Touched by Holiness

Epiphany 5C

February 10, 2019 / Pastor Dennis Wildermuth

Luke 5:1-11 & Isaiah 6:1-8  / “Touched by Holiness”


The human heart is a great battle ground between good and evil, between certain natural human inclinations, and the good that God intends for us.  Or in the words of the eldest brother, Dimitri, of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov: “The devil is fighting with God and the battlefield is the human heart.”

The only way that fight might be won begins with honesty about our condition, and today’s texts all suggest that we will see our human condition most clearly when it is set next to a vision of the justice and Holiness of God.

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said that the Christian doctrine of sin was about the only self-evident doctrine we had.  Even if you don’t believe in Jesus, if you have any knowledge of human history over the past two millennia, you believe that we sin.  Human history is the history of sin.

We encounter sin and grace in all three lessons.  Young Isaiah is in the temple at worship.  He has a stunning vision.  It was as if the heavens opened and he saw the very throne of God.  “Holy, Holy, Holy,” sang the cherubim.  And Isaiah cried, “The choir was really on target today!”  No!  Isaiah declares, “Woe is me!  I am lost for I am a man of unclean lips.”  I’m a sinner!

Some years ago there was a popular TV show, Touched by an Angel.  It was a warm fuzzy show, but full of bad theology which usually resulted in me talking back to the TV in an angry tone.  I soon quit watching.  Each week when somebody was touched by an angel, did that person cry out in fear, “Woe is me!  I am lost for I am a person of unclean lips”?

In today’s Gospel Jesus and his disciples are out in a boat.  Jesus takes charge.  “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets,” He directs.  But they have already fished all night and caught nothing.  Besides, it is the wrong time of day to fish.  In bright sunlight the fish will see the thick rope nets.  Nevertheless they do it and the nets are full.  Recognizing that he is in the presence of divine holiness, Peter’s response is the same as Isaiah’s.  He falls to his knees and cries, “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

It is hard to be honest about our sin because we are dishonest about the human condition.  We don’t know how to describe ourselves except through therapeutic categories.  We excuse ourselves, saying we are sick rather than sinful.  Or sin as an educational problem – we are racist because we don’t have proper understanding of other cultures.  Or our humanity is at fault: we are frail, vulnerable creatures who respond to our creatureliness in inappropriate ways.  There is some truth to all of that, but none of it gets to the heart of a specifically Christian view of sin, or that the remedy for sin lies not in us but in God.

Today’s Scripture demonstrates that our awareness of sin is a by-product of our being confronted by God.  When we say “sin” we’re not talking about occasional foibles and slipups.  We are saying that face-to-face with the awesome righteousness of God, the holiness of Jesus, we fall to our knees.  We have our noses rubbed in the great gap between who we are and who God is.  To be brought close to the One who is “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty.  The whole earth is full of his glory!” is to cry, “Woe is me for I am one of unclean lips and dwell amid a people of unclean lips.”  Or in the words of Peter: “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Luther said he would know nothing of his sin had not the Holy Spirit taught him.  The Holy Spirit taught Luther and teaches us today through the Word of God.  It is there that the law cuts through all our defenses and rationalizations to show us our sin – that we are full of sin all the time, to show us our lost condition, and all this in sharp contrast to God’s absolute holiness.  Scripture then points us to the remedy, and that remedy is not us trying harder, but rather is to be found in the cross of Christ.

Yes, it is true that we are unworthy, but God has done something marvelous about it.  No flaming angel has come with a burning coal to touch our lips.  God has instead sent his Only Begotten Son to bear that pain on his Cross.  And He has poured out the fire of His Holy Spirit upon us.  He has washed us in the waters of the baptismal font.  He has touched our lips with something better and probably less painful than a burning coal: the very body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We really are the children of God.  He has taken up a real and permanent residence in our lives.

Because we come to worship and into the presence of the Holy God as sinful people, part of our preparation for worship is to confess our sins and receive absolution or forgiveness.  We hear this lifesaving, freeing Gospel in the words of absolution spoken, and we see it in the sign of the cross that is made reminding us of Jesus’ sacrifice.

In Holy Communion this Gospel is individualized, coming personally and directly to each one of us in ways we can see and touch and taste.  Luther never tired of emphasizing the words, “for you” — “given and shed for you.”  These two words convey the Gospel, giving to every communicant the assurance – the guarantee – that God’s grace and gift is for them.

“Holy, holy, holy” are the opening words of the Sanctus, part of the communion we sing before we come to the table of the Lord.  At least we do if we are observing a liturgical rite.  These words remind us that when we come to the Sacrament we are coming into the presence of the holy, we are coming into the presence of God, and this God once rode into Jerusalem where in the flesh He died for the sins of the world.

Years ago I read about a young pastor who served briefly as a chaplain in a state prison.  He told of a father of a young man who had had received a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes.  The son was angry and embittered.  The boy’s father came each week to visit him, but the boy steadfastly refused to see him.  The chaplain was asked to intervene, to plead with the boy to see his father, but the young prisoner refused.

Despite his refusal, the boy’s father took off work every week, boarded a bus, and traveled across the state in the hope of seeing his son.  Each time it became the young chaplain’s difficult task to ask the son, “Do you want to see your dad?”  Then he had to bear word of the refusal to the waiting father.  The father would thank the chaplain and head toward the door for the bus trip back home.

One day, after telling the father once again that his son would not meet with him, the chaplain said, “No one would do what you are doing.  Your son is an embittered, defiant young man.  Give up.  Go back home and get on with your life.  No one would put up with this kind of rejection, week after week.”

“God has put up with it for centuries,” said the father, as he headed out.  The young chaplain literally fell to his knees at this vision of the righteousness of God.  Woe is me!  I am a sinful man whose lips and life are not worthy of the greatness of God.

One theologian (Karl Barth) declared that, “Only Christians sin.”  That is, non-Christians tend to view their sins as mistakes, slip-ups, small potatoes.  Christians come to sense sin as a huge gap between us and our loving, forgiving, seeking Savior.  Christians can confess – come completely clean before God only because of a prior confidence in a forgiving, gracious God.  Peter cried, “Depart from me, I am a sinful man!”  The good news is, God never does depart from us.

How long has it been since we have been afraid in worship, filled with the sense of awe that struck down the young Isaiah?  This Sunday in Epiphany may be just such a time.  All of today’s lessons depict persons being confronted by the holiness of the living and righteous God.  Paul speaks of his own lack of fitness to be a leader of the church   (I Cor 15:1-11), an assessment of himself brought on by his experience of the love of Christ.  Peter is brought to his knees in confession, and then there is the young Isaiah in the temple.

They all end the same as well.  Paul becomes an apostle, an ambassador of Christ.  Isaiah is called to be a prophet and when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us?”  Isaiah answers, “Here am I send me.”  In the Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.”  And “they left everything and followed him.”  Note that this undeserved, gracious love, acceptance and forgiveness of God led and empowered Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and now us to lead lives of service to God, to simply surrender ourselves to God.

So where will we see him today.  Our Scriptures remind us that God does not send angels into this world to do his work, but oddly works through and with us.  He sends the once sinful, now purified Isaiah out into the world as a prophet, transforming his fear into boldness.  He goes with a Peter, who cowers in fear at Jesus’ feet and simply wants him to leave him alone.  But Jesus sees his beloved friend and will not leave him, not ever.  Even when Peter disowns him, Jesus never will.


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