Holy, Holy, Holy 

by the Rev. Paul Nancarrow

This sermon is based on Isaiah 6:1-8.  Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon. 

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.”

Our first reading this morning – Isaiah’s account of his vision of God and his call to be a prophet – is one of my favorite passages in all of scripture, one of my go-to texts in the whole entire Bible. I have been fascinated by the image of the Lord’s robe filling the temple, and the song of the fire-angels, and the thought of kissing a live coal, ever since I first heard this story. And my fascination with it only increased when I learned in seminary that every item in Isaiah’s vision came from the Temple liturgy he was performing at that moment.

Bible scholars say that Isaiah was probably a priest who served in the Temple in Jerusalem. One of the duties of the priests was to burn incense on a special altar that was set up near the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum where the Ark of the Covenant, the Mercy Seat of God, was kept.

The Israelites of course didn’t have any images of God, that was against the commandment – but they did have an image of God’s throne, the Mercy Seat, the lid of the Ark, where God was seated between the cherubim. And they kept the image of the throne in the Holy of Holies, so that they could address their prayers there and be confident they would be heard. Just in front of the Mercy Seat, screening off the Holy of Holies, was a curtain that hung all the way down to the floor, to make a boundary between holy space and ordinary space. And outside the curtain, there was altar set aside for the sole purpose of burning incense.

Now picture the scene: Isaiah is doing the incense ceremony, there is a bed of live coals on the incense altar, the Temple is full of clouds of incense smoke, Isaiah is looking at the curtain, and beyond that he is thinking about the image of throne of God – and suddenly all of these things come alive: the Mercy Seat is no longer empty, but Isaiah sees God enthroned on it and lifted up; the curtain around the Mercy Seat becomes the hem of God’s robe; the incense smoke becomes the clouds and thick darkness that scripture says always surround the presence of God; sparks flying up from the incense fire become fire angels, seraphim, that fly back and forth and praise the Lord; and Isaiah’s own prayers, the words Isaiah himself is speaking, become echoes of the words of the seraphim, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord.”

Suddenly Isaiah’s liturgy of incense is caught up into the liturgy of heaven, suddenly Isaiah’s prayer is joined with the everlasting prayer and praise and song of heaven. Everything in Isaiah’s vision is right there in his real world, but suddenly everything also becomes “realer than real”; suddenly it’s as if the surfaces of things fall back, and reveal an infinite depth of divine reality that creates those things and redeems those things sanctifies those things. Suddenly through his ritual Isaiah sees the truth about his reality: that his reality is surrounded and held and sustained by God’s greater reality.

And imagine what it would be like for us if the words of our liturgy came alive for us this morning, if our ceremonies and rituals opened up for us into a living vision of God. I imagine most of us would be just about as taken aback by it as Isaiah was!

And especially, on this Trinity Sunday, can you imagine the words of the Nicene Creed coming alive, can you imagine the Doctrine of the Trinity becoming for you a vision of God?

Now I know that sounds like a stretch. The Nicene Creed, after all, is a series of declarative statements, of propositional sentences. It is not a vivid narrative full of descriptive details. It is not a lyric poem brimming with emotions and spiritual aspirations. It is not a physical ritual, like Isaiah’s incense, that can stimulate and stir the inward imagination. How could something as dry and boring as the Nicene Creed “come to life”?

But let these words sink in:

  • We believe. How do we believe? Do we believe just with our heads? Or do you give your heart to God? Do you put your trust in Jesus Christ? Do you aim your life in the direction of the Holy Spirit? Those are also meanings of the word “believe.” How does your belief come to life?
  • The Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. When you look at heaven and earth, when you see nature and time and space and creatures – including human creatures! – what creating presence do you feel? Can you catch a glimpse of the vast power and wisdom of God the Creator all around you in your world?
  • Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, God from God, Light from Light. Is that Light of Christ a living thing for you? Can you see the light of Christ shining in the faces of your sisters and brothers all around you? Can you feel the warmth of Christ’s love and light in your own heart?
  • The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. Take a deep breath. Do you feel that breath giving life inside you? Can that feeling open up for you into an awareness of the Eternal Breath, the Eternal Spirit, the Eternal Life that even now holds you and energizes you and makes you more alive?

Let these words sink in – don’t just say them as quickly as you can, don’t just rattle them off when we come to the Creed, but savor them, ponder, them, pray with them, let them sink in – and maybe, just maybe, our ritual can open up, maybe our liturgy can come alive, maybe each of us in our own way can have a vision, can feel the truth, of the Triune God, the God who is above us and beside us and within us, the God who loves us so much that Love comes to us as Transcendent and Incarnate and Immanent. Maybe, just maybe, when we sing the Sanctus in our Eucharist today, our ears will be opened to hear the echo of the seraphim crying HOLY HOLY HOLY to our three-times-holy God.

Isaiah’s incense ceremony opened up into a vision of God who creates and redeems and sanctifies and sends forth. May our Trinity Sunday liturgy open up for us and send us forth to bring God’s creating and redeeming and sanctifying love to all the places we are sent to go. Amen.