Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 16, 2012

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8

A TERRIFYING AND TOUCHING ENCOUNTER WITH THE TRIUNE GOD

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

Introduction

The hymn you just sang, “Come, Holy Ghost, Creator Blest,” is not only the Hymn of the Day for the First Sunday after Pentecost, but it is also a hymn that has been sung for hundreds of years in services where pastors are commissioned to serve or are installed into their positions.  Eleven years ago, around this time of year, I remember singing that hymn at the “Call Day” service at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary when my classmates and I found out in front of over a thousand of our “closest friends” where we would begin our service in the pastoral ministry.  The seminary’s Call Day service is one of those events that you just have to experience for yourself.  I could show you the bulletin from that day; I could explain to you what the service is like; I could try to describe the emotions graduates feel before, during, and after the call list is read, when they learn where they will first serve in the ministry.  I could try to describe it to you, but a Call Day service is something you need to experience for yourself.  If your travels take you to Wisconsin in May, I’d recommend that you make that service a part of your plans!

Today is not Call Day at our church body’s seminary, but in the First Lesson we learn about the direct divine call that the Old Testament prophet Isaiah received.  Today is the First Sunday after Pentecost, also known as “Trinity Sunday.”  The First Lesson for today from Isaiah’s Old Testament book was chosen because it contains subtle references to the Triune God.  But at its core, this reading is a record of a unique vision and a direct encounter that Isaiah had with God when he was called to serve as the Lord’s prophet.  Much like Call Day at the Seminary, this reading is something that we would best understand and appreciate if we could experience it ourselves rather than just read about it.  Even though we were not present 2,700 years ago to experience Isaiah’s encounter with God, we will be able to learn quite a bit from it and perhaps even gain a little sense of what it was like for Isaiah to experience a terrifying and touching encounter with the Triune God.

I.

Isaiah gives us several details about his direct encounter with God.  First, he tells us when it happened.  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted.”  King Uzziah—also known as Azariah—had led the nation of Judah through prosperous economic times and had extended the nation’s borders to their previous limits.  But with Uzziah’s death, the nation lost its last moderately decent king, and the political and moral situation of the nation plummeted from that day forward.

As the vision continues, Isaiah describes the scene as if he is in the temple—although the specific details indicate that this is not the temple in Jerusalem but the unique temple that accompanied Isaiah’s unique vision.  “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’  At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Isaiah introduces us to a kind of angel that is not found anywhere else in the Bible.  They are called “seraphs,” and the Hebrew word that their name comes from implies that they may have been fiery in appearance.  Like an honor guard, they appeared alongside the Lord in his temple.  Their behavior showed respect and humility before the almighty and all-glorious Lord, who sat on his divine throne wearing a royal robe with a train that literally filled the temple.  It’s easy to see why the angels acted with such humility when all of the details of the emphasize that God is Lord, Master, and Ruler over all creation.

But the greatest testimony to the greatness of the Lord came in the words that the angels spoke to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”  It may seem subtle to us, but to angels who knew the Triune God they were praising, it was no coincidence that they called God three times holy—and it is no coincidence that the subtle reference to the Trinity in this reading led to its choice for Trinity Sunday.  The presence of the three-times-holy God, flanked with angels above him and trembling foundations and smoke below him let Isaiah know in no uncertain terms that he had come into the presence of God Almighty.

And what is Isaiah’s reaction now that he has encountered God?  “‘Woe to me!’ I cried. ‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.’”  Isaiah encounters God and he does not respond with a “holy howdy!”  He immediately assumes that he is doomed—doomed because he knows his Old Testament (at least the part that had been written to date), that God himself said in Exodus 33:20 that no human being can see him and live.  And Isaiah knows why that is the case.  When he encounters the three-times holy God, the very first thing he becomes all too keenly aware of is his sin.  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  When Isaiah encounters God directly, he does not throw out the excuse that there are far worse people guilty of far greater societal sins.  He doesn’t think to himself, “Well, you know these pagan nations around Judah engage in all sorts of immoral idol worship, so I won’t be in that much trouble.”  He says nothing of the sort: “Woe to me!  I am ruined!  For … my eyes have seen … the Lord Almighty.”  This divine encounter was terrifying to sinful Isaiah.

Do we come to grips with the same reality when we gather in God’s house?  No, we are not privy to the same grand display of divine power that Isaiah saw, but we have no less come into the presence of God today.  Shouldn’t that thought terrify us—even if just a little bit?  Look at the sin Isaiah immediately thought of when he encountered God: “unclean lips.”  Have we come before God today with half-hearted praises and confessions?  Are we praising God today with the same lips that were filled with foul language yesterday and that have no intention of changing tomorrow?  Are we praying to God today with the very same lips that gleefully spread lies and rumors and gossip last week and has grandiose plans to do the same this week?  And what’s worse: Do we even care?  Do we think that we could get away with the excuse that Isaiah didn’t dare propose, the excuse that there are worse sinners in the world than I and there are worse hypocrites in the church than I?  Something tells me that if we had the same face-to-face encounter with God as Isaiah did, we’d be singing a very different tune: “Woe to me!”

II.

After Isaiah cried out, “Woe to me!” he probably wasn’t hoping for an angel to fly right up to him, but that is what happened next.  But the angel did not approach Isaiah to haul him off into God’s judgment.  He flew over to Isaiah with a live coal from the altar.  Remember that the altar was a place of sacrifice.  The sacrifices of the Old Testament were all designed to point forward to the coming Sacrifice that Jesus, the Son of God, would make on the cross another 700 years after Isaiah’s direct encounter with God in his vision.  And so when the seraph took the coal from the altar and touched Isaiah’s lips, he was applying the coming sacrifice of Jesus and the forgiveness that Jesus’ sacrifice would achieve directly to Isaiah’s sin.  This was no empty, useless ritual.  This was a vivid and concrete announcement of forgiveness: “One of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”

Isaiah knew exactly what this touching encounter meant.  And with the purifying coal that had touched his lips and the forgiving news that had touched his heart, Isaiah not only saw his fear melt away but he was more than eager to place his life into the service of Him who had cleaned him from sin through the future sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’”  (Notice the subtle reference to the Trinity when God calls himself “us”).  “And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’”

Imagine that a close friend has come to you and confesses the overwhelming guilt that he or she is struggling with because of some sin in the recent past.  What would be your advice to that person?  “To err is human; we all make mistakes.”  “Don’t worry about it; we’ve all done something similar.  “Keep trying to improve yourself; that’s the best lesson we can all learn from our mistakes.”  All good advice, to be sure—but none of it is God’s advice.

What was God’s solution for his future servant who was terrified with guilt at his encounter with the Triune God?  God’s solution was to touch Isaiah—literally—with his grace and forgiveness.

What is God’s solution for you, dear Christian friend, when you are overcome with the realization that your lips and your lives have no business standing in the presence of God?  Here is the solution: God touches your heart with his forgiveness and grace.  Before time began, the very same God who cannot stand sin in his presence was nevertheless touched with pity and mercy for you and me whose sinful condition made us bound for hell before we were born.  Two thousand years ago, on a hill outside Jerusalem, God poured on the wrath for your sins on his Son who was sacrificed for you.  Two thousand years ago God offered his Son as the perfect sacrifice to take the guilt of your unclean lips away and completely remove the sin that would have otherwise kept you out of his loving arms forever.

And now, today, God touches you with his grace and forgiveness.  As you see the font standing at the front of church, you can recall how he touched your head with the waters of baptism and how he touched your heart with his grace.  Today, as you come to this altar, God will touch your lips with the very body and blood of Jesus that won your forgiveness in the first place.  Today, God opens up your ears to hear the good news that through faith in Christ you have been forgiven by the Triune God himself.  Today and every day, God opens up your eyes to read and see the message of his great mercy that declares you to be his own and that inspires you to be a witness of his mercy to other souls whom God wants to call into his eternal family.

Conclusion

Some things must be experienced.  Your favorite desert—you could list ingredients; you could talk about the first time you tasted it; but if you really wanted someone else to understand what you’re talking about, they need to eat it and enjoy it themselves.  A concert featuring the music of your favorite composer—you could share the program from the concert; you could describe the music you heard; you could even play back a video someone posted on YouTube; but if you really want to appreciate it, you have to attend the concert and hear the music live yourself.

On this Trinity Sunday, we have not attempted to comprehend or explain the Triune God.  Understanding how God is three and one at the same time is truly impossible.  But if this reading from Isaiah’s book can give us a little sense, a little experience, a little encounter with the Triune God, then we will have gained far more than any academic presentation could have given us.  Encountering the almighty Lord of the universe would be a terrifying experience were it not for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the grace of our Triune God—grace that touches our hearts now until that day when the Lord himself embraces us with his love forever.  Amen.

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