Sunday, February 10, 2019
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Sometimes we forget that by the wondrous grace of God, people can be changed in a miraculous way. Our lessons for the day tell about three men who experienced God’s grace in extraordinary ways. It’s interesting how similar their stories are despite their different stations in life. Let’s begin with the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah cried, woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, whom shall I send? And who will go for us? And I said, Here am I. Send me!
What a marvelous piece of Scripture! Keep it in mind, the words, “Woe is me! . . . For I am a man of unclean lips,” as we turn to the New Testament to a similar episode in the life of Simon Peter:
Early in His ministry Jesus was preaching on the beach and the crowd was crowding in when He saw two empty boats at the water’s edge with the fishermen cleaning their nets. He got into one of the boats, Jesus asked Simon, to move away from the shore, so that He could sit in the boat and speak to the crowds. When He finished speaking, He turned to Simon and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Simon was pretty tired but said, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
And this time the nets were so full of fish that they began to tear. In fact, it was not long until both boats were so full of fish that they were about to sink. Then the Scriptures tell us that when Simon realized what had happened, he fell to his knees before Jesus and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
Again, what a beautiful and memorable story. Now you have two verses I want you to remember, “Woe is me! . . . For I am a man of unclean lips,” and Simon Peter’s words, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”
But I have one more. Paul relates it to us in 1 Corinthians 15. It is the story of how the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples, first to Peter and later to the rest of the twelve, and then to five hundred more followers, and finally Paul writes, Last of all He appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. Paul says, For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them.
Here’s the third verse for you to remember, For I am the least of the apostles, because I persecuted the church of God. Do you see the similarities in these three stories? The progression of the faith experience of these three important biblical figures is almost identical: They were aware of their sinfulness and their inadequacy. They experienced God’s grace. And finally, they’re called to a great ministry. Let’s consider for just a moment how these three stages of development came about that we, too, might become great men and women through our own faith development.
Note, how they were made aware of their sinfulness and their dependence on God. Consider Isaiah’s experience. He saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of His robe filled the temple. What a majestic vision of God that Isaiah was saw. But also notice Isaiah’s response to beholding God’s majesty. Woe is me! for I am a man of unclean lips!
Now Isaiah had thought he was a good and righteous man. But suddenly, in the presence of God, he saw himself as he really was, he saw that much of his righteousness was a sham, a show; something to parade before the world, too superficial to build a satisfying life on. Simon Peter probably thought he had it made too. After all, he owned his own fishing boat. He was a successful small businessman. He had his work, his family, and his health. What more could anyone ask?
Simon Peter didn’t know the answer to that until that fateful day when he crossed paths with Jesus of Nazareth. He let Jesus, whom he was just getting to know, to use his boat as a floating platform from which to teach. When He had finished His teaching, Jesus turned to Simon Peter and told him to turn his boat out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.
As we noted, Simon was exhausted so, he said, Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because You say so, I will let down the nets. So many fish that they began to tear the nets. In fact, both boats were so full that they were about to sink. Suddenly they realized that Jesus was someone special. What was Peter’s response? Almost exactly the same as Isaiah’s. He cried out, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Suddenly Simon Peter realized just how empty and meaningless his life had really been. He was made aware of his sinfulness and his dependence upon God.
Now let’s consider Paul, like Simon, he was called by a different name before he met Christ on the road to Damascus. He was Saul, the persecutor of the early Christian community. But he had a blinding experience of Christ on the Damascus Road and a radical change took place in his life. Suddenly he was aware of just how misguided, how cruel, how vindictive his previous life had been. It’s hard to believe that Saul the persecutor could become Paul, the author of I Corinthians 13, the greatest living document on the subject of love ever written. Only Christ could make that change in a person. How did Paul describe his experience? I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, for I persecuted the church of God.
If we’re going to become what God wants us to become, we’re going to have to see ourselves as God sees us. That’s the first step for growth. That’s the reason many people never really come to a realization of their need for God. They never feel a need for God’s amazing grace, they never experience it. So, step one in developing a vital faith, is to realize our need for God.
Step two is the experience of divine grace. When Isaiah cried out, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” the seraph touched Isaiah’s lips with a coal and told him that his guilt is taken away and his sin. When Peter acknowledges his guilt and falls on his knees before Jesus, immediately Christ tells him, don’t be afraid. The Paul says, I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am.
Each of these three men was made painfully aware of their sinfulness in the face of the holiness of God, but they were also made wonderfully aware of God’s grace. They knew their sins were forgiven and they were restored as children of God.
Those of you old enough to remember the 1960s might also remember the so‑called “Jesus people” of that time. The Jesus people were former hippies who came out of that world of drugs and free sex to become dedicated believers in Christ. One of these Jesus people in Los Angeles gave her testimony over the radio sometime back.
She was a pretty girl who had gone to Hollywood hoping to achieve a career in films. She met a man who told her that he was a producer and would get her a major part in one of his productions. You can imagine what happened: she slept with him in exchange for the promised part. But it got worse. He introduced her to drugs, and became completely dependent on him for her daily “high,” he then began to sell her body.
She soon realized and horrified at what she was becoming. She was bitter with shame and shocked with fright. One day she stumbled into a Christian coffeehouse, where a group of Jesus people took her with them to a house in which they lived as a community of faith. They stood by her as she dried out, singing hymns and praying as she screamed in the agonies of withdrawal. But in the depths of her suffering she suddenly had a wonderful sense of peace and love. Jesus, she felt, was by her side. She believed in him. From that point on she recovered quickly, and she knew beyond doubt that her moment with Jesus was the moment of her conversion. Most of us have not reached the depth of misery this girl experienced, thank God. However, if we’re to have a faith that transcends the ordinary, some time in our life we must also come to realize our absolute dependence upon God, and we must experience His power to make us into a new creation. Such a realization will deliver us from living lukewarm lives, half-committed and only partially satisfying.
Seeing ourselves as we really are, experiencing God’s grace to make a new start in life, those are the first two steps. But there’s a third.
The Lord asks, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?” And Isaiah cries out, “Here am I, send me.” Jesus says to the frightened Simon Peter, “I will make you a fisher of men” and immediately he follows after the Master. And Paul acknowledges that because he persecuted the Christians, he was the least of the Apostles, but, he adds, that by God’s grace, he worked harder than any of them. That’s what happens when we have an encounter with the living God. And it is the most important encounter we will ever have.
The hymn writer Charles Wesley wrote his first hymn just three days after his conversion to Christ. That hymn was “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” That was how exuberant he felt after his encounter with God. “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing my great Redeemer’s praise . . .” As the years passed, Charles Wesley wrote 6,500 hymns. It’s ironic. Wesley asked for “a thousand tongues to sing,” and through the singing of his hymns throughout the Christian world, God gave him millions of tongues to sing God’s praise and we’ve been singing them for more than 200 years.
Not everyone is going to have the kind of experience that Charles Wesley had, or Isaiah, or Simon Peter or Paul. But each of us in our own way can have an experience of God that transforms our life into something more beautiful. We need to see ourselves as we really are, totally dependent on God. We need to pray that God will help us in our daily lives to experience His amazing grace and power. And finally, we need a sense of direction, lives patterned after the life of Jesus. Then, and only then, will we become the kind of people God has created us to become. Which will cause us to say; Here am I, send me.