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.

Sermon for August 19, 2018 – Proper 15, “A Hard Saying” (John 6:51-69)

Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

I recall a time, several years ago, when I was in Castellammare di Stabia, just outside Naples, hunting for a bottle of wine to take to a Fourth of July party that some friends working in Pompeii were putting on.  At the time, I had very little useful Italian (which is still the case), and Neapolitan Italian is not a dialect really suited to first-time learners.  Some Italians consider it to be one of the hardest accents spoken in Italy.  In my quest to find a bottle, I was having trouble finding what someone might think of as “good” wine on the cheap.  Yes, the guy with no sense of smell was trying to find good wine at a low price in a foreign country for other people to drink.  Sounds like a recipe for a potential disaster.

Anyway, I walked into a little corner grocery and saw that they had two varieties of wine in stock–vino bianco, “white wine,” and vino rosso, “red wine.” No labels, just shrink-wrap around the cork to keep the bottles sealed.  That should have cut down on any potential confusion, but when I went to check out at the cash register, I couldn’t understand a word the grocery owner was saying to me.  And when I thought I understood what he was saying, I got it drastically wrong.  I ended up thinking that the wine I was purchasing was €50 a bottle.  I couldn’t believe my ears, but then again, my ears didn’t really know what they were hearing anyway.  I was confused and unsure of what I was I was being told, and I was prepared to give up on the whole venture and take my business elsewhere.

Those who heard Jesus’ words in Capernaum that day were confused about what they were hearing, too.  What he asked of them was horrifying in concept.  How could someone eat the flesh of this man–really to gnaw on it–or drink his blood?  This was supposed to give them eternal life?  And God sent this man to them to be…eaten?  And such eating would save them from their sins?  Sure, he had done miracles for them, fed five thousand of them from only a handful of loaves and fishes.  He was a wonder-worker, possibly the Messiah who would throw the Romans out for good.  But this?  This was too much.  What he was saying was confusing, and more than slightly disturbing.  If he was being literal, the Torah certainly forbade it–cannibalism and the consumption of blood were right out.  But if he wasn’t, what did he mean?  It didn’t make sense. What’s worse, he added confusion to confusion by doubling down on this claim that he was the “bread of life” with his words.  He had spoken a “hard saying.”  Who, indeed, could listen to it?  It was offensive, and they couldn’t understand it.  Or perhaps they could understand it, but they didn’t want to believe it.  It was just too much.

But the hard saying of Jesus is indicative of a hard truth.  Life and death are at stake here–eternal life and eternal death–and Jesus is holding out life to them.  But they desire to have life on their own terms, not his terms.  They want bread and fish, but they don’t want to trust the One who can feed them forever.  They want a mortal king to rule them, not a king who will die for them.  Doing this, they seek death.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  The disciples who could not stomach Jesus’ words would have rather had a Messiah of their own design who asked little of them and gave them much in return, rather than a Messiah who gives them everything but asks them to trust him with every fiber of their being.  They would have preferred a political Messiah rather than one who desired that they entrust him with their souls.  But they could not be saved or have a Messiah on their own terms.  Jesus makes it clear: one can only come to the Father through him, and the Father chooses those who will come to him.  God has favorites, and the disciples might not be them.  The thought was offensive to them.  They wanted God to conform to their wills, to meet their expectations.

Like those disciples who could not tolerate Jesus’ “hard saying,” we often seek to live life on our own terms without trusting God. It’s part of our sinful human condition.  After all, was that not an aspect of Adam and Eve’s first sin?  If God’s going to be a part of our lives, the Old Adam in us wants God to look like us, or to give us precisely what we think we need to live.  Perhaps it’s the desire for those good things in life that causes us to not trust the Lord, what Dr. Norman Nagel calls “the felicity of the ultimate hamburger” or “the happiness that comes with drinking the best wine.”  We want to eat, drink, and be merry, concerned only with the immediate needs of this life–what we eat, what we wear, the car we drive.  We want instant gratification, and our shopping habits now reflect this (Amazon Prime two-day shipping, anyone?).  We don’t want to invest in time for the things we want anymore, and this is perhaps most starkly evident in the way we approach relationships.  Why invest time in getting to know a potential spouse to have and hold, love and cherish, when the Internet’s virtual red-light district is open 24/7 to satisfy our basest lusts, allowing us to reduce others to mere tools for our gratification?  We want to have our cake and eat it, too–we want to trust in ourselves and our own abilities to bring us life and happiness.  Martin Luther, in his explanation of the First Commandment, talks about how anything a person puts his or her trust in becomes a god.  So our Old Adam desires to trust in those fleeting things that bring us fleeting pleasure, but they do not provide lasting comfort or life.  We are still hungry again, and we still thirst.  The manna that the Israelites ate in the desert only fed them for a while.  They still died.

And, just as in our sin we make gods out of our material possessions and basest inclinations, we also make gods out of ourselves.  We desire to be the masters of our own fate, believing in ourselves, not needing God to give us life.  How often has our culture told us that our power lies within ourselves, that we ought to put our faith in humanity, to “believe in ourselves”?  Those of you familiar with Japanese animation may remember Kamina’s stirring speech to Simon the Digger in Gurren Lagann, and even if you don’t remember it, you will recognize the sentiment: “Believe in yourself.  Not in the you who believes in me.  Not the me who believes in you.  Believe in the you who believes in yourself.”  But of course, in making ourselves out to be the authors of our own lives, we cease trusting in the God who gives us life, and we invariably fail, leading to self-disappointment, shame, and despair.  We run the risk of the same despair and failure when we put our faith in other people, other sinful people like us.  Trust not in princes, the Psalmist says, but we always seem to, and are disappointed with the results, regardless of which party we throw our lot in with.  When we cease trusting in Christ, we cannot receive him as he is.  We do not have faith in his promise, and when we do not trust Christ and what he says about himself, we cannot eat of his flesh or drink of his blood.  That is what Jesus means here when he speaks of eating—gnawing on–his flesh and drinking his blood.  To do this is to have faith–it is our response to the gift God has given us in Christ.  But we thrust it away when we make gods of ourselves, and there is no life in us.

Jesus’ hard saying, while revealing the hard truth, nonetheless reveals good news for his hearers in Capernaum, too.  God may have favorites, but he has given his Son to them as bread from heaven for the life of the whole world, so that all might trust in him.  And what’s more, the faith to accept this gift is a gift from God himself!  “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father,” Jesus tells his disciples.  They do not have to try to accept Christ by the power of their own wills, indeed they can do nothing to believe in him.  They cannot make a personal decision for Jesus.  They simply need only trust that this, the Son of Man, was sent from heaven to sacrifice his flesh for the life of the world.  Trusting in Jesus, they may say with Peter “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.”  Believing, they may eat and drink Christ and abide with him forever.  He has not died yet for their sins, but his promise carries the full benefit of his work on the cross to come.  While many of the disciples cannot accept what Jesus has told them, Peter and the rest of the Twelve (excepting Judas) know and understand who Jesus is.  They trusted him, and so they have been given life.

And the life they have been given has been given to us, too.  This is the beauty of it.  As Jesus says in verse 63, “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”  We affirm this when we recite from the catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”  We cannot choose to eat and drink what Christ offers us unless we have faith, and faith is God’s gift to us.  It is not on us to have faith.  We do not need to trust in ourselves or approach God of our own volition–doing so is fruitless and demonstrates a lack of trust in him.  Instead, the Father brings us to his Son, and we have life in him through our trust in his work.  And unlike the disciples at Capernaum that day nearly 2000 years ago, we have seen the completed work of Christ.  We have experienced his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.  We have seen his promise fulfilled, and we now receive life and forgiveness of sins through eating his body and blood, not just by faith, but in, with, and under the bread and wine we receive here at the altar in the Lord’s Supper.  His gift of faith feeds us in body and soul, to life everlasting.  Though the world and our sinful nature still tempt us, though our sinful Old Adam still desires earthly things and godhood for ourselves, Christ has promised that so long as we trust in him, he will raise us up with him on the last day.  We shall abide in him, and he in us.  We shall live forever because God the Father has given us the gift of faith to come to him.  There is no confusion here!

To return to my opening story, I eventually did come to an understanding with the grocery owner and I purchased a bottle of white wine for that most glorious price of €1,50.  I didn’t know if it would be any good, but when we opened it that evening and drank it, we discovered that it was indeed very good, perhaps slightly sweetened by the price.  I came to trust what the grocery store owner was telling me and purchased it for very little, and was able to enjoy a fine wine on a warm summer’s evening with new friends.  But the passing joy of good wine on an Italian summer night pales in comparison to the eternal joys of the finest wine that Christ gives us in himself, in both his words of spirit and life, and in his sacraments which he has given to us to feed us.  Let us trust in him always so that we might continually receive these gifts and confess with Peter that he indeed is the Holy One of God who has the words of eternal life for us.  Amen.

And now, may the peace which surpasses all understanding guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.