This sermon is part of the sermon series "Discovering God (part two)". See series.
The story behind the sermon (from Dan Meyer)
The idea for this series grew out of a frank appraisal I did of my preaching curriculum over the past couple of years. I've long been a believer in trying to provide the congregation with a balanced diet of messages. I want to make sure that, over time, they are getting fed from a variety of major food groups —doctrines and life issues, apologetics and discipleship practices, Old and New testament.
As I reviewed the topics I'd been covering, I was struck by the fact that the focus of my messages over the past few years tended to fall into one of two general categories: (1) problems and issues with which people struggle; and (2) convictions and commitments that people need to hold. Even where the impetus of the message was more textual than topical, the sermons seemed to have this consistent people-focus to them.
About the same time, I picked up a best-selling Christian book whose title suggested that it was "all about God." While the content was stimulating enough, I was struck by how anthropocentric the book still was in spite of its God-focused title. I began to think: "What is it about Christians today that—even when we set out to write a book or preach a sermon that is 'all about God'—we end up penning something that is really all about us?"
Something stirred in me to pull off my shelf a book that had been gathering dust since seminary days. It was A. W. Tozer's classic Understanding the Holy. As I paged through Tozer's brief, dense reflections on the attributes of God, I was shocked by how dramatically different his angle of approach was on the Christian life. Rather than focusing on human life and then going in search of the perspective of God, Tozer focused first on God's life and only then went in search of the implications this greater reality had for human life.
Reading Tozer felt like encountering God for the first time. It led me to a place of communion with God that felt extremely intense, sometimes rapturous, and both disorienting and reorienting. "If more people had this kind of experience of God," I thought, "it would be hard for them not to be changed by the process." I decided to do a series on Discovering God.
In the end, I selected many of the same topics that the best-selling author had chosen to explore, but tried to come at them from the angle that Tozer had chosen: with a primary focus on understanding the nature and desires of God, versus human nature and needs. The result was a sermon series that took me and my congregation to a more humbling and satisfying personal encounter with the God out of whose life our lives are meant to take their sustenance and direction. More than usual, the sermon time actually felt like worship.
Introduction: Small, big, greater, God
In the opening verses of Isaiah chapter 6, the famous prophet finds himself standing in the great temple at Jerusalem and feeling very small. At this time, the Jerusalem temple is among the largest man-made structures on planet Earth. It is most certainly the largest structure Isaiah has ever seen. Its massive pillars soared over him like giant redwoods. Its spectacular gold-painted ceiling stretched out above him like the canopy of space. The very experience of entering this temple weakens Isaiah's knees and drops his jaw as he stares around and up, murmuring perhaps the word that naturally comes to human minds in places like this. The word is big. Wow, this is big!
Then Isaiah experiences something which collapses his knees altogether and sets his teeth to chattering. Suddenly, the air above is filled with the movement of magnificent beings. In Isaiah's vision they're described as having three pairs of wings. With one set of wings these seraphs cover their faces, and with another set they cover their "feet"—a euphemism for their private parts. With the final set they fly about at stunning speed above him, and with their mouths they sing a thunderous song. At the sound of their voices, the doorposts and thresholds of the temple shake till Isaiah fears they'll crack and crumble. The air fills with smoke. And now the word that comes to Isaiah's mind has to be greater. These creatures are even greater than the temple—vastly greater than the greatest religious structure yet imagined by man.
And then something happens which sends Isaiah from that place on his knees right down to his face on the floor in abject terror. He suddenly understands why these awesome angelic beings are covering themselves with their wings. It is an act of desperate humility. These angels are the most colossal and cataclysmic creatures Isaiah has ever contemplated, yet as thunderstruck as Isaiah is by them, they are trembling in awe before the Presence who manifests his reality before them all. "I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted," writes Isaiah. And just "the train of his robe"—just the thinnest part of the trailing veil of his majesty—entirely "filled the temple." At this tiny glimpse of the barest edge of him, the angelic warriors erupted into song: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." If you are plotting reality on a scale from "Oh, my goodness" to "Oh, my glory," there is big, then there is greater, then far beyond all human categories there is God.
The wisdom, power, and health of God
This is something of what the Bible means when it tells us that God is holy. On one level, the word holy simply means "set apart," as in "different from" or "other than." When we talk about the other attributes of God we've been exploring in recent weeks, it has always been possible to describe them in terms with which we have some working familiarity. When we say that God is sufficient, good, trustworthy, or loving, we can draw on experiences we've had of people we've known who have these qualities about them. But holiness, which by definition is something different from or other than normal experience, is much harder to take in.
I saw an insect crawling across the floor of my study when I was writing this message. I walked right by it. The bug froze in its tracks. Was this because the insect really understood the difference between me and it? Do you think it could take in anything more than the fact that the edge of my shoe was colossally larger than it was? Staring at life from all of three millimeters high, do you think it could understand what it was to move through the world at 6' 4"? Do you suppose that insect had any capacity to perceive the gap between the little nerve bundle in its head and the power of even my very ordinary human mind? And if even my little brain contains at least the potential to compose literature, engineer skyscrapers, design a space shuttle, or unravel the working of genes, what do you suppose is the capacity of the Creator of this Universe? God is to me, not as I was to that bug, but as I am to one of the tiniest subatomic particles that make up that insect. On the scale from blind and puny to brilliant and powerful, there is small, big, and greater. Then far beyond imagining, there is God.
When we say that God is holy, we are saying that he stands apart from us—is different from or other than us—in terms of intelligence and power. But holiness also carries with it a sense of superior character. Our English word holy actually derives from the Anglo-Saxon word helig, meaning "well or whole." To say that God is holy is to say that he is not just intelligent and powerful at a level we cannot even imagine, he is also healthy in a way with which we have no normal experience.
In his book The Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer says
God is the absolute quintessence of moral excellence, infinitely perfect in righteousness, purity, [and] rectitude …. We cannot grasp the true meaning of the divine holiness by [simply] thinking of someone or something very pure and then raising the concept to the highest degree we are capable of. God's holiness is not simply the best we know infinitely bettered. We know nothing like the divine holiness. It stands apart, unique, unapproachable, incomprehensible, and unattainable. The natural man is blind to it. He may fear God's power and admire his wisdom, but his holiness [in the sense of absolute health] he cannot even imagine. Only the Spirit of the Holy One can impart to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy.
This week I visited a good friend in the hospital who is battling cancer. It was immediately obvious to me that he was not well. Why? Because I'd known him before he had the disease. I spend all kinds of time around people who do not have the disease, and they do not look or feel anything like my friend now does. But what if I had never experienced life outside the oncology ward? What if I had been raised in a cancer ward and lived with the illness in myself daily? What if the only other people I ever met had the disease too? Ravaged by illness, I might actually walk around considering myself quite well, or at least a whole lot better than those other people I knew at stage four.
This is the story the Bible tells about us. The Book of Genesis says that humanity once lived with a great deal more intelligence, power, and health of character than we do now. Living in communion with God, human beings were holy beings—not on the same level as God, who alone is perfectly holy—but dramatically closer than we are today. Human beings walked with God, took care of the Garden, and loved one another. Then our first forbearers turned their backs on God, the source of their wisdom, power, and health. That original sin became a spiritual cancer. It corrupted their minds, distorted their wills, and disfigured their character. And every human being since then has grown up with the disease.
Many people today think they are intelligent enough to live without God. They believe themselves powerful enough to master this Creation. They regard themselves as healthy enough to merit heaven—or certainly to escape hell—because even if they are not altogether well, they figure they are certainly better than those obviously sick people at stage four. Even ostensibly religious people talk casually about God as "the Big Guy Upstairs" or of Jesus as if he were a more spiritual Mister Rogers. As Arthur Pink puts it, even many Christians speak of God as if he were "very much like an indulgent old man, who himself has no relish for folly but leniently winks at the indiscretions of youth."
God is a consuming fire.
Now and then, however, the Spirit of the Holy One imparts to the human spirit the knowledge of the holy. And the response of someone who catches such a glimpse of God is to fall on his face in terrified awe, as did Isaiah: "'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.'" The response of Isaiah is the appropriate one. To find yourself in the presence of the Holy God having trusted in your own wisdom, power, and goodness is like being a disease-carrying insect and suddenly looking up at the full height of someone who hates disease. In that moment you realize (if you never have before) that there is human virtue—small, big, or greater—and there is God.
The Bible underlines that the response of the holy God to sin is not an indulgent wink but rather wrath. Lest we think that this is simply the teaching of some hellfire Old Testament prophets, hear these words of Jesus: "I tell you that [you] will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word [you] have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37). "For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done" (Matthew 16:27). "How dreadful it will be in those days …. There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people" (Luke 21:23).
I know that when we hear of the wrath of God, many of us immediately want to change the channel or run for the exits. We immediately think of the indiscriminate, uncaring lashing out of an alcoholic parent or a terrorist religion. One of the reasons why we so often cling to a picture of a Mister Rogers God is because we so loathe the picture of a Marquis de Sade God, who delights in crushing people like bugs. But this is not what the Bible means either by the love or the wrath of God. James Bryan Smith helpfully writes:
In the same way that God's love is not a silly, sappy feeling but rather a consistent desire for the good of his people, so also the wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil …. It is a mindful, objective, rational response …. God is not indecisive when it comes to evil. God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people …. God is against my sin because he is for me.
N. T. Wright puts it this way:
The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise, and loving Creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.
But God is all of those things. He is holy. God longs with such holy pathos for the healing of his creatures and his Creation that he will allow to go to hell anyone who will not accept the healing that he offers to them. Why? You know the answer. How long could heaven remain heaven, were it filled with sin-sick people unwilling to recognize their problem or seek a cure? How long would it take for heaven to become hell for everyone else if he allowed it to be infested by insects too proud or blind to let God transform them into the creatures they were created to be? In fact, one requirement for going to heaven is to recognize (as Isaiah did) that you are not even close to healthy. You are an "unclean" person and without the touch of the Great Physician you have no hope.
But you do have hope. The Bible says that "our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:29). Make no mistake: his holiness will consume sin in the end. But in the meantime, God's holiness also purifies anyone who turns to him. Hear again the words of Isaiah: "Then one of the seraphs 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.'"
Have you let God touch you in that way? Do you need his purifying power? Then pray with me:
Holy and Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hidden. Touch us who humbly turn to you today with that redeeming fire which burned so brightly on the altar of Calvary. Cleanse and heal us, we pray, that we may more perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.