one at best. But when the angles sang, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts," did they have any concept of what one might think of in terms of the brilliant boiling sun, who seems to have, which seems to have that infinitude of light which makes it in itself unapproachable because of its heat and its light? You cannot look at the sun without destroying your eyes. One obviously could not get too close to it. Does the sun give us a proper analogy of the holiness of God? So absolutely perfect, unstained, untainted that we in our stained, tainted sense cannot even look at it, nor approach it.
But the angels go on, fortunately, to say, "The earth is full of his glory." And could it be that the glory of the Lord is much like the rays of the sun, which when while you cannot look at it we can at least feel its warmth and enjoy its light and even draw from its energy. And while you and I in our raw state cannot approach a holy God in lofty places, we can rejoice and abound in the reflected glory that comes from a holy and lofty God.
But the bottom line when one begins to brood upon such things is a recognition of how absolutely unapproachable on our own a holy God actually is. Maybe, maybe when Isaiah wrestled with this concept of a holy, lofty God he not only thought of it in terms of an analogy, but maybe this was impressed upon him in terms of every place he looked in the power structures of his day he saw the opposite of holiness. He saw, for example, this great King Uzziah who reigned upon the throne of Jerusalem for almost fifty years, who had incredible charisma in building up that city, strengthening its walls, reorganizing and reequipping its army, building the economy. Everybody loved Uzziah until in the book of 2 Chronicles 26 it says, "He grew proud to his destruction and walked into the temple and presumed to grab the ceremonial instruments to approach the presence of God at the altar on his own." And the Bible says at the moment when he presumed to do such a prideful thing God struck him with leprosy. And I wonder if in Isaiah's theology when he thinks about the holiness of God, he thinks about that encounter in which Uzziah, the king, literally acts out the acts of unholiness, and he realizes in that presumption that Uzziah has taken unto himself what happens when an unholy man attempts to come into the presence of a holy God on his own right.
And if I am right in that observation, then it occurs to me that there ought to be in passages like this a growing breeding of holy fear in my own spirit, for like Uzziah I am also by instinct a prideful person. And how often do I enter into the sanctuary of worship and open the blessed Word and take the beautiful articles of spiritual dynamic and faith and presume to walk into the presence of God as if it was my perfect right apart from his grace. Is it possible we have not given him his rightful due? The thing that terrified Moses in the book of Deuteronomy when he thought about the children of Israel crossing over into Canaan without him being the leader, what terrified him in Deuteronomy 4:10 was that they would forget the works of God and they would not fear him. Where is the message of honest, healthy fear of an awesome God in the twentieth century gospel? Where is the woman and where is the man who trembles at the thought that we are about to be in the presence of heavenly majesty?
A story is told somewhere along the line that when Alfred Smith was governor of New York he was prevailed upon to make an appearance at a convention dinner. He discovered when he arrived at the convention banqueting hall that the predominantly out of state audience, as the writer said, "had a supercilious, condescending, interest in him." I quoted that because you'd never think of those words coming out of my mouth. They thought that Alfred Smith was kind of a fun joke, and his insight into what they must have been thinking was verified when the toastmaster gave the governor a flippant jaucous introduction climaxed by the phrase, quote, "And now, boys, I give you a great guy, Al Smith."
Governor Smith was the last man in the world to insist on idle ceremony or empty formality. "But on this occasion, the author says, "he sensed an affront to his office and his heritage, and he made his point briefly and tersely. He said, 'Gentlemen, when I was a little boy on the East Side, my father took me to see a great civic parade. I held his hand tightly as battalion after battalion of marching infantry came by. I danced up and down to the marshal music. And the suddenly my father stiffened. I almost felt a tingling pride thrill his being. Swiftly he said, "Son, take off your hat. The governor of New York is passing by." I took of my hat. Gentleman, the governor of New York bids you goodnight.' And he walked out the door."
Are there some times when is this a sacrilege to anthropomorphically picture God as wanting to walk out on congregations who want to meet him on middle ground which is comfortable rather than enter his presence it the fearsomeness and contrition that befits the presence of majesty? Have we made God too much our friend so that he is no longer our God? I think I hear Isaiah trying to drum into the spirits of Jerusalem's people, although they would not hear, that they'd better not monkey around with the everlasting God who dwells in the most prominent place and whose name is holy.
We will find God in the lowly place of humility
Where does God dwell? Isaiah says he dwells in high and lofty places. But the second part of this verse disturbs me just as much as the first part. Remember, I said, I have a suspicion that there are large times in my own Christian experience when I want to meet God on middle ground where I am at home. That means, I prefer not to see him in lofty places where his holiness is accentuated. But very frankly, I'm not too comfortable in seeing God in lowly places either. And it's just as disturbing for me to read in Isaiah 57:15 these words "God also dwells with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit."
The original language in which Isaiah wrote takes that phrase contrite and humble spirit and more literally the word used there is that of describing someone who is crushed. Crushed. That's a very descriptive word. Humble and contrite, I understand what they mean. Crushed, I feel what that means, for I have been crushed sometimes? physically and emotionally and spiritually. And I think it's very striking here that when I Isaiah wrestles with the question Where will you find God? he not only says God can be found in the majestic place where he inspires awe, but also God can be found among the crushed people.
My study of this verse makes me think that there are really two concepts being woven here like threads in a cable. Who are the crushed? Answer one: The crushed are those very obviously who suddenly come to grips with the sinfulness of their own being.
Back to Isaiah 6. "I heard the Seraphim cry out 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.' And smoke filled the temple. And then I said, 'Woe is me for I am lost. I am a man of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the glory of the Lord.'" That's a very instructive statement, because what Isaiah is telling us is this. That throughout his early life he had never really seen himself until he had seen the glory of the majestic, holy God. And when he came to grips with the incredible dimension of God, he also immediately became crushed with the awareness of how low he really was in his own spiritual rebellion and distance from the One who had made him.
"Woe is me," he cried out. What does that word woe mean? Literally it has something to do with the idea of rejection. I think Isaiah is telling us in Isaiah 6:3, 4 when I saw who God is I suddenly realized that according to his creation design and how he meant for men and women to really be, I have fallen short of the specs. I don't live up. I'm a man of unclean lips. And while I used to be somewhat happy with myself, I have become increasingly uncomfortable. I recognize my in response to the glory of the Lord.
I think what I'm trying to say is that no worship experience has really been genuine if there is not an accompanying sense of contrition, that part of my experience in the presence of a holy God ought to be a new recalibration of the fact that I don't belong there apart from his grace. That I am nothing unless I am bathed in his mercy. If it is not for the cross of Jesus Christ, I remain in a state of woe and I must constantly understand that. And if I do not, I cannot depend upon the intimacy of God's presence.
Have you ever heard the name C. R. Sumner? He was a young curate in 1820/1821 who was given the opportunity to be chaplain to King George of England, King George IV, that is. One day in that Anglican atmosphere Charles Sumner walked into the, whatever you call it, the throne room of the King of England to serve him communion. It was apparently a daily occurrence. And when C. R. Sumner got into the presence of the king, he found the king outraged, furiously intimidating a servant, just beating on the fellow with every word in the English language. I quote from an history book.
Finding the king storming at the servant, C. R. Sumner told him plainly, quote, "That he did not seem in a fit state to receive communion. That he must learn to restrain his passion and must show his forgiveness by reinstating the servant." And at this point, the young chaplain requested permission to retire to enable his majesty to think over the matter. And when he was readmitted the king told him that the servant should be restored. Then Mr. Sumner urged the king should not receive communion alone but with the rest of the household, including the servant. And for a time the king demurred, but at last consented and knelt at the holy table with his household, the servant who had been at fault being one of the communicants.
I like courage like that. I don't know whether I would have had that courage, but it's nice to read about C. R. Sumner. His recognition that no one enters before the holy table if there has not been a humble and contrite spirit and things have not been made right.
I said there were a couple of threads here. Let me give you one more. I really believe that Isaiah is saying not only does God dwell amongst those who are crushed and admits though that they have fallen short of his glory and can be comfortable in his presence only by his grace and mercy, but watch this carefully. The crushed are not only those who admit it, but there is a very real sense in which God dwells among the people whom we or others crush.
We should have known when Jesus was born, when he chose by the sovereignty of the Father to be born in a manger to peasant people and to have his birth celebrated by peasant men, we should have known at that moment that Jesus would always find his dwelling place among the crushed. We should have known when God revealed himself in the splendor of Jesus Christ, when he stood up in that synagogue in Nazareth and he quoted from the chapter of Isaiah and said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me," and I paraphrase "to liberate the captives and to touch the poor and to feed the hungry and all those things," we should have known that Jesus' agenda was to spend the majority of his time among the crushed. And when he walked through Jericho and the crowd tried to stop the blind man from crying, "Help!" And Jesus stopped and modified the agenda and the schedule and spent his time with the blind man. We should have known that the Son of God spends his time instinctively with the crushed.
Are there Christians who can look at the starving refugees, millions of them across this world, and flick the TV set off because we have to get on to our programs and have no tears for the crushed? Why are we evangelicals often accused, sometimes unjustly but sometimes justly, of having minimum compassion for the crushed? Because I believe Isaiah is telling us that God is always most sensitive to those who acknowledge that they are crushed and those who are being crushed and need desperately a word of hope and a message of love.
It is much easier for me to remain on middle ground where the crushed do not disturb my sensitivity. It's much easier for me to go to enthusiastic, rollicking services where I can do a lot of talking and listening about dimensions of theology and Christian truth but always bypass my own need to acknowledge my . And tragically, if I pursue that line of activity, I may never get close to the places where God dwells.
Where can God be found? God can be found in high and lofty places; God can be found among the crushed.
W. E. Sangster, the great Methodist preacher of years ago, in his journal of September 18, 1930, and he was but a young man struggling to find his place in ministry, he made this entry:
I am a minister of God, and yet my private life is a failure in these ways.
I am irritable and easily put out.
I am impatient with my wife and my children.
I am deceitful in that I often express private annoyance when a caller is announced and simulate pleasure when I actually greet them.
From an examination of my heart, I conclude that most of my study has been crudely ambitious, that I wanted degrees and knowledge and praise rather than equipment for service. Even in my preaching I fear that I am more often wondering what people will think about me than what they think about my Lord and his Word. I have long felt in a vague way that something was hindering the effectiveness of my ministry, and I must conclude that that something is my failure in living the truly Christian life.
No wonder W. E. Sangster was used to touch so many lives. He knew where God dwelt, and he experienced his presence, because he was willing to acknowledge his own and to enter into the high and holy presence and worship God as God is.
Isaiah says to us our Lord inhabits eternity. He's the high and holy One, and he dwells among the crushed.
Can I make a confession to you? Every once in a while when no one notices, I write bad poetry. And whenever I can find a crowd of people who's captive, I read my bad poetry. And after thinking about these things for many days and having one night an opportunity to go to Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox play, I came home and merged the two experiences, innocuous as that may seem, and I wrote these words.
I came to cheer one night at a baseball park.
The banks of arc lights turning the sky's darkness into artificial day.
In that stadium filled to SRO, I watched the greatest names in baseball
pitch, hit and catch a simple small, round ball.
And a crowd of thousands and thousands writhing in enthusiasm,
absorbed in expectancy, burst with frenzied feeling
at the slightest motion of any famed athlete.
So tense was the drama that it seemed for a moment as if
there was no further perimeter to the real world
except the top row of bleachers where
cold beer flowed like a small river
and smoke rose like incense in a pagan temple.
To hear the prejudice of the crowd,
it seemed as if the greatest humans beings in history stood
in the batter's box
or on the pitcher's mound.
To sense the tenseness of the tie score in the ninth inning,
it seemed as if no other event in the years of humankind came near
to the significance of this exchange
between a man on the mound and another with the bat.
But as I sat faintly tempted to abandon myself to this
twisted view of reality,
I caught from the corner of my eye just beyond the glare of the leftfield lights
A tiny, twinkling star.
Its small sparkle,
It's remote position
Made it seem as if it had nothing to do with or to say about
The pandemonium within that athletic temple.
But, but I strained to listen with the eyes of my spirit
And suddenly heard what apparently no one else could hear
The star, a still small voice whispered,
had been there in the sky longer and longer than the oldest stadium.
It had burned light years before the game of baseball had been perceived.
And it would burn long after mighty Casey would strike out,
Even retire with pension
And it would point to the God,
Whose moves in time and space
are far greater than the foolish efforts of a
fearsome slugger about whom thousands scream tonight.
Why do men choose to see and hear
The trivial efforts of something,
Just a game,
Yet miss the chance to
Stand in awe of
A star twinkling just beyond the arc lights,
Whose magnitude is ten times greater than our sun?
Why do we reverse
The scale of events
Making the shorter the longer,
The bigger the smaller,
The insignificant the more prominent?
It is a mystery.
But until it is solved,
The tiny, quiet star will go on
Just beyond the arc lights
Telling anyone who will stop to listen that
God is there.
And that the times of history are in
Dear Christian friends, in the most fragile of words I tell you what Isaiah says about the dwelling place of God. He can be found in the high and lofty place where we worship. He can be found among the crushed who bow before him in confession and grasp for his gift of grace. He can be found as Christ was foundamong the hurting and the disadvantaged and the abused and the oppressed. In such places, find your God. For that is where he dwells.
Gordon MacDonald is chair of World Relief and editor at large of Leadership. His most recent book is Rebuilding Your Broken World (Nelson 2004).