A number of years ago, a woman in Kansas City walked into a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop at the Plaza shopping center. While waiting, she turned to find actor Paul Newman standing behind her! He was in town filming the movie Mr. & Mrs. Bridge, and was now standing behind his biggest fan.
He smiled at her and said “hello.” She took one look at those legendary blue eyes and her knees almost buckled. Her heart was in her throat. She tried to speak, but not a sound came out. Mortified, she turned around, paid for her ice cream, then quickly walked out of the store.
Outside, she sat down on a bench and caught her breath. As she calmed down, she realized she didn’t have her ice cream cone. She was debating walking back in to get it when Paul Newman walked out. “You looking for your ice cream cone?” he asked. Speechless again, she nodded. “You put it in your purse with your change.”
If you or I were to come face to face with a celebrity we admire, I imagine most of us would behave in much the same way. Our generation is infatuated with celebrities. Movie stars, rock stars and athletic superstars dominate the headlines of our magazines and tabloids. We love to read about their lavish lifestyles and ruined relationships. And though basketball star Charles Barkley emphatically stated, “I am not a role model,” our children inevitably list media personalities when asked to name their heroes.
I wonder, we who get so excited about meeting a celebrity — why is it that we can enter into the presence of God with a yawn and a shrug?
Throughout biblical history, just a handful of people were given glimpses of God, and they all struggled to describe what happened. Perhaps the clearest record of such an encounter was recorded by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah described the circumstances surrounding his encounter with God in the year King Uzziah died. This tells us not only when this happened (about 758 B.C.) but it also gives us some insight into what was going on in Isaiah’s heart and mind. Unlike so many of the other prophets, like Amos or Hosea, Isaiah was born into relative wealth and position. He was a member of the royal court, historian, advisor and confidant of the King.
So Isaiah’s encounter with God occurred during a time of personal tragedy, a time of loss. The man who had died was not only his employer — but also his friend. Uzziah had ruled for over 52 years. During that time, Israel experienced perhaps the longest sustained period of prosperity in its history. Now, the king was dead.
What would happen to Israel? Would there be civil war? Economic depression? Who would ascend to the throne? Would the next king honor God and seek to be a spiritual leader for Israel? In the middle of all this confusion and uncertainty, Isaiah went to the temple to worship, and there, he found himself face to face with God.
I’ll bet that some of you are in the midst of confusion and uncertainty this morning. The company you work for has just merged. Will you still have a job? You and your spouse have grown apart. Will your marriage survive? One of your children is rebelling against everything you believe in. Will their future be ruined by making so many poor choices? Wouldn’t it be great, in times of bad news and painful experiences, if you could experience God, face to face, like Isaiah did? This passage tells us that you can.
A little girl was drawing intensely one morning in Sunday School. Her teacher asked, “What are you drawing?” “God,” answered the child. The teacher laughed. “Honey, no one knows what God looks like.” She never looked up from her coloring. “Well, they will when I get through,” she told her.
We’ll never see God with our physical eyes, or hear Him with our earthly ears. But we can encounter God with our spirits through the act of worship. By participating in worship, we become aware of the presence of God in our midst, and we can never again be the same.
You remember what Jesus said in Matthew 18:20. “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them.” Psalms 22:3 says that God “inhabits the praise of His people.”
And yet, when we gather together for Sunday morning services, I’m not sure we always come expecting a life-changing encounter with God. Many people went to church this morning. Not all of them worshipped.
Worship is not a church meeting, although it can occur there. Worship is not just the singing of religious songs, although music plays a vital role in worship. Real worship occurs when we enter into the presence of the Living Lord, and respond accordingly. Let’s look at how Isaiah reacted to the presence of God and in doing so, discover how worship can change our lives forever. First, Isaiah was:
Overwhelmed with God’s Presence
Isaiah was no stranger to the presence of royalty. But nothing he had seen in Uzziah’s court prepared him for a glimpse of the heavenly court. This vision reveals a God whose symbols of royalty — His throne, His robe, are so large that they fill an entire room. A God so high and holy and almighty that even the heavenly beings dare not look Him in the eye, but cover their faces with their wings. They cover their feet as well, a gesture of humility and reverence. And the sounds of praise that emanated from the mouths of these heavenly creatures was so overwhelming, the result was like a Los Angeles earthquake — the ground shook and the room filled with smoke, symbolic of God’s presence at their worship!
I need to ask you this morning, when was the last time you stood in awe of God? When was the last time worship shook you to the very core of your being?
Most of us are guilty of what J. B. Phillips called “the sin of reductionism.” We reduce God to a manageable size. In his book, Your God is Too Small, Phillips warns us of the dangers of putting God in a box — thereby limiting Him to our preconceived notions of Who and What He is. We refer to God as “the man upstairs” as if He were some benevolent old geezer in the sky. The ancient Hebrews were so in awe of God’s holiness, they dared not write God’s sacred name.
We have much to learn about approaching God with the reverence and honor due Him. We need to guard against a casual, indifferent attitude when we are seeking to enter the Lord’s presence. This doesn’t mean we must be stiff, formal or stuffy. Genuine worship also includes joy and celebration. We simply must remember that the Lord is more powerful and more holy than our ability to describe Him — and we must never approach such awesomeness in a routine or ho-hum manner.
We are God’s children, but our close relationship with Him should never lessen the impact of His holiness. Our first reaction to a face to face encounter with God is an overwhelming sense of His presence. As we read verse 5 we see that Isaiah was then:
Overwhelmed with His Own Sinfulness
You can sense the fear in Isaiah’s response, because, for perhaps the first time in his life, he saw himself in stark contrast to pure holiness. And what he saw wasn’t pretty. When we compare ourselves to others, don’t we invariably find someone whose flaws make us look good?
A small town was terrorized for years by two wicked brothers. Unexpectedly, one of the brothers died. The surviving brother went to the Baptist pastor. “I’ll give you $50,000 if you’ll preach my brother’s funeral. But you’ve got to tell everyone that he was a saint.”
Everyone in town heard about this transaction, and turned out to see how the godly pastor could do such a thing. “For forty years this man has lived in sin,” the preacher began. “He has cheated his employees, cheated on his wife, neglected his children and kicked innocent cats and dogs. But as evil as this man was, compared to his brother, this man was a saint.”
Isaiah didn’t say to God, “Compared to most people around here, I’m a saint.” His reaction to God’s holy presence was an awareness of the unholy filth that came from his lips, words that came from the wellspring of his spirit. It caused him to recognize the sinful condition of the entire nation.
Think of our own generation. Our propensity for profanity and vulgarity are merely symptoms of a deeper spiritual void. Jesus told the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks … But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” (Matthew 12:34-36) James 3:9-10 says, “With the mouth we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be!”
We cannot worship authentically with a filthy mouth and a sinful heart. When our true condition is made apparent by the radiant light of holiness, our response is not worship but despair. “Woe is me, for I am a man, I am a woman of unclean lips!”
Two things can happen at this point. Our first reaction is to run, to somehow escape the presence of holiness. That’s why some avoid the practice of worship in the first place. But the second reaction is like Isaiah’s — to feel the burden of our sin and acknowledge it before God. That is so difficult to do — yet it is absolutely necessary if we are to be changed by God’s presence. When Isaiah encountered God face to face, he was overwhelmed with God’s holiness, overwhelmed with his own sinfulness, and he was
Overwhelmed with God’s Grace
At the moment of Isaiah’s confession of guilt, God responded, not with the fiery sword of judgment, but with forgiveness. In a beautifully symbolic act, the seraph touched his lips with a red-hot stone from the altar and pronounced his guilt removed and his debt of sin — paid in full!
The man who wrote the well-loved words Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me was not waxing poetic when he wrote those words.
John Newton’s mother died when he was 9, and at the age of 11, he joined his father at sea. He served in the Royal Navy on a British man-of-war and after leaving military service, joined the crew of a slave trading ship. In just a few years, he bought his own ship and made a fortune transporting slaves from Africa to the British Isles.
In 1754, after reading Thomas a Kempis’ book The Imitation of Christ and surviving a terrible shipwreck, he left the sea and gave his life to Christ. Influenced by both George Whitefield and John Wesley, he began to preach in 1758, and preached for the next 50 years.
When he died in 1807, he was buried in the yard of the church which he had served for 27 years, and his gravestone still bears the epitaph he wrote himself:
John Newton, cleric. Once an infidel and libertine, a merchant of slaves in Africa; Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned, and appointed to preach the Faith he had labored long to destroy.
Like Isaiah, John Newton was overwhelmed with the holy presence of God. He was overwhelmed with his own sinful nature. And like the prophet, he was overwhelmed by the amazing grace of God, a grace that saved a wretch like John Newton — a grace that saves wretches like you and me. There is a fourth response that is called for when we come face to face with holiness. Finally, we are:
Overwhelmed with a Desire to Serve God
When John Newton was confronted with amazing grace, his response was to serve the Lord till the day he died. In the last years of his ministry, the church appointed an assistant to stand beside him in the pulpit and point to his notes whenever his feeble old mind would wander! When asked about retirement, the crusty old man roared, “Why should an old blasphemer stop when he can still speak?”
The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to Isaiah when he responded to God’s call to serve, but other ancient historical records tell us he was tied between two boards and sawed in two under orders of the evil king, Manasseh. (Hebrews 11:37)
Hundreds of thousands of believers have suffered hardship beyond imagination, yet considered it a joy and a privilege to serve Christ. Why? Because they have been face to face with the Living God. They have been overwhelmed by his holy presence. They have come to terms with their sinful nature. They have sensed the Lord’s amazing grace and because of that, they have responded with a life’s labor of love. Christians don’t serve God to earn His favor; we serve Him because of His favor.
My own sense of calling wasn’t nearly so dramatic. I didn’t see a burning bush like Moses. I wasn’t struck blind like Paul. I wasn’t tossed about in a horrible shipwreck like John Newton. And I have never seen the Lord high and lifted up like Isaiah.
But I have experienced His holiness — a power and purity beyond description. Like some of you, perhaps, I spent years of my life running from the presence of God. Raised in a Christian environment, I had a rebellious spirit. I was a prodigal, a man of unclean lips, a wretch. But at the age of 22, I came face to face with the Living Lord, overwhelmed by His holiness, ashamed of my sinful lifestyle, and yet, overwhelmed by His abundant grace and willingness to forgive me. The only response I could think of to such an extravagant love was to serve Him the rest of my life with all my heart, soul and strength. In the many years since that day, I have served in different ways. Our journey has involved a great deal of lifestyle change, sacrifice, even hardship.
And you know, sometimes it seems like we’ve given up so much and made do with so little, and I can get a little bit resentful. That is, until I engage in authentic, heartfelt worship that draws me into God’s presence. Then it happens all over again, back and forth. I feel His holiness, my sin, His grace, and my desire to serve returns stronger than before.
How about you? When was the last time you experienced God, face to face? My prayer is that, this morning, you will be so overwhelmed by God’s presence that your life will never be the same.
Some of you have spent so much time involved in religious activities that you’ve lost the awe and wonder of God’s holiness. You need to see the Lord God high and lifted up in all His glory and majesty.
Others of you have gone too long without acknowledging that your sinful nature is still very much alive and well. You need to cry out, “Woe is me. For I am a person of unclean lips.”
And others of you are painfully aware of sin and destructive behavior in your life. What you need is an encounter with God’s amazing grace. You need to hear Him say, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for. ”
And it may be that some of you have grown so cold toward God that you no longer serve Him out of gratitude and love. You may still hold down a position, but you serve out of obligation, guilt or routine. What you need is an encounter with God that will make you cry out, “Here am I! Send me!”
Whatever the condition of your heart this morning, God is waiting to meet you — face to face.