Flashing red light in the rear-view mirror. Speeding. Ticket. Twenty-one years old. Frontal lobe not fully developed. “I won’t pay the fine; I’ll talk my way out of it before the judge.” Intimidating court room, judge towering, “How do you plead?” Knees shaking, what a fool I am! Mouth opens, words can’t form, throat constricted. The judge speaking, “I can’t hear you.” Stumbling, embarrassed, escaping, paying the fine, thankful that the judge in kindness waives the extra fees. What was I thinking?
Almost fifty years later that’s still my only experience before a judge. But my palms still sweat. I can’t imagine that feeling magnified ten thousand times, as it was for the prophet Isaiah, finding himself in the throne room of God, before the One whose robe filled the temple, flying Seraphim around him crying “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Foundations of the temple trembling, smoke billowing.
How is it that Isaiah could even voice the words, “Woe to me”? I’d have been a puddle. “Woe to me.” No kidding. “I am lost.” Definitely. “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” (Isaiah 6:1-5).
Isaiah knew full well that he was doomed—no right to be in the presence of God—deserving only of judgment. And yet, when moments later God says, “I need someone to spread the message of my kingdom,” Isaiah jumps up and down like a grade-schooler whose teacher has just asked for a volunteer. “Me, me, I’ll do it, pick me!”
You know what happened. Between those two scenes is a third: One of those majestic Seraphim took tongs to grasp a burning coal from the altar, flew to Isaiah and touched his lips with it—those unclean lips, undeserving impure lips—and spoke life-giving words, “This burning coal has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, your sin atoned for.”
Moments before, Isaiah trembled with fear; now he trembles with joy and excitement, “Me, me, I’ll do it, pick me!” In the same spot where he dreaded the presence of God, he is now overwhelmed with excitement, joy and a readiness to do whatever he can for his Lord.
What happened? His guilt was taken away? Yes, but more than that. His sin was atoned for? Yes, but more than that. Forgiveness and atonement were not the goal, they were the grace-filled means by which God accomplished his greatest work—to restore Isaiah to an unhindered, mutually enjoyed, soul-to-soul relationship with his God.
Peter walked Isaiah’s path. He saw the majesty of Jesus in an overwhelming catch (Luke 5) and, falling face down in the boat among the wiggling flopping fish, he cried, “Go away, I’m a sinful man.” The long-suffering woman—she too walked Isaiah’s path (Matthew 9). “I’ll just touch Jesus’ robe, I dare not let him see me. I’ll just reach through the crowd, just a touch…”
In the bottom of that boat Peter could only see his guilt, but what did he hear? Jesus’ words. “Don’t be afraid, from now on you’ll travel with me. You’ll be one of my three closest friends and you’ll turn the world upside down as you bring so many into my kingdom.” Friend of the amazing One? One of his three closest? Inconceivable, yet exactly what happened.
In the pressing crowd, the long-suffering woman, well aware that she deserved nothing, but what did she hear? Jesus’ words, “Daughter, be encouraged, your faith has made you well, healed you, saved you.” Daughter? Daughter? Such an intimate endearing word? For me? Yes, for you.
Isaiah, Peter, the woman—when they encountered the Lord and received his forgiveness and were restored into his friendship, none of them knew what the burning coal actually was. But they would come to see it, at least glimpses of it. Isaiah would write, “The punishment that brought us peace was on him” (53:5). Peter (and probably the woman too) would live to see Jesus crucified, the Lamb of God taking away the sin of the world. Jesus, the burning coal.
It is right for us to see an unquenchable smile breaking across the face of that long-suffering woman as she realizes that she has not only been healed from her affliction, but has been welcomed into Jesus’ friendship. It is right for us to see Peter standing up straight in that fish-packed boat and embracing a journey that would lead him one day to be again speechless, but overjoyed, invited into the company of Moses and Elijah and the Son of God. And it’s right for us to see the remarkable, dramatic transformation of Isaiah as he stood before the Holy, Holy, Holy One and found his words changing from “Woe, there is no hope for me” to “Me, me, I’ll do it, pick me.”
And, of course, this is our path too. We see the burning coal clearer now. We see Jesus, the Lamb of God, our Savior. We see him who became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God—and in so doing—be restored to that same relationship of Isaiah and Peter and the unnamed woman. We too hear the words of family endearment, “Jesus is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters” (Hebrews 2:11). We too have an unbreakable smile on our hearts. We too journey with him into eternity.
Now, back in that throne room, standing beside Isaiah, as we see the robe filling the temple, thresholds trembling, smoke billowing and Seraphim crying “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we need not feel a shred of woe, no fear of being discovered, no need to send ourselves away. For this God has welcomed us. And we now lift our eyes to his majesty. And right there in that throne room, we too jump up and down with Isaiah, delighted and unhindered in spirit saying, “That’s my Friend, that’s my Brother, that’s my Lord, that’s my God.”
Rev. John Wile spent his first fifteen years of ministry serving congregations in North America. He and his wife Kathryn served Lutheran Brethren International Mission as a pastoral care team to missionaries for over twenty years, while they ministered to global servants through Barnabas International in Asia, Africa, and South America. They currently reside in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.