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.