May 31, 2015 Series: Lectionary
Topic: Biblical Verse: Isaiah 6:1–6:8
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Sometimes you have to step back and say, “Whoa!” Last weekend marked the unofficial start of the summer season, even as the weather continues to change around us. Winter is but a memory, and it’s looking like spring has pretty much gone that way, too. We had an exceptionally nice few days of sunshine and pleasant temperatures here in the national capital region, so a lot of folks took advantage of that to spend some time outside. Memorial Day weekend usually brings the opening of community swimming pools, and Fairfax County’s Lee District Park is one such location. We’ve heard that we should go try out their splash park for young children, something that our little girl would no doubt love. So when my wife checked and saw that they’d be open on Memorial Day, we prepped our toddler and loaded her into the car for her first experience at what I figured was going to be a little area with a couple of fountains and, maybe, a sprinkler or three. Then we got there. Whoa! As we pulled into the parking area, we got a much better idea of just how big this splash park is: water feature upon water feature rose above the fence line, next to shaded seating areas for parents and kids wanting to take a break from all the water-soaked fun. This place overwhelmed my expectations. Once we parked and disembarked to head in, though, I had another “Whoa!” moment: the line of people waiting to get in looked to be half an hour long! It was pretty clear that we weren’t the only people enjoying the exceptional weather. We turned around and went home.
In other parts of our nation, exceptional late-spring weather has worn out its welcome – people are looking for it to turn around and head home. Towns in Texas have been overwhelmed by rains and flooding. Cities in California are drying out in drought. Things aren’t looking good. Some have attributed this kind of weather to global warming or climate change, but the debates on those topics often seem to come out as people just talking past each other. Regardless of the causes behind flooding and drought, there’s a concept at the core of all this that I think everyone can agree on: human beings are stewards of the environment. Christians, in particular, understand this as part of our vocation, making the most of and not being wasteful with the gifts that God has entrusted to our care. But even if you’re not a Christian, pretty much everyone understands that pollution is bad. Pollution causes problems. It’s not good for you. You don’t want to have any significant exposure to pollution, much less live in it. It’s dirty.
That’s one thing that each of us has in common with the prophet Isaiah today: we’re all polluted. We’re all dirty. The pollution that’s poisoning our environment, though, comes from within. We human beings self-pollute. That’s the truth about this problem we know as sin. Our willful disobedience of God’s instruction or our inadvertent disregard for His design for life – ours, our neighbor’s, our planet’s – that sin separates us from God and makes us unclean.
Isaiah recognized that painful truth as he was brought into the glory of the Lord’s presence in the vision he was shown as God called him into service as a prophet. Isaiah, hearing the seraphim – literally, the “burning ones” – calling back and forth to each other with praises of “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” is rightfully overwhelmed. Whoa! The translation of Isaiah’s reaction in today’s bulletin reads, “Woe is me! For I am lost,” but another fair translation of his words would be “I am destroyed!” Or if you’re a member of my generation, Bill Paxton’s famous line from Aliens would fit right in, too: “Game over, man! Game over!” It’s a present-tense acknowledgement of his situation. Isaiah has witnessed the glory of the Holy God. And he is unclean, cut off from God by his sin, even as he comes from a people who are cut off from God by their sin.
We’re no better. You and I don’t deserve to be here today. The pollution of my sin cuts me off from God; yours does the same. None of our actions are completely pure. Our lips spout pollution every day in words spoken to the people around us, even the words that we speak to ourselves, because they express what’s in our hearts and our minds, natural enemies of God. We are unclean. If you or I were in Isaiah’s situation, we, too, should be “crushed into non-existence by the very holiness of God.” (John N. Oswalt, NICOT: Isaiah 1-39, p. 186)
God is holy. We sing that in our hymns as we celebrate the festival of the Holy Trinity this weekend, echoing the songs of the seraphim gathered at God’s throne. But what does it mean that God is holy? It might help to say that God alone is holy. Holiness isn’t about “doing the right thing.” It’s not even about being pure and clean. Holiness an essential attribute of His character, in that He is ultimately above and beyond His creation. Holiness is based in relationship with the divine. It’s beyond our reach. God’s holiness is impossible for us to experience on our own.
However, if you want to see what God’s holiness means for you and me, look at what happens to Isaiah. He isn’t destroyed; instead, the Lord sends His angel to cleanse Isaiah with a hot coal from the altar of the divine presence, a purifying fire that burns away the pollution of sin. God gives holiness as a gift, a gift that Isaiah didn’t expect, didn’t seek out, and didn’t deserve. Whoa!
One night centuries after Isaiah received his call from God, we hear God speak of the nature of His holiness to a man named Nicodemus. As Jesus tells him, God the Father chose to send His Son to deliver holiness to out fallen world instead of destroying it. In the working of God the Holy Spirit, God’s holiness creates and empowers life where there should only be death. Holiness always comes as a gift from outside us. As was the case for Isaiah, humanity experiences God’s holiness as a connected relationship with the one God, who created, sustains, purifies, and enables that relationship. God’s holiness comes to human beings through the relationship made possible through Jesus’ incarnation, life, suffering, death, and resurrection. And the gift of that relationship is here for you today.
We can’t fully grasp God’s holiness – even the seraphim covered themselves with their wings in the Lord’s presence – yet we are invited to experience it even now through His Word and Sacrament. God is using those tools to deliver His holiness, drawing us closer to Him in a connected relationship that we could not have expected, did not seek out, and have not deserved. And as was the case with Isaiah, God’s holiness overwhelms you sin and my sin. God’s holiness destroys the power of our pollution and makes us clean in Christ. Unlike Isaiah, though, it’s not an angelic messenger that brings God’s gift today: Jesus, God Himself, delivers His holiness to you. Whoa!
Isaiah was convinced that he was destroyed, that his existence was forfeit. So if, like Isaiah, you’ve been convinced that you “are destroyed,” hear anew the message that God is at work to sanctify you, to make you more and more holy: that is, to build up your relationship with Him in each new day. Some days, that might hurt as the familiar pollution of uncleanness is burned away in our lives. But your loving Lord is working to deliver you, not destroy you. Working through His means of grace, our God of grace is building you up to know Him better and to share his love with the people to whom He will send you in each new day.
Over 1,600 years ago, Ambrose of Milan worked as a faithful servant of Christ, making significant contributions to the life of the Western Church. He once advised, “If you are at Rome, live in the Roman style; if you are elsewhere, live as they live there;” advice which in our day has been shortened to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” or even just “When in Rome…” More than most, Ambrose could sympathize with Isaiah’s “whoa” experience before our holy God. He wrote the following prayer reflecting the connection between Isaiah’s call and God’s work for us: O that to me also one of the Seraphim would bring the burning coal from the celestial altar, taking it in the tongs of the two testaments, and with the fire purge my unclean lips! But You, O Lord, in revelation of the mystery have come to us in the flesh. Do not send any deputy, nor any messenger, but You Yourself cleanse my conscience from my secret sins. There is a cup, which You use to purify the hidden chambers of the soul, a cup not of the old order, nor filled from a common vine. It is a new cup, brought down from heaven to earth, filled with wine pressed from the wondrous cluster, which hung in fleshly form upon the tree of the cross. With this wine, Lord Jesus, purify our senses, that we may adore You, and worship You. Amen.