There’s a lot going on in the Athanasian Creed, isn’t there? Unbegotten and begotten, created and uncreated, persons, and substance, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity. It’s a lot, I know it. But don’t let your eyes gloss over there. Because this stuff isn’t just for pastors, or theologians with Dr. next to their name. That Athanasian Creed is for you because it confesses who God is. He is Father and Son and Holy Spirit. In fact, here’s the thing. And it’s true whether you’re ready for it or not. So here goes. The whole purpose of your life, the very meaning for your whole existence, and life itself is actually to know the Holy Trinity better – and to believe and trust in Him alone.
It all began that day when you were baptized. Baptized right into the name of the Holy Trinity. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. You came to the baptismal font that day with mom and dad, but you left a child of God – joined to a holy family. With God as your Father, the church as your mother, with Christ as your brother, and the Holy Spirit dwelling within you. And then just imagine also all the holy angels at your beckoning call, right now to this very day.
Maybe you’re thinking, That’s all fine and good, Pastor, but I just can’t see all that. It’s all fine for a lofty Sunday sermon, but I’ve got a real life to live down here. With work and responsibilities. So let’s keep our heads out of the clouds, why don’t we, and keep things nice and practical down here.
But just tell that to the prophet Isaiah who lived a real-world life just like you. In our first reading this morning, he’s serving on elder duty at the temple. Somewhere amid the smoke of the incense, the blood of the sacrifices, and the preaching of God’s Word, earth dropped away and heaven became visible. He looked up and saw the divine glory, the Lord, sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up. And the train of His robe filled the whole temple. Honor guard seraphim flanked on either side, they flew and sang to the most Holy Trinity: Holy, Holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth – heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. And at that hymn of the angels’ singing, the earth shook. The temple filled with smoke, as Isaiah stood before presence of the most Holy Trinity.
What’s the point here? Well, so much of the Christian life is recognizing that this world right before us that we see isn’t all there is. And we’ve all got to order our lives according to unseen realities – unseen realities that matter in an ultimate sort of way. And this gets right down to what you might call everyday practical concerns. So pay attention to what that meant for Isaiah when earth dropped away and he stood in the presence of the Triune God.
Because at that moment the most practical concern he had was his deep sinfulness. His impurity in a place that called for perfect holiness. “Woe is me,” Isaiah cried out. “For I am lost. I am sinful. And my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” And at that confession the seraphim angel flew over to Isaiah, with a burning coal taken with tongs from the fiery altar. And pressed it to his lips saying, “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah’s sins were forgiven then and there. All cleansed by the Passion of Christ, who as a coal, according to the flesh, burnt up all our sins on the altar of the cross. And once forgiven, only then was Isaiah so willing and able to proclaim God’s Holy Word to all those around him.
There’s a bit of a contrast this morning in our readings. Because what Isaiah saw this morning Nicodemus fails to see. But the problem isn’t so much with his eyes as it is with his ears. Because he fails to recognize the voice of Him who was enthroned in that temple before Isaiah. Not realizing that the Holy One of Israel, whose robed filled the temple and who was flanked by seraphim angels, now stands before him in the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. There, standing right in front of Nicodemus, is the entire temple and unseen world that Isaiah just briefly beheld.
Nicodemus, smart, intelligent, and scholarly as he was, just couldn’t grasp who Jesus was or what His kingdom was all about. So Jesus points to Baptism. Points to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, foreshadowing His salvation which He would win by going to the cross, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life. Jesus shows Nicodemus and us that HE is the key to unlocking the unseen world and bridging heaven and earth.
That day Nicodemus may have walked away with cloudy vision, unclear about the identity of Jesus and what His kingdom was all about. But God worked faith in his heart. And when our Lord was crucified, Nicodemus who once came to Jesus timid by night, came to Him so boldly in the light of day. He helped take Jesus’ beaten and bloody body down from the cross. He tenderly wrapped Him in a linen shroud, gave Him a burial fit for a king, and laid Him in the earth.
For a fella who preachers commonly pick on for just not getting it, not seeing, and not understanding, the truth is, no one got it better than Nicodemus! Because he was first to get his hands on the crucified body of our Lord. You might call him the first theologian of the cross, and that’s where the glory of God has always got to be found – at the cross!
So let us learn from him. Isaiah caught a glimpse of the Triune God in his earthly lifetime, but what’s that compared with what you’ve got right here and right now! The crucified and risen Lord before you. The Holy Spirit poured into your hearts. And baptized in His name. That burning coal pressed to Isaiah’s lips wasn’t plain wood, but wood united with fire. And the bread of Holy Communion is not plain bread, but bread united with divinity. And pressed to your sin-parched lips with a chalice of God’s fiery love. To purify you, strengthen you, and fortify you. All so that when you come into the presence of God on that great and final day, you would stand before Him in righteousness and purity forever and sing to the Triune God, “Holy, holy, holy. Heaven and earth of full of Thy glory.” In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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