Three Times Holy
God is Holy
God is Holy
Guilt, grace, gratitude. You have probably heard me say that many times from this pulpit and I know the catechism students have heard me mention it on many occasions. These three words are not only the three sections of the Heidelberg Catechism but they are also reflected in how we worship God each week. We come before God with songs of praise. Understanding that he is great and holy we confess our sins. We then here of God’s mercy in the Words of Assurance, in the reading of scripture, and the gospel of God’s grace is proclaimed each week in the sermon. We then respond to all of this in gratitude. We give our offerings. We are blessed to leave this place and serve God in gratitude for what he has done in Christ. If you are looking for this framework you will see it throughout scripture and it is for more than just a catechism and weekly worship of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is a structure for living your life in light of who the Triune God is and what he has done for us. We see this in our Old Testament lesson from the book of Isaiah this morning where the prophet is gripped by the absolute holiness of God.
As we dig right into this passage from there is some important information that we need to know as we begin.
As we read this morning you may have asked a question in the first verse.
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.
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.
Who is King Uzziah and should I know something about the year he died? King Uzziah has one chapter dedicated to him in the book of 2nd Chronicles. At a young age he starts off faithful to the LORD and he establishes a large and trained army that protected Israel from their enemies but tells us that after Uzziah became powerful his pride led to his downfall. He went into the temple of the LORD and tried to burn incense at the altar. Priests tried to stop him but he felt as though he could do the work of a priest even though he had not been set apart to do the priestly work. He did not heed the warnings of the priests and God caused leprosy to break out on his forehead. He spent the rest of his life in a separate house because of the leprosy. There is something significant there. Because he refused to acknowledge that he wasn’t set apart and made clean to go before the altar God made him unclean with leprosy and he was set apart because he was unclean.
I tell the background for a reason. Uzziah had refused to acknowledge the holiness of God. In fact, it fact he completely blew it off. He didn’t think he had to be set apart and he had could go before God on his own. In Isaiah, we are going to see someone who acknowledges the holiness of God and as a result is humbled and repents. That is the contrast we see between Uzziah and Isaiah.
As we see in verse 1 Isaiah has a vision of the Lord seated on a throne. High and exalted. We see that the train of his robe fills the temple. Considering what happens in this passage and everything Isaiah could describe there is a real economy of words. He says a lot but we have just 8 verses to describe this encounter. When we connect this verses two through 4 we really get the idea of the image that Isaiah is wanting to paint for us.
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.
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.
We are to see the majesty of God because he is seated on a throne. We are to understand the power and awesomeness of God because the train of the robe fills the temple. In other words, just the edges of his garment fill one of the largest buildings that his audience can picture in their minds. The smoke give us the idea of the majesty and transcendence of God. It is meant to draw upon the imagery of God at Mount Sinai. All of this is to bring us to specific place as we look at what Isaiah is setting before us and it is all about verse 3.
And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
What we are seeing is the holiness of God. The word holy is not a word that was common in the ancient Near East. It was not only rarely used and when it was it was essentially used to show that the pagan gods were different and not common. There was no idea of morality in it either and that would probably not have worked anyway because in many cases the behavior of the pagan gods was not exactly what we would consider to be moral.
But for the Hebrew people this was not the case. Throughout the Old Testament we are told that God is holy. The word appears in different forms in the Old Testament over 800 times. The Bible makes it clear that the one, true God is holy. This means that he is different. He is set apart. He is other. But he is also righteous and perfect. The word holy is used to describe but there are stories in the Old Testament that tell us what this means too. Humans can’t look upon God because his holiness is too much to bear. God is holy and we as humans are not. We are sinful. We are covenant breakers. He is righteous. He is a covenant keeper.
But it God is more than holy. There is something important that we need to understand as we read this. For us to say holy, holy, holy just sounds repetitive or sounds like an allusion to a hymn we all know very well. In Hebrew though repetition is an important part of how the language helps us to understand things. If I wanted to express to you the size of an average sized rock I would just call it a rock. If it was a big rock that even large equipment would have trouble moving I would express it as a rock rock. You get the idea. Here in is the only place we see the repetition going to the third level. Nothing else gets to that level of emphasis except what we see here. The holiness of God.
This is something that we struggle with as modern folk. We don’t have much of a concept of royalty except for things like royal weddings. We have reverence and respect for a president or other leader but we would never bow before them. It isn’t even just the throne and kingly imagery that we struggle with. Movie effects have deadened us to the idea of a loud voice coming out of smoke but that doesn’t change the nature of what Isaiah saw. Isaiah is overcome at what he has seen and heard.
“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.”
Now this is not language that we would likely use. I have not used the term woe to me at anytime in my life. At least not when I’m being serious but we can understand what Isaiah is saying here. He is completely overwhelmed. He is ruined. Every fiber of his being would have been feeling this. I had an experience as I was preparing on Thursday that gave me a feeling that helps me to illustrate this experience for us. I received one of these IRS scam calls you may have heard about. Go ahead and laugh at me if you like but for a minute or so I actually believed what the person on the other end of the phone was telling me. Something had been missed in my taxes and there was a warrant out for my arrest. In that moment, even though I had a sense that nothing was actually wrong I still was consumed to fear. I felt it down to my toes. I was shaking. I wanted to cry. Even once I got my bearings and got it all sorted in my head it still took me awhile to feel normal again. The notion that the power of the government could come crushing down on me was consuming for me. Like I said, go ahead and laugh, but I was kind of a wreck after that. But there is something important to think about. I ultimately knew deep down that this wasn’t real and I was still shaken up by it. Isaiah was in the presence of something far more powerful than the IRS. On top of it all he could not even begin to think this was a scam or that it wasn’t true. He was in the presence of almighty, all-powerful, and all-knowing God and he was a sinner. He was creature who was in rebellion against God. I take my short experience on Thursday and amplify it and I get what Isaiah was saying here. Woe to me. I am ruined. He is completely undone in the presence of God. Why? Because God is infinitely holy and I am a rebel sinner who has violated the law of God. Look at Isaiah’s confession. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips. The words that have come out of his mouth have not been words that honor God and he realizes his sin. Notice that he also connects his problem to the people. He has not only had unclean lips himself but he has lived among others who are far from God and he has done nothing about it.
This is such a convicting passage of scripture. In it we are reminded of the holiness of God and we can’t help but acknowledge that we are not holy. In the presence of almighty God we all have to admit that our mouths have not honored God as they should and we live among a people that does the same. Our eyes are unclean. Our ears. Our hands. Our minds. Our hearts.
Woe to me. I am undone I confess along with the prophet Isaiah.
But what do we do now. Is the solution for me to leave us with this conviction of our sin and give you some tips on how to do a better job until you come back here next week. That isn’t what God did for Isaiah. Isaiah realized his sinfulness and God doesn’t leave him there on his own. Instead, God does what God does for his people. He provided an atonement.
Then 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.”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.
Isaiah is not left to his own devices to make his lips clean enough to proclaim the message of God as a prophet. Instead, God provides the way by which he is made clean. Notice not only is his guilt taken away but his sin is atoned for. God has made Isaiah right and clean in his sight.
You have heard me say so many times how the Old Testament points us to the work of Christ. We cannot unhitch ourselves from the Old Testament because it points us to what Jesus has done for us. Notice that the coal comes from the altar. The place where sacrifice was made for the sins of the people. This points us to Jesus sacrificing himself for us and making atonement for our sins. Make sure that you don’t miss what is going on here. God comes to Isaiah. Isaiah isn’t sitting there begging for this vision or going on some sort of spiritual quest. God comes to him and it is not to punish him or to destroy him. It is to bring him to repentance. When he acknowledges his sinfulness and his despair and realizes that he has no hope on his own God does not abandon him or tell him to work it out on his own he makes him clean.
The word of God comes to us and the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin. We are brought to a place similar to Isaiah. We confess that we are rebel sinners who have violated God’s law. God did not leave us there in hopelessness to make up for our sins on our own. Through the proclamation of the Word, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are brought to faith. A coal from the fire comes and cleanses our hearts. We are made righteous on account of what Jesus has done for us in his death and resurrection. As we read in we are born again or born from above because God loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Just like Isaiah we are rescued from above despite our sin and unbelief by the work of God himself. This is good news and it is the story that shapes our lives. Look at where this brought the prophet Isaiah.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
In the midst of the confession and forgiveness that God brings he calls out to Isaiah. In response to what God has done for him how else could Isaiah respond? Here I am. Send me. In light of the proclamation that our sins are forgiven how else can we respond. In gratitude we live our lives in love and service to the God who has rescued us.
But you may be asking? Am I supposed to be a prophet? Well, no and yes. Not everyone is called to a ministry like Isaiah had but I say yes because we are all called to proclaim what Christ has done. We share that God has rescued us to our covenant children and to our family and friends and others we come in contact with. Our lives of gratitude also are about us serving God by serving our neighbor. We are sent from here each week into our vocations to love and serve the Lord. Teachers leave here and children are nurtured and educated by your faithful service to God. Mouths are fed by the faithful service to God by our farmers who are the stewards of God’s creation. I see many of our truckers moving our food from one place to the next getting up early in the morning. Children are cared for and people have what they need because of the gifts and vocation God has given you. Do it all to the glory of God. Not to earn his favor but because he has taken a coal from the fire and cleansed you.
As we think about how we serve God in faithfulness we are given the opportunity this morning to do that. One of the most important things that we are called to by God is our care for our covenant children. Today we mark Jensen with the sign and the seal of God’s covenant with us. We will make a commitment to raise and nurture him in the faith. We do this because we understand that absolute beauty of the grace of God. Because God, in Christ has come to us through the proclamation of the word by the power of the Holy Spirit we commit to raise him in the faith to confess the Triune God. Baptism is not a magic act and it is not a saving work but as a sign of the covenant it reminds us that just as God came to Isaiah and saved him in his sin God comes to all of us and saves us by his grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ alone. As it says in that quote we have on the front of our bulletin for each baptism "Every time we baptize an infant we bear witness that salvation is from God, that we cannot do any good thing to secure it, that we receive it from His hands as a sheer gift of His grace, and that we all enter the kingdom of heaven therefore as little children, who do not do, but are done for. May this absolutely amazing grace be what directs our lives as we remember that we have been saved by God’s mercy and grace. Knowing this good news may we respond to God’s call on our lives as Isaiah did. Here am I. Send me!