“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
About five seconds into preparing for this week’s sermon, I immediately started thinking and couldn’t stop thinking about Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. And that’s not because of the movie’s theological precision or amazingly realistic special effects but because (spoiler alert!) when the Nazis open the Ark of the Covenant they all end up melted or zapped by the overwhelming (and fairly creepy) brilliance and splendor of God’s glory. Of his holiness.
When we close our eyes and listen to our OT lesson this morning, as we watch Isaiah look around the heavenly throne room, that same sense of ominous power arises. Smoke billows around us. The hem of God’s robe sparkles in the flicker of candlelight. And the seraphim — these fiery, flying angelic beings — sing with so much conviction that their voices shake the foundations of the temple — and we can’t help but be shaken, too.
We cover our eyes instinctually and take a step back. We know to our core that we aren’t supposed to be there. We’ve wandered into something too big for us, something dangerous, something otherworldly and beyond our understanding. And when Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I have seen the King, the LORD of hosts,” a part of us feels the same way.
But why? Why does he say that? Why does Isaiah, upon seeing the beauty and splendor of God cry out in fear for his life? And why do we feel the same? How can we be so uncomfortable, so afraid in the presence of God, when we know that he has made us and that our hearts are restless until they rest in him?
Isaiah knew that to see God revealed in his might is a death sentence — because that which is sinful cannot survive that which is perfectly holy. The stain of our sin, the selfishness of our hearts, separates us from encountering God, enjoying God as he is. And so, like a blade of grass that scorches under the bright light of the sun, we wither before the holiness of God. “Woe is me, I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”
Can we face God and live? No. God’s holiness must and will consume us. And yet such is his grace.
“Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said, ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”
God’s holiness is a consuming fire; but just as fire kills, it also makes way for new life.
When Nicodemus encounters the presence of God in the face of Jesus, he, too, learns that those who would enter God’s kingdom must die. Jesus says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The life you live now, Jesus tells him, must die and must be born anew for you to come into the kingdom. And Nicodemus doesn’t understand — who would? “How can these things be?” he asks. And Jesus responds, “This is the way: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The light of the glory of God, the living coal of his mercy and judgment, has entered the world; and he will show us our sin, show us what God’s holiness cannot abide. But God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, to call it guilty and leave it at that. He sent his Son into the world so that all might be saved through him. That all who hear the Spirit’s call might be baptized not only into Christ’s death, but into Christ’s life.
When we enter the waters of baptism, we encounter God’s judgment, his fiery love that will settle for nothing less than a renewed relationship between him and us. But we also encounter his mercy, we encounter the holiness that undoes and then renews, that kills and then revitalizes. When the name of the Triune God is spoken over us at the fount, we are washed, dressed in white, and brought into the very presence and fellowship of God, where we can join with one voice in the angelic chorus: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” AMEN.