Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 16:13-19
It was 2 years ago this weekend when I, myself, was covenanted with the good people of Carman United Church in Sydney Mines. A service that marked the end of a long journey that began 7 years before, when I was moved by the Holy Spirit to respond to the call of God to pursue ordained ministry. An undeniable call which changed my life drastically 9 years and 3 days ago.
It happened in a church service. One I almost didn’t make it to. My wife and I had hoped to take in the evening service that day, but then we remembered my wife was reading scripture, so we couldn’t have a lazy Sunday morning like we hoped we would.
In that service, I can relate very much to how Isaiah felt. In that service I heard the call of God as the Holy Spirit moved deep within me while I listened to the sermon. It said, “One day you will be up there.”
All I could think was, “What!? I hate public speaking! I can’t possibly do that… can I?”
The response? “With my help, you will.”
Isaiah cried out in the presence of God, “Woe is me. I’m a sinner. I live with sinners, and here I am in the presence of the King.”
There’s an interesting phenomenon when you encounter God in such a way. There’s something you just don’t expect. There’s a sense of fear as we see over and over again when people in the Bible encounter God or angels. It’s a fear of the unknown. It’s a fear of knowing we are unworthy to be in the presence of something so holy. It’s unexplainable, maybe even irrational why we should feel this way. But, history and experience shows it’s also natural.
When Isaiah found himself standing in the presence of God, he immediately declared himself unworthy. And in many ways he was, just as we all are. There’s nothing like knowing just how unworthy you are when you stand in the awesome presence of God.
Think of how this interaction began. The king has died, and Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on the throne, and beside him are two seraphs, heavenly beings, guardians of sorts, with six wings. Listen to how the seraphs announce the presence of the Lord, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” It’s a refrain we know well.
The seraphs proclaim the God not as holy; not as holy, holy; but tell us God is “holy, holy, holy.” There are lots of things called “holy” in the Bible: holy ground, holy place, holy bread, holy Sabbath, holy ones, holy word and so on. These are things that are seen to be separate, above the norm. But only God is described as three times holy. Repetition is used to emphasize something or a point. But to repeat it three times is to show it’s “super-important”, to raise it up above anything else.
R.C. Sproul reminds us that holy, holy, holy is God. We don’t hear mercy, mercy, mercy is God. We don’t read God is love, love, love, or wrath, wrath, wrath. It says He is “holy, holy, holy and the whole earth is full of His glory.”
And when we review the list of the things that are called holy, we also need to remember that these things are holy because God has made them holy. God has set them apart. God has altered them in such a way that they are no longer “normal”, they are now referred to as “holy.”
This is not unlike what has happened with Isaiah. Isaiah, when confronted with God seated before him, confessed his weaknesses, his sins. He said his lips were unclean. But the seraph came to him and cleansed him. The seraph burnt the sin off his lips with a hot coal. Isaiah has been forgiven, he has been cleansed. He has been made new.
Once Isaiah has been cleansed, God asks, “Whom shall I send, who will go for us?” It is now that Isaiah is finally able to say, “Here I am! Send me.”
God has taken a sinful, weak man and made him holy. God spoke many prophetic words through Isaiah, many pointing to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ coming into the world. The words of Isaiah are the words we often read in Advent as we look to the promises of God to save his people. Isaiah becomes holy. His words are set apart.
I have a slight confession that I have an issue with the New Creed of the United Church of Canada. My issue is that it has changed one word when it talks about the church. In the Apostle’s Creed and in the Nicene Creed how is the church described? The church is called holy. We’ve removed the word ‘holy’ when we describe the church in the New Creed.
So it leads me to question, what are we as the church then? We are the church, yes. But are we set apart? Are we touched by God? Are we the holy church?
Who are we? Are we the caretakers of the building? Are we God’s financial managers? Are we the payers of the bills? Or are we set apart to do the work of God in the world? Are we touched in such a way that we shine with the Spirit of God for all to see?
Jesus asked his disciples a question. Maybe he was wondering how his outreach and publicity campaigns were working. Maybe he was wondering if people saw his ad in the paper.
Jesus asked, “Who do people say that the son of man is?”
The responses were varied, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other dead prophet.
Jesus then asks those who walk with him every day, “Who do you say that I am?”
Here he gets the answer he is looking for, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Notice the difference in the two audiences in his questions. First Jesus asks, “who do those people out there say I am?” You know who I mean. Those people. The others who haven’t seen anything. You know, the ones who haven’t set foot in the church in 20 years. Those people. Who do they say I am?
Then Jesus addresses those who travel with him. Those who see him all the time. The people who are close, intimate, insiders. What do you think? “Who do you say that I am?”
The people outside of Jesus’ inner circle don’t get it. They hear stories through the grapevine. Maybe they hear some rumours about what he’s teaching. They don’t seem to give a lot of thought about how important it might be to investigate for themselves about who this Jesus is. Is he really just a prophet?
But the people who have come. The people who have sat down and listened to what he says; those who have seen his works; they know. They get it.
These readings are examples of what personal encounters with the holy, holy, holy God can produce. For Isaiah, his lips were the problem, but God made them clean and he became a prolific prophet of God’s message.
For the disciples and other close followers of Jesus, God among us, they became leaders in the new church, but more than that, they changed the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So… who are we?
When we gather in our churches, are we touched and cleansed by the holy, holy, holy God who came to earth to show us the way? The one who came to bring light to the darkness? A living God who comes to make things right in the world? Or do we act like the outsiders who see God as simply a voice of old?
Personal encounters with the holy, holy, holy produce holy things. Holy church. Holy ground. Holy city. Holy ones. People, places, things set apart by God to do holy things.
When Peter responded to the question Jesus asked by saying he is the Son of the living God, Jesus told him this,
“…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
When we look around the world today, where is the rock upon which Jesus is building his church? Who has the keys to the kingdom of heaven?
As we come tonight to celebrate the covenant relationship between Rev. Bob Biggar, the Westmount-Leitches Creek pastoral charge, and Sydney Presbytery, let us pray that the holy, holy, holy God will unbind His word and His Spirit to all of us who are part of this relationship, and to all our churches in the same way.
Let us pray that the 3x holy God will touch our lips so that we may be cleansed by Him and made holy, and our churches be made holy, through which our city, our province and our nation will become holy as only God can make them.
Let us be insiders, the people closest to Jesus who understand that he is the Son of a holy, holy, holy God who has come to make the earth holy and also all who live upon it.
It is God’s pleasure that we be become holy so that we may dwell with Him in His holy kingdom for all eternity through the healing relationship of His Son, Jesus Christ, God among us. The Christ who gave of himself on the cross, so that we all may be cleansed of our sin and weaknesses.
Let us come into the presence of the holy, holy, holy. Let us be touched, cleansed and renewed by God, and may the whole earth be full of His glory.
May God bless us, heal us, and cleanse us for the work He is preparing us to do in the work of this church, this community, and this presbytery. For without Him, we have no where to go.