“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this evening, the continuing festival of the Holy Trinity, comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, Isaiah the priest stood before the altar of God, offering the required sacrifices. To human eyes, it seemed all too ordinary; a man in funny clothes, waving a bowl of incense about in a temple chamber lit by candlelight. Certainly the Scriptures declared that this was the very place where heaven touched earth, where God interacted with man in grace, but none of that was apparent to the human eye—at least not until this day. On this day, God destroyed the division between seen and unseen for a brief moment, showing Isaiah what the human eye cannot see as the sacrifices are offered. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon the throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple.”
He sees the Lord enthroned, high and lifted up, and the angelic host sings a song of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” Where heaven touches earth, Isaiah sees God, and he hears His identity proclaimed. They say ‘holy,’ not once, lest you should believe that there is but one; not twice, lest you should exclude the Spirit; they say not holies, lest you should imagine that there is plurality, but they repeat themselves three times and say the same word, that even in a hymn you may understand the distinction of Persons and the oneness of the godhead. Isaiah hears a summary of the Athanasian Creed as he sees the Triune God enthroned, and the seraphim declare that the whole earth is full of His glory.
But are they telling the truth? Is the whole earth really full of His glory? Heaven may be filled with glory, the glory of the Trinity, the glory that Isaiah sees, but does this same glory fill the earth? Isaiah knows, he sees the apostasy that lies heavy in the land. He sees the idolatry, the empty worship, he sees God’s very own people living in bondage to foreign gods while abandoning the One who delivered them from Egyptian slavery. In Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple itself he sees no glory, but evil, filth, and corruption. The people of God have given up the faith, and the enemies of God are circling, like hungry sharks smelling blood in the water.
Sound familiar? The headlines trumpet the newest findings of the Pew Forum report on the state of religion in America. The conclusion? Christianity in America is on its deathbed. The number of atheists in America has doubled since 2007; there are now more of them than any other non-Christian group in America. There are more unaffiliated Americans than Catholic Americans, and the unaffiliated are getting younger while Christianity gets older, and even the older generation is leaving Christianity behind. I’ll leave the worst for the last: the Pew Forum reports what many of you know from your own bitter experience: the son or daughter your raise as a Christian is increasingly more likely to leave the faith in adulthood. Christianity, with its moral compass, is collapsing, and its enemies are moving in for the kill. The whole earth is full of His glory? Not according to the headlines; there a different kind of glory is trumpeted. Our eyes see evil enthroned, not the Triune God, and what is left but to despair?
And Isaiah does despair; he has lost hope. “The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.” The sights and sounds declare total exclusion from the presence of God. The entrance to the heavenly throne room trembles, the smoke obscures the view, the cry of the seraphim declare that what God is man decidedly isn’t. The glory of the Triune God is a consuming fire, for the Lord is Holy, Holy, Holy, and the human heart—and everything connected to it—is completely and totally unholy. Isaiah sees the glory and knows that his heart is full of corruption. He doesn’t blame anyone else, he doesn’t accuse a political party or a social movement; He goes to the root of the problem—the human heart, more specifically, his own heart. God is Holy, Holy, Holy, and he is not. If you, I, or Isaiah were the only ones left on this planet, the earth would still stand corrupted by our sin, we would still be unholy. It is not Christianity as a religion that is at stake, but your own soul. “And I 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 confesses his un-holiness, his complete and total lack of that which defines the Triune God; it is quite appropriate that he be excluded from the temple, but Isaiah expects—and deserves—far worse. Eternal destruction is the penalty for the unholy; it’s easy for us to make light of God’s all-consuming holiness when we do not see His glory revealed with our own eyes, but Isaiah saw, he understood, and he despaired. Immediately God sprung into action. The sights and sounds of the heavenly throne room excluded Isaiah from the presence of God; now the sights and sounds open God’s presence to him. “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.’” Isaiah is forgiven, cleansed, made holy; the consuming fire of the altar burns away his corruption. He has seen God, and he lives—only by God’s grace.
From now on he will hear from the Lord and speak the Word of God to His rebellious people. His lips have been cleansed, made holy so that he can preach. His eyes will not see God any longer; the vision will soon end. He will now not live by sight, but by faith, trusting, believing, proclaiming, that despite the corruption and evil his eyes see, the Triune God remains enthroned on high. He still preaches today. He fills your ears with the promise of Immanuel, the child who will be ‘God with us,’ born of a virgin to stand in your place as the suffering Servant, laying down His life as a ransom for many. Through this Jesus, not seen by your eyes but heard by your ears, God’s glory fills this fallen creation, it fills unholy human hearts. Your unclean flesh and soul is cleaned by Christ, who responds to your confession, your cry of despair, by bringing what He won on the altar of the cross to your lips. Not a burning coal, but a wafer, filled with His own holiness, for the bread is His Body, and a drink of wine, the Blood shed as Isaiah prophesized for the sin of the world. We trust not our eyes, we trust our ears, which hear Christ’s Word. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” A splash of water, the words of a pastor; each humble earthly element set aside by Christ makes us holy, able to stand in the heavenly throne room forever. Because Christ died, as Isaiah preached, because Christ lives, as the apostles declare, the song of the seraphim is true: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!”
Centuries after Isaiah peered into the throne room of heaven, John the apostle stood before the altar of God, administering the Lord’s Supper. To human eyes, it seemed all too ordinary; a man standing on an island of exile, holding up bread and wine and speaking over them the words of Christ, as he had done hundreds of times. Certainly the Scriptures declared that in the Supper heaven touched earth, there God interacted with man in grace, but none of that was apparent to the human eye—at least not until this day. On this day, God destroyed the division between seen and unseen for a brief moment, showing John what the human eye cannot see as the Eucharist is celebrated. “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne.”
He sees the Lord enthroned, high and lifted up, and the angelic host sings a song of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” Where heaven touches earth, John sees God, and he hears His identity proclaimed. They say ‘holy,’ not once, lest you should believe that there is but one; not twice, lest you should exclude the Spirit; they say not holies, lest you should imagine that there is plurality, but they repeat themselves three times and say the same word, that even in a hymn you may understand the distinction of Persons and the oneness of the godhead. John hears a summary of the Athanasian Creed as he sees the Triune God enthroned, and the living creatures declare that the whole earth is full of His glory.
This is an article of faith, not sight, even for John, even for Isaiah. They received glimpses, but each spent the rest of their days walking in a world that appeared to be filled with evil, not the glory of God. But the vision sustained them, as it does us; it declares that the Triune God is enthroned, that He reigns, despite every appearance to the contrary. It is no wonder that we sing the song of heaven before we receive Christ’s Body and Blood; here, although hidden from human eyes, heaven touches earth; John’s vision shows us what our eyes do not see when we kneel at this altar: Christ enthroned and reigning as the Lamb who was slain. We do not trust our eyes, we trust our ears, and our ears tell us that the whole earth is full of God’s glory, that one day we will see with our own eyes this glory filling the heavens and the earth, the Day when Christ returns to make all things new. Until that day, we live by faith, not by sight, faith in the God who has made us holy, now and forever. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.