He trembled as he stood. Tears dripped off his cheeks. His voice just above a whisper. His words and the moment imprinted on my childhood memory. “This is the first communion service that I have attended in many months,” Herman lamented. “I don’t know why.”
Herman had been converted to Christ decades earlier. I had known him only as a very kind, godly man. His confession impressed me with the seriousness of our daily life as Christians.
I suspect that what happened is the same thing that can happen to any of us. We become too casual about our lives as God’s children. We become less than careful about matters that matter to God. We become careless about things God highly resists. Daily repentance—daily turning from our sin and asking God for mercy and forgiveness—gets forgotten.
Isaiah, too, seems to have forgotten. Life was good. King Uzziah had restored political power to Judah. Power meant peace. Peace meant prosperity. Peace and prosperity led to moral and spiritual decline. But life was good. Then Uzziah died. The specter of the Assyrian empire was already threatening Israel. Judah could only be next. That’s when Isaiah saw the Lord.
Seeing the Lord means that he also saw himself. He saw the ways that he had sinned against God. God in his mercy was intervening to bring Isaiah to repentance. He does the same for us. God in his mercy works repentance in our lives. How?
Through Fear: “I saw the Lord, high and exalted… the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). God’s holy presence is not meant to make us afraid of him, but we do need to see how we have sinned against the One who is absolutely holy.
The previous chapter demonstrates that Isaiah saw some specific examples of sin. Whether he shared in these sins or only failed to warn his people about their sin, he had offended God. The list includes:
Pursuing wealth for its own sake. “Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field” (5:8). They were pursuing wealth to serve themselves instead of to serve the Lord’s purposes.
Defiantly using alcohol. “Woe to those…who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine” (5:11). Without daily repentance alcohol had become their means of disregarding the Lord’s ways.
Living independently of God’s care and direction. “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes” (5:21). They compartmentalized their lives. They did not even pray about their needs and decisions.
Becoming more and more accepting of sin. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (5:20). As the light of God’s truth grew dim, Isaiah’s people became less and less concerned about sin.
Confronted with his sin in God’s holy presence all Isaiah could say was: “Woe is me” (6:5). God in his mercy uses fear to work repentance in our lives. But it often takes more than fear to bring us to repentance because we simply try to hide from God. So God works repentance:
Through Conviction: Isaiah testifies that he saw seraphim who sang, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” (6:3). The word “seraph” means “burning,” which describes their holiness. The prophet notes that, although they had six wings, they only used two for flying. The other four were used to cover their eyes and feet.
Why this detail? They covered their eyes because—holy as they were—they were too humble to look on the One who is “Holy, Holy, Holy.” I’m not humble like that. They covered their feet in order to hide the ways in which they served the Almighty. That’s not me either. I want others to know of my work in the kingdom, but the seraphim didn’t post their spiritual exploits on Facebook. Isaiah was convicted. “I am a man of unclean lips—my praises are discolored with pride.” He was convicted.
But conviction is not enough. If we are only convicted that we have sinned against God, we will still try to fix it ourselves and resolve to do better. So God works repentance:
Through Sorrow: God’s Holy Spirit points us to the cross. There we meet the consequences of our sin—Jesus, God’s Son, nailed to the cross for us.
That’s what Isaiah saw. The Apostle John tells us, “Isaiah… saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (12:41). Isaiah wrote of Jesus, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (53:5). When Isaiah saw Jesus Christ crucified for him, he was undone.
So are we:
Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon his shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held him there…
But God’s purpose is never just to get us to say, “I’m sorry.” Look at what happened next. An angel flew to the altar—in Old Testament imagery, the place where lambs were slain, but now according to the Gospel of John, the altar where the Lamb was slain—to get a coal, bring it to Isaiah, and touch his unclean lips.
Did you know that God does not hesitate to touch you no matter how unclean you believe yourself to be? Why? Because his touch applies the shed blood of his One and only Son. And he adds with his touch, of the most unholy place in our lives, these words, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Incredible words spoken to you.
Believing those words, Isaiah went from saying, “Woe is me!” to saying, “Here am I” (6:8), or literally, “Look at me!”
Herman didn’t feel that bold as he offered his confession, “This is the first communion service I have been to in many months. I don’t know why.” He was undone. But then he added, “I’m glad I’m back.” He was forgiven.
Daily repentance. Daily confessing. Daily saying, “I’m glad I’m back.” Even boldly saying, “Here am I!”
Dr. David Veum serves as President of Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.