Where Angels Fear to Tread
July 21, 2013
During the last week, reaction from the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case has dominated the news and has also triggered demonstrations in some cities around our nation. Regardless of how you feel about the verdict, the whole story is very sad, resulting in the destruction of many lives. A seventeen year old boy did not have the chance to grow into a mature and responsible man. The one who shot him has found his life completely disrupted and he remains in hiding, fearing for his life. All of this is wrong. We should be shocked.
Moral shock is the condition in which we react to circumstances that are so far out of kilter – so wrong – that they offend us to the deepest core of our being. Tears of grief and angry rage are common manifestations. Most of us experienced moral shock on September 11, 2001 when thousands of people lost their lives in the twin towers of New York as terrorists crashed two jetliners into them. I remember being unspeakably angry as I watched thugs beat innocent truck driver, Reginald Denny, nearly to death on the streets of Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots in 1992. I wept as I watched on TV while no one would help him, including bystanding policemen. For the modern world, there has probably been no greater moral shock than the discovery of German concentration camps at the close of World War II. Such unspeakable atrocities sickened the liberating soldiers and the world as images of the cruelty and carnage of the demon-inspired Nazis became known.
Moral shock. It’s deeply upsetting because things are terribly wrong.
The human race lives in a perpetual state of moral shock. Only, we don’t know it. Ever since sin entered the world thorough Adam and Eve things have been terribly wrong. It is our “new reality” and we have learned how to deal with it. We recognize that we are naturally bent towards evil. So we write laws to restrain our evil inclinations in order that we may co-exist in a society. We put locks on our doors and install security systems on our computers. In this broken upside-down world, only the most heinous of crimes shock us anymore.
We can cope with everyday evil. We’re used to it. It’s the holiness of God that will shake us to our core.
The Word – Isaiah 6:1-5
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “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.”
How do you speak of the unspeakable? How do you describe the indescribable? How do you imagine the unimaginable? Our minds and our spirits are so distorted by the effects of sin that we cannot conceive of the holiness of God apart from the intervening work of the Holy Spirit in us. God’s holiness refers to his moral perfection. Think of the most upright person you know – perhaps a Mother Teresa or a Billy Graham - and multiply their wholesomeness out to infinity. You would still fall infinitely short. The holiness of God is entirely other than what we are and what we know. Holiness is the way of God. Every characteristic of God is holy. His Word is holy. His actions are holy. His love is holy. His judgment is holy. Even his anger is holy.
God’s Holiness Reflected in the Old Testament
God’s dealing with his people in the Hebrew Scriptures reflects the awful holiness of God. As Moses was receiving the Law on Mt. Sinai, the people could not approach the mountain. Those that did would surely die.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.
The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”
When the people offended God by making a golden calf which they believed represented him, many died as a result. Nadab and Abihu were priests who ignored specific worship instructions given by the Lord. They were consumed by the very fire they offered at the altar (Leviticus 10:1-4). The entire Hebrew Law reflects the holiness – the otherness and the moral purity – of God. Israel knew this first hand. When they finally came into the Promised Land their army was soundly defeated because of one man’s disobedience. A holy God is not to be trifled with.
No wonder the prophet Isaiah was terrified by his vision of the Almighty God. He was undone. Throughout the Scriptures we find Isaiah’s experience replayed by those who encounter God in his holiness.
· Moses took off his shoes and hid his face at the burning bush where God’s presence was manifested. It was “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5-6)
· When the prophet Ezekiel had his fantastic vision of God, he fell face down in the dust (Ezekiel 1:26).
· When Peter saw the glory of God manifested in Christ at a miraculous catch of fish, he said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).
· When the Apostle John encountered the ascended Christ, he fell at his feet, the Scripture says, “as a dead man” (Revelation 1:17).
How We Perceive God’s Holiness
What is this awful quality of God that causes his creatures to tremble and become undone in his presence? Theologians and mystics have tried to label is as “the numinous” or the Mysterium Tremendum. We struggle. It transcends language. It cannot be adequately described by words. It cannot be intellectually conceived, only felt and sensed in the deepest part of the human soul. And this perception is universal among men. Tozer puts it this way,
It remains a permanent religious instinct, a feeling for that unnamed, undiscoverable Presence that “runs quicksilverlike through creation’s veins” and sometimes stuns the mind by confronting it with a supernatural, suprarational manifestation of itself. The man thus confronted is brought down and overwhelmed and can only tremble and be silent (Knowledge of the Holy¸ p. 104-105).
That was Isaiah’s experience. This awful Presence that reflects the holiness of God is behind every religion in the world. Men – made in the image of God – have an inbred intuition that senses our obligation to a Holy One. Every religion pursues this Presence in order to satisfy our obligation to It. But it is never enough. The Scripture says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The Holiness of God is Foreign to Us
All of this seems so foreign to us. Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t like this; it seems so negative.” Jonathan Edwards’ classic sermon that launched the First Great Awakening, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is repulsive to us. Contemplating the holiness of God is too painful, so we turn away. Our popular taste in religion has imprisoned us into hearing only that which is “positive and encouraging.”
“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
If we have no comprehension of the holiness of God, sin is no big deal. We don’t grasp the greatness of grace until we understand the depth of our depravity. Social research shows that there isn’t much difference today between the way Christians and the world live. Is it any wonder that the church is powerless? Should it surprise us that we tolerate sin and have no real peace and joy?
O that God would give us a vision of his holiness! It is revealed in the Scriptures, but our hearts are too hard. O that he would give us a spirit of mourning for our un-holiness. Shatter our complacency and break into our spiritual boredom, Lord! Holy Spirit, condition our open hearts that we may resonate with the eternal music that flows from heaven’s throne room:
…before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder. In front of the throne, seven lamps were blazing. These are the seven spirits of God. Also in front of the throne there was what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal.
In the center, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying:
“‘Holy, holy, holy
is the Lord God Almighty,’
who was, and is, and is to come.”
Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne and who lives for ever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say:
“You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they were created
and have their being.”
God’s Amazing Grace
You don’t know how good the good news is until you know the fullness of the bad news. The bad news is that God is holy we stand condemned in his presence by our sin. The Scriptures say that we are, by nature, “children of wrath.” And God’s wrath towards us is holy and perfectly justified. His creation was to be holy. But sin diminished its glory. God is justified in his holy wrath to preserve his creation and restore it to its original state. His wrath toward sin is a manifestation of his love for the world. What is amazing is that this holy and demanding God is also a God of grace. He provides a way back to him. When Isaiah encountered God in the Temple he was undone. He believed that he was doomed. Do not miss the drama here. You cannot appreciate the grace unless you fully understand Isaiah’s sense of utter demise.
Then one of the seraphim 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” (Isaiah 6:6-7).
The modern gospel is impoverished and powerless because we have diminished the holiness of God. But the glory of the full Gospel is that this God who is awful in his holiness has condescended to us through Jesus Christ that we might come confidently before him.
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:1, 4-5).
That, my friends, is amazing grace! If, however, you’ve never placed your faith in Christ, then you remain under the wrath of a holy God. It is only by his mercy that you are not consumed today so that you might have the opportunity to place your faith in Christ. Now is the time to respond to him. Do not wink at your sin. A holy God is not to be trifled with.
God has not changed. The God of the Scriptures whose presence terrified holy men of old still remains the same. His holiness is not diminished. But his grace has been magnified.
There was only one day a year in which the Jewish high priest could enter into the inner sanctum – the holy of holies. If anyone else entered they would be killed. There was no access to God’s direct presence except by one designated person and then, only once a year. But on the day that Jesus died, the thick curtain that kept everyone out of the holy of holies was torn in two and access was granted to all who believed. God’s holiness was not diminished on that day. But his grace was extended and magnified. So then, the writer of Hebrews can say,
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water (Hebrews 10:19-22).
Let us, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “be transformed by the renewing of our minds.” Let us not turn away from a holy God, but repent from our thoughts that are not worthy of him and of us as his people. May phrases like “the Man upstairs” or “the Big Guy in the Sky” deeply offend us. Let us learn reverence once again. Let us acquire the discipline of silence in the presence of the Holy once more. And let us not wink at sin, but repent of our wickedness so that we may we be a people who are holy because our God is holy.
The Te Deum, an ancient prayer of the church:
You are God: we praise you;
You are the Lord; we acclaim you;
You are the eternal Father:
All creation worships you.
To you all angels, all the powers of heaven,
Cherubim and Seraphim, sing in endless praise:
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
The glorious company of apostles praise you.
The noble fellowship of prophets praise you.
The white-robed army of martyrs praise you.
Throughout the world the holy Church acclaims you;
Father, of majesty unbounded,
your true and only Son, worthy of all worship,
and the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide.
You, Christ, are the king of glory,
the eternal Son of the Father.
When you became man to set us free
you did not shun the Virgin's womb.
You overcame the sting of death
and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
You are seated at God's right hand in glory.
We believe that you will come and be our judge.
Come then, Lord, and help your people,
bought with the price of your own blood,
and bring us with your saints
to glory everlasting.