Can you imagine being Isaiah, and seeing this sight? He has a vision of the temple, and, well, he would have been to the temple many times. But this time, in his vision, it's not only the house of the Lord, but the Lord is “in the house”. God's throne is there, and Isaiah sees it, and the train of the Lord's very impressive robe fills the entire temple. He also sees some pretty impressive angels.. the Seraphim... God's personal attendants. And they are singing that eternal song, a song we still echo, the Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty” and while the temple is filled with the train of his robe, the “whole earth is filled with his glory”
For this series of midweek Advent services, we will keep that ancient canticle in mind, and consider the theme of holiness.
Tonight, a new twist on an old saying that we use to express surprise and wonder – perhaps you've said it yourself, “Holy Smokes!”
No, it's not just an exclamation from our everyday speech, it's also a description of God's Old Testament appearances. Holy smokes surround God as he descends onto Mt. Sinai. Holy smokes fill the temple air at his appearance to Isaiah. But why the smoke? What does it mean?
To understand, we first must appreciate what holiness is. God's holiness. Most of us would define holiness as being without sin. And that's a good start. God certainly is that. But more than that, God's holiness is so pure and perfect that anything unholy or less than holy cannot be in his presence. Or, put another way, God hates what is unholy and his righteous anger destroys it.
And it's not just like Isaiah was encountering a little bit of holiness. He wasn't simply standing in the Holy Place of the temple, where the priests got to go. He wasn't even in the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest went once a year. He was in the presence of the Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God Almighty. The most holy, the superlative holy, the one whose holiness out-holies any other holy. And Isaiah comes to a shocking revelation. “I am not holy. I am dead.”
And so is the response of the sinner to holiness. God's holiness, righteousness, perfection and glory are so incredibly overwhelming and supreme, that for us as flawed and sinful and wicked as we are – to stand in his presence – means total annihilation. Like the light chasing away darkness or the way the snow outside would melt if you put it on the surface of the very sun.
We too, would be ruined in the presence of God. And we too, should fear such a judgment, if we try to stand on our own merits in the face of his holiness. We'd be exposed for all our evil deeds. We would fall so short on the judgment day before his throne, if we had to list our good deeds and answer for our bad ones. We couldn't even approach his holiness.
But like Isaiah, we don't have to. For he makes us clean. Just as Isaiah was cleansed by the hot coal from the altar of sacrifice, we are cleansed by the once and for all sacrifice, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. Just as a man of unclean lips was saved from ruin by the will of a gracious God, so are we saved and forgiven when Christ's body and blood touch our lips, and his word reaches our ears.
And then, Christ's righteousness, Christ's merit, Christ's holiness, become ours.
But back to the smoke. Smoke has several connotations, which are instructive to our faith.
First, is the idea of hiding or obscuring. There are certain things about God that cannot be known. Certain things are hidden. The day and hour of Christ's second coming, for instance. Or why he allows this or that evil to occur. The Bible, his revelation to us, says much. Many things we could not otherwise know are there revealed. But the Bible doesn't have ALL the answers. God retains for himself the knowledge of many things above and beyond us. And as such, it's as if they are enshrouded in smoke. Behind the veil, or as the hymn says, “beyond our ken” (or knowledge).
Similarly, God's glory is obscured at times, his true nature and essence, so that we sinners are not overwhelmed by it. Moses was not to see God, but from behind – lest he look him face to face and be destroyed. God comes to us, so often, under a hidden form. In a burning bush. In a pillar of smoke. In simple bread and wine. As a tiny babe in swaddling clothes. And yet there, is the hidden-ness dwells all the majesty of his eternal glory – for us, and for our benefit and blessing. Holy Smokes, indeed.
And, where there's smoke, there's fire. Smoke can be what is left after God's wrath is poured out, as on Sodom and Gamorrah. “Smoke in his nostrils” is a wonderful Old Testament expression for God's righteous anger over sin. But such anger is put away for us in Christ.
Another idea associated with smoke, in biblical terms, is the smoke of the sacrifices and the incense of prayers that rise up to God. Perhaps this was the smoke that filled the temple in Isaiah's vision. This smoke is pictured in the book of Revelation, the prayers of the saints, carried to God by an angel. When we receive God's grace and mercy, we respond in faith and love and prayer, and as those prayers rise to God's presence, they are a pleasing aroma.
And finally, smoke is easily blown away, and so serves as a picture of the fleeting nature of this world. The Psalmist writes, “my days vanish like smoke” and Isaiah writes about the day of judgment, “the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.” Yes, though this world and this life are temporary and will be blown away like wisps of smoke, the Lord and his word endure. Though this holiday season will last only a short time, the reason for the season remains throughout the year. Though Christmas will come and go, his salvation shall never end.
For many years, God's people saw only dimly, as through smoke, the salvation that was planned for them in the person of Jesus Christ. But they still trusted a God who always kept his promises. Then a child was born, a humble man taught and preached and died. And in that hidden form was God's salvation for all people. And one day that same Christ will return, to visit judgment on sin, death and the devil, and to take us who share in his holiness to an eternity with him and the Father. Holy smokes! What a wonderful surprise, what a wonderful Advent promise. In Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.