In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 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!” 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.” And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:1-6).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It sounds like a scene that could only come from a feverish dream or the computer-generated imagery (CGI) of the latest Marvel superhero motion picture. The King sits on a throne, high and lifted up, the train of His robe filling the temple. Above Him are strange, supernatural creatures, each having six wings, two covering his face, two his feet, and with two flying. As they cry out, the foundations shake down to the bedrock, and the whole house is filled with smoke.
But it’s not a feverish dream, or CGI special effects, it is an historical event. It is the year 740 BC, the year that King Uzziah died. The prophet Isaiah has a vision of the Lord sitting on His throne in the inner sanctum of the temple. But it’s hard to tell if the prophet is seeing the throne room of heaven or the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem.
But there’s a good reason for this confusion: The Holy of Holies is the Lord’s home on earth. When the temple was first completed and dedicated, the Lord appeared in a cloud of glory and descended into the Holy of Holies to dwell with His people. In a very real way, in Isaiah’s time, the Holy of Holies is where heaven and earth come together, for the one true God is enthroned in both places.
The six-winged creatures flying above the throne are seraphim, attendants to the Lord Most High. Little is known about them. This is the only place where these spiritual beings are mentioned by name in Scripture. They seem to be nobles among the angels of God and superior in rank. But what is more important than speculation about their special position among the angels, is the action of these heavenly beings. With their wings, they hide their faces and cover their feet. They are not worthy to be in the presence of the Lord, and their actions reveal their great reverence for Him and their great humility in His presence.
Imagine that! These powerful and holy creatures consider themselves unworthy to stand with uncovered feet and faces in the presence of God—so great is His holiness! Isaiah sees them flying, hovering about the throne and calling out to one another in praise of the Lord. The chief occupation of these heavenly beings is praise. Here, they offer an antiphonal hymn as they call to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” The truest worship of God is pure and simple praise and confession. The sound of this angelic hymn shakes the doorposts and thresholds of the heavenly temple.
The One seated on the throne is the Thrice Holy: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He alone is worthy to be praised. He is set apart, perfect in every respect, and exalted above all things—including the angels of heaven. But God’s holiness also means that He is separate and opposite from all sin. He hates sin and must destroy sin like an antiseptic must attack bacteria. He would cease to be holy if He did not oppose sin and all its consequences.
Realizing he stands in the presence of the Thrice Holy, Isaiah is terror stricken. “Woe is me!” he cries out, “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” As he looks upon the Lord in His holiness and glory, Isaiah’s own sin become clearer. The brighter the light, the more apparent are blemishes, stains, and scars; the nearer to God’s glory, the more evident is man’s wretchedness and sinfulness. The contrast is unmistakable, and Isaiah knows there is nothing he can do to make it any different. He is a dead man, a damned man.
But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something. He sends a seraph, who takes a burning coal from the altar. The seraph touches the coal to Isaiah’s lips and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” The Lord makes Isaiah holy through the hand and voice of His ministering spirit. Now, Isaiah can be in the presence of God and live. Now, Isaiah can speak God’s holy Word: for the Lord has opened his lips, and Isaiah’s mouth will show forth His praise. All because the holiness of God exposed the sinfulness of Isaiah, leading him to repent, and to receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
One of the problems that the Church encounters today is simply this: people have far too high opinion of themselves. As long as this is true, they will see little need for Jesus and His perfect atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Some of this is natural—at least according to the sinful nature. Blinded by sin, people cannot know how terribly unholy and apart from God they are. Furthermore, tempted by the devil to believe that they can be like God, people will find a way to justify the sins they commit.
You see it in society. Our culture has made a god out of self-esteem: it teaches that the key to success is feeling good about yourself. This is a problem in education, where a prevalent philosophy seems to be that it is better to pass a child who doesn’t know math, because we don’t want him to feel bad about himself.
It is a huge problem in matters of morality, where many seem to buy into the idea that, “I’m basically a good person; so whatever I do must be basically good, too. If you object to something I do, it’s not that I’m wrong or immoral. The problem is that you’re intolerant.”
This presents a great danger in therapy, too: for rather than help a troubled person overcome a sinful behavior, a therapist might instead help the person feel good about the sin.
But enough of the obvious examples in the world. If all we do is point out the troubles of other people, guess what will happen—we’ll end up feeling like we’re better than them and good about ourselves!
The harsh reality is that you have too high opinion of yourself. So do I. It’s that old sinful nature at work, tempting us to believe that we’re not that bad, that we’re actually decent people. Now, by the grace of God, you and I are willing to confess with Scripture that we’re poor miserable sinners; but are we willing to confess how truly sinful we are? Do we realize how sinful we are? We’re not just less than we should be; left to ourselves, we’re utterly sinful and unholy, completely undeserving of God’s grace and mercy. Unfit to come into God’s holy presence for even a moment.
Please don’t misunderstand: the point of this sermon is not that you should run away from God. Rather, it is that you and I are in constant need of repentance for failing to acknowledge how sinful we are, how undeserving of grace and mercy we are. See, if we think we’re reasonably good people, we’ll also believe that we’re only partially sinful. If we think we’re somewhat righteous on our own, we won’t look to the Lord to credit us with all His righteousness.
The truth from God’s Law, sounds brutal to protesting sinful ears. We don’t deserve God’s presence and mercy. We’re far too sinful, and there’s nothing you or I can do about it. But the Thrice Holy Lord can do something about it, and He has.
The Father sent His Holy One, Jesus, to live a perfect, sinless, and holy life for you. God’s sinless Son, became the sacrifice to pay the price for your sins and gain your salvation. Now when God sees you, He sees you clothed in the righteousness of Christ. You are now holy in His sight (Colossians 1:22).
Jesus became the sinner who was forsaken on the cross and cast from the Father’s presence so that you might dwell with Him forever. Before the Thrice Holy made the world, He chose you in Christ Jesus to be His child (Ephesians 1:4). Just as Isaiah was cleansed when the coal from the altar touched his lips, so the Father has cleansed you in the waters of your Baptism, uniting you to Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14). In Christ, He made you new creations who love Him, trust in Him, and have His power to live holy lives. You are now His saints, His “holy ones.”
As you strive to live as the saints God created you to be, you are not alone. The Thrice Holy—God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is with you always. The Holy Spirit given to you in Baptism works to conform you to the image of Christ. Through daily contrition and repentance, you put to death the old Adam that your new man would arise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever. At the altar, the place where heaven and earth meet, Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
The Lord no longer holds your sins against you. Instead, He forgives you. He makes you righteous. He welcomes you into His presence, now and forevermore. Then, He sends you out into the world to share this Good News with your family, friends, and neighbors.
There is no greater hope or comfort than this—but only for repentant sinners. Those who think too highly of themselves will find little comfort in the news of forgiveness now; and they will find no comfort in themselves on Judgment Day. But this is not for you: by the grace of God, you confess your sinfulness. You know it doesn’t damage you to tell the truth about your sin, but instead frees you from the slavery that would have you try to make yourself righteous. And as you grow in faith, you’re not surprised that you feel more sinful—for as you grow in faith, your recognition of sin will grow, too; but so will the joy and comfort of the forgiveness that the Lord gives you.
Dear friends, the Lord has better for you than you feeling good about yourself for a while. Confess your sins and your sinfulness beyond what you can comprehend; and rejoice to hear the words of the Thrice Holy Lord:
“Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.