A number of years ago, a woman in Kansas City walked into a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop at her local shopping center. While waiting, she turned to find actor Paul Newman standing behind her. He was in town filming a movie and was now standing behind his biggest fan.
He smiled at her and said ‘hello.’ She took one look into his eyes and her knees almost buckled. Her heart was in her throat. She tried to speak, but not a sound came out. Mortified, she turned around, paid for her ice cream, then quickly walked out of the store. Outside, she sat down on a bench and caught her breath. As she calmed down, she realized she didn’t have her ice cream cone. She was debating walking back in to get it when Paul Newman walked out. “You looking for your ice cream cone?” he asked. Speechless again, she nodded. “You put it in your purse with your change.”
If you or I would come face to face with a celebrity we admired, I imagine we would behave in a similar way. I wonder we, who get excited about celebrity – why it is that we can enter into the presence of God with a yawn and a shrug?
Worshiping God is the single most important thing that you and I can do. In fact we, we were created to worship God (Isaiah 43:21). Worship brings pleasure to God. In worship we practice the greatest commandment that Jesus taught – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. Worship bends our lives toward God.
When Scripture talks about worship it always reminds us that the purpose of our worship is glorify, honor, praise, exalt, and please God. Worship is the number one priority.
Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher in the 19th century, once clarified the most common misconception about worship using the analogy of a drama. “When we come to worship God, we generally feel as though the preacher and other ministers are the performers and God is the subject of the performance and we as the congregation are merely the audience…but this is a terrible misunderstanding of worship.”
Kierkegaard is describing a consumer-oriented approach, focused more on what we receive than what we give. Kierkegaard goes on to say, “Authentic Christian worship is just the opposite. We, the congregation, are the performers. The preachers and other ministers are the directors and God is the audience.”
It is revolutionary to worship something other than ourselves. Every time we worship, we set our own egos, desires, ambitions aside so that God is the audience. When we worship we should make much of God!
That’s why real worship can only happen when we enter into the presence of the Living God. Worship is a deliberate encounter with God in Jesus Christ. We can’t worship to squeeze God in; to feel better for the week; or to get a blessing. With eagerness and expectancy we encounter God and are drawn into his presence where our focus is on giving to him. Worship is an encounter with the Holy God!
While there are many moments in Scripture were we see people encountering God, one act of worship stands out. One story that should be the rule instead of the exception. It is the story of the moment Isaiah encountered the Living God. It is a story of worship and what naturally happens when we rightly worship God.
READ Isaiah 6:1-4
Let me provide some context for these verses. The first five chapters set the stage of Isaiah’s vision of God. In Isaiah 1-5 we are given a description of God’s people – Israel. It is a picture of a people who have completely and deliberately turned their back on God. They have exalted themselves in the place of God. They worship the creation instead of the Creator. The bow down to idols that they have made. They care only about accumulating wealth and military power. They confuse evil with good and good with evil. And God does everything he could for his people, but they won’t respond to God’s goodness. But even in this context of his vision, Isaiah holds out the possibility of radical transformation – an unholy people can become a holy people.
These people for whom Isaiah cared so much about were experiencing turmoil under King Uzziah. When the king died, Isaiah has this vision of God. Who was Uzziah? In 2Chronicles 26 we are given a detailed account of his reign. Uzziah was 16 years old when he was crowned king of Judah, and he reigned a long time – 52 years. For years his reign as king was grand and significant. Uzziah trusted God and took Judah to a period of prosperity and glory.
But unfortunately Uzziah’s reign which had begun in faithfulness and obedience to God, ended in shame and humility. He grew proud and arrogant. One day he entered the temple and went to the holy place where only the priest could go. But when he came out he was no longer the proud and glorious king. Instead he staggered out a leper; broken and humiliated. Uzziah lived as an outcast for the rest of his reign.
And when that once powerful king died, Isaiah has this vision of God. Isaiah and the whole nation felt devastated and abandoned. The one they placed their hope in was gone. What next? But this emptying was absolutely essential. It was necessary if Isaiah was going to see God. His own throne had to be emptied before he could see God sitting on his throne. His false Gods had to be brought down before he could see God high and lifted up. Generally we don’t really seek after God and find him until we have tried almost everything else; every other possible way and found it empty. When we reach the end of our own resources, we turn to God and worship him.
And that is why this event from Isaiah teaches us so much about worship. God is all that we can turn to. God is all that we can trust in the darkest moments of life. And when we move from ourselves into the presence of the living God – we find life. That’s worship! The place where we glorify, honor, praise, exalt and please God.
So who is this God who calls us into worship? And why is God worthy of worship? He is the same God that Isaiah sees.
This God who we worship; this God who calls us to himself; who invites us into a life with him – this God is holy! This vision has a profound effect on Isaiah. What does he see? What does he comprehend for the first time? It can be summed up in one word – a word that the angels repeated three times: “Holy, holy, holy!” Isaiah got a glimpse of the holiness of God. It became clear to him as never before that God is holy. There was this great sense of awe.
Holiness is not just one attribute of God. Holiness is all that God is. At the very beginning of this vision, Isaiah sees God sitting on a throne, high and exalted. At that very moment Isaiah emphasizes God’s separateness; his transcendence over all of creation and all that is. God alone is exalted! Isaiah sees nothing higher than God. To say that God is holy is to say that he is utterly different than you and I and all the rest of creation. And as Isaiah encountered this God, the temple shook!
When was the last time you stood in awe of this holy God? When was the last time you were engulfed by an encounter with this God who is high and exalted? Most of us are guilty of what is called the “sin of reductionism.” We reduce God to a manageable size. We put God in a box – we don’t want too much of God; we want to control the outcomes; we want to limit what we know about God. Isaiah would have been so in awe of God’s holiness that he couldn’t help but approach God with reverence and honor. We need to guard against casual, indifferent attitudes when we enter the presence of God. God is more powerful and more holy than our ability to describe him.
Yet, here is the amazing characteristic of this holy God whom we worship with reverence and awe. This holy God can be known! When we commit the sin of reductionism, we not only reduce God to what is manageable to us, but we also reduce Christianity to a set of moral and ethical imperatives devoid of relationship to God. Christianity and Christian worship is primarily about having a deeply connected relationship with the God of creation.
What is amazing about God, as we see it unfolding in this worship experience of Isaiah, is that God chooses to make himself known. He allows Isaiah to see him high and lifted up. And when God makes himself known, you and I can enjoy his presence. The God who is holy and high and exalted, comes to you and makes himself known to you. And in worship we can enjoy the presence of God.
Even though we have access to him, we never take it for granted. We never treat it lightly. We are going to his throne, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is at the same time our heavenly Father and yet he is the reigning, ruling righteous supreme king of the universe and we live in that tension. He is the God of all, the supreme judge, yet we have a relationship with him. And so we can come in with that intimacy yet with reverence at the same time. He’s our father, he’s our friend. He’s a shepherd. He’s redeemer. He’s righteous king. He’s the judge and ruler of all. And he makes himself known. He wants the whole earth to be filled with his glory. He is looking for people who will be receptive of him. God is looking for people who will present to him.
Of course, God is present everywhere at all times, but not everyone is aware of his presence. I’m not sure we always come to worship expecting a life-changing encounter with God. Many people go to church. Not all worship! But God is present whether we are aware or not, but his presence is made manifest only when we are aware of it! God makes himself known, but God’s presence must be sought. We must be receptive to God’s presence. God is always present to us, but in order for his presence to have its full impact upon our lives, we must learn to be present to God. And in corporate worship we can be present with God when we pray, when we read and hear the Scripture, and when we break bread through the sacrament of communion.
God is holy. He is utterly and completely separate from you and I and creation, itself. God is high and exalted. But God chooses to make himself known. And ultimately, God makes himself known to creation in Jesus Christ. We know God through Jesus. Jesus is the self-revelation of God. God in the flesh. When you are intentional about knowing and following Jesus, you are intentional about knowing this God who makes himself known.
One last thing I want you to see (and we will spend much more time on this over the next two weeks) – it is that while God is holy and God makes himself known, God calls you and I to holiness. When Isaiah has this vision of God during worship, he sees and maybe even feels the temple shake and the whole place fills with smoke.
Smoke means a couple of things in the Bible. Sometimes it symbolizes the presence of God. Other times, like right here, smoke also conveys God’s judgement. Remember the context here – God’s people had turned away from God. They were worshipping creation instead of the Creator; they bowed down to idols. They care only about accumulating wealth and military power. They confuse evil with good and good with evil.
One of the things that should happen when we encounter God in worship, is that we change. We become more of who God wants us to be – just like Jesus. In an encounter with the Living God you and I are called to be holy as God is holy. In worship we should be convicted of the ways our lives are not lining up with God’s will. In this encounter between Isaiah and God, and running throughout Scripture is the call to separate ourselves form the values and life-style of the culture around us. To be holy, is to be separate. Separate from the culture-driven values and lifestyles and free to be attached to God!
Read Romans 12.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience God, face to face, like Isaiah did? Scripture tells us that we can. A little girl was drawing intensely one morning in Sunday school. Her teacher asked her, “what are you drawing?” “God,” answered the little girl. The teacher laughed and said, “Honey, no one knows what God looks like.” She never even looked up from her drawing – “well, they will when I get done.”
We’ll never see God with our physical eyes, on this side of heaven. But we can encounter God with our spirits through the act of worship. In worship, we become aware of the presence of God.
Resources: Dr. Steve Seamands Holiness of Heart and Life
My Next Right Step
- Remember and journal a moment of deep worship – one in which you were very aware of the presence of God.
- Apart from Sunday worship, when are you practicing disciplines of worship like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, etc.?
- If worship is a lifestyle, how are you reflecting that lifestyle? Where do you need growth?
- God is holy and calls me to holiness. If I stay close to God (worship) I can reflect more of God in my life. By God’s grace, how am I becoming more like Jesus and less like culture?