Caricature or Reality (pt 1)
(Isa 6:1-5; Jud 6:11-27)
Summary: In order to pray, worship and serve God effectively, we need to understand who he is. This begins with an understanding that he is first of all holy. Only when we get a handle on his holiness can everything else fall into place.
Do you know what a caricature is? You see them all the time when you pick up a newspaper. You often have political cartoons where the details are not true life representations. Prominent features are often exaggerated and non-prominent features are diminished or eliminated altogether. If you go to a fair you often will see an artist who will do a caricature of you and your loved one. If your chin is slightly pointy, it will be very long and pointy. If you have thin lips, they will be non-existent. It will look like you without question. But it will not be a true representation of you. It can make you wonder, "Is this how people see me?"
We have caricatures of God. There are many of them floating around. J.B. Phillips wrote a marvelous little book entitled, "Your God is too small." In it he deals with the various limited ideas we have of God. To some, God is a resident policeman. To others, God is a divine grandfather not capable of a violent thought. Then there is the "god in a box." Whenever we need him, we take him out of the box. Then there is the "Managing Director" view of God. He takes care of all the big things of the universe, but he is not concerned about me. And the list can go on and on.
I. The Main Characteristic of God - Holiness
Who is God? If I were to ask you what his most prominent characteristic is, what would you say? The Bible declares he is love. It also said he is light and in him is no darkness at all. It tells us that he is eternal. He is good. He is gracious and merciful. He is just. But what is the main characteristic of God? It is the only one in scripture named in triplicate. God is "holy holy holy." All of the other characteristics of God flow from this one characteristic. His love is holy love. He mercy is holy mercy. His wrath is holy wrath. The Bible never says God is love love love. It never says he is wrath wrath wrath. But it does say more than once that he is holy holy holy.
What does it mean to be holy? The root idea behind the world "holy" is different or set apart. The Bible often says that we are to be holy "to" the Lord, which means we are dedicated to the Lord. We have been cleaned up, and our purpose is now a distinct and special one. We are to serve the Lord.
But what does it mean to say God is holy? How is God "set apart?" When the Bible speaks of his holiness, it is talking about his other-ness. 1 Sam 2:2 declares, "there is no one holy like the Lord." God is God, not a man. There is nothing else like him in all the universe. No one is holy like him.
How do you put his holiness into words? I'm not sure you can. There is a song in our books that declares - "O boundless love divine, how shall this tongue of mine to wondering mortals tell the matchless grace divine (267)." Indeed, how can we fully express the holiness of God? How can we fully understand the holiness of God? At best, both our understanding and telling of it will be an imperfect glimpse of his glorious holiness.
The few times God revealed his holiness in scripture, it was hard to put it into words. It forever changed the lives of those who saw. It was often a traumatic experience to be confronted with the holiness of God. Let's look at one of those.
II. Encountering the Holiness of God
Perhaps the best place to start is that very passage where God is declared, "holy-holy-holy."
"In the year of King Uzziah's death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, "Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isa 1:1-5)."
Try and picture the scene in your mind. It may be hard, because we have never seen a seraph before. In Hebrew, Seraph can either mean burning, or serpent. In this case it is probably some sort of winged fiery creatures. Imagine them flying around, covering the face and feet of God (which keeps Isaiah safe, because to see God's face would kill him). Imagine the ground shaking and the smoke filling the temple. Pretty scary stuff.
What was Isaiah's reaction? Was it, "Oh wow, what a priviledge, get to actually see God!" Not at all. This was a traumatic experience for him. The first words out of his mouth was "Woe is me!" Why? How else could he react when his own unholiness is in the presence of God's infinite holiness.
This is just one example. There are several others like it. There was the time when Israel stood at the base of Sinai and the glory of God covered the top of the mountain. There was smoke, fire and thunder. The voice of God boomed from the mountain top and shook the earth. The people were so afraid that they told Moses to let God speak to him, then he can relay the message back to them. They didn't want to hear the voice of God any more. They were so afraid (Exo 20:18-21).
There was the time when the glorified Christ appeared to John on the isle of Patmos. He saw a Jesus with white hair, burning eyes, burning feet, and a sharp two edged sword coming from his mouth. The text tells us that he fell at his feet like a dead man. He was naturally afraid (Rev 1:17).
Then there is the time Moses made a very bold request. He asked God, "I pray thee, show me Thy glory (Exo 33:18)!" I don't know what motivated him to do it. God honored his request with one stipulation. Moses could not see his face. Our little mortal bodies cannot stand the holiness of God in full strength. No one could see his face and live. So God put Moses in the crack of a rock, and very briefly Moses got a glimpse of what the Bible calls God's backside (Exo 33:18-23). Have you every noticed that when the glory of God appears, fire is often there too? Moses saw a burning bush. Isaiah saw fiery winged creatures. Israel saw fire and lightning on top of Sinai. There was a pillar of fire over the tabernacle. And John saw a Jesus with fiery eyes. The Hebrew writer says that "our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29)." Why all this fire?
Rudolph Otto speaks of the "awful mystery" in which we are both drawn to and repelled by God's holiness at the same time. When it is dark and cold, we want to be close to a fire. But we don't want to be too close because the fire is not like us. We cannot stand the fire at full strength. It will burn us. No wonder they were so afraid.
III. Correcting the Caricatures
Why all this talk of God? I thought this was going to be a sermon series on prayer? It is, but before we can talk about prayer, we need to talk about who it is we are praying to. Our theology, our belief about God will affect how we serve him and how we pray to him. This will ensure we are serving and worshipping God and not some caricature of God.
When it comes to a caricature of God, there are two extremes. One is the wrathful god who is just waiting for you to mess up so he can strike you dead. This is the god where things such as striking Nadab and Abihu is commonplace. This is the god that is just itching to kill folks like Uzzah. When bad happens on this earth, it is because god is angry. He is a divine judge who punishes us at the drop of a hat. This was the god that many preached in the Great Awakenings on the American frontier. Johnathan Edwards became famous for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." However, most of us do not believe in a God that is all about judgment and wrath.
On the other hand, there is the god who is infinitely more safe. He is the god of love, and because he is so loving he never condemns anyone. Some go so far as to say Hell does not exist. A loving god would never doom anyone to Hell. He is all about love, feeling good, and harmony. He never would ask us to do anything extreme or uncomfortable. He helps us to have a good comfortable life. He is our friend who bails us out whenever we need him.
I am convinced that this nice caricature of God has done more harm than the tyrant caricature of God. At least the tyrant caricature of God inspired something in us. However, the impotent, non-violent, safe God never drives us to our knees in prayer. He doesn't inspire awe in us. He doesn't move us to shout from the rooftops. He definitely doesn't motivate anyone to sacrifice.
In order to serve God, you have to start with his holiness. We cannot get a handle on his mercy until we first get a handle on his holiness. We cannot appreciate his grace until we appreciate his holiness. We cannot truly understand his love and what it means to love others until we understand his holiness. We cannot know what it means to be holy until we understand that God himself is holy holy holy. Only when we begin with his holiness can we begin to correct the caricatures we may have of God.
Let's look at a passage that will helps us with this.
"Then the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak that was in Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press in order to save it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, "The Lord is with you, O valiant warrior." Then Gideon said to him, "O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, 'Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?' But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian." The Lord looked at him and said, "Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?" He said to Him, "O Lord, how shall I deliver Israel? Behold, my family is the least in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father's house." But the Lord said to him, "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man." So Gideon said to Him, "If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me. "Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You, and bring out my offering and lay it before You." And He said, "I will remain until you return." Then Gideon went in and prepared a young goat and unleavened bread from an ephah of flour; he put the meat in a basket and the broth in a pot, and brought them out to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened bread and lay them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord put out the end of the staff that was in his hand and touched the meat and the unleavened bread; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened bread. Then the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. When Gideon saw that he was the angel of the Lord, he said, "Alas, O Lord God! For now I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face." The Lord said to him, "Peace to you, do not fear; you shall not die." Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord and named it The Lord is Peace. To this day it is still in Ophrah of the Abiezrites (Jud 6:11-24)."
The rest of the story is familiar. God appointed Gideon and only 300 men to defeat Midian. With such a small number, it was obvious that it was by the hand of God and not man. Gideon's reaction after he realized he was talking to the Lord showed that he understood something of God's holiness.
But there is one thing we often overlook in this story. Before Gideon is fit to serve God, there is something he must do
"Now on the same night the Lord said to him, "Take your father's bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the altar of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down Then Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lord had spoken to him; and because he was too afraid of his father's household and the men of the city to do it by day, he did it by night. (Jud 6:25-27)."
There are idols in the back yard that he needs to get rid of. Gideon was afraid so he did it by night. However, the fact that he did it at all shows he had a greater fear of God than of his family and the men of the city.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. However, it is even more fearful NOT to fall into the hands of the living God. The best place you can be is in the hands of the one true God. A.W. Tozer wrote that the only way to take refuge from God is in God.
What does this mean? If we are serving a caricature of God, then we are guilty of idolatry. Idolatry has been a problem from the beginning and continues to be a problem. Why do people build them? Think about it. It is much more comfortable to build an idol of something you are comfortable with and can see, touch and handle. It is so much more safe. We may not build idols of wood and stone, but we may make idols that amount to nothing more than a caricature of God we are comfortable with.
We may have idols in our back yard we need to smash. How do we know if we have idols in our back yard? Take a good long look at the God you serve. What do you actions say he is like? What does your prayer life say he is like?
We may have to smash the god in a box, or the grand old grandpa god. We may need to smash the idol of the tyrant, or the managing director who doesn't care about little old me. Only when we smash our idols so we can start praying to the one true God and not some caricature of him. Like Gideon, our God calls us to holiness and it may put us at odds with our family and with our friends. Our God calls us out of the wine presses and into the open battlefields with little more than our faith in him.
The nice, grand old grandpa god is your worst enemy. God is not tyrant. Neither is he a wishy washy advisor. God is holy holy holy.
I want us to spend some time reflecting on the holiness of God this week. In the weeks ahead, we will be spending more time on God's nature. But I thought this was going to be a series on prayer. It is, but first things must come first. We need to know who it is we pray to. Our theology, our belief about God will affect how we serve him and how we pray to him. I do not think you can separate a study about prayer from a study about God.
So we begin with the holiness of God. The appropriate response to his holiness is fear, reverence, and service. Does this mean we are always to live in fear? Does that mean we are robbed of joy, security and peace? Will talk about that next time.
Have you become holy to a holy God?
If you have been converted, do you serve God, or some caricature of him? If it is some caricature of him, then it is time to repent, and smash that idol!