Listen to it:
“A Vision of God”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Sunday of the Holy Trinity comes around only once a year. But when it does come around, it tends to stir things up. It shakes me to say things like “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire” (The Athanasian Creed). I can sense the Lutheran hairs on the back of your neck standing up. What is that but the crassest sort of works-righteousness? For that reason, there are some who believe the Athanasian Creed is anti-evangelical and sub-Lutheran. Unfortunately for us, if the Athanasian Creed is anti-Gospel, then so is Jesus. In John 5:29, Jesus says of those who will rise from the dead: “those who have done good [will go] to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (ESV). [See also St. Paul in Romans 2:9-10 and St. John in Revelation 22:12.] It’s as simple as that: doing good equals eternal life and doing evil equals eternal fire. And that’s fine and good with us as long as we’re looking at other people and their wickedness, their faults, their sin. But then Paul nails shut our coffin with the words of the Psalmist: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12; cf. Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3). Before the inescapable judgment of God’s righteousness, despair of your sin and, especially, despair of your good works! But hear this: Jesus has done all things well, and He went into the eternal fire of hell and judgment so that He could bring you with Him into eternal life. He takes our evil and gives us His good. Despair of yourself, beloved, but do not despair of Him; in Him, your judgment is already over and done with. The righteous judgment of God has already fallen on Jesus that holy Friday.
Apart from the seeming works-righteousness of the Creed, there are those who think that the Athanasian Creed should not be used in our services because it seems (at least to academic theologians who write treatises) more like an academic theological treatise than a confession of a living faith. The writer Dorothy Sayers thought that the modern answer to the question: “‘What is the doctrine of the Trinity?’ [would go something like:] ‘The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.’ Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult—nothing to do with daily life or ethics” (“The Dogma is the Drama,” Letters to a Diminished Church, 18). And doesn’t it seem that way, at least sometimes? If I were to ask you, “If the Church someday decided that the doctrine of the Trinity was wrong, would it change anything at all for you?” what would you say? Don’t worry about sounding impious; the answer would probably be “no.” But if that is our answer, it means that the Trinity has become a concept to be analyzed and explained, instead of our God to be worshiped. You cannot fear, love, and trust a concept above all else.
I wonder if Isaiah ever made God into an abstraction. I wonder if he was ever stuck in the routine of business as usual, not really seeing what God had to do with daily life or ethics. After all, there are all sorts of people who, we think, get on with life just fine as atheists; who do good works and run charitable agencies without ever giving a thought to what God might want. But if Isaiah had thoughts like those, they were erased in an instant that day in the Temple. When you are confronted with the living reality of God’s holiness, you don’t make arguments; you don’t ask questions; you don’t stand around and engage in casual chit-chat. You fall on your face. You shut your mouth and you fear for your very existence. You say what Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost. I am undone. I am destroyed. 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, Yahweh of Armies!” (Isaiah 6:5). If a sinner sees God unhidden, and if He does not intervene with His grace, the sinner is done. That’s the end. In fact, you don’t even have to see God. God’s holiness extends to His holy things: remember Uzzah in 2 Samuel 6, who simply reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when the oxen stumbled, and was struck dead for it. David was angry with God, but He was also afraid, and said, “How can the ark of [Yahweh] come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:5-9). Let’s not water down that fear by calling it something else. Isaiah had no euphemisms for his fear.
But what did Isaiah really see? Did God show him an alternate reality? No. Isaiah saw the way things really are; he just did not get to see it all the time: that God chose to dwell in that Temple. He was always present there to save and forgive through the sacrifices He had given to the priests to perform. Isaiah was simply given a glimpse behind the curtain that separated heaven from earth. And if the burning one (that is what seraph means) had not touched Isaiah’s unclean lips with the live coal from the altar, Isaiah would not have lived through the experience. It is no different for us. We have come this morning into a temple of the Lord. And God is here, actually and really, even if He does not grant us to see what Isaiah saw. Every time we gather before this altar we are confronted with the living reality of God’s holiness, and that is why we lower our eyes and join our voices to the song of the burning ones: Holy! Holy! Holy! to the thrice-holy God, Father, Son, and Spirit. The seraphim sing “the whole earth is full of Thy glory” and the Church adds “heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” The angels sing of God’s glory on earth and the Church sings of God’s glory in heaven. We sing because in the Man Jesus Christ, the glory comes to us, not in judgment but in mercy. So we add to the song of the angels words from Psalm 118, sung by the Palm Sunday crowd: “Blessed is He, Blessed is He, Blessed is He who comes in the Name of Yahweh!” Heaven and earth are joined in this place because Jesus has reunited heaven and earth in Himself. At this point, at the miracle of God in flesh, our theological abstractions are lost; our ideas about God, no matter how pious, are undone; our sterile, casual consideration of the Trinity is destroyed. This God, before whom angels hide their eyes and feet, before whom men fall on their faces in terror, is the God who comes in flesh to die on a cross. And it must be this way, lest we be destroyed in an instant because of our unholiness. But God is gracious, and so He always comes hidden. He comes hidden as a Jew from Nazareth, who then hides Himself behind mere human words, behind a little bread, a little wine. It must be this way! We must have our unclean lips touched and purified by the burning flesh of the Son of God! We ourselves must be hidden under the cleansing blood, so that the wrath of God will not strike us dead. If we could see with Isaiah’s eyes here today, we would see the saints and martyrs of God surrounding us with the song of heaven. We would see Jesus in all His glory delivering the pledges of salvation. We would see the Trinity present to forgive and save, as always. And we would hear the voice of angels: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (Isaiah 6:7, ESV). God’s holiness extends even to us, and we are made holy.
And then the vision is ended, and we go where God sends us. We love to hear those words of God and Isaiah’s answer: “‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Isaiah 6:8, ESV). We, too, hear those words and rightfully respond with joy: “Here am I! Send me.” If only we knew what we were saying! We stopped too early in Isaiah 6 to hear what God told Isaiah to say: “Go, and say to this people: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10, ESV). Which means that, as Jesus told the disciples in the missing verses from last week’s Gospel lesson, most people will reject the Father, Son, and Spirit who made and redeemed them and calls them by the Gospel. And there’s nothing we can do about that. We cannot dress up the Gospel, or make it more attractive, without emptying it of the power of God’s “foolishness;” we cannot give people anything but what God has given to us: Baptism, Absolution, Lord’s Supper, prayer, the Scriptures, and the communion of sometimes un-saintly saints. But for us, that will be enough; only God can open eyes and ears and hearts by His Word. O Lord our Father, open eyes; O Lord the Son, open ears; O Lord the Spirit, open hearts; for Jesus’ sake—that we may, with all the Faithful, worship the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity. And preserve us in faithfulness and firm belief in this catholic faith, until we see You unhidden, face to face in Your new creation.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/01/09