On the First Sunday after Pentecost the western Christian Church celebrates not an event nor a person but a doctrine, a mystery, namely, that the one, true God has revealed Himself in sacred scripture as a trinity of persons identified with the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I suppose there is very much about God that we human beings could never comprehend or understand much less explain, even if He were to tell us. But this mystery—that there is only one true God, one God, who, yet, can be known and must be known and worshiped as a trinity of persons—while beyond human ability to do anything but describe and believe if not understand, must be acknowledged and held by anyone who would be saved. This is, after all, the language of the ecumenical creed called the Athanasian:
Whoever desires to be saved must,
above all, hold the catholic faith….
And the catholic faith is this,
that we worship one God in Trinity and
Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the
persons nor dividing the substance….
…so that in all things…
the Trinity in Unity and Unity
in Trinity is to be worshiped.
Therefore, whoever desires to be saved
must think thus about the Trinity….
This is the catholic faith; whoever does
not believe it faithfully and firmly
cannot be saved.
Now one would and should expect the scripture readings assigned for this celebration to be among those that mention either or both the unity of God and the Trinity. Indeed, the Gospel account of our Lord’s nighttime conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-17) speaks of God who sent His Son and the necessity of being born anew, from above, by water and the Holy Spirit. The reading from Acts (Acts 2:14a, 22-36) quotes St. Peter’s sermon of how God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, who, after His suffering and death, ascended to the right hand of God and has sent the Holy Spirit upon His disciples. There are, of course, many other “proof texts” of the Trinity and yet the undivided unity of God in the Bible.
I would like to, however, draw your attention to the Old Testament reading for this day from the prophet Isaiah. For, though it does not explicitly mention the three Persons of the Trinity, it does describe God as having a hidden side and yet the drive to carefully reveal Himself to humans in order to have a special, saving relationship with us like no other creature of His creation. It is the revelation of the heavenly worship that goes on continually, as we say, “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” behind the scenes even of the teasing glimpse we are allowed in the liturgical spaces and symbols of our church buildings. Isaiah’s vision which he received on that day of his calling to be a prophet of God has thus been enshrined in the liturgy of the Church not only in the Sanctus of the Mass or Eucharist but also in the morning prayer canticle, the Te Deum, and anywhere the Trisagion, the thrice-holy call of the eternal song of the angels is repeated: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth,” the Lord of hosts, “the whole earth is full of his glory.” And it is interesting how in Isaiah’s record the angels sing “the whole earth” is full of his glory, whereas the Holy Church of the New Testament expanded that to include, now, “heaven and earth are full of Your glory!”
Let us look more carefully at this text.
“In the year that King Uzziah died,” refers to the year 740 b.c. That year seemed to have continued the peace and prosperity and economic boom of the first half of the 8th century. The second half would prove the opposite, however, and it all began here with the death of a pretty powerful king, Uzziah, also called Azariah (2 Ki. 14:21). Isaiah’s vision begins with the reminder that, though the earthly king dies, God the Lord is still on the throne, He is the true King.
“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.” Though God is in heaven (high and lifted up), the train of his robe, the symbol of His Office as King of the Universe filled the earthly temple. Here already is sacramental, incarnational language of the eternal God making Himself available, even visible to human eyes.
“Above him stood the seraphim.” These are one order, rank or division of angels revealed in scripture. That they are pictured flying, literally darting back and forth, calling to one another, is to describe worship not as a boring thing but as an active, busy, dare I say interesting, captivating, dynamic and dramatic activity! It does not consist only of what the eye beholds of very human activity (or inactivity!), but of what the eye of faith perceives as revealed through the Word of God.
“And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.’” The holiness of God is His total “otherness” from the perspective of sinful man, His separateness (which is what sin does: separate), His purity of being. That it is a three-fold holiness hints at the triune nature of God as well as the infinite holiness that super abounds. But now, while saying God is totally other and separate from man, the very next line describes His drive and desire to share His holiness in a relationship with man.
“The whole earth is full of his glory.” The “glory” of God here is not simply His majesty. It is not primarily a “first article” thing. You know the first article of the creed, “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator or maker of heaven and earth.” Yet this is how the word “glory” seems to be used the majority of the time in the so-called “contemporary” songs, whether they be written recently or, as with the hymn written by Carl Boberg in 1885, “How Great Thou Art,” seems to say. “Inspired by the beauty of the Swedish meadows and lakes after a summer thunderstorm…the first two stanzas are reminiscent of the psalmist’s words, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands’ (Ps. 91:1)” [Lutheran Worship: Hymnal Companion, p. 522]. And so you hear words like “majesty” or “awesome” that describe not God’s grace, salvation and love, or the central doctrine of the justification of the sinner by God’s grace through faith in Christ, but only His raw, almighty, creative power. But if all we had was a “first article” faith, the unanswered question would always be, “what keeps this almighty God from just blowing me away in his wrath?”
The “glory” of the Lord is, rather, that love of His that drives Him to bridge the gap, to interact, to redeem and save His fallen creation. This is second article language of salvation through the Son of God.
Who was it, after all, that is, which Person of God was it that Isaiah saw with his eyes that day in the temple? Of God the principle is clear from scripture, “man shall not see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). God must veil Himself or hide Himself from the direct vision of man in order that man may see or interact with Him and not die, but live. That veil can be in a pillar of cloud or fire, a burning bush or a rock, or flesh and blood taken on of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity that Isaiah saw that day. As he said, literally, “Oy veh!” “Woe is me…for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” He knew he should have died. But he didn’t. Why?
“Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my lips and said, ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; and your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.’” Here is Law and Gospel. Here is confession and absolution. Here is the justification of the sinner by God’s grace, initiated by God, through faith in God’s Word of promise. Whether in the Old Testament or the New, the forgiveness of sins is pronounced on the basis of the full redemption and payment for sin that would be (from Isaiah’s perspective) and was (from our perspective) the result of the innocent suffering and death of Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
It is to this dynamic, dramatic worship of the Triune God that the Word of God enshrined in the liturgy, symbolized by crucifix, paraments, icon, altar, pulpit and font invites us, confiscates us; a worship seen and perceived and participated in only with the eyes of faith, and faith expressed with hearts and hands and voices to the God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Receive His forgiveness and absolution again today anew, and sing His praise “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.