Holy, holy, holy One (Trinity Sunday, Year B, 3 June 2012)

Isaiah 6.1-8
Romans 8.12-17
John 3.1-17 


Holiness, a biblical concept associated with separation from the ordinary or the profane, on the one hand, and connection with God or the divine, on the other. God is supremely or definitively holy and people, things, and actions may be considered holy through association with God. Holiness may also include the ideas of consecration to God and of purity from what is evil or improper.

from ‘Holiness’, in Powell, MA, (ed.), HarperCollins Bible Dictionary


In the temple, Isaiah heard the seraphs sing these words:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

At the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we say these words in the Sanctus:

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

And especially since it’s Trinity Sunday, we’ve sung Reginald Heber’s words:

Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

When Isaiah experienced that vision in the Jerusalem Temple, he had no idea that over 2500 years later the Gentiles would be quoting his words in their services of worship. Holy, holy, holy!—but what is ‘holiness’?

Holy, holy, holy. God is holy because God is other than what we are. There is a separation between us and God. It has a lot to do with sin; when we are preoccupied with ourselves, we cannot notice God. But God is holy also because we are finite creatures, while God is infinite. We can’t see God. God is way beyond us.

Even though: Isaiah sees a vision of the Holy One. (In fact, ‘Holy One’ becomes Isaiah’s favourite term for God.) The Holy One is

sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.

The Jerusalem Temple was a seriously big place. But in Isaiah’s vision, just the hem of God’s robe fills its great expanse. God is above and beyond anything we can imagine. God is holy.

Seraphs are singing. What are they? They were thought of as creatures of fire, totally unlike anything here on earth. They were holy.

What are the seraphs singing?

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of God’s glory.

God the Holy One is the theme of their song. That is our theme as we gather for Holy Communion. When we come to the Table for the eucharistic meal, we place ourselves with the holy seraphs around the throne of the holy God. That’s why we say,

Holy, holy, holy Lord,
God of power and might.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.

There are many deep truths about Holy Communion. One is that we are not just simply ‘here’; by faith we are gathered around God’s throne with all the company of heaven’s holiness.

Isaiah collapses under the weight of this vision.

Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

No one may see the Holy One and live. Isaiah is doomed! Yet God graciously provides a way for him.

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’

I suppose scorched lips are marginally better than death…so Isaiah is brought into communion with the Holy One. Note though that it involves suffering.

Isaiah ‘sees’ God, but God is also concealed. The hem of God’s robe fills the Temple. Could Isaiah see much past the hem? I doubt it. And there is smoke, lots of it. Smoke shows where God is but it hides God at the same time. (Never criticise churches that use smoke and incense—it’s very biblical!) So God is revealed, but just in diluted form. The smoke hides him. God’s holiness is intact.

But in his love, this holy God wants to reveal himself more fully to us. How to do it? Visions are ambiguous, and they only take people so far.

Holy, holy, holy. God comes to live among us. John’s Gospel says,

…the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Jesus brought God to earth. And Jesus showed new dimensions of holiness. In him, God was not hidden by smoke. His hem was normal size. So was Jesus holy?

Why yes. His whole being was totally open to the holy God he knew as ‘Abba’, Father. In other words, he was without sin. Jesus shows us what a holy life looks like.

You know, it looks very surprising indeed.

You’d think the ‘holy’ people would recognise holiness, but they don’t. Nicodemus struggles to get it. Most other religious leaders didn’t get the holiness of Jesus at all. Their ‘holiness’ was focussed on externals and boundaries. We can see that in the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery. The holy men want to stone her to death. (Not the man though, just the woman.) And why shouldn’t they? The Bible had commanded it!

What does Jesus do? He invites them to look at their hearts.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

None of them could do it. We believe that there was One present who was without sin; it was he who protected the woman. And that is part of what being ‘without sin’ means.

This is the holiness of Jesus. His holiness ‘draws the circle wide, wider still’ than anyone could imagine. His holiness allows sinners to start again; shows failures that they matter; and helps outcasts see that God is their Abba, Father. That’s why we sang,

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

The holiness of Jesus is for everyone who comes, everyone who believes. In fact, Jesus’ holiness is contagious! It’s contagious because it is freedom and joy and peace and grace in the Spirit of God. Jesus shows his holiness in eating and drinking with anyone who will join him. He knows they’ll catch on sooner or later. They will see that his Way is the way to life.

But there were those who wouldn’t listen, who plotted to take his life. And the cost of God’s salvation through Jesus was more suffering—his death at human hands.

Holy, holy, holy. The ‘third holiness’ is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit witnesses to our spirits that we are children of God. The promises are ours! The Spirit shows us that as Christ is the heir of God’s promises, so are we. The Spirit makes us holy by showing us more and more of God as we are able to receive it.

The Spirit inducts us into the Christian life, a life that is eternal. The Spirit links us to Jesus Christ. All the promises of God are ours—and his Way is ours. We’re still here in the world that crucified our Lord. Again, there is a necessary suffering. We can’t follow Jesus, we can’t share his holiness, without also at times meeting misunderstanding and opposition.

What this means is this: just as Jesus’ strange kind of holiness was contagious, the Holy Spirit works in us so that we also ‘catch’ this holiness. But as in the days of Jesus, we can cooperate with or we can oppose the Spirit’s working in us. We can feed our self-centredness, or we can follow in the Way of Jesus.

Holy, holy, holy. God is holy: God is above anything we can imagine. Jesus Christ is holy: God comes to live among us with a strange holiness that feels like love. The Spirit is holy, awakening our spirits to life in God.

These are not three separate holinesses. They are one. The God who is above us is the God who lives alongside us is the God who is within us. The holiness of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is one holiness—above, around and within us all.

This is why we confess God as Trinity. We find God relating to us in these three ways, which are there as far as our theology drills back into God’s nature. Holy, holy, holy: only One is holy, the eternal God our Lord!


Leave a comment

Filed under church year, RCL, sermon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s