Text: Isaiah 6:1-8 The Holy Trinity
Worship for Sinners
In the name of him who sits enthroned between the Seraphim, dear friends in Christ: I’m sure you’ve seen them in libraries and bookstores, those nearly ubiquitous black and yellow “how to” books that claim to make just about any complex task you might imagine possible and even easy for those of us who are a bit intellectually challenged – or, as they say it, who are dummies. Why, I’ve seen such titles as Auto Repair for Dummies, Computer Programming for Dummies, Musical Composition for Dummies, and many more. Though I haven’t actually seen these titles, I wouldn’t be surprised if they also have Quantum Mechanics for Dummies, Aero-Space Engineering for Dummies and Do It Yourself Brain Surgery for Dummies. I used one of these books once hoping to learn how to do internet web page design; but I have to admit I was too thick-witted to understand it. It’s pretty sad when you discover that a book for dummies is over your head.
Anyway, the reason I mention these books is that somewhere out there, there must be a runaway bestseller called Christian Worship for Dummies, because that certainly seems to be the trend in the Church today. But this book is a little different than the others. Instead of helping people to understand and appreciate the profound meaning, rich symbolism, and timeless beauty of traditional Christian worship as its been practiced by the faithful for nearly two thousand years, this book’s goal is to dumb down what goes on during worship in order to make it appeal to people who don’t really understand the fundamentals of the Christian faith and don’t want to bother to learn. Worse, since the goal is to attract non-Christians and make them feel comfortable and at ease with what’s going on, the emphasis of such dumbed-down worship is not what God has done for us in Christ to free us from sin and its bondage. No, that’s too negative; it makes people feel bad about themselves. Instead, this kind of worship reinforces and encourages people to be comfortable with who and what they are right now. It steers them toward all the positive things they can do to please the Lord and live happier and more fulfilling lives. So, out with the confession of sins and the absolution; in with the simple, easy-to-sing praise songs that tell the Lord how much we love him and want to serve him. No more focus on the altar, the font, the lectern and pulpit from which God gives to us; now the center of attention is the praise band and off to its side a humongous screen on which are shown inspiring scenes from nature and a glitzy Power Point presentation that goes along with the short inspirational stories and motivational talks the worship leader inserts between the band’s performances. Instead of a pastor in a white robe representing the righteousness of Christ that covers our sin leading the congregation through very reverent, formal worship, it’ll be a guy wearing shorts, sandals, and a loud floral print Hawaiian shirt wandering around holding a cup of coffee while he chit chats with you as if he were at your backyard barbeque. And instead of reading Scripture and unraveling the mysteries of the Kingdom of God therein contained, he’ll be telling you how you can better cope with stress or make the most of your marriage.
That’s what the book Worship for Dummies must be about – if in fact somebody had actually written it. I’m sorry to say that the real situation is far worse. In truth there are dozens, perhaps hundreds of books just like that causing shelves in Christian bookstores and pastors’ libraries to sag with their unholy weight. And there are any number of self proclaimed church growth experts (the kind of people who write these books) who, for a substantial fee, offer to come into your congregation and help you, the customer, transform it into the kind of church that consumers want. And what consumers want is not the spiritual equivalent of a nutritionally balanced and artfully prepared seven course, sit down, fine meal. What they want is what’s offered at the McDonald’s drive through—never mind what they really need. And I’m sad to say that there are congregations in our own church body that have already succumbed to this dumbed-down, McDonald’s-ificaton of their worship. And if some of our leaders have their way, many more will follow them.
The trouble is that by feeding “customers” what they want rather than what they need in a spiritual sense, you don’t produce healthy Christians. If you practice worship for dummies, that’s what you end up with: spiritual dummies – with clogged arteries. But Christian worship isn’t for dummies. Nor is it for consumers. It’s for sinners. It’s for those who have rebelled against their Creator. It’s for those whose minds are darkened, whose hearts are corrupt, and whose lips are unclean – and who for those reasons are unable even to begin to understand their spiritual needs. It’s for those who by nature desire things that are not good and wholesome for their souls. It’s for those who falsely believe that they have something good in and of themselves to bring to the Lord.
And for these reasons it’s a terrible mistake for us – any of us – to decide what worship of the Triune God should or shouldn’t be. It’s for us to listen to what he has to say about it. And it just happens that we get the Lord’s own description of what worship for sinners ought to be in today’s Old Testament reading.
There the prophet Isaiah gets a glimpse of the normally unseen spiritual reality that happens whenever and as often as the Lord’s people gather in his name. In Old Testament times, the Lord named a specific location, the temple in Jerusalem, to be the place where he would meet with his chosen people. Today that temple is us. The Scripture says that we are the living stones of the house in which God dwells on earth. And as such, what Isaiah saw in his vision is what’s going on here among us right now.
And what does he see? The Lord himself, sitting on a throne high and exalted. That’s the center and focus of everything. It’s a sight too wonderful for the prophet to express in words. He makes no attempt to describe the Lord’s actual appearance, saying only that the sweeping train of his robe fills the temple. But what you’re struck with is the prophet’s sense of awe. Here is the God of the whole universe graciously condescending to make himself available and approachable to lowly people on earth. Have you ever stopped to consider what a tremendous thing that is? How it is that he who is almighty, eternal, and all knowing even bothers with us at all? It defies comprehension – and yet it’s true.
Attending the Lord on all sides are the six winged seraphim. They are angelic beings of the highest order, and their name literally means the “burning ones”. The indication is that their appearance is as fire, their wings and bodies translucent and glowing like flames, and casting off warm light of red, yellow, and orange hues. And what’s fascinating is that these angels who are ever present with the Lord share Isaiah’s sense of reverent awe. You’d think that being with the Lord always as they are, the novelty might wear off after a while; but no, they never lose their sense of amazement and wonder. And even these beings who are perfect in every sense dare not gaze directly upon the glory of the Lord, using as they do two of their six wings to cover their faces. With two wings they also cover their feet. There’s a message for us there too. In the ancient world a person’s feet were considered unclean – after all, they were pretty much always dirty from contact with the ground. And because of that, people had a general sense of shame about their feet. You did your best to not offend anyone with them. Even today in Arab cultures to show someone the bottom of your shoe, sandal, or foot is considered an insult of the worst kind. But here’s the point: even the angels who are sinless and whose feet don’t touch the ground cover them in modesty before the Lord. How much more should we who are by nature sinful and unclean come before the Lord in humility and self conscious awareness of our wretchedness? Finally, with two wings the seraphim are hovering around the Lord. It suggests that they are ever ready and willing at a moment’s notice to carry out any instructions they might receive to do the Lord’s bidding.
And as they stand at the ready, they worship, crying out to one another in responsive verse, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” The thrice repeated “holy” immediately reminds us that the Lord our God exists as three distinct persons sharing the one divine essence – which admittedly is hard for us to understand because there’s nothing else we can compare him to. But there’s more going on here: to repeat an adjective three times is the way to express the superlative in the Hebrew language. So what these archangels are saying is that the Lord is the most holy of all. He is completely separate, unique, and unlike anything that belongs to the created order. And yet he graciously chooses to interact with us and let us know him as our kind and benevolent Father. It really is incredible. They then refer to him as the “God of hosts” or as it’s sometimes stated “God of Sabaoth”. This speaks of the Lord as the commander of a vast army of powerful angels. And this tells us two things. First, that his might has no limits; and secondly, that there’s a war going on – a war that he must one day win; but for some reason he has chosen not to end just yet.
The reason becomes apparent in what follows. Isaiah is taking all this in. He sees the Lord’s throne, he’s watching the seraphim, and he’s feeling the floor of the temple rumble and quake at the sound of their voices – and he’s suddenly overwhelmed with crushing sense of his guilt and unworthiness. He cries out in terror, “I’m dead! I’m completely undone—wiped out! For here I am a sinner living among sinners, and my eyes have seen the Lord.” Isn’t that amazing? Here’s a prophet of the Lord; probably as good and godly a man as there has ever been. And he has no doubt been faithfully observing the worship rituals and sacrifices that the Lord himself prescribed for his people; but when he actually sees what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s all too much for him. All he’s aware of is the truth that he is to the core a rotten sinner upon whom the Lord should bring swift judgment and destruction.
But that isn’t what happens. Instead, as Isaiah looks on trembling in fear and expecting at any moment to be cast straight into hell, one of the seraphim flies to the altar on which are burning coals for consuming the sacrifices of blood poured thereon. And it doesn’t say that Isaiah or any other human has offered a sacrifice. No, instead this appears to be a sacrifice that the Lord himself has prepared and offered and that is always present before him so that he who is holy can dwell with those who are not. The angel then takes from this altar a live coal with a pair of tongs. He flies to Isaiah and touches it to the prophet’s unclean mouth. And then the angel speaks the words of pure grace: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is covered.”
Instantly the prophet feels the crushing weight of his guilt lifted. His terror vanishes. Now he, like the angels, is equipped, ready, and willing to do the Lord’s work, so that when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah immediately pipes up, “I’m right here. Send me!”
And this, my friends, is what Christian worship ought to be. You see, the way we worship says a lot about what we understand is going on beyond our capacity to see. If all we are is a group of likeminded individuals who have gathered to talk vaguely about a God who is essentially absent but who might have a few ideas about how we can live our lives better, then it makes perfect sense to ratchet down the reverence and formality and make what we do here more like a town hall meeting or a backyard barbeque. And if we’re trying to attract unbelievers to join us, then it makes sense to make what we do here something that unbelievers will find entertaining and meaningful to them. We can make this a variety show with a religious theme. But if on the other hand we could capture just a fraction of Isaiah’s vision and see the situation as it is – that we are sinners standing in the presence of the holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts, whose glory fills all the earth … well, then things would be different. Then we would be struck with awe when we gather in this holy place, and filled with wonder that the Lord himself bends low and invites us to meet with him here. We’d be struck too with a deep sense of our sin and unworthiness – how we have failed time and time again to love the Lord and keep his commandments. And too we would have a renewed sense of wonder and release when hearing the words of absolution or when receiving the Lord’s Supper – how that God sent his only begotten Son to be our Savior by his suffering and death on the cross, how that sacrifice of love is ever before him, and how that for Christ’s sake our guilt is taken away, and our sins covered when we hear the words and have touched to our lips his true body and blood given for us.
And our response when leaving here would be different too. Because then we would understand that our worship of the Lord consists not so much in what we have done here because the fact is we haven’t done anything. We’ve simply been receiving what the Lord has to give us: his grace and forgiveness in Christ. It’s after having given us these things and having equipped us to do his will that he asks the question, “Whom shall I send?” The point is that our service for him takes place out there. He sends us into the world to serve him by letting the light of Christ shine forth in all that we do. We serve him by doing our work – whatever it is – with honesty and integrity. We serve him by performing our roles in our families, by helping our neighbors in need, and by showing hospitality to strangers. And, of course, we serve him by sharing the good news of what God has done for us in Christ – so that others will understand their need to gather with us here, and learn to see what we have seen by faith: that what we need is not worship for dummies; but worship for sinners. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!