Posted on June 11th, 2017
June 11, A+D 2017
I love the Athanasian Creed. The mystery of the Trinity – three coequal persons who each are God and yet there is one God – and then the mystery of the incarnation, that God the Son assumed our human flesh into His person – the more we know the less we understand; all we are left with is adoration.
And yet I find the Athanasian Creed terrifying. It demands that not only my mind be conformed to God’s Word, but my life and deeds too. The books will be opened and I will be judged. Those who have done good will go into everlasting life; those who have done evil will go into everlasting condemnation. It’s tempting to condemn these words from the Creed as unLutheran, contrary to the doctrine of grace. And yet those words come straight from the lips of Jesus. There’s no getting around them.
So which are you? Are you among those who have done good? The more I know myself, the more I see how much evil there is in everything I do; every word, every glance, every interaction with others, every moment alone, reveling in my pride or sinking into my despair. “Every intention of man’s heart,” says the Word of God, “is only evil all the time” (Gen. 6.5).
We are those who have done evil. That’s the realization of Isaiah in today’s first reading. Isaiah is standing in the earthly Divine Service, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and he sees a vision of the heavenly Divine Service going on continually. Heaven opens to Isaiah, and it is both beautiful and terrifying.
He sees seraphim, spirits of fire. No gentle angels, powerful energies flow forth from them, and they are unlike anything seen in this world. And their immense power bows to the one whose power is infinite and glory beyond compare.
They sing a song of the end of creation, the goal, which they experience now, and we see but dimly. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” We do not see the earth full of God’s glory. We see it full of man’s vainglory, his attempts at pride that end in destruction.
Holy Isaiah does not feel holy. He is confronted with his sin. Before God, he expects judgment, death. “Woe is me! For I am lost,” which can also mean “undone” – the confrontation with God cannot end well, Isaiah believes.
Whether you feel death, or failure, or that your life is worthless, or you hear the commandments and know how far you fall short, there is something for you in Isaiah’s words, “Woe is me; I am undone.”
Sin costs. That’s what the altar showed. It was not a table, it was a fire, where both cooking and destruction happened. Some food was put there to be grilled, roasted, baked; other food was put there to be entirely consumed. Entire animals were burnt to ashes on the altar, along with flour, and oil. Mixed with incense, there was an vibrant cloud of smoke that would rise up, beautiful with a powerful mixture of smells, smells of blood and death, and pungent smells mixed with sweet and exotic.
The fire there burned perpetually. And as Isaiah confesses his sin, a seraph, a spirit of fire, takes a burning coal from the fire and touches it to Isaiah’s mouth. Something comes from the altar that takes away sin. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
This anticipates what Jesus does for you this day. Something comes from the altar and purges your sin. It does not burn, for our Lord Jesus felt the burning agony in His body. In today’s Gospel (John 3:1-17), Jesus invites you to believe in Him.
Believing in Jesus is no intellectual exercise, nor even a simple leap of the will. Our belief in Jesus means we stand like Isaiah before the Lord’s altar and say, “I am judged; though the church see me as holy, however the world perceives my actions or character or talent, I know that there is One who sees me for who I am. He knows the darkest thoughts of my mind, the wicked impulses that run through my veins. He sees me, and yet to my astonishment, loves me anyway.”
That’s what it is to be baptized. What the Father said to Jesus at the baptism, He now says to Sam and Charlie and all the baptized: “You are My beloved son; in you I am well-pleased.”
He loves us!
It’s not hard to believe about a baby; but we soon grow out of that into tantrums, trauma and drama and long years of ingratitude. Yet God looks on us at our dirtiest, covered in excrement, crying for no reason and every reason, confused and angry and sad, and still He says, “You are My beloved son; I adopted you, and you are Mine; you make me very glad!”
Then at the proper time, He invites us to receive solid food from His table.
He takes away my sin, all the evil I have done, the evil deeds by which I should be judged – all this evil He erases by inviting me to His altar. Something comes from the altar, but it does not burn. He gives me glad food by which He joins me to Himself.”
Dear friends, come with me to the altar of Jesus, and hear the words spoken to Isaiah as being also for you: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” +INJ+