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The Greater Glory

Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Dallas, Texas, November 22, 1963. Memphis, Tennessee, April 4, 1968. A place and a date, typically when things are coming apart, mean a great deal to us. We attach to them the greater importance of all the events that circle around them. They bring to mind crisis at times, tragedy, turning points.

It's a convention not only true to us but of the ancients as well. Hear Isaiah doing the same. The place: Judah. The time: the year that King Uzziah died. It may not mean much to us anymore, but to the Israelites it meant much. They were coming out of a period of great prosperity and now suddenly the king, who has kept the wheels of commerce greased and the walls of security strong, is either dying or has died of leprosy. Of course, they wonder what's coming next.

You know when a strong man dies what happens—devastation and decadence and decay. It's no wonder they want a newspaper to let them know what's coming. In essence, God sends them a reporter with the news they don't want to hear: "Ruin is coming." But they would not even listen to the reporter. He gives them his credentials straight up front; he says he's checked his sources. He's had an interview with the right person. He has talked with God and it's with that dateline and interview that Isaiah prepares us.

The greater glory.

I do not remember the dateline, but I do remember the picture on the front page. Some Summit, some event, I don't recall all the specifics, but a picture of the President greeting Dignitaries of States from some other nations. As those dignitaries were greeting him in the background showed the glory, the pomp and circumstance of the moment. There were the limousines and the state airplanes and the flags of the various nations flying. Oh the wonderful glory of the event.

But it's not that as the reason that I remember. There was another picture on that front page. It was a picture, a simple one, of a mother kissing a child. Not nearly as many words with this picture as with the other. Just a short caption, saying that this was the first mother in this nation who had adopted a baby infected with AIDS. As I saw that picture, I was hit by the juxtaposition of this great pomp parade with this selfless intimacy. The thought that crossed my mind was, I wonder which of these is the greater glory?

Now I'm asking you that question this day, too. In your minds ask, Which is the greater glory? I expect you to react a little bit and say, "Well, you know, that's not a thing you can weigh. The mind can't weigh out those things." I acknowledge that, but your heart can weigh it out. What your heart weighs will determine what your eyes see as you look at this passage.

That's what I'm asking you to see this day. I know it's easy to see the great glory. It's here just so plain. You look at the great verse, "I saw the Lord seated on a throne high and exalted and the train of his robe filled the temple." I mean, the marks of glory here are astounding. There is no parallel in Israel's experience. They know what a temple is. They know what a throne is. But, how could a throne be in a temple? Where, after all, could be that spiritual sanctum where God sits on a throne so that the train of his glory fills that entire place?

Well, you know what you have to be looking at. God has lifted the veil, parted the clouds, and we see into heaven. It is an amazing glory. You might think that it's what the people are supposed to see. While their world is coming apart, while they have all this concern about the decay and the ruin and the fright that they have, they are now seeing this image that God is yet on his throne. Our God still reigns and that's the glory they are supposed to see.

There's a part of it that's the truth there. Even more, what they are supposed to see apparently is the mark of the holiness that God is revealing. Something they do not really want to see, because part of the decadence of their culture is due to their own sin.

Here is God—high and exalted. He is in some way separated from his creation. This is a separate realm. It's that glimmering picture of what holiness is. God is untouched by the imperfections of this world. He is not involved in the sin of his people. The decay of this world is not that which is influencing him. He is wholly other. He is separated. That which taints us does not touch him. He is holy.

That truth is further revealed in the second verse. It's clearer, even to us, where this God is. Above him were the seraphs, each with six wings. With two they covered their faces, two their feet, and with two they were flying. Here we understand that not only is God separate from his creation, but we understand this dimension of heaven. What it is. He is served by the seraphs who cannot even look upon him, his purity, his glory, is so radiant. This purity so cauterizing that they don't even want to take it up. They even seal themselves from it. It is too intense. It is too great. This has a vast intense glory that God is holy.

We understand, at least initially, the degree of this intensity by the words of these seraphs. These burning ones who sing, "Holy, holy, holy." Oh, you know the device. The Hebrew linguistic way of doubling a term to emphasis it. Now it's even tripled. As if to say the holiness of God cannot even be contained in the words of the hosts of heaven—even they can't capture it all.

Its degree is expressed by their words. But more than that, even the duration of God's holiness is expressed. Here the seraphs saying "Holy, holy, holy" around the throne of God—and it's the Old Testament we know. And yet, we remember that, in the New as we move to the fourth chapter of Revelations, John says the seraphs are still singing. They still sing, "Holy, holy, holy." As long as the Lamb sits upon the throne—they sing it.

Then John adds the remark, "and he sits on the throne forever." In the Old Testament and the New Testament and the new creation, this three times holy God endures. He is forever holy. As well as infinitely holy. So, we catch the degree and the duration in its true sense, and we even get a slight drama before our eyes to understand the measure of this holiness.

The tempest in a temple.

You know the term "a tempest in a teapot," which signifies much ado about nothing. But here there is a tempest in a temple. It is to show us that this is the most significant thing we can look at. To see the tempest you have to see the image of what's happening. In the fourth verse, we are told that, "At the sound of the voices of the seraphs the doorposts and the thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke."

See the image in your mind. Hear as they say "Holy," smoke fills the temple. We don't have to guess where it's coming from—verse six tells us. There is an alter burning. Those sacrifices which are to satisfy the holiness of God have to burn even heaven, as the holiness of God is declared. That holiness, which requires sacrifice, simply requires so much that the smoke fills even the temple of heaven.

Against this billowing cloud of smoke what else do we see? Here are the seraphs ever serving God, flitting through the cloud in their burning essence, like lightening bolts. Here this incessant likening of the seraphs ever serving the Lord and with them of course comes the audible effect as of lightening. For when they sing, "Holy, holy, holy," verse four says that "the door posts and thresholds of the temple shook like a thunder."

You know it's not just the idea of the thunder of heaven. The idea that the thresholds themselves of the temple are shaking—and the ground in which the door posts sit, even that, is shaking. Even heaven itself can't hold all this effulgence of the glory of God. Do we question? Even though the pictures of heaven at the end of verse three tells us that the glory of God, this holiness fills the whole earth. It's an overwhelming holiness. Heaven can't contain it and earth is overwhelmed and a prophet is overwhelmed.

It's the effect of the holiness. After all, how does he respond? "Woe to me. I am ruined!" he says in verse 5. Oh, it's even hard to translate the words that capture what that word "ruined" means. It's as if we know total humility and devastation between what I see God is and I know I am. I can't look upon this. It's more then just the fact that we know that you can't look on God and live. It's even this idea that now, in this radiance of the holiness of God, I see me and I can't live with me.

Some of your translations even translate this passage as: "Silenced. I am silenced before God. I can't stand this, when I look at me in the light of him. So great is his holiness." When you see that effect, it tells us something about ourselves—even about our own sin. Isaiah was not just talking about himself, because he said, "When I see in the light of this wonderful burning of the holiness of God, I can't even utter the holiness of his angels. I can't sing with them. My lips are unclean. My being stains what I would say. But not just me—once I see me, I know other people too. I live among a people of unclean lips. There is none righteous. No. Not one."

With the echo of Scripture, we have to look at ourselves in the light of this great glory. Recognize too our own sin. Maybe just in what we as people do. How is it, after all, that when George Barna surveys our congregation, that he can say 45% of us believe that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of their faith? How can he say, when he surveys us, that 75% of us believe that are people are basically good. There is only one answer. We have not truly perceived the holiness of our God.

If we perceived his holiness for the glory it is, we would not have any questions about our sin for the horror it is. We would see the distance. We would see the radiating imperfections in the light of his holiness. The fact that we don't, that we can't, that too many of the church have become social service organizations, dispensing "feel good" messages and full-service lifestyle satisfaction. This tells us that we have lost something.

Why don't we talk about sin and salvation and obedience? Because we don't see the holiness anymore. It's not a real consequence, so we don't have a real test. Of course, our vision is not just to stay "out there somewhere" with other people—what Isaiah did was to come inward. He said, "It's me. I have to look at me too."

That's what we hate the worst. We've got to look this way too. Do I recognize the holiness? How can it be that I won't even think of it? When my eyes don't want to look at God, they instead fill themselves with entertainments—entertainments that I know fill with my mind and thoughts with things not glorifying to God. I excuse it because it's the way of culture, because everybody is doing it. Because even my Christian friends approve it and say it's okay. "It doesn't really matter," you say.

Or my lips, that I can deal loosely with the reputations of other people, even in this community. I can let gossip and rumor and innuendo destroy people and not really be concerned, because it's kind of fun, it kind of makes me feel important and other people are doing it. I'm not driven to my knees and say, "I am ruined. Look at what I have done."

Maybe the great mark of that is that we can sing together, "Holy, holy, holy," and our lips don't burn. We are not devastated by the holiness we are singing about. We don't perceive our sin; and we cannot define for each other all the areas of sin or even what sin is for each of us. But if our hearts will not look upon God and question, "How could I possibly stand before you and praise the holiness of your name, and not be driven to my knees in humility? Oh Lord, have I really seen you? If I haven't, do I know the glory—the real glory—of your holiness?"

The cost of our holiness.

All of that greater glory is before us too. There are the marks of it. Oh, remember what the seraph does in verse 6. He takes the coal from the alter and he goes and touches the lips of the prophet. A few later verses, God himself will speak to the prophet. You have to think about what has been signified. Here is the infinite God who has become intimate.

That is an even greater glory. That he would come so near to a person of sin and devastation. How do I prove that is a greater glory? Maybe part of it is just what my heart says. I recognize always this amazing glory when I see the infinite become close and near and intimate.

Tom McCourt, who some of you know, showed me this principle recently. He was in a class that I taught this summer and was talking about how he had been learning about the omnipresence of God in a different class two or three years ago. He said that really hadn't struck him until he was sitting in the library one day. He began to think about the fact that, if God was really omnipresent, it didn't just mean that he was out there somewhere. It meant that he was in the library. He said that sobered him a bit. But then he said the thought that made chills run up his spine was: that also meant that God's hand was on his shoulder, even at that moment.

As his hand is on your shoulder at this moment. It is that wonder—that something so infinite could become so intimate—that is the greater glory. It's not just what our hearts say; it's the whole message of Scripture. This is the prophet that will tell us, just one chapter later, of Emmanuel. The God who would march into our world. Who comes from Heaven's heights and through all of Scripture, through the battles, through the kings, through the peasants, through the widows, through the prostitutes, through the Pharisees, through the scribes and all the accounts of all that's there, and is marching ever closer. 'Till he comes even into hearts.

This is not so much a parade of pageantry. It is a march of intimacy. The great witness of Scripture as it beacons before us all this wonderful truth—he who is infinite in holiness becomes intimate in his love for you who are sinful. It is a greater wonder yet than his own holiness, that he would sacrifice it for us. Because the mark of his grace is not just that the infinite becomes intimate, but the measure of what's required to do that.

It was the coal from the alter that touched the lips of the prophet. You know what that means? Here is that alter, waiting to receive its true sacrifice, and it burns. It burns forever as the priests work day and night to satisfy the holiness of God. The smoke will never satisfy. Until the day when it is quenched and dissipated by the sacrifice of God's own son.

Holiness purchased for us at the cost of the holiness of heaven. God's own son. The measure of this holiness, this glory of grace, is that God transcend the abyss between heaven and earth to come to us. That great measure of coming ever closer becomes our ministry. It's telling us something about who we are and even what we are to do—this measure of God's holiness.

After all, if I am the kind of preacher who by tones too round and in a manner too aloof keep God distant from you, I go against the message of Scripture. If you as a counselor do not somehow bring people closer and closer to the God who is there, then even if the words you are saying are right, the message is wrong. If we as parents don't somehow let our children know the nearness of God—not the austerity only, but the nearness of a God who loves them and marches through history to claim their hearts—we've lost something in the message.

It happens so easily. I remember I was serving in an institution a few years ago when I dealt with a man that we were kind of using as an institution. I say "using him" because he was kind of erratic. He was kind of quirky. He was difficult to deal with. But he sure was competent at what he did. It was kind of easy to use him, to let him do the work you needed him to do and then put him off. Keep him at arms distance. He was just strange. Somehow, we need to be convicted at some point to say, "No. That is wrong."

My God calls me to relationship. He calls me to love. It is not my right to keep people at arm's distance. If I represent this Gospel of the approaching God, I am called to be approaching. To be growing near. To being in relationship. It is, after all, the measure of that grace that reached me that I now extend to others. The effects are to be as real.

After all, what are the effects of this grace that Isaiah learns? The seraph tells him clearly. Verse 7, "See this has touched your lips this coal; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." This coal has touched his lips and we hate that image. That awful, purifying, cauterizing, hot coal on your lips—you don't even want to think about it.

Until you recognize what an apt image it is. Here is the sweet burning of the divine kiss. The burning of our conscience. The hurting of our heart. Where we hate looking at our sin and our need of a savior. Yet, when we are kissed by it, recognize what it accomplishes. It is freeing. It is releasing. It is purifying. It cleanses our lips. You know what that means. We can sing with the angels. Now we can join the chorus. We can sing "Holy, holy, holy," because he has made us able.

We know our sin if we know his holiness. We know our wrong if we know his glory. But if we know his grace, what his intimacy accomplishes, we can know more. I can sing with the angels. What it's telling us is, if we are to have this effective grace in our ministries, it is never enough to convict of sin. Our job is not done until we have convinced of grace.

Sometimes that's hard to know, even when we're in seminary. We look at people who impress us, whether it's a puritan who would lick the floor of his cabin in humble penitence for his sin, or a saint of old who prayed for fifteen years to be released from a sin of some apparent slight to us. There's a sense that's alluring, it's even admirable. We'd say, "I wish I could be that sensitive to sin." Sometimes we admire the people in our own community who seem to feel the weight of their sin all the time.

It's hard to say exactly what's wrong with that because we know we are supposed to be sensitive to sin. We are supposed to be convicted by it. The thing that's wrong is that it never finds its end. Which is to be joy. Which is to be released and freed. We haven't found that. We haven't really perceived, greeted, embraced the greater glory. That you would know your end task is the joy of the Lord. That you would not only see the great glory, not only the greater glory, but the greatest.

Oh, I know I didn't tell you about the greatest glory. But you have only to see the newspaper front page again to remember it. It's not the picture of the great pomp and circumstance. It's not the picture of the President greeting dignitaries. It's not even the picture of the mother kissing the child. The greatest glory would have been the picture of the President kissing the child. It is the picture in Isaiah. The God of all creation—holy and removed—bending down to the ruin of this earth to touch the sin-diseased lips of people like you and like me, to call us his own.

May you keep in your hearts and minds and eyes the picture of the greatest glory. That your lives and ministries and the children of them might know life and peace and unquenchable joy.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Bryan Chapell is the senior pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Peoria, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


In Isaiah 6, in the year that King Uzziah died, God sends Isaiah as a reporter with news that the people don't want to hear.

I. The greater glory.

II. The tempest in a temple.

III. The cost of our holiness.


The greatest glory is when the God of all creation bends down to touch the sin-diseased lips of people like you and like me, and to call us his own.