The Wholly Overwhelming Holy One
You sometimes hear people say ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. Perhaps, but it is certainly true that familiarity can breed complacency and, sadly, that’s something that can happen with the Bible. It’s all too easy to develop mechanisms to ‘manage’ Scripture; to smooth off the sharp edges, turn the volume down on the awkward bits and find ways of diluting the passages that trouble us. We frown at those sceptics who ridicule the idea that God speaks to us in the Bible but instead we have found ways of putting fingers in our ears. The result, ironically, is the same: a tamed, docile book that neither challenges nor comforts with the power that it should have.
Nowhere is this muting of the Bible more apparent than with the great vision of God recorded in Isaiah 6:1–13. If you don’t know the passage, please read it; if you do know the passage then please read it. I believe we have so domesticated this passage (and others in Scripture) that they have become voiceless. In fact, when you look at the text in Isaiah you realise that this was an event that stunned the prophet to his core. The heavens opened, there were angelic cries, extraordinary creatures, thick smoke, dazzling light and even an earthquake. This was the full IMAX experience and a lot more; a beyond-the-big-screen shaking of body, bone and being. Above all, there was the overwhelming presence of a morally perfect God who made Isaiah aware of how terribly frail and sinful he was. Isaiah – who must have felt astonishingly relieved to have escaped with his life – was truly transformed. There are legends that the prophet was cruelly martyred; I have little doubt that, however he died, this vision of an eternal, all-powerful and all-holy God sustained him until his last breath.
The whole passage is remarkable but just think for a moment about the cry of the angelic seraphim: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory’ (Isaiah 6:3 niv). That triple ‘holy’ is important. At a time when writers didn’t have our tools for emphasising a phrase by underlining or highlighting or putting it in a bold or large font, repetition was a way of shouting to the reader, ‘Listen up! This is important. Really important!’ Indeed there are only a handful of uses of triple repetition like this in Scripture and only this one occurs as a description of God. It is so significant that it is repeated at the end of the Bible in Revelation 4:8. It’s worth reminding ourselves that God is never described as ‘Love, love, love’ but twice as ‘Holy, holy, holy’.
Isaiah speaks of God’s holiness as terrifying and humbling. Part of our problem here is that if you have been a churchgoer for some time, when you come across this passage you immediately think of the nineteenth-century hymn by Reginald Heber: ‘Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty! Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee’. Heber – one of the few English Anglican bishops to die on the mission field – wrote these good words but the elegantly amiable tune they were set to turns what should be a terrifyingly, mind-blowing encounter with a glorious and holy God into something no more challenging than a quiet chat with the monarch over cucumber sandwiches!
Holiness is, of course, a difficult concept. It’s not helped because we have so little of it while God has so much. We have diluted the vision of God presented by Isaiah and the Bible and we need to regain something of its crushing and humbling power. We have pulled out the plug on what should be a very high-voltage encounter and we need to put it back.
Mind you, clumsily applied to God, the concept of holiness can be a problem. Many people with some sense of what holiness means may say in despair, ‘How can Iapproach the One who is Holy?’ It’s tremendously encouraging that the New Testament picture is not of us meeting God enthroned in the splendour and terror of the heavenly temple and worshipped by angels but in the infinitely more approachable – but no less holy – person of Jesus Christ. In his encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Galilee, Peter seems to echo the words of Isaiah when he fell at Jesus’ knees: ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ (Luke 5:8).
So what? Well the old rule that they used to teach in Sunday school went as follows: ‘Little God, Big Problems; Big God, Little Problems.’ It’s true but it goes further. You can’t do much with a little God except perhaps put him on the shelf and bring him out on Sundays. But with a big God we can change the world. Perhaps, of more immediate relevance, we can even change ourselves!
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