“In the Presence of the Holy God” (Isaiah 6:1-8)
What would it be like if you knew you were in the presence of the holy God? Try to imagine. Would it be cool, casual, awesome, inspiring, overwhelming? What would your reaction be? “Oh well, just another day in the park. Nothing to see here. Ho hum.” Or maybe you’d think: “Oh wow! I must be pretty special to be given this kind of revelation of God. Yay me!” Or would you be terrified and frightened, shaking in your boots, to be in God’s presence? Well, today on this Holy Trinity Sunday, we’ll find out what one man experienced. Because today we’re going along with Isaiah as he gets to be “In the Presence of the Holy God.”
Our text is the Old Testament reading for today, from Isaiah 6. Isaiah is writing about the day when the Lord called him to be a prophet. He starts out: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” “In the year that King Uzziah died”: What year was that? 740 B.C. And who was King Uzziah? He was the king of Judah, the nation where Isaiah lived. And why is that noteworthy? Because around that time and thereafter, Judah would be facing a serious threat from Assyria, the great world power of the day. Mighty Assyria was looming on the horizon, and Judah would seem to have no chance if Assyria decided to attack. And now Judah’s king has just died. What lies ahead? It was a time of uncertainty and danger for God’s people.
But then Isaiah is given a vision to reassure him. Isaiah is taken into God’s throne room. He sees the Lord sitting on his throne, high and lifted up. King Uzziah may have died, but the Lord is still on his throne! The Lord God is King of kings and Lord of Lords! He rules the nations. He has his eye on his people, to guard and keep them. Nothing will befall them apart from his fatherly hand. So take heart, Isaiah!
And where is this throne room where the Lord is seated? In the temple. “I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” In the temple. The temple, in Jerusalem, was where God made his dwelling in the midst of his people, to guard and guide them, to forgive their sins. The temple was the intersection of heaven and earth, where the God of heaven promised to be present on earth. It was his dwelling place.
The Lord’s throne room in the temple was specifically the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was located. Atop the ark, on either side of the mercy seat were angelic cherubim, “near ones,” with their wings outstretched. But as Isaiah is taken into God’s presence, he also sees seraphim, “fiery ones,” these angels each with six wings outstretched, covering their face and feet as they flew. What a sight this must have been! To see almighty God and his holy angels! Truly awesome!
Now Isaiah hears the angels calling out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts,” they cry. In Hebrew: “Qadosh, qadosh, qadosh, Yahweh Sabaoth!” “Holy, holy, holy,” a threefold acclamation for the triune God. “Holy, holy, holy,” praising and magnifying the Holy One of Israel. The Lord is holy in himself. It’s who he is, everything about him, his nature and his character. He is transcendent and all-powerful. He is pure and righteous. And yet he deigns to dwell with men.
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts”: What does this mean, “of hosts”? It means “of angelic armies.” A “host” is an army unit; it’s a military term. And the Lord God is the Lord of hosts. His unseen angelic armies are patrolling the earth, doing his bidding, protecting his people. The cherubim and seraphim are his armies, his legions, his hosts, ministering spirits who do his will. Remember, when Christ was born, there appeared in the night sky a heavenly host, giving glory to God in the highest and announcing peace to men on earth.
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The glory of God is not limited to his throne room in the temple. His glory radiates out from there into all the earth. The Lord’s glory, the “kabod Yahweh,” is his heavy–and heavenly–presence going out into all the world. It starts in the temple, his dwelling place on earth, and goes out from there. The Lord is not just the God of Israel, but his Word will go forth from Zion and claim the distant islands. God’s plan all along is to redeem the whole world. His glory will fill the earth.
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” By the way, we have this song of the angels in our liturgy, don’t we? In the Sanctus, which we will sing in a few minutes, we join the angels in their song: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory.” We sing that there, because the Lord’s holy and glorious presence is reaching us, right here in the Divine Service.
So Isaiah sees the Lord God on his throne. He sees the seraphim and hears their glorious song. “And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” Or as we just sang: “The beams and lintels trembled at the cry, and clouds of smoke enwrapped the throne on high.” The experience is literally tremendous, earth-shaking. And the incense from the altar fills the temple, signaling God’s awesome presence.
So what is Isaiah’s reaction to all this? He is overwhelmed, awestruck. He does not take being in God’s holy presence as a light and casual thing. Nor does he think how special he must be to be given this great revelation. No, quite the opposite. In the presence of the holy God, Isaiah becomes keenly aware of his own unworthiness. He cries out: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Isaiah confesses his sinfulness in the presence of the holy God. This is repentance. Now Isaiah may have been a better man than most. He probably was. But still, the awareness of his own sins causes him to cry out as he mourns his woeful state.
Brothers and sisters, this is us. Like Isaiah, we must come before the holy God mourning our sinfulness. Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips.” How about you? Have your lips been unclean? How have you used your lips to speak about God? To speak about the worship in God’s house? Have you been grumbling and complaining? How have you used your lips to speak about your neighbor? About your fellow church member? Do you put the best construction on everything and speak well of your neighbor? Or have you used your tongue to hurt your neighbor and damage his reputation? If so, then you have unclean lips in need of cleansing.
That’s what Isaiah realized when he was in the presence of the holy God. And he realized that therefore he was lost, undone, because of his sinfulness. As we all would be. But then something happened: “Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.” Here comes a fiery angel with a burning coal! Is he going to strike me dead and consign me to the flames? No! Amazingly, no. This burning coal is not for condemnation but rather for cleansing: The angel touches Isaiah’s mouth and says: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
Wow! Amazing! What grace! What mercy! What forgiveness! God is not out to condemn you but to cleanse you! To cleanse you of your sins and your guilt and to rescue you from the death you deserve. That is why it says in John 3: “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.” Yes, God sent his own Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, into the world, into our flesh, to be our Savior. Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is the one who cleanses us and saves us from our sins. He was lifted up on the cross of Calvary, so that everyone who looks to him for healing will have eternal life. Jesus died and rose again to win that salvation for you. God is not here to condemn you. God is here to cleanse you and to make you whole and to give you life in Jesus’ name! Christ’s holy blood cleanses you from all your sins. You could not do this, but Jesus does. Receive his gifts and live.
Today, in a moment, something will touch your lips and cleanse you and take away your guilt. It is Christ’s very body and blood, given to you and for you in this Sacrament. Come believing and receiving. Christ is here for you today. He will cleanse you of your unclean lips–and your unclean hands and mind and heart, as well. Jesus’ body and blood will make you whole and give you the gift of life everlasting.
So what’s next after this cleansing? For Isaiah, it meant hearing the voice of the triune God saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah replied, “Here I am! Send me.” And for Isaiah, that meant being called and commissioned to be God’s prophet, to preach the word to his people. Now for you, it may not mean that. But God does send you forth from here, cleansed and forgiven, into your various callings in life, to live and serve as one belonging to the holy God. This puts a high and noble calling on your life. You are God’s own child! You have purpose and meaning in your life! The Holy Spirit will help you to lead the holy and sanctified life God desires for you. And as you come back here to God’s temple, week after week, you will be cleansed and forgiven, refreshed and strengthened, again and again.
Today, like Isaiah, you and I are in the presence of the holy God. God is in his temple. God himself is present. But take heart, dear friends. We are not lost. We are not undone. The holy God is here to lift us up and give us life and to send us forth from here as his own people. God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, came into the world to win this life for us. And Jesus is here, right now, coming to us in this service, in this sacrament, to put his life on our lips.
Dear reader, this is the last sermon I will be posting on Steadfast Lutherans. If you want to continue reading my sermons, you can go to my Facebook page for a link or go straight to the website of St. Matthew-Bonne Terre, stmatthewbt.org.