Sunday, May 22, 2016
Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity - Isa 6:1-7
It was the year that King Uzziah died. This in itself made it a memorable time if you were living in Judah in the eighth century B.C. To be specific, the year was 742. For more than forty years Uzziah had been king over the southern kingdom of Judah.
A kingship of that length in Judah was certainly notable. But what made the period of Uzziah’s rule so remarkable was that during the same stretch of time Jeroboam II had been king over the northern kingdom of Israel. Now nobody was ever king in the northern kingdom for that long. Kings were always dying by assassination or because of God’s judgment upon their wickedness.
Yet for forty years both Judah and Israel had only one king. It was a time of incredible stability. And there was one other factor that had made this into a time of tremendous prosperity and success. During this stretch of history there was a power vacuum. The major powers in the Near Eastern world were weak, divided or distracted. Israel and Judah were able to work together to promote trade and extend their influence.
However, four year earlier, in 746 B.C. Jeroboam II had died. And three years earlier a new leader had arisen in the great power of Assyria. His name was a mouthful: Tiglath-pileser III. But it was clear that he meant business and that Assyria was going to be a problem sooner rather than later. And now, on top of all that, King Uzziah had died. It seemed like everything was falling apart.
That was the moment when Isaiah had the experience he describes in our text. We normally understand this to be Isaiah’s call as a prophet, because immediately after our text Yahweh says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And then Isaiah responds, “Here am I! Send me.” The timing was definitely significant because God was about to use Assyria as his instrument of judgment against Israel.
If the moment was memorable. The experience itself was absolutely unforgettable. As Isaiah was in the temple he saw Yahweh sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. Yahweh is the king of the universe, and so of course, he was seated on a throne. We are told that the train, or edge of his robe filled the temple. And you’ll notice that Isaiah’s description of Yahweh himself never gets any higher than that.
There is good reason for this. Isaiah shifts and tells us that above Yahweh were six winged serephim who covered their faces before Yahweh as they flew. Now we often see angels depicted as either beautiful or cute creatures. We don’t know exactly what seraphim are, but this is the thing to keep in mind. The Hebrew root that is the basis for the word means either “serpent” or “fiery.” So these are apparently either serpent like creatures with wings, or fiery creatures, or both. And these are the guys who were covering their faces so that they didn’t look at Yahweh. These seraphim were calling back and forth to one another saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The foundations of the thresholds of the building shook and the temple was filled with smoke. And how did Isaiah respond to this up close and personal experience with God? He said, “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 experienced God in a way that you never have when he was called as a prophet. Yet here is a truth of the Feast of the Holy Trinity that I want you to let sink in: You know more about God than Isaiah did.
In the Old Testament, God’s people knew with absolute certainty that there is only one God. As Deuteronomy chapter six states: ““Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” They knew that every other god was a false god – it was not the true god.
But that is all they knew for sure. There were hints that there was more to the story – but nothing more than that. They did not know God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In fact Peter tells us, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”
You on the other hand know that the One true God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity. You know that the one God is three persons who in fact stand in relation to one another without ceasing to be one God. You know this because the Father sent forth the Son to be incarnate through the work of the Holy Spirit. You know that at Jesus’ baptism, he stood in the water as the Father announced, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. You know that after his resurrection Jesus told his apostles to make disciples of all nations by baptizing them “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” and teaching them all that Jesus had commanded. Because you live on this side of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God, you know more about God than Isaiah did.
Now one thing Isaiah knew for sure, was that God is holy. He stood in the presence of Yahweh and heard the seraphim calling forth, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” Isaiah stood in the presence of God and was overcome with the sense that he did not belong there because he was not holy. He said “Woe is me! For I am lost – or more literally, “I am completely undone;” 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!”
Standing in the presence of the holy God, Isaiah intensely sensed his own sin. Now you haven’t had this exact experience. But you have an idea of what was going on. You know what it is like to lash out with angry words, and then later regret the hatred that came forth from your heart. You know what it is like to share gossip about another, and later recognize that you broke the Eighth Commandment. You know what it is like to lust after someone who is not your spouse or to look pornographic material, and then to feel guilt because you have broken the Sixth Commandment. You know what it is like to be plagued by sin.
Isaiah stood before the holy God and felt completely undone. But we hear in our text, “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.’” God acted to take away Isaiah’s sin.
We know more about God than Isaiah – we know about the Holy Trinity – because God has carried out his one and for all action to take away our sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our very knowledge of the Trinity exists only because the Father sent forth the Son to be incarnate by the Holy Spirit. The Father sent Jesus Christ the incarnate Son to die on the cross bearing our sins – to die in our place as the atoning sacrifice. But then, the Spirit raised up Jesus on the third day. Because of this you have forgiveness and can stand before the the holy God now and on the Last Day.
In our text, Isaiah hears the seraphim cry “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” God has the angel touch his lips and take away his sin. Isaiah did not know God as the triune God because the incarnation had not yet taken place. We live on the other side of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, and therefore we know the Holy Trinity.
Yet in Isaiah’s experience we are reminded that while man’s knowledge of God has changed, God has not changed. He is still the God who is holy. He is still the God who acts in his grace, mercy and love to take away the sins of his repentant people. He is still the God who does this through located means.
In a few moments we will sing the words of the seraphim. In the Sanctus we will sing “Holy, holy, holy” as we join the angels, and archangels and all the company of heaven. And then God will touch your lips and give you forgiveness. Yet now it is the Son of God who will touch your lips with his true body and blood in the Sacrament, given and shed for you. The Son, sent forth the by the Father, incarnate by the work of the Spirit, crucified, raised by the Spirit, ascended and exalted at the right hand of the Father is still the incarnate Son of God. In the miracle of the Sacrament he gives you his true body and blood – the very price he paid as the atoning sacrifice for you.
On the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we give thanks to God that we now know more about him than Isaiah did in our text. We do because God sent forth the Christ prophesied by Isaiah. We know more because the Father sent forth the Son who was incarnate by Holy Spirit. We know God to be the triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who has acted in fulfillment of Isaiah’s words to give us forgiveness and eternal life.