The Terrifying Trinity
In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.
Isaiah 6:1-8: In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Recently, we prayed for the graduates of Martin Luther College and Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. These young men and women, or just young men in the case of the Seminary, presented themselves as candidates for the Holy Ministry. And to 120 of them the Holy Spirit spoke and said, “I send you.” I remember Call Day: sitting in the Sem auditorium, waiting for my name…waiting…waiting. I remember hearing, “St. Mark, Duncanville, Texas, South Central District.” I remember being shocked, surprised, elated, overjoyed, and terrified all at the same time. I had said, “Here am I.” And my Triune God said, “I send you.”
Awful and Awe-filled as that was, my Call Day had nothing on Isaiah’s. That’s our text – Isaiah’s call into the Holy Ministry. What a Synod President did, reading off the Holy Spirit’s work done through congregations and an assignment committee, the LORD of hosts did to Isaiah, in person, live.
And you wonder, “What does this have to do with the Trinity?” It’s because, as usual, there’s something for us to learn about our God. Today we see God as He has revealed Himself to us, we see that, as the Athanasian Creed says, we worship one God in three persons and three persons in one God, without mixing the persons or dividing the divine being….The Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. But again, what does Isaiah have to do with that? If you listened closely, you noticed that the Triune God did the calling. The seraphs sang His theme song, Holy, holy, holy. That triple holy has been viewed as one of those Old Testament insights into the nature of God. It wasn’t just for emphasis that the angels said it three times, it was a glimpse behind the curtain, a view of the great and terrible Oz, or, in this case, the Holy Trinity – Holy Father, Holy Son, and Holy Spirit. And later, did you notice the LORD’s words? Whom shall I send? Who will go for us? “I” is “us.” The God whom we worship is indeed one God in three persons and three persons in one God. He refers to Himself in the plural, yet insists in Deuteronomy, the LORD is one.
Yet, as interesting as it would be to chase the white rabbit of the Divine Call into Holy Ministry, that’s not the focus today. Today we want to try to understand the purpose and meaning of God revealing Himself as He has and does – one in three and three in one. And, as it usually does in Lutheran sermons, it comes down to law/gospel. Our Holy Trinity is terrifying. He’s terrifying to see. He’s terrifying to not hear.
Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty. Not an uncommon reaction to seeing the LORD. Adam and Eve lived it, hiding in sinful nakedness. Gideon and Samson’s father, Manoah, shouted it. Even Peter, who, after seeing Jesus provide a miraculous catch of fish, cried, Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man! The sinner can not but be terrified to see God. Look at Him: I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. This makes the theatrics of the great and terrible Oz look silly. A Deity Whose garments fill a temple. Fiery six-winged beings with voices that rumble like an earthquake. And smoke, the symbol of God’s presence, whether it surrounds Sinai, leads Israel, descends upon the Tabernacle, or fills Solomon’s Temple, assuring us that the LORD, He whose breath gives and takes away, is there.
“And so am I,” Isaiah whimpers. And wonders why he isn’t yet ashes. For no one can see God and live. And neither can we. God’s not our buddy. He’s not our hunting partner. He isn’t one of those bumbling, does-his-best, sitcom dads. He is the LORD of hosts. He is the general of generals. He wiped out Pharaoh’s armies. He brought down Jericho’s walls. He eliminated Sennacherib’s forces. He gives and takes away with a word. And not only that, He’s holy. As in set apart. As in pure. As in unique. As in sacred. As in not human-like. As in superior. And not just holy, but HOLY, HOLY, HOLY! And I dare to stand before Him? I refuse to confess my uncleanness? Angels cover their faces and feet before Him. When have I waking quaked, knowing the sins before me today? When have I cowered in the evening, knowing the sins trailing me into slumber? When have I recoiled from even looking up at God’s altar, that symbol of sacrifice, because I know it was my uncleanliness that caused it? When has this been such a terrifying place that I cry, “Woe is me!”? It should be. Your lips are unclean. You live among unclean people, and not just among them. You have dirtied your lips on an uncountable list of perverse plates and corrupted cups. Have you been holy? He says, “Be holy, or else.” Have you remained clean? He says, “Be clean, or else.” Have you set yourself apart from sin? He says, “Be without sin, or else.” This Trinity terrifies.
But then speaks our LORD, through His seraphim, See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Just when Isaiah, like the jailor at Philippi, was searching for a sword to fall upon, the LORD speaks, “Do not be afraid.” Today, the Holy Trinity doesn’t just reveal to you how terrible He is to see in all His might and majesty and holiness. Today He doesn’t just thunder at you the commands of Mount Sinai that you cannot keep and that plague your conscience. Today, your Holy Trinity reveals His single purpose: to save us! He sent His angel to announce absolution. The seraph completes the gesture. He touches the lips of Isaiah, and His words are the key: “The LORD’s fire has touched you. It has not destroyed you. It has cleansed you. Your guilt is gone, your sins atoned for.” This comes from God. It is His announcement: “This is what I do. Your unclean lips have been made clean. I declare them clean. These coals do not burn and consume you, they purify you. It is my Son who was burned and consumed.” And that’s what Jesus pointed out in our Gospel: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. This LORD who is so terrible to see in our sinful state is filled with an undeserved love that sent His Son. The Son, who too is terrible to see for the sinner, is the willing sacrifice for the sins of the world. And the Spirit, who we dare not sin against, is the bringer of new life, for the Spirit gives birth to spirit. We can pray, as we did, in mercy cleanse our hearts and lips that, free from doubt and fear…. We can sing, as we will, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts/the whole earth is full of your glory/You are my God and I will exalt you/I will give you thanks for you have become my salvation. The Trinity that is terrifying to see has become our salvation! Which means it is equally terrifying not to hear Him speak!
We’ve all known someone that just looks intimidating. Frankly, they terrify us. Has it ever turned out that they were a teddy bear, or at least not that bad? We have a God who doesn’t just look intimidating, but He is and ought to be. He is the Lord Almighty whose glory fills the world. He is He around whom there can be nothing impure or imperfect. He is the One who destroys souls and bodies in hell. Yet, He is also the holy, holy, holy LORD who burns away the uncleanness from our lips, who makes us worthy to serve Him, and then calls us to serve Him. He is the Holy God and the Lamb who was slain. See that Lamb standing in the center of the throne. Even though it wasn’t revealed thus to Isaiah, it was to John in Revelation: Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne….He came and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. And when He had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God….Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!’
The Holy God terrifies you. It is terrifying to see your uncleanness. But the Holy God touches your lips as well. The atoning fire of Christ burns away your uncleanness. It’s what the holy, holy, holy LORD does. As Paul says, God presented Him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in His blood. He has become your salvation. Look at the cross. Look at the tomb. Listen to the Word. Soak in the water. Indulge in the food. Hear the Holy Trinity speak: Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for. Amen.