Monday, June 08, 2009

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-8, for Trinity Sunday, "Encountering God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On this Trinity Sunday, it may seem odd to talk about an encounter with the Triune God from an Old Testament passage. Isn’t the Trinity only a New Testament teaching? Not exactly. Of course the Three persons in One God are most clearly named and described in the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism (Mt. 3) or at His commissioning of the disciples to baptize in the “Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28). But the reality of God in three persons, blessed Trinity (LSB 507), is just as true in the Old Testament. Less obvious? Yes. The three-fold “Holy, Holy, Holy” addressed to the Lord God, already hints at His Triune nature. When He asks Isaiah whom He will send, He says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” The Triune God speaks of Himself in the plural, “us,” just as He did at creation: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). So the Triune God Isaiah encountered in our Old Testament reading is the same One that we encounter in our worship today. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

So, let’s encounter God…but how? If we plan on entering His presence, we better know what we’re getting into. We’d better know whether it’s safe or not—after all, we’re not just talking about an earthly king, president, or emperor who exercises great earthly power over us. We’re talking God enthroned in heaven, supreme over all things, immortal, invisible, God-only wise, who holds all things in His hands. Encountering God isn’t simply a matter of coming into His presence. A seminary professor of mine used to say, “The presence of God is not yet the Gospel.” He meant that merely being in God’s presence was not yet good news. In fact it could be quite terrifying news. Consider how Isaiah responded when he saw God. He knew he was as good as dead. He was undone, would perish on the spot. He was sinful, and he knew the radiating glory of God would be like fire to the gasoline of his sin. If we are still in our sins, the presence of God is bad news. Greater men than us have fallen down as dead men in His presence from shock and awe. The Israelite people begged not to encounter God when they saw His fire and smoke and the earthquakes on Mount Sinai. So what kind of encounter are we planning on?

God in His holiness is inaccessible to us on our own. We need to be fearful about entering His presence on our own, because our sin puts us in danger. If we’d dare to barge into God’s presence on our own merits, we’d face His wrath against our sin. If the holy angels, the seraphim, who don’t have any trace of sin in them, must hide their faces and their feet with their wings when they’re in the presence of God—how much more do we unclean sinners need to approach God in humility and repentance? The tax collector in one of Jesus’ parables wouldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven when he prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13). He knew He couldn’t face God on his own right.

To come into God’s presence on the basis of our own merits or works, would be like the guest that God threw out in the parable of the wedding banquet, because the guest rejected the wedding garment the master would’ve given the guests, and came dressed in his own clothes instead (Matt. 22:11-12). We’d be draped in the filthy rags of our own righteousness (Is. 64:6). Like Balaam the prophet, who blindly marched into the face of the Angel of the Lord, unaware of the destruction facing him (Num. 22). But since we can’t approach God this way, doesn’t mean that we can’t approach Him at all. We approach the throne of grace with confidence through the shed blood of Jesus (Heb. 9-10). This is the way to a safe encounter with God.

Author Gene Veith describes his experience when He first read the Bible “seriously.” He says that reading the Bible as a spiritual venture will bring us to confront God Himself in the most personal terms. “This confrontation is terrifying: An honest reading of God’s absolute requirements, His furious judgment against the smallest infraction, can only fill the reader with guilt, panic, and despair. [But] this confrontation is also healing—the reader comes to realize that this God of wrath is also the God of grace, that from the beginning He provided for sacrificial blood to cover His people’s sins, that He came in Jesus, that His wrath is swallowed up in the cross.” He goes on to describe how his first reading of the Old Testament was mixed with feelings of sublimity and horror. He began to realize that God was completely “other” and beyond his comprehension. He realized he “had been constructing God according to his preferences,” giving God qualities he liked and ascribing them to the deity he believed in. He admits he was “making God in [his own] image.”

But the God he encountered in the Bible was very different from himself—filled with divinity, holy, and dangerous. “And yet He rang true.” He writes, “I probably never really believed in the vague, domesticated spirit of niceness that I had constructed for myself and found in my humane liberal theology. The real universe, with its danger and consequences and hard edges, such as cancer, shows no trace of having been created by such a sentimental deity. I probably knew, deep down inside, that I was making up a private little religion to make myself feel better, and that atheism made far better sense. But this God I was reading about in the Bible had hard edges. He is absolute, utterly mysterious, and despite all appearances radically righteous. I began to see God in a completely different light, the light of holiness. And I saw myself in the rebellious children of Israel, ungrateful, inconsistent, and idolatrous.” (p. 39-40)

But this kind of encounter with God, this trembling at His majesty and astonishment and awe at His power, is the effect of the Law. God’s Word of Law convicts us of our sin and awakens us to the need for redemption. That is the terrifying part of encountering God as we read the Scriptures. It fills us with guilt, panic, and despair. “If this is really who God is, then I’m toast! Woe to me, a man of unclean lips! I dwell among a people of unclean lips!” But Veith also mentioned that the encounter with God in the Bible is healing. This is the comforting and consoling aspect of reading the Bible. It’s found in the discovery that God always made a gracious provision for His people and their sin. This is the Word of Gospel. The Good News that God’s judgment isn’t the final word, because the new and better word of His Gospel brings us the forgiveness of sins. Because God the Trinity unfolded salvation through sending His Son to die as our substitute and awaken from death to be our life. He sent the Holy Spirit to create faith in the hearts of mankind, and to set believers apart for holy lives. To make us once again holy, to enter God’s presence not based on our own merits, but on those of Christ.

So Christ raises to us the cleansing coal of His body and blood, and places it on our lips. With holy fire burning our sin away, our lips are cleansed to proclaim purely the greatness of God. With our guilt taken away, our conscience leaps with joy for freedom from guilt and shame, and takes a new enthusiasm to live according to God’s will and design. With our sin atoned for, our old pattern of sinning for death is crucified and killed at the cross, and our new life of acting for righteousness’ sake and in love toward our neighbor is begun. Then we can echo the words of Isaiah, “Here I am! Send me!” Like someone who’s passed through the fire and been purified of the dross, the impurities that weaken metal, we face life head-on, unafraid and unashamed. We can live as ambassadors of the cross without fear, because there’s nothing the enemies of the cross can do to us—take our possessions, reputation, family, even our life—they still have nothing won—the Kingdom ours remaineth (LSB 657).

Have you encountered the holiness of the Trinity? Have you come face to face with the terrifying reality of your sin, and the guilt with which you bear? Have you felt that total unworthiness to even come into God’s presence, and to lift your eyes to the heavens? Have you wondered in your heart: “Surely God cannot accept me, a sinner?” Then know that God’s Law has done its work in you, and turn to God and be saved! Now He draws near to you in His presence—just where He promised to be. Not inaccessible in the heavens, far beyond our reach. Not at the top of a mystical ladder that we climb by our own meditation or good works. Not as cloudy vapor that surrounds you but cannot be grasped or touched. No, His promised presence is here in the body and blood of Christ, served to you in hand and mouth at the Lord’s Table.

His presence is not yet the Gospel, until we know that it is for us and for our forgiveness. If we come with unrepentance or without faith, His presence is judgment to us; but if we approach in repentance and faith, His presence is for our good. Here the Holy God of heaven, with all His blinding glory, clothes Himself in Christ, serves Himself under bread and wine. Here you have a living encounter with the Holy God, who’s divine body and blood are broken and shed for the forgiveness of your sins. Here you partake of a mystery that seems so simple and ordinary to human eyes. Nothing remarkable or extravagant with earthly eyes. But from heavenly eyes, a gathered feast of all the saints on earth and in glory, in the presence of angels and archangels, all the company of heaven praising and magnifying God, singing with the seraphim: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of pow’r and might: Heaven and earth are full of Your glory. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.”

Some old Lutheran churches captured the spiritual reality of this gathering of saints and angels beyond what eyes see, by building their altar rail as a half circle in front of the altar. That way, when they knelt together in a half-circle in front of the altar, they were reminded of the invisible other half of the circle that was completed by all the saints in heaven and loved ones who had died and gone to the Lord. They saw that here we don’t gather alone, with just these few, but that Holy Communion unites us in Christ, as they who have gone before are united in Christ as well.

But you may notice that while the song, “Holy, Holy, Holy” starts with the song of the seraphim, it continues with “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest.” From the lips of angels to the lips of children who made sweet hosannas ring (LSB 442) on Palm Sunday, we now greet the coming of the heavenly one into our presence. His coming, in humility, once on a donkey, now in humble bread and wine, but coming in the name of the Lord for us. Again we sing Hosanna, “Save us!” as the Lord descends to us with His presence. Now our encounter with God is not terrifying, but healing and forgiving, as He pours into your mouth His life-blood from His sacred veins (LSB 433:1). Now our encounter with God is restorative and life-giving…now we can hear the voice of the angel say as the body of Christ touches our lips, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” And we say, “Amen!” It is true!

Now our Triune God wants to send us into the world, bearing His holiness in how we live and act according to His will. He calls for workers in the harvest field, to gather in the lost souls, so that they too like grains of wheat may be baked into this common bread we break and share in this meal. All together as one loaf, one body in Christ. May these words be found on our lips, “Here am I! Send me!” Joyously forgiven and redeemed, ready to pour out the love and forgiveness that has been poured into us, through Jesus’ blood, shed for us for the forgiveness of sins. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:

1. It has been said about the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, that what the Old conceals the New reveals. How is this true of the doctrine of the Trinity? Study these verses to see how the doctrine of the Trinity is hidden even in the Old Testament: Genesis 1:1-2, 26; 11:6-7; 18:1-21; Numbers 6:24-27; Psalm 110:1; Isaiah 6:1-8; 63:8-10; Zech. 12:10 etc.

2. What sort of encounter with God is unsafe, or dangerous? How did Isaiah experience this type of encounter? Gene Veith? How would you describe your encounter with God in the Bible?

3. Study Luke 18:13; Matt. 22:11-12; Isaiah 64:6; Numbers 22. What is the danger in approaching God on the basis of our righteousness? What is the alternative? Hebrews 9-10.

4. What does it mean to encounter God through the Gospel? How is the Lord’s Supper parallel to the burning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips? What do we receive/does it grant us?

5. Veith writes: “The issue is not our ascent to God, but God’s descent to us” (p.23, Veith, Spirituality of the Cross). How does this change how we look at the accessibility of God? How we encounter Him?

6. How are God’s Word, Baptism, and Communion the tangible means by which God descends to us with His gracious presence? How are these given and received?

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