Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Proper Reverence

In the Old Testament reading for today from Isaiah 6, we witness the reaction of a man who finds himself in the presence of the holy God. He sees the Lord "seated on a throne, high and exalted," his presence filling the Temple. Above Him are the Seraph, each intoning the Sanctus to each other with thunderous reverberations. The doorposts and thresholds shudder. The sanctuary is engulfed with smoke. Isaiah is overwhelmed. He is a ruined man. A sinful man in the presence of a holy God simply cannot be sustained. At least not without the assurance of His gracious forgiveness.

As I listen to Isaiah and watch the angels, I am reminded again of how little proper reverence there is in some corners of the church today. Evangelicals, by nature, believe that casualness is the appropriate approach to "Father God." He has lost the luster of his luminosity, and sits beside us now in friendly familiarity. The suits and ties of far past generations stifle the spirit with dead formalism void of any inspiration. Bowing and genuflecting are holdovers from Catholics left behind in a medieval time warp. The soaring buttresses and gravity-defying arches of ancient cathedrals have been conveniently replaced by more cozy establishments, equipped with theater seats and Starbucks establishments for the coffee hour to follow.

Where is the proper reverence in our time? Are we not humbled by the very angels who feel constrained to cover themselves in His holy presence? And has the spirit of Isaiah and Peter, which cringes in guilt at the realization of this holiness, passed away with all things no longer needed or desired? Has a veil descended and covered our vision - a veil of our own ignorance and indifference?

I pray not. Yet each generation must recapture the sense of being in the presence of holiness again. As the Sanctus is chanted by the faithful, do they look up in wonder at what now lies upon the altar before them? Or does the commonness of the means blind the eye of faith? Do they hear at all the voice of John the Baptist who calls us to "behold the Lamb of God" here in the bread and wine we are about to receive? And does their body feel any need to bow in the humility of a ruined man coming to a gracious God for forgiveness, while he deserves only death?

Or do we file up in neat rows, lines of unmoved automatons, oblivious to the drama, blind to the miracle, numb to our own fallenness?

In our effort to capture the fullness of the immanence of God, have we lost the eminence? Is it too hard for us to accept the paradox, the twin realities of our existence before the Almighty? We are forgiven children of God, who call in familiarity upon Him as dear children call upon a dear father. But that "Father" is also of heaven. To have one without the other is ultimately to lose God as God.

I bow each time I pass the altar. It seems to confound some people. Deep down I know that this bowing is not of absolute necessity. I know that it can easily become mechanical. Yet like crossing myself it is a way for my body to be reminded of the realities unseen. It is easy to forget where I am. So many have. But I am in His Temple, the place of his presence. I am surrounded by "angels and archangels and all the hosts of heaven." And I am a "poor miserable sinner." So I bow and pray for mercy. And as He lifts me up and bids me be not afraid, I look back in wonderment. How could such a holy God be so gracious? It is a mystery I cherish in Christ.


SteveH said...

Yeah, I do believe the idea of making the church more like the world in order to attract more people may work in the short run but in the long run it will backfire as sincere believers want the real thing. Why are so many Lutherans leaving for the eastern orthodox? I live in the real world all week and I don't like it much. I want and need to be humbled in the presence of God in church on Sunday. Peoples attire and manner should reflect gratitude, reverence and awe. I want different, sacred, and holy. This does not include big hair, Hawaiian and drum sets.
While we're on Isaiah, I'm having trouble understanding Isaiah 6:10. If the people were already mired in unbelief, why would God tell Isaiah to "make the heart of the people calloused" etc?

D. Engebretson said...

While God's primary intent is that all might be saved and come to a knowledge of the Truth (1 Tim. 2:3), the effect of the Gospel is often two-fold. Like sunlight on clay, the unbelieving heart, committed in pride to its rebellious unbelief, will harden even more in response to the Light. In contrast, some hearts, by God's pure grace and mercy, will soften under the Light, like wax under a hot sun. Jesus echoes the words from Isaiah 6 in his parable of the sower in Matthew 13. He uses it as an explanation of why he speaks in parables. Though clear to the ear that wants to hear the Truth, they also just as easily turn off those who do not want to hear. They often revealed the sincerity of the hearer as to whether they truly wanted to understand, or were simply looking for material to use against him or exploit their own sin.

The sense of God's words, I believe, are "proclaim this Word of grace which can cause them to turn and be healed. Proclaim this Word that will tragically allow the committed unbeliever to become even more hardened in his unbelief."

As with all parts of Holy Scripture, we balance the just will of God with his eternal mercy. If people wanted to stubbornly remain in their unbelief, God would allow it. Their lostness was their free choice. And their unbelief would bring ultimate destruction upon them. However, God always remained a God of mercy, sending his prophets to proclaim salvation. A classic example is Jonah who was sent to Nivevah, the hated enemy of Israel. Jonah actually wanted only judgment, but was compelled to call them to repentance that they might find mercy.