The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
Isaiah 6:1-13, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
February 10, 2019
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of thy glory!” These words, referred to as the Sanctus – the Latin word for “holy” – have been sung in Christian worship from the very beginning, and they find their roots in our Old Testament passage from the prophet Isaiah.
It begins with a simple fact that seems rather out of place in such an awe-inspiring vision: “In the year King Uzziah died.” Uzziah was a real king in history. We know the date of his death, a few things about his political views, and we know that like many of Israel’s kings, he began his reign as a good king but ended up going completely off the rails with his pride being his downfall. He was then struck with leprosy as punishment, and lived the rest of his life under house arrest until his death.
It was in this historical context that Isaiah sees this vision of a very different kind of King. The vision is in the Temple in Jerusalem which the Hebrews believed was directly connected to God’s celestial palace in heaven. Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty, and in addition to the throne, an altar is present. God has giant proportions in this vision with the hem of his robe filling the entire interior of the Temple. Angels with six wings were attending to him. Two of the wings covered their faces, two covered their feet, and with two they flew – another translator indicates that hovered is a better translation. They were calling to one another, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and earth are full of thy glory!
Their response to being in the presence of God was one of fear and trembling. Perhaps even terror. They covered their faces as God is so holy that they can’t even look at him. And they covered their feet because they’re in the presence of holiness and can’t let their feet touch the ground. Isaiah, faced with this awesome vision in the Temple, notes that the pivots of the thresholds shook at the voices of the angels as they sang this hymn, and the house was filled with smoke.
In a moment, when we sing the Sanctus, note that the altar party and even some in the congregation profoundly bow when we sing the hymn the angels sang in Isaiah’s vision, and you’ll see a decent amount of smoke arise. In a sense, we are entering into the holiest moments of our worship of God, a God who is so holy and powerful and awesome that we can’t help but avert our eyes, bow in deep respect, and pay homage.
Isaiah, faced with this almost fantastical vision of God in his throne room in heaven, responds by saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Faced with God’s holiness, he recognizes his sinfulness. The Hebrew words translated as unclean lips infer that he has a foul mouth and is perhaps even a liar, something you and I might be able to relate to. One of the angels took a live coal from the altar – so hot that tongs were needed – and touched Isaiah’s lips with it. Think about how sensitive your lips are. This must have been a terribly painful experience for Isaiah, but the result of it is that his guilt departs and his sin is blotted out. It is only now that he’s been forgiven that Isaiah can respond in the affirmative to God’s question, Whom shall I send? He says, Here I am; send me!
It would be really nice if the passage stopped here, and I could simply tell you, “recognize that you’re a sinner, accept God’s forgiveness, and then go out into the world and do God’s work!”
But God tells Isaiah to go to the people and tell them to keep listening but not understand. He tells them to make the mind of the people dull. Isaiah has to be confounded by God’s instruction, and asks, “How long, O Lord?” How long until you relent and turn from judgment to rescue and redemption? God responds not by giving a time and a date, but by saying that first the land has to be devastated.
Sometimes things get worse before they get better.
Zac, as you’re preparing for Holy Baptism, know that the waters of baptism won’t be quite as painful as the burning coal was for Isaiah, though, we could run down to the Missouri River to baptize you by full immersion which would have the opposite effect. But also know that responding to God’s holiness by acknowledging your sinfulness and accepting God’s forgiveness doesn’t automatically make your situation right. Same thing for me and for all of you who have been on this Christian journey for a long time: sometimes, our circumstances get worse before they get better, no matter how faithful we are to our Lord and to his teachings.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul reminds us to hold firmly to the Good News he’s proclaimed to us – the good news that he received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. This Good News, like the context of Isaiah’s vision, was rooted in history. This isn’t a myth or a fable. Christ actually died for our sins, was buried, and was raised on the third day. As if he knew the church at Corinth wouldn’t believe him, he begins to call witnesses: Peter, James, the twelve apostles, and five hundred other brothers and sisters who saw Christ with their own eyes after his resurrection. Like Isaiah, Paul responded to God’s call as an unclean man unworthy of such a calling – before his conversion, he persecuted Christians to the point of their death. Even he could be redeemed and reconciled with the holy God Isaiah saw in his vision.
Friends, some of us in our community are struggling. Struggling spiritually, financially, dealing with family dysfunction, physical illness, the awful effects of old age, and so on. And yet we continue to gather in this place with our parish family and choose to worship a God that is so holy and powerful that we must avert our eyes and pay homage. As you struggle, I encourage you to hold fast to the Good News that Jesus died for your sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. Choose to hold fast to this Good News day after day, even when things seem so dire that there appears to be no hope. And choose to keep coming back to this Temple to encounter the Almighty in the beauty of holiness with your friends and family again and again.
 This summary comes from Same Old Song podcast, Mockingbird ministries. https://www.mbird.com/podcasts/
 Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.
Fr. Charles Everson's love for music and liturgy led him to a suburban parish as a simple chorister, and as of late, to St. Mary's as a priest. He feels called to share the love of Jesus Christ with a broken world in desperate need of hope and reconciliation.