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Woe is me
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So I said:
"Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because 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."
Isaiah must have been terrified! There he was, new to his prophetic office--not even, apparently, of the priesthood--and the Lord not only spoke to him but even gave him a vision of heaven itself. There he saw "the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up, and the train of His robe filled the temple." (Isaiah 6:1) Like any prophet, Isaiah was acutely aware of his own failings, his own limitations, and especially his own sin. So, faced with a vision of the true Lord God, of course he cried out, "Woe is me!" Who WOULDN'T cry out in expectation of judgment when standing before the throne of the King of kings, the Righteous Judge, the Holy Lord God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob?
And we see that Isaiah wasn't just conscious of his own sin but also the sins of God's people Israel, the sins of Judah itself. "I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean [or defiled or foul or polluted] lips," the prophet announced. Despite his calling to speak God's Word to the kings of Judah, Isaiah knew that he had not always been holy, that his own heart was once separate from the Lord. Tradition holds that Isaiah came from a wealthy family, perhaps even someone related to King Uzziah himself, and that his calling came to him while he was in the temple at Jerusalem. Having been called, he knew the Word that the Lord had sent concerning the sins of His people, and he knew how they had departed from God's laws and His will for them. And so Isaiah lamented both his estate before the King and the estate of God's people who were so far from God's commandments. Right there, in that vision, Isaiah was sure that his ministry was over, that the Lord had decided to judge him first of all the people of Judah and Israel.
I have been where Isaiah was, facing the wonder and majesty of the great Creator and knowing my iniquity did not make me worthy of His presence. I may not have had a vision so wonderful as Isaiah's, but I have known that fear of judgment, that consciousness of my own and others' sins, that conviction that I could know nothing but condemnation were I to face Him right then and there. Some people are utterly indifferent to whether or why they should be saved, completely inured to their own sin and the sins around them. "Why worry?" they will ask when confronted with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Jesus Himself said, those people are already condemned. (John 3:18-19) But those whose hearts are convicted of sin, those who acknowledge who they have been and what they have done, those who know their lips have been polluted by speaking against the things of God--those people join me and Isaiah in saying, "Woe is me!"
But look at what happened to Isaiah next:
6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar.
7 And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
"Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged."
Is it really that simple? Can it be so easy to be made worthy to stand before the throne of God? Can our sin be taken away simply by the command of the Lord to be purged by fire from the coals of the altar?
13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh,
14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Yes, it really can be that simple. You see, the Lord Jesus didn't come to bring us peace with God with a little wave of His hand. Jesus came to light a fire. (Luke 12:49) And what fire did He bring that would make us worthy of serving God's kingdom? John the Baptist gave us a hint.
"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."
And then on Pentecost, we see the fruition of that prophecy of the Baptist.
3 Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them.
4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Rather than a seraphim, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who brings the fire in our bones, who touches the coal to our unclean lips, who leads us into truth so that we can speak the things of God with confidence and without fear. It is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that takes lowly sinners like you and me and turns us into the royal priesthood of the living God.
1 Peter 2:9-10
9 But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light;
10 who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.
We were not such a priesthood before, not even a whole people before God. We came from various places and traditions and backgrounds. We grew up in godly or ungodly homes, and we entered into our adult lives with a whole pack-load of our own sins. Our sins were varied, our languages different, our families separate, but now, having been saved from sin by Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, we have become ONE people, united in Christ before God through the baptism of His Holy Spirit. (Romans 6:4-6)
Just like Isaiah, we who once were not worthy are now made worthy to speak the Word of God. We need not ever say "Woe is me," nor lament our once-fallen estate. We can approach the throne of God with confidence that we have an Advocate there who is Christ Jesus our Lord. And we can go among the people of unclean lips that surround us, and we can boldly proclaim the commandments of God, sharing the words of prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Amos and Ezekiel--all of whom were made worthy of their temporary offices by the Lord Himself. If we are repentant and newly-created in Christ, we need never again worry that our sins are not forgiven. Our iniquity is taken away and our sin purged by the blood of the Lamb of God, and our lips are cleansed by the Holy Spirit who now dwells within us. Therefore, having been made worthy of God's calling, let us answer as Isaiah did:
Also 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."
Holy Father God, we praise You for Your purging fire, for the Spirit that continues to burn away our sinful nature and lead us into Your truth. We thank You for Your mercy in calling us to be Your royal priesthood, a people who once were many but now are one. Holy Lord, may Your Spirit continue to guide us and help us to make more disciples of all nations, tribes, and tongues, so that many more may one day stand before Your throne without ever needing to say "Woe is me." Amen.
© 2011 Glenn A. Pettit-Noel
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