Download or listen to the Holy Trinity: “Holy, Holy, Holy; Blessed is He” (Isaiah 6:1-13)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Trinity. People often like to use illustrations to make the mystery of the Trinity “easier to understand.” Maybe you’ve seen or used some of them. For example, an apple, which has skin, flesh, and a core; three things, one apple. Or St. Patrick, who wrote the hymn we just sang, used a shamrock. It has three leaves (unless you’re really lucky), but it’s one plant. Or, more heretical, water, which can be ice, water, or steam; three states, one substance. And there are others, like the banner we have of a triangle and the hand of the Father, a cross for the Son, and a dove for the Spirit. I don’t know if anyone’s been helped to understand the Trinity by those illustrations, but one thing is clear: God is not a piece of fruit, or a plant, or any other symbol, diagram, or illustration. He is not even a doctrine. Even the Athanasian Creed, which pushes the boundaries of what we can say about God to the furthest, humanly possible limits, is just words on a page. Someone could ignore it, deny it, take it out of the hymnal, refuse to confess it on Trinity Sunday. You can do that with words and symbols and illustrations. You can escape them if you want. But you cannot escape the Trinity, as Isaiah found out.
Isaiah was in the Temple, as he had been so many times before. But this day his eyes were opened to the way things really were in the Temple. This day he saw God. Of course, the Temple did not contain God; Solomon had said as much when he built it. God cannot be contained by heaven and earth, let alone an earthly temple (1 Kings 8:27). Nevertheless, God had chosen to dwell in that place, and the hem of His robe fills the Temple. And Isaiah sees strange creatures, literally “burning ones,” with six wings, covering their feet and faces, and flying. And they’re calling back and forth to each other, “Holy, Holy, Holy is Yahweh Sabaoth, Yahweh of the heavenly armies. The whole earth is full of His glory.” And in the midst of the trembling foundations and the smoke, Isaiah knows in that moment that he cannot escape from God. He is like the psalmist, who says, Where can I flee from Your Presence? If I go up, You are there. If I go down, You are there. East, west, north, south, it doesn’t matter: the whole earth is full of His glory. And Isaiah recognizes what that means for him: “Woe is me! I am undone. (That is, I’m dead.) I am man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my own eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of the heavenly armies.” Isaiah knows that the only thing that can happen to a sinner in the presence of God is death. And there’s no more time to make it right; it cannot be put off; there is no escape. All that Isaiah is and has done cannot be undone, so he is undone by God’s holiness. Anyone who wants to come as he is into the Presence of God as He is, anyone who wants to see the uncovered face of God is simply fooling himself. There is only death that way.
God doesn’t dispute it. He doesn’t say to Isaiah, don’t worry about it, you’re overreacting. Instead, one of burning creatures from God’s presence comes down and takes a coal with tongs from the altar of sacrifice. He touches Isaiah’s lips with the coal, and says, “See: this has touched your unclean lips; your sin is covered over—God refuses to look at it—and your guilt is paid for, atoned.” This word is resurrection to Isaiah. Sin is done with. The Law cannot accuse him. And what is death? Where is the sting of death? Where is its victory? And now, as Luther put it, Isaiah is much more courageous after he has risen from the dead. Now he says, “Send me,” instead of “woe is me.” Now he is willing to go and speak to the people, even though—at first—his words will not make things better but worse. He will go and speak to Israel and make their eyes blind, and their ears swollen. They will not hear or see or understand or believe, because they are as dead as Isaiah was. You can’t be any deader than dead. “How long?” Isaiah asks. Until there’s nothing left, God says. Until everything is destroyed, and there is nothing else left for anyone to trust. Until there is a single stump. And in that stump is hope, because the “holy seed is the stump” (Isaiah 6:13). God is going to deal with the world in a new way: after death comes resurrection. After devastation comes restoration. All by this single promise of a new Seed. Seems rather a flimsy basis for hope, but there it is.
And that Seed is the only basis for your hope, too. Because as long as we have only “Holy, Holy, Holy,” we have nothing but death. The whole earth is full of God’s glory, and there is no escape for any sinner. You cannot escape this God, because He is everywhere, and that’s not good news. That means He is in the tornado as well as the calm breeze; the earthquake as well as the solid ground; the flood as well as the gentle stream. And there is only one thing that can happen to the sinner in the Presence of God: death. Oh, but surely it’s not so bad as to require death. Well, let’s see: when the Son of God comes into the world, among a people of unclean lips, among us, He takes your sin on Himself. He takes and takes and takes until He is indistinguishable from any other sinner. To look at Him on the cross is to see just another criminal. He not only takes on all sin, He becomes sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). And there’s only one thing that can happen when a sinner is in the Presence of God. He must die. Jesus must die. He is undone. My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? But this Man, who becomes sin, is also God—and this is at the heart of the Trinity. Before it was only Holy, Holy, Holy, but now we sing, “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord.” He comes, and through His messengers, He raises the dead with a word. Take, eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins; this has touched your lips. Your sin is covered over—God refuses to look at it—and your guilt is atoned for. Your uncleanness, your unholiness, is gone, and Jesus gives you Himself instead. And now you are much more courageous, because you have risen from the dead. You have nothing to fear from sin, death, the devil, your own sinful flesh. Sin is gone, because Christ took it. The Law cannot accuse you; you died with Christ. Now you have risen with Him, and death is in the past, over and done with. What is death? Where is its sting? Where is its victory? What do you have to fear? Now you can go and do what the Lord has given you to do, regardless of the outcome, regardless of who sees or who knows. Now you need no reward, because there is no reward to gain. Christ has gained it all for you. This Body, this Blood, from the altar of Christ’s sacrifice, has touched your lips. You are clean, forgiven, alive in Christ.
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, 6/2/12