Epiphany 5 · Isaiah 6:1-8 (9-13) · February 7, 2010
By Kent Burreson
The Theophany of God, Cleansing, and Call of Isaiah
The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany offers the opportunity to preach on a liturgical text: the Sanctus. Since the biblical narrative informs the liturgical text and action, it would be appropriate to preach from within the purpose and movement of the Sanctus (and Benedictus) from the context of the Theophany, cleansing, and call of Isaiah.
The liturgical structure of the Sanctus reflects the biblical structure of Isaiah’s vision, cleansing, and call. As John Oswalt notes, “Each element leads to the next. The king’s [Uzziah’s] death prepares the way for the vision of God; the vision of God leads to self-despair; self-despair opens the way to cleansing; cleansing makes it possible to recognize the possibility of service; the total experience leads to an offering of oneself.”¹ Likewise, the liturgical structure involves the Theophany of the Pantocrator, the cleansing of the assembly, and the call to mission for communion with and participation in God’s holiness. The Sanctus expresses powerfully the meeting place for God’s creatures for all time through the One who comes in the name of the Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ. The most effective use of the biblical text in opening up the liturgical structure can be made by comparison with Divine Service 5 in Lutheran Service Book; the melding of Luther’s Latin and German mass traditions.²
The vision which Isaiah receives is of God, Adonai, Yahweh of Hosts, the Pantocrator or All-Ruling One, seated upon his throne in glory with his robe filling the entire throne room, evoking the fact that his reign fills and transcends all things in heaven and on earth. Surrounding the Pantocrator are the seraphim, the flaming ones, enlivened by God’s glory and life. Soaring aloft they praise Yahweh with unwearied voices. The goal of Isaiah’s vision is that he may commune with God and partake in his holiness and the seraph’s hymn of praise.
Participation in God’s holiness presumes the purity of his creatures. Isaiah realizes that he, in communion with the unclean people of Israel, is defiled, a “man of unclean lips,” and that the God of Hosts cannot abide his presence. He becomes aware that contact with God is terrifying. He must be cleansed in order for communion with the Holy God to be possible.
Isaiah’s Theophany parallels earthly temple worship and the intentions of the Levitical sacrificial system. Here is the place for meeting with God. As in the sacrificial system, substitutionary atonement grants forgiving cleansing from impurity and access to God through the seraph’s burning coal to cleanse Isaiah’s lips. The cleansing presumes that a sacrifice for sin has been offered (the eternally valid offering of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ). As a prophet, Isaiah’s cleansing manifested the goal of Israel’s cleansing through the burning, destructive action of the exile and prepared the way for the re-establishment of Israel’s communion with God. Isaiah’s mission to Israel and Israel’s mission to the world are contingent upon their participation in God’s holiness. Only a holy people can proclaim the Holy One. Isaiah’s response, trembling trust, is to be the mouthpiece of the God of Hosts proclaiming the Word that will cleanse Israel and be the means of her communion with Yahweh.
The goal of the temple, heavenly, and Christian liturgies is to make and keep God’s people holy. Ritually the Sanctus in the Lord’s Supper liturgy is functioning in this way, where through physical means “God interacts with the saints…and involves them bodily in the life and fellowship of the Son with the Father.”³ Preaching this text in the context of the liturgy’s use of the Sanctus makes apparent that the church is being cleansed for participation in God’s holiness. Using setting five in Lutheran Service Book as an example, the preface proclaims the splendor and holiness of God; the Lord’s Prayer prays for cleansing from guilt as Isaiah did; the Peace announces that the people’s lips have been cleansed; the Words of Our Lord and the distribution of Christ’s Body and Blood are the communion of the pure and clean with the Holy One of God (“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”); and the Sanctus, in this case Luther’s “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old,” announces that we have met the God of Sabaoth in all his holiness and have communed with him. As a result, like Isaiah, the church prays: “O Lord open my lips” and “Here am I. Send me.” We cannot keep silent about the truth. Preaching the call of Isaiah out of the liturgical text of the Sanctus in worship is a proclamation of our cleansing from guilt and participation in God’s holiness through the body and blood of the Holy One of God.
¹ John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 1-39, NICNT, ed. R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1986), 186.
² For insights into Luther’s understanding of the role of the Sanctus in his liturgies I am indebted to Rev. Daniel Torkelson.