Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 17, 2019 (1 Corinthians 15:12-20) – “A Futile Faith? By No Means!”

“The Resurrection” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

If you have spent as much time in the bowels of religious internet discussion pages as I have (a fact about which I am not proud), you will have often come across members of the New Atheist set— those disciples of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, among others— who claim that Jesus Christ never existed.  They’ll often parrot the former president of the American Atheists, Jon Murray, in saying things like, “There was no such person in the history of the world as Jesus Christ. There was no historical, living, breathing, sentient human by that name. Ever.”  Or they’ll say that the New Testament writers made Jesus up out of whole cloth and hoodwinked the whole world for 2000 years.  

Others of them claim that Christ is an amalgam of old pagan gods who supposedly died and rose again, like Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, and Horus, but the stories that apply a dying and rising quality to these gods often postdate Christ (in the case of Horus, they were totally made up by an archaeologist).  At least one New Atheist claim (coming from a software engineer in Britain) makes Jesus out as a hoax perpetrated by, of all people, the Romans in order to keep the Jews compliant. (I have not yet seen anyone put forward the claim by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar, John Allegro, that Jesus was actually a psychedelic mushroom— I am not making this up; it ruined his career.)  Furthermore, these people who think that Christ is a myth argue that the Bible cannot be a viable source of truth about who Jesus is because it talks about him as the Son of God. Surely, they say, such a thing is impossible. And so they try to cast doubt on the claims of Christians about Jesus, even though very few serious scholars of the New Testament, regardless of whether or not they are believers, actually take these claims that Jesus never existed seriously.

“If you’re not a god named Horus, you’re super, super, super bore-us….”

But the New Atheists aren’t the first to question the truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The last two centuries saw a concerted hunt for the “historical” Jesus, which continues to this day. Prominent theologians and historians, including the famous theologian, physician, and organist, Albert Schweitzer, sought to uncover the “real” Jesus divorced from the shackles of Scripture and theological frameworks.  All came to the conclusion that the picture of Jesus put forward in Scripture couldn’t possibly describe the real man, that for whatever reason Jesus could not possibly have done what the Gospel writers and apostles say he did. They argued that Jesus must have been a prophet or a mystic or a rabbi or a rabble-rouser (or all four at once!), but that he couldn’t have possibly been the Son of God.  In the case of Schweitzer, he came to believe that Jesus was mistaken about himself, and that he died a failed prophet. But those hunting for the historical Jesus, whatever that means, discounted what Scripture says about him in order to create a portrait of a man who, to them, seems “likely” to have been real. The “historical” Jesus, they argue, didn’t rise from the dead. To them, such a thing is not historically possible or probable.  The “real” Jesus, they say, was just a man who died on a cross. End of story.

Paul, writing to the Corinthians in our epistle reading this morning, would have recognized these arguments against Christ.  It seems that similar arguments were already current in Corinth and were threatening the faith of the congregation there. Corinth, a port city, was home to numerous Greek cults and philosophies that were antithetical to Paul’s preaching of the Gospel— that Christ had died and risen from the dead as the first of a general resurrection.  The Greek and Roman pagans, by and large, did not believe in any such resurrection. For them, you died and went to the underworld, and maybe if you were really good, you got to live in the upscale part of it. People didn’t just “come back,” and if they did, it was only in the myths and under exceptional circumstances, usually when Hercules hauled you out of the underworld to complete a quest.  And the Epicureans, one of the philosophical groups present in the city, taught that death was nothingness and that life’s chief aim was to achieve freedom from pain. These groups denied the reality of the resurrection, and it seems that their teachings had made their way into the congregation at Corinth and some folks believed them. Paul had to impress upon the Corinthian flock the implications of not believing that Christ’s resurrection had occurred and that the resurrection of all people was coming.  Denial of this central tenet of the Gospel had very real consequences. We heard Paul lay out the argument earlier:

12 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. 15 We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If in Christ we have hope[a] in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 1:12-19)

Paul precedes all this with a catalogue of witnesses who saw the risen Christ and who attest to the truth of “the gospel…which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved” (1 Corinthians 15:1-2), namely that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (verses 3-4).  These include Simon Peter, the whole host of the apostles, nearly 500 other disciples, James the Greater (Jesus’ half-brother who headed the church in Jerusalem), and finally, Paul himself.  Yet even with all these corroborating witnesses, some members of the church at Corinth denied that the resurrection had happened, or could even happen. Was it merely a denial that God could raise the dead if he wanted to?  A rejection of miracles? Perhaps they had come to hold a belief that was current just across the sea in Ephesus at the time: that the resurrection was merely spiritual and that there would be no physical one.

Either way, the implications of a rejecting of the resurrection are clear.  Paul says that if the dead cannot be raised— if it is not part of God’s plan as some of these people in Corinth asserted— then Christ cannot have been raised from the dead.  And if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Paul, the apostles, and all those who preach that Christ has been raised from the dead are liars, making God out to be a liar, too.  And if that is the case, then one’s faith in Christ is futile because Christ didn’t die and rise to save all people from their sins. If there is no resurrection, then death is still death, this life is all there is, and Christians are a sad and sorry lot who have been living a certain way based on a falsehood.  They have been denying themselves and struggling with the world’s enticements when they could have been eating and drinking and being merry with abandon because “tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). And, regardless of the reality of the resurrection, for Paul, acting as if the resurrection is nothing becomes, for the individual, tantamount to making it untrue for oneself.  If you reject the resurrection and believe that Christ had died in vain, then his death is in vain— for you.

Friedrich Nietzsche, doodled while
I was in college reading
On the Genealogy of Morals

If you deny Christ’s resurrection and live as if it has not happened, then for you, this life really becomes all there is, and if you live as if this is it, then the meaning of Christian life is lost.  You become a nihilist.  And when you become a nihilist, you find, as Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power, “that the highest values devaluate themselves. The aim is lacking; [the question] “why?” finds no answer.” For if God did not send his Son to die for you so that you might be reconciled unto him and saved from your sins, then what is the point?  For you, there is no escape from sin and death, no salvation. For the nihilist, God becomes essentially unimportant— “dead,” if you will— because he no longer gives meaning to your existence, and you are faced with the task of becoming your own savior and your own god.  You must, following Nietzsche, impose your own meaning and will on the universe in order to give it sense. But this is a terrible burden, because how can the human intellect make total sense of what goes on in this fallen, sinful world? David Foster Wallace, the author of the cult classic, Infinite Jest, held that, in a world ruled by nihilism where God is essentially treated as dead, one had to find positive value even in the most evil circumstances and actions.  But there is a limit to all human understanding, and eventually, the burden of trying to ascribe positive meaning to the horrors and terrors of sin and death becomes too great, and you are left to fall into despair.

Nihilists. And cowards.

Most people in the western world today, it seems, are already functional nihilists.  We give lip service to the resurrection, but we act as if it is not part of our reality.  We live as if we will die tomorrow, and we seem to have convinced ourselves, on some level, that this life is all there is; that we can only live our “best life now;” that once death comes, that’s it.  And so we distract ourselves with material goods and pleasures, trying to mask or drown our fear with hedonism. We buy things to make ourselves feel better (I know I sometimes do). We seek happiness in creation rather than in the Creator, and we do this to our peril.  When we act as if Christ’s resurrection didn’t occur and that the resurrection of all flesh isn’t coming, we make idols of ourselves and our possessions and we ignore God, making him into a placeholder for whatever we want him to be. When we live this way, we may find ourselves indulging our sinful desires rather than fighting them, even calling sin a good thing.  We may even find ourselves rejecting Christ outright. And should we die thinking such, we will be dead in our sins. At that point, we will truly know despair.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600) by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Sanssouci Picture Gallery.

But Paul provides good news in the face the despair that comes from nihilistic hedonism.  The resurrection happened.  It is a historical fact.  Paul says, contrary to those who believe that “we have hope in this life only,” that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).  The Christian doesn’t place his or her trust in some myth that happened in a far-off dream-time, buried somewhere in a distant, primordial past beyond reckoning.  Christ came into the world, died, and rose again all within a real frame of time in a real place: in the city of Jerusalem in the province of Judaea during (depending on our modern dating) the 16th or 19th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, likely in the month of March.  And people saw him!  The Corinthian doubters who argued against the resurrection could go to any of the over 500 witnesses of the resurrected Christ and hear from them, first-hand, about the One who saved them from their sins.  And since Christ was indeed raised from the dead, then the coming resurrection of all the dead is itself a fact. If the Corinthian doubters needed more validation for Christ’s work, they could see that the words of the prophets spoke to what Christ had done.  Christ did what God had promised he would do. It really happened. The apostles devoted their lives to it. Only one of them, John, died of old age— the rest were martyred for their belief in the risen Christ. They would not have given their lives had things been otherwise.  They knew that Jesus had defeated sin, death, and the devil. He saved the world from sin. He did not die in vain.

Resurrection of Christ (1555), from a book of sermons by Georg III, Fürst von Anhalt (1507-1553). Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive, Emory University.

Because Christ rose from the dead, the doubters in Corinth had no reason to think that this life was “it.”  They did not have to numb themselves to the pain of a sinful world by adopting lives of hedonism or attempting to make themselves the masters of a senseless and violent universe.  They could take hope in an objective reality that God took on human flesh and died and rose for them. Their faith was not in some unknowable event— Christ had really done it. Their faith in him was not futile.

Despite the claims of those who argue that our faith is futile— the New Atheists, those who argue against Jesus’ being the Christ, those who argue that the physical resurrection is not a reality— we can point to the fact that our faith is in the One who did indeed die and rise again, even though we ourselves were not physically there to witness it.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  We weren’t there, but we still have the testimony of those who did see and know him, and even if we did not have their testimony, it still would not change the objective fact that Jesus did what God said he would do.  Our faith is not in the testimony, but rather in the One who gives it validity. With the children we sing, “Jesus loves me, / This I know, / For the Bible / Tells me so.” And this is true. But just as the promise of the resurrection doesn’t mean much without the reality of Christ having died and risen, so it is with the testimony of Scripture.  Scripture is true because Jesus died and rose again. The Bible tells us of the love of Christ because he did indeed (and does) love us so much that he took our sins upon himself and buried them in his own death on the cross. Our faith is in the fact that he did it.

The dead waiting for the Resurrection. Apocalypse, Westminster c. 1250-1275 (Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 180, fol. 40v). From Discarding Images.

So when you find yourself feeling like there is only hope in this life; when you are living only for today and are indulging your senses because you think it will make you happy or give your life some kind of meaning that is otherwise lacking; when you feel despair because you cannot make sense of things or because your sins seem to be the defining feature of your life and you cannot or will not be saved, do not give up hope!  Christ, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, died and rose again for you, so that you might live with him.  It really happened, and by virtue of your baptism, you have a share in the resurrection promise.  Trust in it! This life is not the only one. His death and resurrection give us a reason to live and to hope for tomorrow, because in him we have a tomorrow.  He has forgiven our sins and given us life. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep, and because of him, we can gladly say with Hosea and St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory?  O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).  Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:57).  Amen!

Patrick Hamilton’s Excursus on Faith, Hope, and Charity from “Patrick’s Places” (1527)

The only known portrait of Patrick Hamilton, painted by John Scougal (1645-1730).

The following is excerpted from the great little treatise on Law and Gospel published by Patrick Hamilton, the first Scottish Lutheran martyr, in 1527 as Patrick’s Places. The treatise was republished in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1751), and recently published for the Kindle by Pastor Don Matzat with a foreword by Pastor Jordan McKinley.

A short biography of Hamilton from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica:

“HAMILTON, PATRICK (1504–1528), Scottish divine, second son of Sir Patrick Hamilton, well known in Scottish chivalry, and of Catherine Stewart, daughter of Alexander, duke of Albany, second son of James II. of Scotland, was born in the diocese of Glasgow, probably at his father’s estate of Stanehouse in Lanarkshire. He was educated probably at Linlithgow. In 1517 he was appointed titular abbot of Ferne, Ross-shire; and it was probably about the same year that he went to study at Paris, for his name is found in an ancient list of those who graduated there in 1520. It was doubtless in Paris, where Luther’s writings were already exciting much discussion, that he received the germs of the doctrines he was afterwards to uphold. From Alexander Ales we learn that Hamilton subsequently went to Louvain, attracted probably by the fame of Erasmus, who in 1521 had his headquarters there. Returning to Scotland, the young scholar naturally selected St Andrews, the capital of the church and of learning, as his residence. On the 9th of June 1523 he became a member of the university of St Andrews, and on the 3rd of October 1524 he was admitted to its faculty of arts. There Hamilton attained such influence that he was permitted to conduct as preceptor a musical mass of his own composition in the cathedral. But the reformed doctrines had now obtained a firm hold on the young abbot, and he was eager to communicate them to his fellow-countrymen. Early in 1527 the attention of James Beaton, archbishop of St Andrews, was directed to the heretical preaching of the young priest, whereupon he ordered that Hamilton should be formally summoned and accused. Hamilton fled to Germany, first visiting Luther at Wittenberg, and afterwards enrolling himself as a student, under Franz Lambert of Avignon, in the new university of Marburg, opened on the 30th of May 1527 by Philip, land grave of Hesse. Hermann von dem Busche, one of the contributors to the Epistolae obscurorum virorum, John Frith and Tyndale were among those whom he met there. Late in the autumn of 1527 Hamilton returned to Scotland, bold in the conviction of the truth of his principles. He went first to his brother’s house at Kincavel, near Linlithgow, in which town he preached frequently, and soon afterwards he married a young lady of noble rank, whose name has not come down to us. Beaton, avoiding open violence through fear of Hamilton’s high connexions, invited him to a conference at St Andrews. The reformer, predicting that he was going to confirm the pious in the true doctrine by his death, resolutely accepted the invitation, and for nearly a month was permitted to preach and dispute, perhaps in order to provide material for accusation. At length, however, he was summoned before a council of bishops and clergy presided over by the archbishop; there were thirteen charges, seven of which were based on the doctrines affirmed in the Loci communes. On examination Hamilton maintained that these were undoubtedly true. The council condemned him as a heretic on the whole thirteen charges. Hamilton was seized, and, it is said, surrendered to the soldiery on an assurance that he would be restored to his friends without injury. The council convicted him, after a sham disputation with Friar Campbell, and handed him over to the secular power. The sentence was carried out on the same day (February 29, 1528) lest he should be rescued by his friends, and he was burned at the stake as a heretic. His courageous bearing attracted more attention than ever to the doctrines for which he suffered, and greatly helped to spread the Reformation in Scotland. The “reek of Patrick Hamilton infected all it blew on.” His martyrdom is singular in this respect, that he represented in Scotland almost alone the Lutheran stage of the Reformation. His only book was entitled Loci communes, known as “Patrick’s Places.” It set forth the doctrine of justification by faith and the contrast between the gospel and the law in a series of clear-cut propositions. It is to be found in Foxs’s Acts and Monuments.

A Comparison Between Faith and Unbelief

  • Faith is the root of all good: unbelief is the root of all evil.
  • Faith makes God and man good friends: unbelief makes them foes.
  • Faith brings God and man together: unbelief separates them.
  • All that faith does, pleases God: all that unbelief doth, displeases God.
  • Faith only makes a man good and righteous: unbelief only makes him unjust and evil.
  • Faith makes a man a member of Christ: unbelief makes him a member of the devil.
  • Faith makes a man the inheritor of heaven: unbelief makes him inheritor of hell.
  • Faith makes a man the servant of God: unbelief makes him the servant of the devil.
  • Faith shows us God to be a sweet Father: unbelief shows him a terrible Judge.
  • Faith holds firm to the word of God: unbelief wavers here and there.”
  • Faith counts and holds God to be true: unbelief holds him false and a liar.
  • Faith knows God: unbelief knows him not.
  • Faith loves both God and his neighbor: unbelief loves neither of them.
  • Faith only saves us: unbelief only condemns us.
  • Faith extolls God and his deeds: unbelief extolls herself and her own deeds.”

Of Hope

  • Hope is a trusty looking after the thing that is promised us to come, as we hope after the everlasting joy, which Christ has promised unto all that believe in him.
  • We should put our hope and trust in God alone, and in no other thing. “It is better to trust in God and not in man.” Psalm 118:8.
  • He that trusts in his own heart is a fool, Proverbs 28:26.
  • It is good to trust in God, and not in princes, Psalm 118:9.
  • They shall be like unto the images which they make, and all that trust in them, Psalm. 65:8.
  • He that trusts in his own heart is a fool, Proverbs.28:26.
  • Cursed be the man that trusts in man, Jeremiah 17:5.
  • “Bid the rich men of this world, that they trust not in their unstable riches; but that they trust in the living God.” I Timothy 6:17.
  • It is hard for them that trust in money, to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Luke 18:25.
  • Well are they that trust in God, and woe to them that trust not in him.
  • “Well is that man that trusts in God, for God shall be his trust.”
  • They shall rejoice that trust in you; they shall ever be glad, and you will defend them.”

Of Charity

Charity is the love of your neighbor. The rule of charity is this: Do as you wouldst be done to: for Christ regards all alike, the rich, the poor, the friend and the foe, the thankful and unthankful, the kinsman and stranger.

A Comparison between Faith, Hope, and Charity.

  • Faith cometh of the word of God; hope cometh of faith; and charity springs from them both.
  • Faith believes the word; hope trusts after that which is promised by the word; charity doth good unto her neighbor, through the love that she has to God, and gladness that is within herself.
  • Faith looks to God and his word; Hope looks to His gift and reward; charity looks on her neighbor’s profit.
  • Faith receives God; hope receives His reward; charity loves her neighbor with a glad heart, and that without any respect of reward.
  • Faith pertains to God only; hope to His reward; and charity to her neighbor.

Hamilton, Patrick. Patrick’s Places: Patrick Hamilton’s Distinction Between Law and Gospel, Faith and Works. Ed. Don Matzat. 2019. Kindle Edition.

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Epiphany, February 10, 2019 – “We’re Not Worthy!” (Isaiah 6:1-8)

“Isaiah’s Vision” from Luther’s Bible, 1534 (Lucas Cranach)

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

In the name of Jesus, amen.

When it comes to comedies, I personally enjoy films that have a good degree of absurdist humor mixed into them, and one of the weirder ones in my list of favorites is 1992’s Wayne’s World starring Mike Meyers and Dana Carvey as the eponymous Wayne Campbell and his hapless buddy Garth Algar, respectively.  In probably the best scene in the film, circumstances find Wayne and Garth being given backstage passes to see Alice Cooper and his band play in Milwaukee.  When they go to meet Alice (or Vincent Damon Furnier, to use his Christian name), he gives them a short spiel on the history of Milwaukee, leaving Wayne and Garth confused and speechless.  When Wayne and Garth figure they’d better get going, Alice stops them. “No, no, no,” he says, “stick around, hang out with us.” Wayne and Garth, overwhelmed by star power, fall to their knees and prostrate themselves in a worshipful pose before him, crying “We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”, while Alice holds forth his hand toward them, like some sort of Louis XIV in black mascara, entreating his subjects to kiss his ring.

Wayne’s World, 1992

“We’re not worthy!”  Goofy behavior in a goofy scene in an even goofier film, but the sentiment expressed by Wayne and Garth in the face of greatness brings to mind what Isaiah says to God in this morning’s Old Testament reading.  “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Is 6:5).

“Isaiah’s Vision” (12th Century), Meister der Predigten des Mönchs Johannes Kokkinobaphos,
Bibliothèque nationale de France

Isaiah is not overwhelmed by star power when he says this— no, instead, he is overwhelmed by the glory of God and the fear it induces.  Imagine the scene. Isaiah finds himself in the Lord’s throne room— he calls it the Temple, but whether or not Isaiah finds himself in the Holy of Holies or in heaven is unclear— regardless, Isaiah is standing before God, who is seated in front of him, the train of his robe filling the space.  And positioned above God’s head are the seraphim, six-winged angels that perhaps look like fiery serpents, calling back and forth to one-another in booming voices. They cry, “kadōsh kadōsh kadōsh YHWH Sabaōth, m’lo chol ha’aretz  ch’vōdō” – “holy, holy, holy is YHWH of Hosts, the earth is full of his glory,” and their words shake the room and cause it to be filled with smoke.  It’s an apocalyptic scene that calls to mind descriptions of the Day of the Lord in other Old Testament prophets, especially Amos and Zephaniah, who proclaim that God’s judgment will be accompanied by quaking, darkness, and fire.  Says the Lord in Zephaniah 1, “The great day of the Lord is near…A day of wrath is that day, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements….In the fire of his jealousy all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth” (Zeph 1:14, 15-16, 18b).  With this smoke and shaking, is God going to mete out his judgment?  It’s a scary place, the throneroom of YHWH, and Isaiah shouldn’t even able to witness this alive.  No man living can withstand seeing God in all his glory, and yet here he is, seeing God face-to-face in his fullness.  What does God want with him? How can he stand here?

“King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy” (1639), by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Old Masters Drawing Cabinet, Chatsworth House

In the face of God’s pure glory, seeing his Lord as he is (some commentators even think the three “holies” refer to three persons of the Trinity), Isaiah becomes painfully aware of his inadequacy.  In fact, even more than that, he becomes painfully aware of his sinfulness and his uncleanness. He knows that God cannot abide sin— he cannot let sin coexist with his glory and ultimate goodness. Sin must be wiped out, and Isaiah, a sinful Judaean among sinful Judaeans, is on the target list.  His people had forsaken God and did not wish to hear God’s word for them or follow him. Isaiah, prior to this meeting with God, may have been like them in that way, too. King Uzziah, who had died the year that Isaiah received this vision, had been struck with leprosy when he tried to usurp the authority of the priests and attempted to offer incense to God in the temple.  If anyone was a good mascot for a people of unclean lips, it was he. His father, Amaziah, had set up the idols made by the people of Seir and worshiped them, and King Ahaz, Uzziah’s grandson, even burned his own sons as offerings to the idols of the Ba’als. The people saw their kings’ examples and copied them, following, as the chronicler says, “corrupt practices” and seeking false gods (2 Chron 27:2).  The kings and people of Judah were wicked in thought, word, and deed. How could Isaiah, one of their number, ever hope to stand before God, being party to such wicked inclinations? Had God made himself known to Isaiah in this way because Isaiah was going to experience his wrath? “Woe is me!  For I am lost” indeed!

But God has a surprise for Isaiah son of Amoz.  One of the angels, one of the seraphim, flies to the altar and takes a glowing coal from it with a tongs and places it against Isaiah’s unclean lips.  This seraph proclaims to Isaiah: “Behold, this [coal] has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for,” or as it is in another translation, “your sin has been forgiven” (Is 6:7).    Isaiah’s sin no longer counts against him.  It is gone, wiped out, forgotten. He has received God’s forgiveness, and he can stand before the Lord his God without fear.  Furthermore, he can stand before God and God can entreat him to do work that is pleasing to him. In the sight of God, Isaiah is no longer unclean in any sense.  Instead, Isaiah has been justified, he has been made righteous, and he is now worthy to be in God’s presence.  He can do the good work God has set up for him to do as a prophet. No longer does he need to say, “woe is me! For I am lost!” God has saved him from his sins.  Isaiah is found.

“Profeta Isaia” by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740), Castelvecchio Museum

We also, like Isaiah, are members of an unclean generation, and by reason of our sinful natures, we, too, are people with unclean lips and unclean hearts.  Our rulers, however you want to define them, are no moral paragons— we’ve seen enough of that demonstrated in the news concerning state politics this week. Our magistrates try to usurp the place of our priests, legislating new moralities that we are to live out rather than that which is the will of God— I am looking at you New York, and you too, dear Commonwealth.  We may not have made an altar to the Ba’als like Ahaz, but we certainly are trying to offer our sons and daughters as tribute to the god of convenience and eugenics. And we ourselves chase after the false gods of sports, sex, fame, and the almighty dollar. Just this past weekend we all spent a good three hours watching the Superbowl. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy watching football, but we all know why we really watched the game.  It wasn’t for the Pats or the Rams— it was for the advertisements! (And Roy, I think you were cheated since they didn’t include you in the 100 Years of the NFL ad!) We spent three hours waiting for little videos of people trying to sell us stuff to pop up on the screen. Would we were so excited about the word of God or spending time in church. But I digress. The main point I wish to make is that just like the Judaeans, our priorities are confused.  We are inclined to seek for things other than God, to do things contrary to his will, even when we know what he would rather have us do. And think, just think, what would it be like if God were to reveal himself to us, right now, in this place as he did to Isaiah, sitting on the altar, with his robes flowing down the dais and smoke filling the sanctuary? Would any of us measure up to his statutes? Would any of us be worthy of being in his presence? Would any of us be able to stand before him on the basis of our actions and our sinful nature?  Not likely. Certainly, none of us can stand before God in this way on our merits. In our sins, we deserve the sort of destruction Isaiah, Zephaniah, and other prophets foretold.

But we don’t stand before God on our merits.  How could we?  We are not worthy to stand before him in his presence.  Instead, God covers us in his merit in Christ.  God desired to bring humanity back into a right relationship with him and so he became one of us in order to turn a whole species with unclean lips into a people who could live with him.  When Christ died on the cross and rose again on the third day, his sacrifice made a new covenant between God and man. He atoned for the sins of mankind with his death and redefined man’s relationship with God.  Christ’s blood works just like the seraph’s glowing coal— it washes away the stain of sin, bringing purification and righteousness. The promise of Christ’s death and resurrection given to us in faith and in our baptism justifies us before God, just like Isaiah.  Christ makes us his own, and he makes us worthy to stand in the presence of God because he forgives  us our sins.  Even though we are still plagued by sin and its barbs in this life, Christ’s forgiveness declares us “not guilty.”  His righteousness helps us to stand before God without fear.

“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
“The Miraculous Draught of Fish” (1886-1894) by James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Furthermore, Christ doesn’t just make us able to stand in God’s presence by forgiving our sins— he comes to us and invites us to live with and in him.  This is how Christ approaches Simon Peter when he realizes that he is in the presence of God and says “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, o Lord.”  Christ comes to him in spite of his unworthiness, and he invites Peter and his companions to join him— not merely to hang out with him, as does Alice Cooper, but to be his disciples and to be his redeemed children.  This is the invitation Christ gives to us.  He may not call us to necessarily be fishers of men like Peter or Andrew or James and John; he may not call us to be prophets to a people who won’t hear us like Isaiah, but he does call us to be his friends, his brothers and sisters, and his children.  We are all called to be his, and as his we have life and worthiness.

“Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” (1509-1510) by Raphael (1483-1520), Vatican Museums

You know how I earlier asked— perhaps rhetorically—  if you could stand before God like Isaiah, sinners that you may be?  What if I told you that you have done this every time you have come to the altar to receive the Lord’s body and blood?  Our God has forgiven us, calling we who are sinners saints, and invites us to stand before him and receive his gifts to everlasting life.  And when you struggle with sin; when that Old Adam who lives deep in your bones entices you to do that which you know you should not do, remember that God calls you to this table for forgiveness of your sins and the medicine of eternal life.  Run to it! Here, we receive the love of Christ, and he makes us worthy again. He has made you worthy, and in him you are not lost! Amen.