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09.03.17 Our Reason for Being Revelation 4 Sermon Summary

by on September 6, 2017

Why does “Holy, Holy, Holy” deserve to be the first in hymnals, and the first one Christians should memorize?

“Holy, Holy, Holy” was written by Anglican bishop Reginald Heber and published in 1826 to a tune written specifically for the text. He wrote it for Trinity Sunday, and the tune is named for the Nicaean Council which articulated the official doctrine of the Trinity in the 4th century. The hymn is based primarily on Revelation 4. In this message I will share some theological insights inspired by this hymn.

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, early in the morning our song shall rise to thee. Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

Each verse the hymn begins with “holy, holy, holy.” This hymn exalts the holiness of God, but it isn’t referring to moral uprightness, despite popular understanding caused by preaching of such holiness. God’s holiness refers not just to right action, but right everything. Everything for which we humans were created and to which we aspire—right actions, attitudes, and perspectives—is what is included in the holiness of God. We might appreciate Buddhism’s 8-fold path as a commentary on what it means that God is holy and what it means for us to be called to holiness.

Verse 1 continues with three titles for God: “Lord God Almighty”. Of course we would expect a religious hymn to invoke God. “Almighty” isn’t much of surprise either, given that God represents the superlative goodness of humanity. It is the title “Lord” that makes this hymn particularly Christian. For “Lord” is a political title, evoking the first Christian confession that “Jesus is Lord,” which means Caesar is not.

“Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea. Cherubim and seraphim, falling down before thee; who wert and art and evermore shalt be.”

Revelation 4 alludes to Isaiah 6 where the prophet envisions a throne room with the exalted divine King. He joins the celestial angels in worship. Verse 2 of the hymn presents the community of humans and angels in praise of God. How is this possible?

Isaiah feared for his life because of his unclean lips. In his vision, a seraph (an angel of fire) purified him by touching a burning coal to his mouth. Revelation speaks instead of a sea that surrounds the throne. To approach the throne one must go through water. It is a symbol of that other element which purifies our lives, namely the baptismal waters. Baptism qualifies us to worship God with the angels.

In other words, God makes it possible. God accommodates our condition—as he did for Isaiah and John of the Apocalypse. And God always will, for God is the Trinity of Time: “who was and is and evermore shall be.” This is, in fact, the definition of “grace”: That God perpetually calls us despite our sinful state to a right relationship with him in worship.

“Holy, holy, holy, though the darkness hides thee, though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see. Only thou are holy, there is none beside thee, perfect in power, in love, and purity.”

I wonder what it means to be “Perfect in power.” I imagine it means that one is neither overwhelming nor deficient in power. As the Gospel of Matthew describes Jesus in the words of Isaiah, “He will not break a bruised reed.”

How about “perfect in love”? I suspect it refers to God’s ever present and steadfast faithfulness to us as God’s creatures and children.

And what about “perfect in purity”? Here I would offer that God’s perfection in purity was revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who was also perfect in both power and love. If Kierkegaard is right, that “purity of heart is to will one thing,” then Jesus is perfect in purity, willing and faithful to do God’s will.

And though our darkened, sinful eye cannot behold God, Jesus can. And thus so can we who are united with Christ in baptism.

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, all thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea. Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”

In verse 2 above, Heber wrote that, “All the saints adore thee.” Revelation 4 depicts 24 thrones surrounding the central throne of God. Interpreters suggest that these refer to the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of Christianity. Thus the vision depicts the unity of Scripture and the complementariness of the Testaments.

Here, a verse that repeats the first verse except for one line, Heber borrows from the theology of Isaiah 6:3. Beyond the full expression of humanity, “All thy works shall praise [God’s] name.” John of the Apocalypse sees 4 living creatures, which interpreters suggest could represent the 4 directions of the earth and thus all creation. So not only is there a unity of Scripture and Testaments, there is a unity of all Creation.

Here “Earth and sky and sea” are included. It suggests that all of creation, not just humans made in God’s image and God’s celestial messengers, exist to praise God. God’s presence is not limited to heaven, but can be discerned here on earth among all created beings as well. Isaiah had the same discovery: even the exalted King’s robe reached down to his level.

This truth is what we remember at the Table. In Protestant (particularly Zwinglian) churches, communion is served on a tables inscribed with, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But in Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches communion is received at an altars inscribed with the words, “Holy, holy, holy”. Lutherans, in characteristic ambiguous fashion, refer to the furniture as an altar, a table, or an altar table, and they don’t have inscriptions generally.

The holy-inscribed altars make the point of God’s earthly presence in the sacramental elements of bread and wine. In practice, I think it is helpful to remember all the options. If you need nourishment for your spiritual journey, come to the table and remember God’s faithful providence. If you need the assurance of God’s presence, come to the altar and receive the Body and Blood of the Lamb. In either case, God is present in Christ by the power of the Spirit for the spiritual needs of all who come.

In conclusion, “Holy, Holy, Holy” rightly opens any hymnal, inviting us to worship God and reminding us that we share God’s holiness. It teaches us that God is “perfect in power AND love,” that God is “mighty AND merciful.” What is more, we participate in God’s holiness through the ministry of Trinity, the God who is revealed in Christ and who accomplishes the miracle of our salvation through the Spirit including the sacraments. As such, this hymn also pays great dividends to those who memorize and meditate upon it.

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