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.

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