Topic: Biblical Verse: Isaiah 6:1–6:8, John 3:16–3:17
Festival of the Holy Trinity[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Imagine yourself in Isaiah’s sandals.
It’s 740 B.C., and God, the Lord of all creation, has summoned you into a vision of His divine presence. What’s it like? The prophet’s words must only begin to express the enormity of what he saw before him, this glimpse of God’s majesty and glory. Isaiah sees the King of kings enthroned in His temple, where even the train of His magnificent royal robe fills the space. The six-winged seraphim, the “burning ones,” stand around God’s throne as an honor guard. Even the awesomeness of their divine beauty is nothing in comparison to One whose praise they continually sing. As they call to each other, heralding the holiness of God, the whole space shakes and trembles. And Isaiah immediately understands that he doesn’t belong there.
“Holy! Holy! Holy!” Isaiah heard the seraphim calling out around the throne of God. Here’s a thing to know about Hebrew grammar: when you want to put a superlative on something, you repeat the adjective. So if something is, say, more holy than something else, you could say that it’s “holy holy.” Back in the days of the tabernacle and, later, the temple in Jerusalem, the innermost part of God’s house among His people was called the “Holy of Holies” or “Most Holy Place” – literally written in Hebrew as the “holy holy.” (Think of it this way: when you’re describing your flame-grilled burgers this weekend, instead of saying that they’re tastier than other burgers, can proclaim them “tasty tasty!”) So when the seraphim exclaim God as “Holy! Holy! Holy!”, it’s the strongest form of a superlative. The Lord is supremely holy, the holiest!
So what is holiness? When I’ve asked people how they’d define “holiness,” or what it mean to be “holy,” they usually say something about purity or goodness. Holiness is something more, though. It’s something beyond purity and goodness. It’s otherness. Holiness describes that which stands apart or is set apart from the ordinary. It describes that which is unique, something outside of our regular experience. God is holy. And Isaiah is not.
Imagine yourself in Isaiah’s sandals. It’s not a good place to be. He knows he’s not worthy of being in the Lord’s presence. In the presence of God, Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! For I am lost.” You could also read it as saying, “I am destroyed,” because Isaiah knows that he’s done for. Nothing unholy has any hope in the presence of the King of all Creation, yet Isaiah has seen God. The title he uses for God here, “the Lord of hosts,” has special meaning. To put it into terms we more easily understand, it’s akin to referring to God as “General Yahweh, Commander-in-Chief of the armies of heaven.” It recognizes that God is the ultimate power and authority above all others. There’s nothing that Isaiah can do to save himself from being obliterated by God’s holiness.
How are you or I worthy to come into the presence of the Lord, the supremely holy One? We are each people of unclean lips, and we dwell in the midst of a nation of unclean lips. I know that I am not worthy of this role as one called to proclaim God’s Word to His people. But here I am. Here we are. How are we not crying out with Isaiah, “Woe is me?” We should be! But what happened to Isaiah has happened all the more to you.
One of the seraphim took a burning coal from the altar before the Lord’s throne and, with it, cleansed not only the prophet’s lips but his very being. Isaiah was made clean. God acted to redeem, unprompted. He does the same for you.
In place of a fiery angel bearing a coal from the divine altar, you get the very Son of God, bearing a cross. In place of fire, you get the water of Holy Baptism. You who have come from people of unclean lips and unclean lives, are made clean in Christ. Your impurity is washed away by the blood of Jesus. Your sin has been atoned for by his life, death, and resurrection. You have been made holy.
I suspect that you’re familiar with at least one verse in today’s Gospel reading. But if you know John 3:16, what about John 3:17? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” The Son has not come to condemn, but to save. He has given Himself for the good of all. On this Memorial Day weekend when our nation remembers the sacrifice of those men and women who gave their lives while serving in our armed forces, you and I are here today because of our holy, holy, holy God’s work to save us and give us a home with Him.
On the Church calendar, today marks the festival of the Holy Trinity. In most of this weekend’s services, we’ll be confessing out faith together using the words of the Athanasian Creed. And even though it goes into some detail on the work of the Persons of the Trinity, I’ve found that another illustration can also help us to better understand what God does to bring us back into relationship with Him. Imagine that you’re standing there with your back towards God. You’re looking to do things your own way. That’s how each and every one of us is born into the world: enemies of God, hopeless. But God acts to redeem, unprompted. The Holy Spirit grabs you by the shoulders and turns you around, turning you so that you see Jesus. All the while, the Spirit keeps hold, as we human beings are continually inclined to reject God’s gifts and run off on our own. Jesus, God the Son who has given himself to buy us back from sin and death, takes your hand as your brother, welcoming you in turn to his Father and your Father, who embraces you with love as His own child. Father, Son, and Spirit have brought you back home.
You don’t have to imagine yourself in Isaiah’s sandals. You get to be in the presence of God today! God has given His sacraments – holy things that deliver God’s grace – to make you clean and holy. This weekend, we celebrate that our Lord welcome in another child through the gift of Holy Baptism, washing away uncleanness and giving new life. We can rejoice that the King of kings welcomes us to the banquet table that He has prepared in the Lord’s Supper, giving the forgiveness of sin and renewal of life that we need as we follow Jesus.
To borrow the words of Chaplain Graham Glover who was with us a couple of weeks back: What comes next for us? For people who have been cleansed, redeemed, and made holy before God? Like Isaiah, we are called to live as messengers. You and I have been given clean lips to tell of God’s love and clean hands and feet to show it to our neighbor. Who will go? Let’s say with Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me.” Pay attention to the opportunities that our Lord sets before you in each new day, chances to do good to your neighbor, to listen to them, to pray for and with them. You don’t have to imagine. God acts to redeem, unprompted.
The “Holy! Holy! Holy!” God is here. And He welcomes you into His presence.
[i] This week’s memory passage:
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” – Isaiah 6:6-7 (ESV)