The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
“Forgiven and Sent by the Holy and Inscrutable God”
February 10, 2019
Sermon Text: Isaiah 6:1-8
Martin Luther’s theology of the cross largely centers around the belief that much of Who God is and what He does and why He does what He does is as far beyond our understanding as a Beethoven symphony is over the head of your average houseplant. Faith comes as we rest in those things that Almighty God has chosen to reveal to us. This is where you have come from. These are the rules and standards I have given you to live by. This is where you have failed. And this is what I have done about your failure – I have sent my only Son to be both the priest and the sacrifice in making atonement for yours sins. My Son is now risen from the dead, and He comes to you in mercy through very specific and exclusive means of grace, through Word and Sacrament and Sacrament, to forgive you here and now and to give you eternal life and to sustain in the one true faith. And that’s all we really know about God. And faith says, that is enough.
In our day and age, we are usually pretty good about citing those things that we know about God, that He is love and mercy in His Son Jesus Christ and we are forgiven and okay. What we are not so good about is accepting the other part of the theology of the cross – that most of the transcendent God is beyond our understanding and we have to accept that.
A simple illustration of this is as follows: one of my professors in seminary liked to say that we need to be careful about calling the Middle Ages the Dark Ages. In many ways, the people back then were more enlightened than we are now. In Luther’s day, if a tree fell on your house, God did it, and that’s all there was to it. If your friend died from the plague, then God did it, and that’s all there was to it. God was someone to be feared, and that was not all bad. Nowadays, if a tree falls on your house, the Weather Channel tells you that this low pressure system over here did this and that and those things combined with the cold front over there made the tree fall on your house and God gets left out of the discussion. If your friend dies, it’s because we didn’t have this medicine or that medicine or the doctor failed to do this or that and God gets left out of the discussion. We don’t fear God anymore because we never see ourselves as interacting with the holy, transcendent, and inscrutable God – we only get our little wafer and sip of wine at communion that tells us that we’re okay and that’s as far as we let God get. We live in a very scientific age where we are used to being able to investigate and explain and control everything and there is no room left for a God Who we don’t understand. When multitudes of people, including most of the people who get praised as being the best and brightest, can run around saying that they reject God because this or that thing about God just doesn’t make sense to them – I wonder, who really is living in the dark ages?
I may have told you before about the exercise I like to do with the confirmation class. Who here can remember what you had for dinner last night? Fine. Now, who here can remember what you had for dinner on January 7th, or for that matter, what you had for dinner any day that week that was only one month ago? Anyone? OK, so now we’ve established that your memory, as fine it might be, has very definite limitations. Now, who here has changed your mind about something important in the last year? Something you thought was true or false that you found out you were wrong about? A person you felt you could trust who you found out otherwise about? Something you thought was important or unimportant that you found out you were wrong about? Some investment or purchase that you found out you were wrong about? You’ve changed your mind about something that you had previously reasoned through to the best of your ability. But you were wrong. So, your reasoning ability is as flawed as your memory. And now we, with our limited, extremely flawed minds and our faulty reasoning ability, we are going to sit in judgment on God? I looked up the word arrogant in the dictionary and I saw a picture of us. All too often in the 21st century, there is no fear of God in us, no reverence for His Holiness and His wisdom, no ability for us to say, “Lord God Almighty, You alone are righteous and just and wise and all of Your ways and all of Your commands are good.” The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is all fine to trust in Jesus and call Him merciful and depend upon His love. But to come to Him in the 21st century manner, to put your arm around Him like He is just another friend, to approach Him without some measure of fear and trepidation, is the very definition of foolishness.
Isaiah was enlightened. He knew how to act around Almighty God. If he didn’t know that already, Yahweh gave Him a vision that shattered his foolishness and taught him reverent fear for the Almighty’s holiness and power. Isaiah sees the throne of God and angels worshiping Him as they cry out, “Holy, holy, holy, Yahweh God Almighty, the whole earth is being filled with your glory.” The place rattles and rolls like a bridge in a major earthquake and Isaiah is struck to his core with fear. Isaiah knows his Scriptures and his temple theology. He knew that the only glory of God that even Moses was allowed to see was when he was hidden behind a great rock and was only allowed to see God’s backside as He passed by. And even then, Moses’ face still glowed when he came back down the mountain side. And Isaiah knew that the current dwelling place of the Lord among His people was in the temple, hidden in the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could approach with fear and reverence on one day out of the whole year. Isaiah knew that a sinner approaching the holy God was like an ice cube thrown into a huge fire. All that would be left would be fine water vapor hopelessly dissipated into the atmosphere. Isaiah knew that the only thing that he could bring to the table was his sin. And so, he cries out, “Woe is me, I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips; for I have seen the King, Yahweh of hosts.” It was his own particular way of crying out, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner,” because there was absolutely nothing else for him to do or say.
Fortunately for Isaiah, there was something else there besides the throne. There was also an altar. From this altar one of the angels flies to Isaiah with the sacramental coal, to touch Isaiah’s lips with it, to take away Isaiah’s guilt and purge his sin.
Here is where the reverent awe and fear of God Almighty meets the mercy and love of Yahweh, mercy given for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ through a very specific means of grace. Before the Lord’s institution of the Lord’s Supper and Holy Baptism in the New Covenant, there was the sacramental coal for Isaiah, delivered from the altar of God to Isaiah for the forgiveness of his sins. Here in these few short verses is all the doctrine of Scripture, the holy, transcendent, inscrutable God lowering Himself to come to sinful humans in love and grace through very specific physical gifts. Here is the tension that we the people of God live in daily. Every day we approach God with fear and trepidation because of Who He is, and yet we come with all confidence and boldness because of what He has promised in His Son Jesus Christ. We live in the same tension that a small child lives in as he sits upon his father’s lap. The child feels safe because his dad is dad, the greatest man in all the world and the man who would do the most to protect him. And yet the child, as safe as he feels, and as confident as he is in his dad, would not dare to make some kind of smart aleck comment to his dad because he fears his dad’s wrath more than anything. That child is us, resting with appropriate caution and respect in the hands of God our heavenly Father.
Isaiah is touched with God’s grace in the sacrament of the coal from the altar, and he is forgiven, just as we are touched with God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and Sacrament. But we dare not take these things lightly. We dare not take them for granted. We dare not forget the awesomeness, the power, the might, and the holiness of the God who meets us here in these things. In Baptism you are forgiven and adopted by Christ – but beware lest you use the gift for some other purpose, lest you change it from your sacred calling in life into some kind of ticket to heaven that demands nothing of you. In the Word you are renewed and taught and given faith – but beware lest you change the Word from something that is given to turn your life upside down into something you can pick and choose scraps and portions from here and there that you agree with and that make you feel good about yourself. These sacramental gifts are not given to tell you that you are okay and make you feel all warm inside, but to alter you and change you into what the Almighty has planned for you. It would be far better for you not to interact with them at all than to misuse them, because in them you interact with the holy and mighty God and if they don’t change you from the inside out you are still just a sinner, just an ice cube headed for the center of the volcano. Whatever happened to the people of God who used to quake with fear at His approach and beg for mercy and who earnestly desired to know, “What does the Lord demand of me today?”
Another one of my professors in seminary told us that he wished that we could print Communion cards that said, “If you are not in full agreement with our confession of faith, if you do not believe that in the Lord’s Supper you receive the true body and true blood of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and if you currently hold any grudges against a brother or sister in Christ, we ask you not to partake of the Lord’s Supper with us today, lest you get sick and die,” because that’s Biblical. That’s 1 Corinthians 11. Beware of taking for granted and misusing and abusing the gifts through which the Holy Spirit delivers Christ to us.
But thanks be to the Holy Spirit for His faithfulness to His promises. Thanks be to Him for remembering that we are dust, that we are nothing but grass that dries up in the sun’s heat and withers and dies and is blown away in the wind and forgotten. Thanks be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit for hearing our repentant cries, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner … for I am a man of unclean heart, I am a man of a black heart corrupt and broken to its core, and I live among a people of unclean hearts.” Praise and thanks be to the Lord for doing what He does best, for doing what He most loves to do, for coming to us with His sacramental gifts and pronouncing His divine absolution upon us. We are forgiven, we are His, and nothing will ever be able to separate us from Him.
Then the Holy Trinity speaks – “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds the only way a sinner called by the Gospel can respond – “Here am I. Send me.” God’s absolution is not an undemanding ticket to heaven. God’s absolution is a draft notice. You are no longer your own. You have been bought with a price. And now, you serve. That’s the only reason you’re still here in this world. If Jesus was just issuing tickets to heaven, we’d have to have some kind of hole in the ceiling here because the words “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” would be quickly followed by an elevator ride to heaven. We are still here to serve. “Who shall I send? And who will go for us?” “Here am I. Send me.” And now we each have our callings. You and you and you and you and you and me. We each have our stuff that we’ve supposed to get done out there over the course of the next week, in love and service to our neighbor. And we’re supposed to do all that stuff in a way that provokes the people of the world to jealousy, to make them ask, “What is it about you that gives you your sense of purpose and your joy and your certainty about the future that I would like to have.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that. Like Isaiah, we live in a generation and a society that doesn’t seem to want to hear the truth. But like Isaiah, we do the best we can and we don’t give up. I had the good fortune this week to have a discussion with one of my co-workers where I mentioned to him that I really like the Russian writers of the 19th century because they hadn’t rejected God the way so much of the rest of Europe had rejected Him at that time. And that discussion led to him saying that he had been away from God because he had been raised in a strict Catholic background and had been essentially kicked out of his family for marrying a divorced woman and that that whole experience, plus all the scandals involving the Roman Catholic priests, had left him with a lot of scars that were difficult for him to get over. And we talked for a while, and I left that discussion feeling like he had moved a little bit closer to where the Lord would like him to be and also that he was now more comfortable talking about these things with me and that I might be someone he would talk to in a week or 3 months or a year when he was ready to talk about it some more. Unfortunately, I don’t get those opportunities much. Everybody seems to be so militant about their beliefs that they can’t really talk about anything. And I’ll bet that you find yourselves in the same kind of environment.
But we don’t give up. We have been sent. And those kinds of interactions are what we have been sent to be a part of. Here am I. Send me. It’s the only response that we the people of God can have when the holy, transcendent, and inscrutable God forgives us and asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Here am I. Send me.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, into life everlasting. Amen.
Forgiven and Sent by the Holy and Inscrutable God 2/10/19
The Rev. Richard J Bellas, St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church, Lockport, IL