In the year that King Uzziah died…


Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2021


“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty…”

That is how the prophet Isaiah begins telling the story of his wondrous vision of God and God’s heavenly throne room. In the year that King Uzziah died. Those words have been rattling around in my head all week. I want to just jump into talking about what Isaiah saw and what it might mean, but for some reason the part of this text that keeps jumping out at me this week and getting stuck in my brain is the first line: In the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah is kind of a fun name to say. Who was Uzziah? Well, Uzziah was a king of the Southern kingdom of Judah, back when there were two kingdoms of Hebrews. 

One of the fun things about the Bible, is that sometimes you will read details in scripture and they will seem completely meaningless, and then other times you will read those exact same words again and all of a sudden they will contain a major clue to the meaning of the whole passage. “In the year that King Uzziah died” is one of those passages for me. The first few times I read it, I just saw it as a more or less meaningless date marker: like “in the year 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I just thought Isaiah was pointing to a significant event to set his story in time, and it does that, but it also does so much more if you take a closer look at who Uzziah was and then reflect on why his death might actually be an important detail in the story Isaiah is trying to tell. You see, you have to be careful when you are dismissing details in scripture as being unimportant. Somebody thought they were important enough to write down, back when the written word really meant something and writings were really sacred, so don’t be too quick to dismiss minor details…like King Uzziah. 

Here’s what you should know about King Uzziah: in the first place he was king over Judah for over 50 years. That’s a long time now, it was an especially long time back then. There would have been plenty of people living that would have never known another king, most people actually. Uzziah would have been a sign of stability and security. When your country loses that great symbol of continuity and strength and power, well that is bound to be upsetting. But here is the other thing you need to know about Uzziah: he started off as a good king. He was capable and successful and faithful, but, as often happens, his success led to his downfall. He got a little full of himself and decided that he should be the one to go into God’s temple and burn the incense and not God’s priests as the Lord had ordained. He tried that once and while the censer was still in his hand, his skin burst out with leprosy. You have to tread lightly around God’s throne; it’s a lesson that Uzziah learned the hard way. 

So while the nation is mourning the death of this great king, who was just a little too full of himself, that is when Isaiah has this powerful vision. And what is his vision? A throne! In the year that the great king dies, Isaiah sees a throne, a throne high and lofty, and this throne isn’t empty. The great king Uzziah might be dead, but that doesn’t matter, because the only throne that really matters isn’t empty at all. Human thrones can be vacant, but God’s throne is always occupied. And God’s throne isn’t occupied by the sort of petty tyrants we get on this earth. Even our best, most noble and greatest rulers can’t compare with this majestic king, the very hem of whose garment seems to fill the whole temple. And more than that, Isaiah sees creatures that are almost impossible to describe or fathom, seraphs will all sorts of wings that fly around singing this song of praise which ought to sound familiar to you, since we sing it ourselves every week: “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

Isaiah knows that he’s not worthy to be there or to see these sights, he says I am unclean and I have unclean lips. And then one of the seraphs purifies his lips with a live coal. The voice of the Lord says: “whom shall I send?” And Isaiah replies, send me. And God gives Isaiah a message: he says “go and say this: keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking but do not understand.” God goes on to say to Isaiah that he doesn’t want people to think that they have figured everything thing out on their own; he wants them to turn and be healed. Keep listening, keep looking. Do not comprehend; do not understand; turn and be healed. 

Isaiah cannot comprehend this Lord sitting upon the heavenly throne; he can’t fully understand him. But he can worship him. He can join his voice with the voices of those seraphs proclaiming God’s greatness and majesty. Isaiah can be cleansed by this God; Isaiah can turn and be healed. That is what this glorious Lord wants Isaiah to understand. That is why God sends Isaiah out to share this vision with the world. We worship a God who reveals himself to us. We have a king that now and then gives us a glimpse of the kingdom, not so that we can strut around all arrogant and proud thinking that we have figured things out, but so that we can actually fall down before the true king and lord of life who has the power to heal us, and who wants to live in relationship with us. Isaiah didn’t volunteer to tell the world about God because he had figured God out. Isaiah was so moved by God’s glory and mercy that he felt compelled to tell the world about a vision of the Lord that was beyond comprehension. In the year that King Uzziah died, what Isaiah witnessed was a king, but a king unlike Uzziah. Earthly kings come and go. Earthly kings don’t have half the power and might that they think they have. But the true king is eternal, almighty, glorious beyond all comprehension, and most important: merciful. 

I’m sure that when Isaiah told people about what he had seen, that some people immediately sat down and tried to figure out how the hem of the Lord’s garment could fill the whole temple, or they might have tried to figure out how exactly those seraphs were flying around with wings over here, and wings over there, and no doubt some people would have gotten so caught up in figuring out exactly what Isaiah saw, that they might have missed the fact that Isaiah was healed. His sin was blotted out. It is so typical of us humans, we get so caught up in our own understanding and our own pride, that we miss God’s grace when it is being held out to us, simply because we don’t understand it. But what if we could push our understanding off to the side for a bit and just said: I’m not going to try to figure things out for a minute. I’m just going to simply worship, love and adore. What would that look like?

Well it might look like how we are going to end our service today. This morning we are going to end mass with a solemn te deum. I don’t think it is something that we have done, at least not during my time here, but it is a very ancient Christian prayer or song that glorifies God and testifies to how we have witnessed God’s glory. Most of you know that today is Trinity Sunday, a day of infamy every year when preachers across the world dive headlong into heresy by trying to oversimplify and explain the very essence of who we believe God is. But the Holy Trinity is not a doctrine that we are meant to truly understand, anymore than Isaiah was meant to understand the vision he had. It is a revelation. It is a revelation of who God is. It isn’t something that we sat down and came up with one day; it is a testimony to the God that we have witnessed in the world. We have witnessed God as the great creator and king seated upon the throne, as Isaiah saw; we have seen the fullness of God in God’s only son, Jesus Christ; and we have experienced the power of that same God through the Holy Spirit. What has been revealed to us is that these three are all in fact the same God, reaching out to us and offering us grace and forgiveness. In each one of those persons of the Trinity, God offers us grace. That’s what really matters. We could sit around beating our heads trying to figure God out, or we could just fall down and worship and accept the grace that has been offered to us. That’s what a te deum is all about: simply giving thanks to God for the wonders that we have been shown, for the grace that we have been given.