This is my first attempt at “live blogging”. Given that the conference began on Wednesday, July 4, and it is now Sunday, July 8, the first thing to be noticed is my sorry use of the term “live”. I’ve heard of “dead blogging” but what to call this? Substantially Delayed Live Blogging? (Attempting this has given me the greatest respect for Tim Challies, Timmy Brister, and the afore-mentioned Pyro’s, who have pulled off true conference live-blogging with excellence.)
Anyway, here are my notes of D. A. Carson’s remarks at the opening plenary session. Warning: please do not give Dr. Carson grief for what may in all probability be a mis-typing or mis-hearing or omission on my part!
"A Living Branch in a Cursed Land"
Dr. Carson began by reading the entire sixth chapter of Isaiah, the one that begins, “In the year that King Uzziah died…”
He noted that when we come to the end of ourselves, we begin to think with eternity in view. Things become less or more important when things like cancer or tragedy strike. Isaiah experiences something similar. In Israel, things were beginning to look pretty bleak. (See Isaiah 2:6; 3:1; and 5:8-11.)
Assyria, a terrible enemy was pressing in. There was moral decay with one pillar, King Uzziah; but then he died in shame. It was in this context that Isaiah wrote, “Then I saw the Lord.”
It is helpful to break chapter into three parts: A Holy God, An Humble Servant, and A Hard Message.
A Holy God
In the heavenly vision, the “train of his robe” is simply the hem of God's garment, and it fills the temple. In Exodus 33:18-23, we note that no one is able to see God’s face and live; he is surrounded by heavenly beings, Seraphs, who despite their lofty status, still cannot look on God’s face.
What does that mean? Some have argued the heart of Holiness is separated. But none cry, “separate, separate, separate”. Some think moral--but none cry “moral, moral, moral”. Holy is synonymous for God—he himself, and him making things around him holy also. Holiness is communicable. The word extends further out to include the domain of the sacred. The word Holy has a rising boundary of concentric circles, with the use of the word depending on context.
We are terribly aware of the marring caused by sin—easy to see its ravages. Yet we’re surrounded by beauty, nature, birds for example. Ever looked at the tail of a woodpecker? (Describes several remarkable features of said tail.) We need to look at nature and think consciously in order to glimpse God’s holiness. The tragedy of naturalism is not giving credit where it belongs. We are wise to sing Immortal, Invisible, Almighty God.
An Humbled Servant
Isaiah experiences not existential angst, but, moral angst—we are ruined. When we glimpse the holiness of God we see our participation in the culture. The standards of holiness are so strong, ours are bound to the world.
Uzziah died, then Isaiah sees the true king. We are fallible, fallen—hopeless compared to his infallibility.
Sense of awe lacking today. Biblical illiteracy rampant—his students often unaware of basic doctrines—and so are not impressed when theological truths are expressed. Instant umbrage is taken, however, whenever he gets anywhere near sin.
Back to the heavenly vision, here also is God’s grace. God acts in response not to a plea, but to bless and redeem. An angel is sent with coals from the main altar, where the lamb is killed on the Day of Atonement. These sacrifices produce coals which take away Isaiah’s sins—he is cleansed. The only way you can be in contact with God is through these sacrifices, quoting Isaiah 33:14:
“The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’”
God does not challenge Isaiah directly—he asks, “who can I send?” Isaiah volunteers, an humble abashed, seeking request. The heart of genuine call is humility. As soon as we think we’re offering a deal, not much grace is involved.
Carson at this point describes the work of a campus ministry he's involved with that prepares papers on Christian themes which are cast for 22 year-olds who are bright, but Biblically ignorant. They brought in 6 workers with theological degrees and got their input on which topics to address. One young woman who spent lot of time in one-on-one Bible studies at an Ivy League school described three things that drive these students:
• Pressure from parents to never get less than an A
• From parents and culture as well, the advice to be yourself, but reserve a little time for altruism. (Already in conflict with item one)
• From peers, the advice to be hot. (How you dress, establish relationships, involves competition.)
Thus, these students were expected to be Bright, Altruistic and Hot. Now when these students become Christians, they are still influenced by these values. So instead of doing things out of gratitude, they begin working to get God’s approval, practicing a self-righteous idealism where you can never do enough.
"The Gospel doesn’t say “do, do, do”; but rather we respond in joyful gratitude to grace."Isaiah's call comes late in the book, after time in ministry and comes in the context of difficult times.
A Hard Message
God says, tell this people, "Keep on hearing, but do not understand." Isaiah 6:9-10.
This reminds of 2 Thessalonians; should remind us of John 8, because he speaks the truth they do not believe.
"This is precisely the problem of basing ministry upon observing the culture."It is by preaching the word that men and women come to faith, but there are times when the declaration offends. The only alternative is to speak the truth.
How long (Isaiah 6:11) will this take? 30, 40 years? (Carson relates how his father planted churches in French Canada, which after 40 years grew from 30 to 500. When he set out did not take an attitude of expecting only a set time.) God warns that the word must be preached until things are ruined, the land forsaken—not until repentance—until a tenth remains which is itself laid waste.
At the end, the only whisper of hope in the chapter:
“And though a tenth remain in it, will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” Isaiah 6:13The holy seed is a stump--a promise to be fulfilled 700 years later.
Two pastoral, theological implications:
1. God ordained quality of preaching:
We are told not to expect reformation and revival. Examples Japan and Korea. In Japan only 1% Christian; Korea quite Christianized. Were the Japan missionaries less sanctified? Successful preachers cannot be measured by converts. Some are called to preach in hard times.
What about our time? Could tell stories of blessing, but in Europe, due to the low birth rate, the population will be halved in two generations. Muslims however are immigrating with a growing birth rate. Many more Muslims are worshiping than Christians. Not Muslim-phobic—we have the Great Commission. But in light of Israel’s destruction, it is not impossible for Europe to be laid waste and another place, say China, raised up.
God uses the foolishness of what is preached to save, thus the centrality of the declaration of God’s word. Just as God has disclosed himself by his word when it is revealed, God re-reveals himself afresh. As the word is re-disclosed, God is re-revealed.
Another reason why God’s word is declared: if doing is the standard then instruction is required. However, due to the grace of what God has done, then announcement is called for.
Tolerance used to mean allowing different viewpoints; now, however, it means to insist that no one is wrong, therefore the Gospel offends.
2. The God-ordained Finality of Jesus
This promise of a branch makes sense only in the context of the whole Bible’s storyline. Until the storyline is in place, it can be difficult to explain why Jesus is the only way to salvation. The king sends his own son as the means by which he brings all things into submission, and remove sins. Jesus is the only one who can do all that.
Concluding Hymn: Immortal Invisible Almighty God