The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.
When we want someone to immediately cease their foolishness and straighten up and fly right, we say that they “need the fear of God put in them.” When people have been “scared straight,” we attribute that to having the fear of God put in them. Looking to the Old Testament lesson appointed for today, it’s safe to say that Isaiah had the fear of God put in him, but why on earth would Isaiah need to have the fear of God put in him? Well… for those of you needing a refresher, Isaiah was sent by God to call foolish and sinful Israel to repentance. They had completely gone off the rails, to the point that God—already in the few verses of the first chapter—says that they’re no different than Sodom and Gomorrah in their proud and willing sinfulness. In fact, the first five chapters of Isaiah consist of one harsh indictment after another, calling them out and letting them know in no uncertain terms that they are NOT the God-pleasing children of God they think they are. Chapter five consists of a series of “woes” spoken against Israel, the most famous being “woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” That was Israel, dead to rights.
Okay… we get the fact that rebellious Israel needed the fear of God put in them, but this still doesn’t answer why Isaiah had the fear of God put in him. The answer is actually quite simple. Isaiah wasn’t like all those wicked people; not at all. He had a personal righteous that was truly and undeniably better than all those wicked ones around him. He was just an all-around better, more faithful guy. If you held him up against all the other Israelites, he would shine in comparison. But… this is where the Old Testament account appointed for today comes into play. There was a danger that Isaiah could begin to compare himself to everyone else, taking comfort in his own righteousness; finding assurance in the fact that at least he wasn’t like those guys. This is why God gives Isaiah a vision of that personal righteousness in comparison to Almighty God Himself. Yes, it was indisputable that Isaiah was more righteous than his wicked kinsmen, but when he was brought into the presence of God and His holiness and majesty, he was brought to see that he was still sinful through and through, deserving nothing but present and eternal death. God didn’t work on a sliding scale. If you transgress in even one iota of the Law, you’ve transgressed the entire Law—period—and the wage for that transgression is death—present and eternal death.
This deadly reality terrifies Isaiah! All those woes spoken against wicked Israel in chapter five now come spilling out of his own soul. “Woe is me! I am lost!” In fact, the Hebrew word we translate as “lost” is better translated as “silent.” This is important because this same word shows up throughout the Old Testament in reference to all those who died in their wickedness and now suffer in silence in hell. They are silent in death; physical as well as dark, hellish eternal death. Picture that nightmare in which you scream, but nothing comes out. Martin Luther taught (and I don’t disagree) that Isaiah, in that instant, was actually given a glimpse of hell; a glimpse of what it is stand before the Almighty and Holy One, having no righteousness and no hope of your own. When brought to recognize his own deadly reality before the holy, righteous, and just God, Isaiah cries out in repentant despair. He confesses his deadly, wretched reality; that is, he “says the same thing as God.” He IS a man of unclean lips. But… God shows mercy to the one who confesses his sin.
Take note, though, how God brings this loving mercy and grace to Isaiah. He uses means to resurrect Isaiah from hellish death and despair to eternal life and heavenly joy. God sends His holy angel to touch the lips of Isaiah with a fiery, burning coal from the heavenly altar. Note: Only God could make Isaiah clean. No amount of good works or brownie points would suffice. It doesn’t matter how many degrees you have or what tax bracket you’re in or how much money you put in the offering plate or who your grandma was and how her name is on the charter. None of that matters one iota when it comes to matters of redemption and salvation. That heavenly coal touches Isaiah’s lips and he is instantly made clean. “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” God’s fire, which is all-consuming in His just and righteous wrath against sin, is also all-purifying in His mercy/grace. This is why that temple is filled with smoke and not with gold, silver, or products of the works of men. God’s all-atoning grace is only obtained through faith. That ordinary little burning ember purified Isaiah with the righteousness that saved him from hell and gave to him eternal life; the righteousness to stand before Almighty God Himself, no longer in fear, but in joy.
Now… fast-forward 700 years, and we find ourselves in a dark room at night. It’s just Jesus and one of the Pharisees—a guy by the name of Nicodemus. Nicodemus knows there’s something special about Jesus, but Nicodemus fears his cohorts and their opinions more than anything else, which is why he comes to Jesus under the cloak of darkness. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher from God, for no one can do these signs/miracles unless God is with Him.” Now, did you notice what Nicodemus didn’t say? Nicodemus doesn’t recognize that he’s sitting across the table from Almighty God in the flesh. There can be no doubt that Nicodemus knew the account of Isaiah having the fear of God put in him. This was the God that Nicodemus imagined; a great and terrifying God; a God surrounded by angels; a God whose very presence instills terror and fear; a God whose voice thunders and shakes the foundations and rafters of heaven itself. Needless to say, none of this was going on with Jesus. Jesus clearly had some favor with God, but that’s as far as Nicodemus was willing to go. This is why Nicodemus says, “God is with him,” and NOT “God is with us.” This only makes sense. Nicodemus doesn’t recognize the fact that God is with us. He doesn’t recognize Almighty God sitting across the table from him.
And this is certainly not restricted to Nicodemus. Do you honestly think all those wicked men would have crucified Jesus had they recognized Him to be Almighty God in the flesh? I’m sure their tune would’ve changed significantly. What about today? Do you think people would behave the way they do if they were actually able to recognize the Almighty in their midst? Look at the world we live in. Lord knows this world and this nation need the fear of God instilled in them. How much different would things be if people were brought into the presence of the Almighty like Isaiah was? Be careful, my fellow Isaiahs! What about you? How different would things be in your life if you were brought into the presence of Almighty God like Isaiah was? The next question has to be “why?” Why would things be different? How often our faith is smoked out to be like the darkroom ignorant faith of Nicodemus, failing to recognize the Almighty in our midst. You can disagree, but I wouldn’t. Our words, thoughts, and deeds betray us. We don’t behave as if we’ve come into the presence of God. There are plenty of times we don’t even desire to be in the presence of God.
You know what? Let’s get the focus off ourselves, and instead turn the spotlight on the Light of World; the Light shining in the midst of all the darkness of sin; the Light the darkness has not and cannot overcome. Look to the cross. Here is the holy One—the Almighty—who took all of the Father’s just and fiery wrath upon Himself so that you would never have to experience a single second of it for yourself. Christ died because of you. More importantly, Christ died for you. He ever stands before the heavenly throne of His Father, bearing those cruciform wounds that pronounce you forgiven. Your guilt is taken away. Your sin atoned for. Now look to this altar, this pulpit, this lectern, this font. Here is this very same Almighty God and Lord, in your midst. “Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in your midst. I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” He doesn’t come to you in the terrors of hellish wrath, but in grace. He comes to you veiled in, with, and under simple, sacramental means—Word, Water, Bread, and Wine. He comes to give you life and peace, and to give you His life and peace in over-flowing abundance.
Look to this altar. Here is Christ. Here is Almighty God Himself… for you. The very same God, the train of whose royal robe couldn’t even be contained in the temple, comes to you in all the fullness of His love and grace, veiled under the ordinary elements of bread and wine. “As often as you do this, remember what I have said….” He comes, not to put the terrifying fear of God’s wrath in you, but to fill you with His joy and peace. Recognized through the eyes/ears of cruciform saving faith, where else would we want to be? Kind of puts everything else in perspective.
Look to the font. This is God’s holy baptism. This is God Himself bringing the redemptive victory of Christ’s cross and resurrection to you, cleansing you of all guilt and sin, resurrecting you from death to life, making you holy in His precious sight. You bear His holy name, not just Sunday morning for an hour, but all the time. Shouldn’t that make a difference in your life? Folks: Here is Christ! Here is the Almighty! Here are the holy, sacramental embers that God Himself—your High Priest and Lord—uses to make you holy and righteous in His sight. And holy/righteous you are! Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for, in Christ and because of Christ.
Friends: I don’t know what the future holds, but of this I am sure: You stand before Almighty God—right now and always—washed in the all-redeeming blood of the Lamb, soaking wet in His baptismal righteousness. Not even the gates of hell can prevail against this, so neither should the fear of sickness or unemployment or civil unrest and anarchy. Though the world may collapse and burn all around you, you belong to God. By grace, through faith, you are a beloved child and heir of the Almighty. Hold fast to this Good News. Hold fast to Him, and lift up your head and heart and rejoice… and be at peace.
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