Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bright the vision that delighted once the sight of Judah's seer. A sermon preached in Dromore Cathedral on 27/08/06. Isaiah 6:1-7

This evening we come to the end of our Summer Praise series of looking at favourite hymns. And as we come to the end, so we give thanks to God for all his goodness to us. For our final hymn of the summer, we’re going to think about number 316 – ‘Bright the vision that delighted, once the sight of Judah’s seer.’

One of the reasons I’ve chosen this one is that it is very appropriate to think about it and sing it here, because of its local connections. The author, Richard Mant, was bishop of Dromore from 1842 until 1848. Bishop Mant seems to have been a prolific writer and translator of hymns, and also compiled a History of the Church of Ireland – which is still in use today – I quoted from it several times this year in essays.

So let’s turn to the hymn, as a lead-in to the Scripture reading. The opening lines of the hymn can be quite confusing, or hard to understand – ‘Bright the vision that delighted once the sight of Judah’s seer.’ The hymn is of course, based on Isaiah 6, and the vision of God which Isaiah received. So let’s look at Isaiah 6, to discover what we can about the vision, and its effect on Isaiah.

‘In the year that King Uzziah died’ (Isaiah 6:1). How do you date things? Or how do you remember when things happened? For example, some songs come on the radio, and they remind me of revising for my GCSE’s or A-Levels, because they were playing on the radio so much when those things were happening.

Or perhaps something reminds me of a bereavement – the bereavement was such a big thing that everything else is remembered in terms of it. It was that same year… or whatever. The death of King Uzziah was such a big thing, that Isaiah dates his vision in the temple based on it.

‘In the year that King Uzziah died.’ The reason it was such a big thing was that Uzziah (also know as Azariah in 1 Kings), had been king for 52 years. He had come to the throne when he was 16, and had reigned until he was 68. The people couldn’t remember any other king – it was as if Uzziah was the one ‘constant’ – the thing holding the nation together.

In fact, his death was such a big thing that this is the only place in the Bible that an event is dated in terms of a death. Everywhere else in the history books of the Old Testament, dates are given as ‘the 5th year of the reign of …’. It’s only here, in Isaiah 6, that we read ‘in the year (anyone) died.’

I suppose it would be a similar feeling to that in Britain whenever Queen Victoria died, having been on the throne for 64 years. Or maybe even when Queen Elizabeth passes on – her reign of 54 years since her accession is just slightly more than Uzziah’s reign.

But the situation would have been worse for Judah than for Britain after Victoria’s death – Britain was a parliamentary monarchy, with power lying in the Houses of Parliament. For Judah, the power of the state existed in the person of the king. So after a long period of stable reign, Uzziah had died. What would happen to Judah now?

But notice the grace granted to Isaiah. ‘In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.’ Uzziah might have died, but the Lord was still on the throne! What greater word of comfort or security could there be for Judah, than that God reigns! Indeed, we see that it forms an important part of Isaiah’s message later on – ‘the Lord of hosts reigns’ in chapter 24 (:23), and ‘Your God reigns’ in 52:7.

Isaiah properly recognises God for who he is, as the king, in verse 5 as he says aloud ‘my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’ But as we look at the passage, we see that the vision is much more than just God the King on his throne.

The vision is amazing and awe-inspiring, and creates an amazing outburst from Isaiah: ‘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).

This outburst is amazing, because of who says it. Remember, Isaiah was the prophet of the Lord, he was one of God’s spokesmen. He has already been preaching and speaking for God – in the first five chapters. Yet he utters a curse upon himself: ‘woe is me’, recognising the sin of his lips. While he has been speaking God’s word, he has also been sinning in what he has been saying.

He identifies himself with the sins of his people, as he says that he dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips. But what’s the problem? Why does he consider himself cursed because he has seen the King?

If we move back, we see the reason why, in his vision: ‘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)

Not only does Isaiah see the Lord, but he also sees the seraphim flying above – literally the ‘burning ones’ – the angels. No wonder the hymn we’re looking at describes the vision as ‘bright’! I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just can’t stand the sun – especially when driving… the brightness can be overwhelming.

Yet the brightness is only a secondary effect on Isaiah, when he is face to face with the holiness of God. He hears the seraphim calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ It is seeing this holiness of God that causes the reaction in Isaiah – against the pure light of the Lord and his seraphim.

You see, this brightness of God is his holiness, his moral uprightness. And the Bible describes sin as ‘darkness’ – as a spot, or shadow. And Isaiah and his people had been involved in the darkness, through having unclean lips.

Isaiah calls the curse upon himself – Woe is me, for I am lost. But is that where Isaiah is left? Does the curse stand? Is Isaiah convicted of his sin and left that way? Does God give him this vision of his glory and abandon him?

Thankfully not! In the vision of Isaiah, we have the problem of his conviction. But look, we see that God makes provision for his sin, and provides the cleansing. ‘Then 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)

Notice that Isaiah can’t work for his own cleansing, he can only recognise his situation and cry out to the Lord. And God, in his great mercy, provides the cleansing. The vision seems to have happened in the temple, and the seraph brings a fiery coal from the fire on the altar, and touches Isaiah’s lips.

The altar in the temple was the place where sacrifices were made, for the sins of the people. This was in accordance with the instructions given to Moses. And remember, that when the tabernacle, and then the temple were being built, the instruction was that everything should be as God had told Moses. We read in Hebrews the reason for this – the physical temple, and the altar were ‘a copy and shadow of the heavenly things’ (Heb 8:5)

So when Isaiah is cleansed by the altar, it isn’t the Jewish system that cleanses him, but the altar points towards the heavenly altar, and the perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

This is where our passage ends this evening, but it’s important to look on to the next verse. Because Isaiah isn’t cleansed from his sin just to exist in a blessed state with no sins. Let’s hear the next verse: ‘And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”

We’ve had Isaiah’s conviction, and Isaiah’s cleansing. Here we find Isaiah’s commission. He wasn’t saved just to hang about in Jerusalem staying in the temple with God, and seeing visions of him. But rather, he is saved, he is convicted and cleansed in order to ‘go and tell this people.’

If this was the vision of Isaiah, then in some senses, was the question of God a rhetorical question? Who else could possibly answer, other than Isaiah? Yet the question had to be asked, and Isaiah had to answer, and volunteer himself for service.

So as we come to the end of this summer, we find ourselves being challenged tonight – have we realised the holiness and glory of God? Have we known the conviction which comes about by the Holy Spirit and cursed ourselves for our sinfulness? Have we known the joy of having our sins atoned for and covered? And have we heard the commission of God to go and tell – to let other people know about God’s love and grace?

The summer may have come to an end, but our work goes on, as we seek to serve God in his world.

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