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The Thrice Holy God (Isaiah 6.1-7)

The Holy Trinity

“The Thrice Holy God”
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

Isaiah 6.1-7

30 May 2021



This festival of the Holy Trinity speaks about who and what God is—his essence—what he reveals about himself, who God is in Himself. One does not prove the Holy Trinity. The Holy Trinity simply is. It is not proven by reason or by any other device. We try to illustrate it, like this historic oculus above the altar, but even this device is not a proof; it is a confession independent of any kind of proof. We confessed that mystery of the Holy Trinity in the words of the Athanasian Creed.

God presented himself to Isaiah in a vision which simply overwhelmed the prophet. In every Divine Service what Isaiah heard and saw we sing in the Sanctus.

קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ קָדוֹשׁ יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: with Westminster Hebrew Morphology. (1995). (Is 6:3). Stuttgart.

are the words Isaiah heard in the original Hebrew.

Those words surround that oculus above the altar. “Heilig, Heilig, Heilig ist der Herr Zebaoth” reads the German of our forefathers. How appropriate that it is placed high above this altar! The light shines from above through the oculus—the eye—onto this altar. It is entirely fitting that we should consider Isaiah’s vision today. Week after week we sing the Sanctus and I imagine that we seldom look up at those words of confession, “Holy, Holy, Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth.

Sabaoth should not be confused with the term Sabbath, the last day of the week. The word should be pronounced Tsebaoth. The German has the correct pronunciation! In English we translate Sabaoth as “hosts,” a term we should use to understand “armies” in most instances. God calls himself the “God of armies” and we should understand it not only of the armies of angels but of the entire Creation. All Creation belongs to him. It is a very far-reaching concept, even to the holy estates of the Second Table of the Law—parent and child, master and servant, husband and wife. Luther said,

But God created all these creatures to be in active military service, to fight for us continually against the devil, as well as against men, and to serve us and be of use to us. Luther’s works, vol. 1: Lectures on Genesis: Chapters 1-5. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 1, p. 74). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Of particular comfort is Luther’s assertion that God will not allow the estate of marriage or any of the others to cease. In a day when it seems that the whole world has conspired against God and his holy orders, it is good to behold Isaiah’s vision. These earthly “hosts” are full of his glory and God will protect them to the end of this age.

Every Christmas—and whenever I need an uplifting moment!—I listen to Michael Praetorius’ [1571-1621] Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning. If you’ve never heard it, you should[!] because it presents—in my humble opinion—the most glorious Sanctus you’ll ever hear. Praetorius based it on Luther’s text and tune. It begins simply with one Seraph calling to the other, lightly accompanied with instruments. As it progresses in rhymed couplets, more voices and more instruments [flutes, trombones, strings, lutes] are added and the antiphonal voices—the Seraphim—respond faster and faster with “Holy is God the Lord of Sabaoth.” Back and forth they go three times [the Holy Trinity!] in an increasing tempo. “Holy! Holy! Holy!” Just when the listener thinks the climax has come, there is a short quieter interlude. And then, then! — The music and voices get louder and louder until every voice is singing and every instrument is playing and every stop on the organ is pulled and it seems as though the “foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called.” One is treated to a massive sensory experience! As Luther paraphrased Isaiah’s words,

The beams and lintels trembled at the cry,

And clouds of smoke enwrapped the throne on high. [LSB 960].

The very foundations of heaven shook and the majesty of God was hidden in clouds of smoke. The cloud that stood before the tabernacle in the wilderness on Israel’s journey to the Promised Land was the visual proof of God’s presence among his people. We often reenact that on the high festivals with the cloud of incense. It reminds us of the Real Presence and holiness of the Trinity! This Sanctus is the musical climax of the Service of the Sacrament. It is fitting that the foundations of this sanctuary should shake and tremble!

Isaiah’s vision is The Thrice Holy One, God in himself, the great Three in One [Dreifaltigkeit in German], in his majestic power and glory! No doubt Isaiah recalled Moses at Sinai when God appeared to him a thick cloud and warned that no person should come near the smoking mountain to see God lest he die. Isaiah reflected on that:

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts”. [Is 6:5].

But it is not just the power and glory of the eternal God which confronts Isaiah. He is also convicted of his unworthiness, his sinfulness. Yet the almighty God sends a seraph with a burning coal with which to cleanse Isaiah’s lips to make him fit to bring the Word of God to Israel, to call them to repentance so that God may forgive them.

We need to know who God is, that there is only one true God and that there can be no other God. How we need to be reminded of who God is, his essence, his almighty power! He is not simply a generic God, a kindly grandfather, but he who sits upon the throne of heaven and commands all his armies, whose face no one can see and live; he is The Thrice Holy One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the ineffable Holy Trinity. Twenty-four times Isaiah calls him “the Holy One of Israel.” There is none other!

The Sanctus is aptly placed in the Divine Service before we kneel for the Our Father and the Words of our Lord instituting the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood for our forgiveness. Here God touches your lips, not with a burning coal, but with the true body and blood of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is your atonement, your forgiveness, “the peace of the Lord,” given for you, poured out for you on Calvary.

If we were to see God in his majestic holiness we would die because we are sinners. Even Moses did not see God’s majesty but God showed him his backside as he passed by, hiding Moses in the cleft of the rock. [Exodus 33.17-23]. Yet, you and I do see the face of God in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary! St. John the Evangelist wrote:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.[John 1:14]

When Christ became incarnate man could see God, clothed in human flesh and blood, yet many despised him. Isaiah testifies of the suffering and dying Christ in the well known chapters 52-53. He is the only true Holy One. You and I not only see him in Christ Jesus, we receive him into our mouths and in a manner that Isaiah never imagined. God become true Man to redeem mankind, to give himself into death for the world’s redemption! He came to dwell in us through his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit brings Christ to you, and so brings the Father to you as well. And so in this Quicunque vult [Latin], “Whoever Wishes to Be Saved,” the opening words of the Athanasian Creed—as it is known among us—we also confess what the Holy Trinity has done and still does to save mankind.

This faith must be believed for one to be saved. Nowhere does the Confession say that one must understand the essence of the Holy Trinity to be saved. In fact, no one could be saved if that were the standard. And so infant children are saved by faith, not by understanding; the mentally handicapped are saved by faith, not by understanding; the genius is saved by faith, not by understanding. In short, all are saved by believing and confessing what no human being can fully comprehend with his intellectual powers.

Faith is necessary for salvation. Nicodemus did not have that. His sins stood in the way and his reason was the outward manifestation of his sin. It’s no different from people who ask us those difficult religious questions. They don’t want to be confronted by their sins, so they hide behind reason. Nicodemus thought that Jesus was asking him to crawl back into his mother’s womb and come out again. Jesus wasn’t asking him to be born again like that, but to be born from above, by God the Holy Spirit creating faith and new life. He needed to be converted.

The world considers all this utter foolishness. It cannot stomach a God who debases himself by becoming man. It cannot admit to a God who allows himself to be crucified as a criminal. That’s why our sanctuary has been vandalized by such deniers.

What does the word “holy” mean? In Hebrew it means “separate, set apart.” קָדוֹשׁ. What stands closest to God was called “most holy” [Leviticus 2.3]. That which was further away was called “common” or “profane.” Holiness does not come from man. You don’t make yourself holy. People sometimes revile Christians by saying, “You think you’re so holy . . .” and then proceed to list that person’s visible sins. Isaiah’s vision makes it clear that holiness comes only from The Thrice Holy God. It is bestowed as a gift in Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion. God justifies the sinner for the sake of Christ and makes you holy. In the Blessed Sacrament Christ not only stands near you, he lives in you with his body and blood. You do not redeem yourself! God places Christ’s holiness in your ears, on your head, in your mouth. The Apostle Paul wrote:

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. [Galatians 2:20]

In today’s Epistle reading the Apostle Paul concludes the mystery of Israel’s salvation with this doxology to The Thrice Holy God:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

34  “For who has known the mind of the Lord,

or who has been his counselor?”

35  “Or who has given a gift to him

that he might be repaid?”

36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. [Ro 11:33–36]

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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