In the Year that King Uzziah Died - Rev. D. K. Macleod
Sermon given by the Retiring Moderator at the General Assembly, May 1999.
It was a critical time in Judah - the year that King Uzziah died. He had reigned for 52 years and, under his rule, the kingdom had prospered, extended its borders and, for most of that time, been at peace with Israel, and, together, they had been strong enough to keep enemies at bay.
Now Isaiah was concerned. Three years before this, King Jeroboam II of Israel, their Northern neighbour, had died and anarchy had followed; this could not fail to have its effect on the peace of Judah. Over in the East, Assyria was increasing in power. At home, there were the usual questions raised when a young prince comes to power. Would Jotham be a good strong king as his father Uzziah had been for most of his reign? Would he try to follow his father in his attempt to usurp priestly authority? For we read, concerning Uzziah: ‘He was marvellously helped till he was strong. But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction’. He went into the temple to burn incense - something absolutely forbidden for any other than the priests. He was reminded of the sin involved, but persevered in his intention and, for this, he was stricken with leprosy and had to live apart for the rest of his days. His son, Jotham, acted as regent. Now he had full power. What would he be like?
So it was a time of CRISIS. Crisis, we might say, in Church and State. Is it exaggeration to use this language of the situation in our Church and State today? Are there parallels to be found, I wonder, at any level - individual or congregational or denominational, to King Uzziah, of whom it is written that ‘He was marvellously helped till he grew strong’? What dangers there are in feeling strong in the work of the Lord, for we fight ‘not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’, and success comes, not by might nor by our ability, but by God’s Spirit.
What sin there is in feeling proud of ourselves - or of our church? ‘Pride’, we are told, ‘goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall’. Constantly, we need to remind ourselves of what the Lord has done for us and where we would be without His forgiving, sustaining grace. We are all too painfully aware of the picture that we, as a branch of Christ’s Church, are presenting to the world outside. Some are tremendously sad; while others ridicule.
Fathers and Brethren, servants of the Most High, we are called to show forth the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His marvellous light. What are we showing to a watching world - a world in darkness - a world in desperate need? What of the condition within? What is happening to ourselves? Words of Samuel Rutherford, written at a time of controversy in the Church of his day, seem so apposite today; “We are now shouldering and casting down one another in the dark, and the godly are hid from the godly”. We know too much of this, as barriers are raised where no such things should be. Rutherford saw this as causing a universal deadness of spirit; and, in another letter, he writes, “Woe is unto us for these sad divisions that make us lose the fair scent of the Rose of Sharon.”
Can we say that we are unaffected in this way? Heat of controversy tends to have a deadening effect on the heart. Nothing can so melt the heart of the redeemed sinner like a fresh glimpse of the glory of the Risen Saviour, whose prayer for His church, before He gave His life for it, was that it would be ‘One, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.’ Is it surprising that there is so much unbelief in the world when there is so little of that unity shown?
Well might we have the concern of Habakkuk, who said, ‘I will watch to see what he will say unto me and what I shall answer when I am reproved.’ Consider one trying to split a log of wood. The axe will not do it. He takes a wedge, hammers it in, it gives a bit more, creaking all the time. But stop! A knot proves to be impenetrable. The Devil has been at us like that woodman - hammering away. Has he reached that solid bit that will not give? I pray so.
But many have been hurt in the process - some more than others. Oh, how we need the Balm of Gilead to soothe our sores and heal our wounds. And you know where and how that Balm can be had.
There was CRISIS in Church and State.
Many of our laws are at variance with God’s revealed will, and the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. There are many concerns regarding the new Parliament. Will its members acknowledge that God reigns and that we must all give account to Him for the way we conduct our affairs? Will they seek to know what His Law says, as they make rules for the realm? Will election pledges be fulfilled?
There was also a personal CRISIS in the life of the prophet. He was given to appreciate something of the Greatness and the Holiness of God, and it brought from his heart the cry, ‘Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.’ This was God’s servant - called to be His spokesman. Others have been similarly affected. When Ezekiel saw what he describes as ‘the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord’, he fell on his face. Ah, but, some will say, that was in the old dispensation. Things are different now. How are they different? When John saw something of the glory of his exalted Master, he fell on his face as dead. One has put it like this:
Oh how shall I whose native sphere
Is dark, whose mind is dim,
Before the Ineffable appear,
And on my native spirit bear
The uncreated beam?
Many of God’s servants get similarly cast down for these or other reasons. There is the immensity of the task before us; the antipathy of a materialistic and hedonistic world; the apathy of some from whom help might be expected; the weakness and sinfulness of the messenger, and simply the weariness of the flesh. Dwelling overmuch on these and the like can drag one down to despair. But here is a lifting-up for the downcast.
There was COMFORT. Comfort provided by the living God. Isaiah’s felt need was dealt with. He heard a voice say, ‘Thine iniquity is taken away and thy sin purged,’ and he heard a Call issued, ‘Who will go for us?’. Confession, which the awareness of the holiness of God drew forth, was so quickly followed by Cleansing and Commissioning. How great is the Mercy and Grace of our God! Long ago, He said through Solomon, ‘If my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn away from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and will heal their land.’
My friends, how we need that forgiving and that healing of our land, our church and, first of all, ourselves. Our Lord is the same - yesterday, today and forever. His ear is not heavy that He cannot hear the penitent’s cry. He has promised Grace sufficient for every need. He, to whom all power in Heaven and earth pertains, has promised never to leave us to ourselves. Here is lifting-up for the downcast, if we will, but remember the promises and lay hold of Him who has promised. He calls, ‘Come unto Me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest’. We may, at times, apply these words to the unconverted, but surely the believer who can often feel weary in the work may, and should, come to the One who has proved so often His ability to help, and seek grace to help again in this time of need. Oh friend, I trust that you will be able to sing over and over again -
I came to Jesus as I was,
Weary and worn and sad;
I found in Him a resting place,
And He has made me glad.
There was CRISIS experienced and COMFORT given, and a COMMISSION accepted. The humbled, cleansed and strengthened Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord say, ‘Whom shall I send and who will go for us?’, and he immediately responded, ‘Here am I; send me’. The COMMISSION he so willingly accepted would not be easy to fulfil. He was told the effect it would have. The people would not listen; they would not respond. There would be a deliberate turning-away from the message he was given to proclaim.
But he accepted it willingly. His eagerness has been likened to that of a hound straining at the leash. He accepted it - out of love and gratitude for the One who had cleansed him. In the course of his ministry so willingly accepted, he was to tell much of the One who was to come -The Servant of Jehovah, of whom it would be recorded that ‘He came unto his own but his own received him not.’
When the Lord Jesus spoke of the building of His Church, He said, ‘The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.’ This implies forward movement on behalf of the Church. If we become too engrossed with ourselves, our situation, our sin, our lack of success, we tend to become stationary and the gates of Hell have nothing to resist. Our Commission continues, ‘Go - make disciples,’ and the promise stands firm, ‘I am with you’.
Oh! That, like Isaiah, we would get a fresh impression of the Glory, the Majesty, the Holiness of our God and receive a new understanding of His grace, and seek forgiveness from the One who delights in mercy. May we all know His Cleansing and Comfort, and be enabled to fulfil our Commission, forgetting those thing which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, and press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. ‘Consider Him,’ the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘that endured such contradiction against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.’
Let us, one and all, obey the Apostolic injunction and ‘put on, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, tender mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another, if any man has a quarrel against any, even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye’.
May the God of peace that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, make you perfect, in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Rev. D. K. Macleod has retired. but was formerly minister of Kingussie & Newtonmore.