Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Materialism is the belief that only the “material” is real, that only what you can see and hear and touch is real, only what you can experience with your senses. As much as we talk about what is invisible—God, for example—religious people, Christians, often fall into the trap of separating what we can see and what we believe; that there is a firm dividing line between what is real and what is spiritual; between belief and knowledge, between faith and reason. We actually live our lives as if what we experience with our senses is real and what we believe is somehow less than that. Facts are one thing, we think, but everyone believes different things about God.
I wonder how many times Isaiah had been in that temple. How many times had he gone there before this? How many times had he seen the wood, stone, metal of which the temple was built? How many times in that building had his mind wandered to other things? How many times had he gone through the motions, said the prayers with a cold heart? How many times acted as if God was distant and separate from there, with a wall, a screen, a veil between God’s spiritual realm and the physical realm of the temple?
But not on this day. On this day, Isaiah goes into the temple, and the veil is torn between heaven and earth. The wall is removed, the screen falls. And Isaiah sees God: Yahweh, sitting on a throne, and the train of His robe fills the whole temple. The Greek translation says that His glory filled the house. Isaiah sees the throne of God and the six-winged burning angels encircling the throne. And they’re calling back and forth to each other, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is Yahweh of the heavenly armies. The whole earth is full of His glory!” The whole earth is filled with His glory.
Isaiah is not having a vision of some other realm. He’s not seeing something that is separate and far-removed from the temple. He’s seeing the reality of what exists every time he’s in that temple. It is the reality that whenever Isaiah is in that house, God’s presence is very real and very near, even if he had never seen it. The temple is God’s footstool on the earth, and He has chosen to be there among His people to hear and answer and forgive their sins. The veil between faith and sight is removed for a moment so that Isaiah can see the ever-present reality of God in the place where He chooses to dwell.
And Isaiah is terrified. Be careful about asking to see God’s glory. “Woe to me!” he says. That is, death to me. I am undone. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips. And I have seen the King, Yahweh of the heavenly armies. The unclean in the presence of the pure. The unholy in the presence of the all-holy One. For a sinner to be in the presence of the glory of God, the angels’ voices shaking the foundations of the temple’s thresholds, means to die.
But Isaiah doesn’t die. It’s not that what he says is wrong, it’s just that God has not come to Him to destroy and consume him. John says that Isaiah saw the Son of God (12:41), and the Son of God has not come to condemn, but to save. So He sends His messenger with a burning coal from the heavenly altar. Look, he says, this has touched your lips. Your guilt is turned aside and removed; your sins are covered over and taken away. Your lips are purified to sing the song of the seraphim.
How many times have we come into this house? How many times have we looked and seen only wood and plaster and paint and fabric? How many times have we gone through the motions, spoken and sung with cold and lifeless hearts? How many times have we seen only the wall or the ceiling, as if God were far separate, far removed from us?
I am here to tell you today that regardless of what we see, regardless of what we feel, regardless of what we experience with our senses, the living God is present here with us. He does not appear to us in His uncovered glory, because He does not desire that sinners die, or are consumed, or destroyed. It is not the pure glory and full majesty of God that we see. But when the Son whom Isaiah saw appears in the world, He is wrapped up in flesh and blood and bone and fingernails and hair. And He rides on a donkey, and the people say, “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of Yahweh! Hosanna in the highest!” And hosanna in the lowest. Holy, holy, holy, we sing with the angels, with lowered eyes and awe-struck mouth. But He sends a messenger with a burning coal from the altar, not to consume and destroy, but to purify and forgive. Look, this Jesus who was crucified is raised from the dead. His living flesh and blood touch your lips. Your guilt is turned aside and your sin is covered over. Holy, holy, holy, yes. But blessed is He who comes with bright glory veiled for our sake.
Here He is, regardless of sight or touch or taste. Here He is to hear and answer and forgive. Until the day comes when the veil is removed forever, and heaven and earth are no longer two, but one; when faith and sight are no longer two, but one; when sense and belief are no longer two, but one. Behold, this touches your lips, and your purified lips sing now and forever the song of the angels.
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, 5/25/18