The King Is Not Dead!
Editor’s note: Dr. Bartelt provides this sermon in conjunction with his article “Isaiah 6: From Translation to Proclamation? in the Winter 2013 Concordia Journal.
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The king was dead: King Uzziah, after a long and prosperous reign. Change and uncertainty were in the air. It had been a good run, a generation of peace and prosperity, accumulation of wealth, expansion of the territory, little threat to the kingdom of God that was the people of God in Israel and Judah.
But now the king was dead, and with it uncertainty.
Transitions are always difficult, even for the house and lineage of David. Uzziah’s son Jotham was already in place as a co-regent; there would be no contested succession. But there was unrest in the world: the Assyrians were on the rise, a new terrorist nation in the Middle East, and Israel and Judah were fairly easy pickins on the western front.
So this was a time for strong leadership, and the king was dead. His son Jotham was untested. Change and uncertainly were in the air.
But into this rather dark and dismal moment, Isaiah sees the king, and he is neither Uzziah nor Jotham, and he’s not dead.
He is sitting on a heavenly throne. It is the king of kings and lord of lords, God himself, The Lord of Hosts (Yahweh Seba’oth), the commander-in-chief of the greatest force of all.
He created the world. He created you and me, and still preserves us, as Luther put. And he is our Lord, because he is our Savior.
For God is not just sitting in the heavens, as though he is simply sovereign over all. No, his royal robes come down to fill the temple, and from the temple to his people, and in his people to all the earth.
But being in the very presence of God is no small thing, in fact, it may be more terrifying than the Assyrians – this is not an earthly king who can kill the body, but the heavenly king who can kill both body and soul.
And so God comes with power:
Earth quaking, doors shaking,
Seraphim and cherubim and all the company of heaven –
HOLY, HOLY, HOLY – sanctum sanctorum: this is the third degree!
Mysterium tremendum: The glory of God is filling all the earth!
Antiphons echo: they sounded, re-sounded…
Surrounded by the sounds of heaven,!
Isaiah finds himself in the presence of God, the thrice-holy God.
The temple was filled with smoke – holy smoke!
And he responds: WOE IS ME!
I am undone, destroyed.
I am a sinner, in the presence of the holy God.
Not just my own sins, but I am in the midst of an unclean people.
And my eyes have seen the king, Yahweh Seba’oth.
But how does God respond to this confession of sin: he calls on his messenger of grace – to touch the very lips and lives of his servant:
Behold, this has touched your lips:
Your guilt is gone! Your sin is atoned!
And then, grace given, sins forgiven, new life given, Isaiah is given to proclaim the word of God. It will not be easy. No theology of success here: it would even get worse before it gets better.
But this was not a theology of failure and futility, either. Isaiah would indeed speak the word of God with power and punch and clarity and confidence.
There was a holy seed. A virgin will conceive and bear a son: God with us. Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given. A branch will grow from the rootstock of Jesse, with justice and righteousness – the zeal of the Yahweh Seba’oth will do this.
Isaiah would not live to see the great day of the Lord when all history would be fulfilled, but he knew that God’s word would not return void. There would come a time when the eyes of the blind would be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, when comfort would come to God’s people, when the glory of Israel would shine forth for all nations, when the bride would receive a new name from her bridegroom, when even in the dispersion of God’s people, they would declare God’s glory among the nations!
Dear friends in Christ, brothers and sisters in the faith,
We, too have seen the king. He has all power in heaven and earth, but he laid it aside to humble himself.
He knew the problems of our lives, as individuals and as his people, as his people and as all nations.
He knew the cares and concerns and uncertainties of a troubled world, filled with terrorist nations and all sorts of political turmoil,
Economic recession and inequalities,
Stress and sadness in our personal relationships.
But God is not just a God high above, he comes down. Like the robes that filled the temple, he would come and fill all the earth.
The king is not dead: he is alive and well.
The kingdom of God has come near, so John the Baptist announced, and after him, Jesus himself.
BUT WHAT A KING HE TURNED OUT TO BE:
Not much power, or pomp, or circumstance:
The son of man had nowhere to lay his head.
He was born in David’s royal city,
in a stable, with the local animals;
He entered David’s capital city Jerusalem
with some circumstance,
but by the end of the week he was crowned –
And clothed in a royal robe – in mockery.
And then, the king was dead.
Not just another in the line of the house and lineage of David,
For he was not only David’s son but David’s lord.
The king of all creation was dead.
There was no heir, no son to take the throne in his place. There was no one else to rule and reign and save.
So here is the twist: God raised him from the dead.
The king is not dead, but lives!
He is Risen, Indeed!
He is ascended into heaven,
and is sitting on the right hand of the Father,
and lives and reigns to all eternity.
(This is most certainly true!)
But let’s go back to Isaiah 6, and that great song of the seraphim, which, by the way, the church has sung throughout the ages right when we celebrate how God comes down to be with us, here, in his very body and blood, we sing with angels and archangels…
Holy, Holy, Holy, is Yahweh/God of Hosts.
The earth is full of his glory.
That’s not the best translation, and it has to do with the Hebrew verb there. It is more likely active, transitive: his glory is the filling of all the earth.
You see, it’s not just about seeing God’s glory all around us.
It is about God’s glory going forth into all the earth.
In the OT, God’s “glory” was focused on the ark of the covenant, the earthly throne of the king of heaven and earth.
But in Jesus, the Christ, John tells us, we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten son of the father, full of grace and truth.
Paul puts it this way: We have seen the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus.
When the king died, the veil of the temple was torn down, and the glory that was behind it now goes forth to …. Fill all the earth!
Dear friends in Christ,
Christ has come, born at Christmas. Christ has revealed his glory through his holy Epiphany. Christ has shown himself to be the king who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom.
Yes, Christ has died. But Christ is Risen, And Christ will come again.
In the meantime, he has sent his spirit. He told his disciples to wait for the power from on high, and then to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
God’s glory is filling all the earth, right before our very lives. Right within our very lives.
God has come to us, to you, to me. To those of every nation, people, tribe, and tongue.
We are brought together from all the world to be the body of Christ in the world.
And so the word of the Lord goes forth,
The Kingdom of God has come, even as we pray, as the king has taught us,
Thy Kingdom come.
And we get to be part of this great kingdom of God.
It comes wherever the Word of God is proclaimed, on the streets of our cities, on the beaches of our coasts, in the heartland of the Midwest, on the riverfront under the arch in St. Louis, in Africa, Asia, South America, India, Europe, in German and Spanish, in Mandarin and Korean, in Swahili and in Nuer, and even in English!
It comes through the work of pastors, teachers, missionaries.
It comes through the words of God’s people in their everyday lives.
The holy, thrice holy God has come to us in Christ Jesus.
He is not dead, but lives and reigns to all eternity.
We have salvation, by God’s grace, and grace alone, in Jesus Christ,
Who died for our sins and is raised for our justification.
We have new life, baptized into his death and resurrection,
For we, too, will live and reign with him to all eternity.
And for now: WE ARE THE PEOPLE OF GOD.
WE HAVE SEEN HIS GLORY IN CHRIST.
WE RECEIVE HIS GLORY IN HIS VERY BODY AND BLOOD,
TO BE THE BODY OF CHRIST INTO ALL THE WORLD.
As Luther puts it, the kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer, but we pray – and we rejoice – that it may come amongst us, also!
The king was dead – but is alive!