Sinners in the Presence of a Holy God

“Isaiah’s Vision” by Frank Marsden

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Our text is Isaiah 6:1-8.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It’s a view that’s been reserved for a select few while still living here on earth: the throne room of heaven. The prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah as well as St. John the Evangelist were each privileged such a vision during their ministry. And you can tell by the description of their visions that each man has difficulty putting into human words the wonders, glory, and awe that they experienced.

What would you do if you were given a vision of the Lord, in all His glory, sitting upon His throne in the heavenly temple? To riff on the popular contemporary Christian song, “One can only imagine.”  

The first thing Isaiah sees in his vision is the Lord seated on His throne, the train of His regal robe filling the room. Isaiah’s use of the name “Lord” emphasizes His authority, superiority, and power. This is no ordinary king. He is the Lord of the Church who rules all things for the benefit of His Church. Isaiah peers into the heavenly sanctuary, where saints and angels may see the Lord.

Isaiah then notices the presence of the seraphim hovering near the Lord. This is the only place where these spiritual beings are mentioned by name in Scripture. We may speculate that they are the same ones found in Revelation 4 because of the six wings, but we cannot know for sure.

But it is the action of these heavenly beings that is more important than any speculation about their standing among the angelic hierarchy. With two wings, they hover. With their other 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 hovering about the throne. They offer an antiphonal hymn as they call to one another in praise of the Lord: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory!” The sound of this angelic hymn shakes the doorposts and thresholds of the throne room of heaven.

The One seated on the throne is holy times three. He is set apart, infinitely separate, and above all creation. He is perfect in every respect and exalted above all things—including the angels of heaven. God’s holiness also means that He is separate and opposite from all sin. He would cease to be holy if he did not oppose sin and all its consequences. The judgments so prominent in the book of Isaiah flow from God’s holiness.

But God’s holiness is also positive. Because of His holiness, the Lord has found a way to destroy sin and make sinful humanity holy. In this vision, the Lord is responsible for the purification of Isaiah. In Scripture, the Lord purges the entire world of sin through the suffering and death of Jesus. The holiness of God does away with sinfulness, uncleanness, and darkness.

God has provided the only answer to the sin, rebellion, and perversion that plagues humanity. Jesus purges all sin. God includes every human being when He declares the world holy because of Jesus. All are invited to believe it and receive its results. Those who do not believe refuse God’s solution to sin and death and can expect the holiness of God to execute judgment.

One more thing must be said about the One seated on the throne. He is the second person of the Trinity, Jesus. After the apostle John quotes from this chapter, he tells us that Isaiah “saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about Him” (John 12:41).

A deep sense of unworthiness overcomes Isaiah. Who is he that he should see this vision? Isaiah is so far away from the holiness of God that he can only make one conclusion: “I am ruined!” God’s holiness separates Him from sinners. His almighty power threatens every sinner with eternal separation and punishment. Isaiah fears because his eyes have seen the Lord and he knows that no one can see God and live (Exodus 33:20).

But God has chosen to reveal Himself to the prophet. The vision is for the benefit of Isaiah, for the benefit of his ministry, and for us. God grants this vision to this sinful man by undeserved love. God Himself reaches across the difference between His holiness and Isaiah’s sin. He takes away the guilt of the prophet in a symbolic action. One of the seraphim carries a live coal from the altar of this heavenly temple and touches the prophet’s mouth. The message of absolution is clear: “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

The Lord takes away Isaiah’s sin. The Lord makes him holy. 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.

One of the greatest problems that the Church faces today is simply this: people have far too high an opinion of themselves. As long as this is true, they will see little need for Jesus.

Some of this is just natural—at least according to the sinful nature, it’s natural. Blinded and confused by sin, people cannot know how unholy and apart from God they are. Furthermore, tempted by the devil to believe that they can be like God, people find ways to justify the sins they commit, demonstrating in one way or another why they’re not guilty (in their own opinion) of anything that deserves punishment. They may even redefine what is sin and what it is not in order to justify themselves, reasoning “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 you’re intolerant.”

But let’s not spend too much time on the sins of the world. The world isn’t here to hear this message, so this sermon isn’t going to do them a bit of good. Besides, the problem is much closer to home.

You have too high an opinion of yourself. So do I. It’s that old sinful nature at work, tempting us to believe 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 are sinful; but are we willing to confess how truly sinful we are?

Not until the Lord shines the light of His Law on our cold, dark hearts.

Peter provides us with an example in our Gospel lesson. After teaching the crowds, Jesus provides Peter with a miraculous catch of fish. And what is Peter’s immediate response to the miracle? He says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” This response might surprise you; but when Jesus shows His authority over the sea, Peter is suddenly aware of the vast difference between the two of them. On the one hand, there’s the Son of God—incarnate, almighty, holy. On the other, there’s Peter—and the Lord’s holiness and power cast Peter’s sinfulness into sharp relief. So Peter says, “Depart from me!” Sinners should not be in the presence of God.

Another example would be the Lord’s Supper. It’s no coincidence that we sing the words of the seraphim in Isaiah 6 just before Holy Communion: “Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth: heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!” We sing it for the same reason they did. We believe that God is just as present here. The same Lord who is enthroned in heaven is also present here: in, with, and under the bread and wine. He says so.

Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is where heaven and earth come together today. It is a Most Holy Place where Jesus is present to save. So is the font. So is His Word of Absolution, public and private. The Lord is just as present here as He was with Peter in the boat, or with Isaiah in the temple. As the people thronged to wherever Jesus was for help and would give Him no rest, so we should hasten to His Word and Sacrament as often as we can. Yet thronging to the Lord’s Supper—or His other means of grace—is rare today.

As we prepare and examine ourselves, you and I should react to the Law like Peter and Isaiah did: “Woe is me! Because of my sin, I do not deserve to be in the presence of God.” However, feeling unworthy of the Supper is usually not the issue. Too often, we’re tempted to feel entitled.

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 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 be looking to the Lord to credit us with His righteousness.

The truth from Scripture, 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 is nothing we can do about it.

But the Lord can do something about it, and He has. He’s gone to the cross in our place, died for our sin. He’s suffered the judgment for our sin so that God no longer holds our sin against us. Peter the sinner said, “Depart from me!” and Isaiah the sinner said, “Woe is me! For I am lost!” Jesus became sin for them on the cross, and He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” For the sake of Peter and Isaiah, the Father departed from the Son and forsook Him at the cross. For the sake of Peter and Isaiah, the Son was lost and condemned there.

But it wasn’t just for Peter and Isaiah. It was for you, too. Jesus Christ became the sinner who was forsaken on the cross and cast from His Father’s presence so that you might dwell with Him forever. As He said to Peter, so He says to you: “Do not be afraid.” You need not fear God’s wrath or hell for your sin anymore, because Christ has taken that wrath and hell and sin for you.

As He said to Isaiah, so the Lord says to you, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 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 forever. Go in the peace of the Lord. 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.

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