Isaiah 6:1 8
Holy Trinity, Danville
This is Trinity Sunday, but I’m not really going to try to explain the doctrine of the Trinity to you. It’s pretty complicated, as doctrines go, with a lot of ‘i’s to dot and ‘t’s to cross. And it’s a doctrine I love and would die to uphold. But I don’t believe Trinity Sunday is even about the doctrine of the Trinity. Trinity Sunday is about the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There’s a big difference between the doctrine of God and God himself. Doctrines are important. God is more important. God came first, then the doctrine. First the experience, then the interpretation of the experience.
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah, in the eighth century before Christ, had an experience of God which left him marked for life. He had a vision, a vision simultaneously terrible and wonderful, a vision at the same time both horrifying and immensely fulfilling. In his vision, Isaiah was in the temple, only it wasn’t really the temple—you know how it works in dreams; you’re supposed to be in a familiar place but it’s different—Isaiah was in something like the temple in Jerusalem, and he “saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; his train filled the sanctuary.” Above the Lord on his throne were three six-winged seraphs—not exactly the kind of creature you meet every day—shouting God’s praises at each other. “The door posts shook at the sound of their shouting, and the temple was full of smoke” Isaiah said.
If Isaiah was familiar with the psalms, he may have been reminded of Psalm 29, verse 9: “And in the temple of the Lord, all are crying ‘glory!’” What a sight! We can scarcely imagine it. To see the very glory of God—what greater honor could there be for human eyes? What greater fulfillment could a human soul wish for? Yet, could there be anything quite so devastating, quite so piercing? Could there be anything quite so embarrassing as being in the presence of such glory, such majesty, such transcendence, goodness of such awful purity—and then to contemplate one’s own puny self in that setting. Talk about being out of one’s league!
Isaiah wanted to worship, to join his voice with those of the shouting seraphim, to sing his own part, “Yes! God is holy! His glory fills the universe!” Yet, in that moment, all he could give voice to was his own inadequacy as a worshipper: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.”
Many of you are familiar with my spiritual biography, and know that I was not raised in the Episcopal Church, but discovered it as a young adult. My family was very active in our church. It seemed like we were there constantly, and for the most part, I was there voluntarily and with a good attitude. I’m very grateful for that upbringing. It introduced me to Jesus and to the gospel and to the scriptures in a way that, quite frankly, gives me a great advantage over those of my generation who were cradle Episcopalians. But I had a sense that there was something missing. I didn’t always know I had that sense, and I certainly didn’t know what it was that I missed, because I had never actually seen it,
but I had a sense that there was something missing. At the same time, I was taught to be suspicious of anything that smacked of Catholicism, and Episcopalians, they told me, were just kissing cousins to the Catholics. In college, I majored in music. When you major in music, you have to study music history, and when you study music history, you get a lot a Christian liturgy thrown in at no extra charge—the two just sort of go together.
So it was through my academic pursuits that I discovered what it was I was missing in my church experience, and it was worship. Where I was raised, we loved God, and talked about him and sang about him, but we did not really worship him. Discovering the liturgy of historic Christianity, particularly the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, was like stumbling around a dimly-lit room for twenty years, and then finding an extra light switch that boosted the wattage from 20 to 100. I didn’t have an experience quite like Isaiah’s, but it was enough like it to make me appreciate what happened to him when I read about it. The human spirit longs to worship. We were made to worship.
But the impulse to worship is distorted by sin, and most of the trouble we get ourselves into as human beings results from our trying to do the right thing in the wrong way. We find the real God too intimidating, but we must worship, so we find alternative gods that are a little tamer and not as threatening: gods like money, success, hard work, family, health, beauty, sex, alcohol, drugs, and others. Trinity Sunday is about putting these false gods away and falling down in worship before the one, true, and living God, the maker of heaven and earth, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the fourth chapter of the Revelation to St John, we get a picture of how this God is to be worshipped. As in Isaiah, there is a throne, and one seated on the throne.
Round the throne were 24 thrones, and on them 24 elders, dressed in white robes with golden crowns on their heads. Flashes of lightning were coming from the throne, and sound of peals of thunder, and in front of the throne were seven flaming lamps burning.
There is incessant praise, incessant singing, incessant proclamation of the holiness of God. In worship, we lose ourselves and are transfixed by the glory of God. Since earliest times, Christians have used this picture from Revelation as a model for the design and decoration of church buildings and what goes on in them. We cannot replicate Isaiah’s vision. We cannot replicate the picture of the heavenly hosts worshiping the Lamb who was slain in the book of Revelation.
But we can try.
That’s why we use brass and gold and precious metals in the vessels of our worship. God’s glory is worthy of that and more. That’s why those who lead our worship are arrayed in gorgeous vestments. God’s glory is worthy of that and more. That’s why we surround ourselves with stained glass and icons and images of the saints. We need such tangible reminders of heavenly glory. God’s glory is worthy of that and more. That’s why we use incense in our worship—it reminds us of the smoke that was the sign of God’s glory on Mt Sinai and in the temple of Isaiah’s vision. God’s glory is worthy of that and more. That’s why the norm for the worship of God is singing, singing, and more singing. God’s glory is worthy of that and more.
Trinity Sunday is about the glory of God, and the only proper response to that glory, which is the surrender of our hearts in worship, worship of which we are utterly incapable but for the Holy Spirit who allows us a glimpse of God’s terrible glory, his awful beauty, and then gives us the words and the music to sing the praises of that glory. Only those who have worshiped God on his heavenly throne can begin to contemplate and speak of and discuss doctrine. Only those who have lost themselves in worship, who have adored God in his glory, can know him to be the eternal, undivided, and life giving Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To him be all glory in heaven and earth, now and forever.