Face to face with the Majesty of God

Public worship can all too easily feel lacklustre and mundane, not just for a congregation, but also for the one entrusted with leading it. This is not some new phenomenon. It has been a challenge for the church throughout its history. Indeed, it was at such a low point in the history of worship, in the time of Isaiah, that God told the people that the ‘worship’ they offered outwardly was contradicted by the attitude of their hearts inwardly. Far from being the ‘sweet smelling aroma’ of praise God intended it to be, it was a stench in his nostrils. God is not fooled by false worship, nor is he indifferent to it.

It is noteworthy that Isaiah himself knew something of what this was like in his own personal experience of God. He describes it in what is undoubtedly the defining chapter of his prophecy.

It relates to a particular experience he had in the temple – quite possibly in the context of worship. Isaiah was no stranger to the temple, or to the worship offered there. But what happened on this occasion was nothing less than a profound encounter with God in all his greatness. Its significance embedded itself on this man’s heart in a way that was to alter the entire course of his life and ministry. It was the fact that there, on that day, he was brought face to face with the majesty of God.

It came in the form of a vision. The fact that its backdrop was the temple is significant. Everything about that building was designed to point away from itself to the heavenly reality it represented (He 9.24). But in this supernatural encounter granted to Isaiah, the reality burst in upon his consciousness in a way he had never known before.

It is impossible to imagine what that must have been like. But if we think of someone who had grown up with a picture of the Philadelphia Eagles on their wall, but then got to meet the team in person is perhaps a pale reflection of it.

As never before Isaiah was gripped by the awesomeness of God – ‘upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple’ (Isa 6.1). The sight of sheer majesty was beyond words and was only reinforced by the reaction of the heavenly beings and their ceaseless anthem of ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isa 6.2-3).

The immediate impact of this encounter was to awaken in this man a deep sense of his sin and unworthiness to a degree he had never known before. But, at the same time, it led to a deeper appreciation of God’s answer to it through atonement (Isa 6.5-7). And far from driving him to introspective despair over his condition, it led to his offering himself for divine service thereafter (Isa 6.8).

This whole episode was, of course, unique in God’s unfolding purpose in redemption. But that is not to say that we are relegated to being distant spectators in terms of its relevance to us.

Isaiah’s personal experience of God that day was to become a crucial factor in his preparation for the task to which God was calling him. Out of the many issues God addressed through this man, the inadequacies and blatant sin bound up with Israel’s worship lay at the very heart of them all. Because they had lost sight of the glory of God, they thought little of the many ways in which they were dishonouring him by their conduct and displeasing him by the expressions of praise they offered to him.

For the prophet, the immediate impact of his glimpse of God was to see himself in a way he had never known before. He felt its weight and shame. His cry of ‘Woe is me! For I am lost.’ (6.5) reveals something of how deeply he was affected. Yet the beauty of this experience was that this was precisely where God knew he needed to be brought. The very God whose burning holiness had overwhelmed him sent one of his heavenly messengers to touch his lips with a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice as a sacramental expression of the atonement God alone can provide.

People instinctively go to church with the hope of being made to feel good through being there – and in the highest sense, that is absolutely right – but God’s way of getting us to that point also means facing up to what we hate about ourselves.

The liturgy for morning worship in the Book of Common Prayer begins with Scripture references to sin followed by a General Confession to be said by the whole congregation. It acknowledges that entering into worship and offering ourselves in the service of God, of necessity requires us to acknowledge before him the sin that disqualifies us from both and be assured of his pardon.

We see this played out in Isaiah’s experience. He goes from despair in the face of sin and sensing his unworthiness before God to saying, ‘Here I am. Send me’ (6.8). At a personal level, that day in the temple marked a radical transformation. Having been confronted by the divine majesty, he was brought low before God; only to be raised up and commissioned by that same God for a whole new chapter in his service.

Obviously, Isaiah’s experience was unique; but it is not unparalleled. God used what in Old Testament times were the ‘ordinary means’ by which he imparted himself to his people to do something extraordinary in this one man. The same can be true for us all as we gather for worship each Lord’s Day.

Mark Johnston