First Sunday in Advent
December 2, 2007
“The Sanctus” Isaiah 6:3 and St. Matthew 21:9
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth
Heaven and earth are full of thy glory!
Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He, Blessed is He, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!
Today is the first day of the new church year. The historic Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Advent is the account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey just five days before he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. This is also the Gospel reading for Palm Sunday. This is the only pericope that the Church uses twice – on two different Sundays – in her historic lectionary. Not only that, but this portion of St. Matthew’s Gospel has also found its way into the Ordinary of the Divine Service as part of the Sanctus, drawn from Isaiah 6:3 and Matthew 21:9. For over eighteen hundred years the Sanctus has been a part of the regular worship of the church. The church fathers thought that these words were important. We should listen to our fathers.
During the past generation, the traditions of the church have come under assault from a variety of quarters. Traditional Christian morality is openly derided and mocked by an increasingly godless society that rejects what the church has always taught about sex outside of marriage, homosexual behavior, divorce, abortion, and the traditional family headed by the father who is married to the mother of the children in the home. Traditional Christian doctrine is roundly rejected by Bible-doubting theologians and preachers within the church as well as by the various anti-Christian cults who reject what the Bible says about the holy Trinity, the deity of Christ, justification by faith alone, and other basic truths of the Christian religion on which our very salvation depends.
Even pious, Bible-believing Christians are not immune from the attack on tradition in all its forms. We Lutherans have always emphasized that everything we teach and practice in the church is solidly grounded in the Bible. We do not follow tradition for tradition’s sake. We follow the Holy Scriptures. In this way we can distinguish between traditions that are sound and biblical and traditions that may or even ought to be given up.
What about the tradition of following the historic liturgy of the church in the Sunday services? It is right out of the Bible. It carries into our hearts the very mysteries of salvation. It portrays Jesus, the Lamb of God, as our Savior from sin. It glorifies the only true God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It is a treasure of God’s word that has been used in the church for well over 1500 years. But many say that it is no longer inspiring, or appealing, or relevant. They suggest that contemporary “praise” songs, accompanied by a good band ought to replace the tired old canticles and chants that we have inherited from our ancestors. Churches are told that if they want to grow, they had better scrap the liturgy. Such relics of the past as the Sanctus must go.
It may be true that we do not have in our liturgy what our world is looking for. But we do have what our world needs. I invite you to take the words of the Sanctus to heart. If you do, you will find that, far from being a relic of the past, it is food for our soul. It is exactly what we need as we come to church week after week, burdened by sins of thought, word and deed, to meet our holy God in repentance and faith. It prepares us for that holy meal in which the God incarnate, man divine, Jesus Christ gives us to eat of his body and to drink of his blood. It is a hymn written in heaven, and sung on earth, even as the angels, archangels, and our departed Christian loved ones sing it with us.
“Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth is full of thy glory.” So sang the holy angels of the holy God as Isaiah cowered in fear and self-loathing. This account in Isaiah 6 took place when the land of Judah was in ruins, suffering the consequences of a total moral and spiritual corruption. They had forsaken the truth about God. They had participated in false worship. Honesty, justice, and humble obedience to God were seldom seen. It was a day much like our own. No mere man can ever fully understand the righteous anger of God, but Isaiah certainly had a better idea than most. How could the holy God not destroy such a rebellious nation? They closed their ears to the gospel. They were arrogant, proud, and without shame.
Then God appeared to Isaiah in a vision. It was a majestic sight. The LORD God was lifted up on a throne. As incense reached to the ceiling, angels sang of God’s holiness, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, heaven and earth are filled with his glory.” Three holies: one for each Person of the holy Trinity. All the glory of heaven and earth – everything that is admired and beautiful – pales into insignificance when compared to the glory of the Triune God.
But Isaiah could not enjoy this vision. He had to shrink from it. “Woe is me,” he said. I am undone. I am a sinner, a man of unclean lips, a man in whom there is not that holy truth that comes from God. I live among sinners like myself, and here I have seen God in a vision, I am undone, ruined, destroyed.
God is holy. He is sinless and he cannot tolerate sin. It makes him angry. God’s very nature cannot endure or pass by or excuse sin. Isaiah saw what our generation will not see because they don’t want to see it. God is holy and no sinner can stand before him. Of all the ironies this world has to offer, the saddest is the attitude that sinners have toward this holy God. They refuse to bow before him in humility. When God gently corrects the proud, they mistake his gentleness for permissiveness and refuse to repent of their pride. The holiness of God is nothing more to them than a religious idea that has no personal consequences for them. But should God threaten to punish sinners as his holiness requires, they will rail against such a cruel God, denying his wrath, denying hell, denying their own personal accountability to the holy God. They will invent a god whose holy requirements can be met by a mere show that they can perform. Afraid of the judgment of the holy God against them, they deny that God is holy, they deny that they are sinful, and they sneer at those who tremble before the judgment of this holy God.
Yet even as they deny God’s right to judge them, they judge one another. Their unclean hearts yield the bitter fruit of unclean words as they accuse, berate, attack, and condemn their fellow sinners while refusing to repent of their own sin. Oh, they may want a religion that satisfies their emotional needs. They may yearn for what today is called self-esteem or self-fulfillment or self-affirmation or anything else that caters to their idolatrous love for themselves. But they want no part of the holy God who dwells in that pure light of holiness that no sinner can approach. They don’t want to hear from him. They don’t want to be taught by him. They don’t want him. The holy, holy, holy of the Sanctus must be silenced. Men and women of unclean lips cannot bear to sing these words. These words come back at them as holy accusations from the holy God.
But they need this holy God. He is the only God. Every sinner needs him, but no sinner can approach him. Every proud and vain and self-absorbed child of Adam needs fellowship with this holy God whom the angels worship, but no sinner can possibly approach.
They cannot come to him, so he comes to them. But look at him, and see how this holy God comes. He does not come in anger. He does not come in judgment. He, the holy God, he the offended God, he before whom all sinners must bow in humble sorrow over their sin comes in humility. He rides on a donkey, a beast of burden. Look at him! See his gentleness, his patience, and his meekness. What demands does he make on you? What threats does he speak to you? He comes to you without demands, without threats, without judgment. He comes to you as your Savior. He draws from your heart that confident prayer, Hosanna, Save us, Hosanna, Save us now, for he comes to you in the name of the Lord as your Savior.
He comes into his holy city, polluted by religious hypocrisy, lies, and deception. He comes to die for the liars and deceivers. He comes to die for you and for me. He comes as your God, not to bask in the praise of the crowd which honored him for so short a time, but he comes to suffer the wrath against sinners which his own holiness requires. He comes to be nailed to a cross. He comes to bear the sin of the world.
Blessed is he, blessed is he, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. See him come to you. Does he not know what words you have spoken? Can’t he see right into your heart and soul? Is there any uncleanness in you that he cannot see? Is there any sin that he does not know? But he doesn’t turn away in disgust, and he doesn’t destroy you in anger. He comes to you, hiding his glory under deep humility. He who from eternity to eternity remains the holy God, who cannot tolerate sin or sinners, comes to you, a sinner, and he forgives you. He sheds his blood for you. He covers your shame, your humiliation, your guilt, your sin. He covers it up by his own humble obedience, all the way to the death of the cross. He does this because he loves you.
And as he once came to you in humility, riding on that donkey, on his way to offer his life up for you on the cross, he still comes. He comes in his Holy Supper. As we kneel before his altar, he comes with words of pure mercy and grace. He comes in the spirit of meekness. He comes to feed us with his holy body and blood, which make us holy. He lives in us and we live in him. We are joined to the holy God. The forgiveness that he won for us, by his body sacrificed, by his blood shed, is really and truly ours. Our sin is erased. We are holy. We have communion with the holy God.
We come to where he comes to us and we are not afraid. Our sin can’t keep us away. We confess it to the God who has borne it. We know that we remain flesh and blood. But our gracious God invites us, with all our sins, to lay our failures on him who took them away, to receive in the Lord's Supper the body and the blood of him who loves us.
Nowhere else on earth does Jesus come to us more humbly and graciously than he does in the Lord’s Supper. God, not we, chooses how he will come to us and save us. So we won’t seek in humanly devised substitutes the comfort and the peace that this holy meal provides. We will come to this holy meal to the One who chooses to feed our bodies and souls with his holy, life-giving, body and blood. We sing the Sanctus and he comes. He does not come to chide, to blame, or to accuse. He comes to save us.
Rolf D. Preus