Holy, Holy, Holy!

Isaiah 6:1-8 (John 3:1-15)

You hear a lot about God’s presence. Sometimes people will talk about feeling God’s presence in some event or service. In some sense, that can be understood correctly. For instance, if someone almost dies in a car crash, surely that person, if he or she is a Christian, will recognize God’s mercy in sparing him or her. The fact is, though, that outside of God’s Word and Sacraments (and the Christian and his or her experience shaped by and through them), God is present with sinners in only a way that terrifies. Isaiah experienced that in our first lesson.

What was Isaiah’s reaction to God’s presence? It was the only reasonable reaction someone keenly aware of his sinfulness and sins can have. Isaiah said, “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!” Isaiah knew that he could not stand in God’s presence and live, not with his sinful lips and eyes and heart and mind.

Do we still have that sense of sinfulness and sin? I pray we do, but I know I often don’t. Do we blush? Do we see our words and thoughts and deeds for what they are? Do we see ourselves for who we are? It’s a terrifying thing, but that’s what God hidden and the law’s accusation leave us with: terror.

How is the LORD described here? The seraphim sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!”And that’s what terrified Isaiah. He wasn’t holy at all, definitely not three times over like our Triune God. He was unclean, and that doubly so. Isaiah had a sense of sin, and so must we. Isaiah knew what he’d thought and said and done, knew who he was, and so must we. And what drove it home to Isaiah was this stark revelation of who God was: holy and the LORD of hosts.

That’s the problem. God is holy and we can never be holy, no matter how hard we try. We can maybe sin less, but we cannot become sinless, not on our own. To be holy is to have no sin, and hope’s of that sort are dashed at conception, before we are even born, because we are sinful from that moment—we bear unclean lips even before they can speak. And that’s where our John’s Gospel comes into the picture. We were born sinners, struck out already at birth, and so our only hope is to be born again, which is where the Blessed Trinity comes in, and indeed impresses His holy name—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—upon us.

What did Jesus tell Nicodemus must happen for a man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” And he was serious. There was no joking or metaphor here. Jesus really meant what He said. We must be born again. We need a new Father, a new Brother, a new Spirit, a new name, identity, and inheritance. If you’ve tried hard to reform your life and failed, tried hard to become a new or better person and failed, it’s no wonder. You were born and bound to fail. You were born bound by and in sin. You must be born again.

But how, right? That’s no easy task. In fact, it’s an impossible task. It is like creating something out of nothing. But nothing is impossible with God, and He is good at creating perfection out of the most unfit or even nonexistent materials. Nicodemus wondered at Jesus’ answer, as well we might, and so Jesus explained Himself. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

In Baptism we have been born again. In Baptism sinners are made saints, failures are immersed in Christ’s accomplished work on the cross. In Baptism the Father adopts you as His own, the Spirit enters into you through the waters and works faith in your heart, and Christ’s merits are applied to you, so that what He is you are declared and what you are is taken away, having been taken upon Christ Himself in His passion. And that is not to say that you will sin no more. The old Adam is a stubborn fool and desperately treads water, clinging to your flesh until the grave. But that is why we return to the waters of Baptism every time we confess our sins and are absolved, every time we go to God for mercy and receive it with the confidence of faith.

A seraph took a coal from the LORD’s altar, touched Isaiah’s lips, and proclaimed him clean. The seraph said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” The same coal that cleansed Isaiah’s lips opened those very same lips to proclaim God’s mercies. And the same happens here. Our Lord’s Body and Blood touches the lips of those who have been instructed and commune, repentant of their sins, and cleanses them and opens their lips to sing His praises and spread abroad the good news of His mercies.

Our God is holy and we are not—not by our first birth. And yet through His Word and Sacraments God makes us new creations. We are born again in Baptism.  We are cleansed in the Lord’s Supper. We are declared His own through His Word. Approach God, then, not on your own, or according to your own notions, and definitely not with impenitent or unashamed sin, but in Christ, according to His Word, through His means of grace, and in humility. In that way who you have been dies and who Christ died and rose to make you begins and manifests itself in your words, thoughts, and actions, which remain imperfect in this life, and are pleasing to God our Father through the Son and by the Spirit nonetheless.

Wade Johnston

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