Overlooking and Atoning
I noticed something new in Isaiah 6 this morning. Unfortunately, this is one of those passages that has become so pigeon-holed in American Christianity that it's easy to skip over. Well, this is about missions... here I am, send me! Or, this is about Isaiah's call, simply a prelude of things to come. Either way, this story often gets reduced to a moral lesson about willingness and obedience.
There is a better lens through which to read this passage. Think of this passage as a definition - for Isaiah and for us - of who God is, who we are, and how he encounters us. When Isaiah sees the vision of the Lord, high and lifted up, he is completely undone. He doesn't marvel. He doesn't think about who he's going to tell. He filled with a gut-wrenching knowledge that he should not be there. What we commonly see in these kinds of stories is that the prophets think they're going to die. Isaiah says, "Woe is me!" This is the opposite of "Hallelujah." Instead of highest praise, this is highest curse.
Isaiah sees God correctly. He immediately understands that no human being has any business being in His presence. He immediately covers his mouth. He's realizes that he is profoundly unqualified to be there. He is underdressed, he is impure, and he is undeserving.
Notice what God does. Or, maybe more importantly, what God doesn’t do. If we were writing this script, we would want to break the tension at this point. Maybe God kindly says to Isaiah, "Don't be afraid." Or even better, "Don't worry Isaiah! You're only human." Maybe what we want to hear is, "Everybody has said some things they regret. How bad could it really be?" Essentially what we want is for God to overlook his sin.
God does something better. Instead of comforting Isaiah, or overlooking his sin, he confirms Isaiah's deepest fears. He is unqualified. He is undeserving. He should be scared to death.
But then God does something amazing. He atones for Isaiah's sin. He makes him worthy. He cleanses him. When His messenger takes the coal and presses it against Isaiah's lips, he says, "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah does nothing in this scene. God, who is being proclaimed as "Holy, holy, holy," takes initiative. He does not deny the seriousness of sin or His own character.
When we encounter God, He does something better than overlooking our sin. He doesn't brush it under the rug. He doesn't forget about it. He deals with it. He atones for it. The foundation for the Christian life is similar to the pattern we see in this story. When we encounter God, we stand condemned by merely entering His presence. And instead of overlooking our sin, He atones for it.
Definition. Repentance. Atonement. Mission.