Pastoral Series

Worship Matters: Holy

   The hymn I remember liking to sing as a child, for some reason, was “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Maybe the words were easy, since it’s repetitive! So many of our hymns and praise songs veer toward the touchy feely, the warm intimacy with God – which is good. “Holy, Holy, Holy” isn’t about our feelings at all. It’s about God. What it expresses is awe. Being in awe: this is the gift of worship you won’t stumble upon anywhere else in your life.

The hymn clearly plays on the call of Isaiah the prophet (chapter 6). “In the year that King Uzziah died” – that is, in the thick of politics and history, Isaiah was in the temple, and the room literally came to life (in his imagination? or in a vision from God?). “I saw the Lord sitting on the throne” – so not Uzziah or his heir, or the Assyrian emperor or Egyptian Pharaoh. God rules!

Then carved creatures (the Cherubim and Seraphim) came to life and began flying around, smoke, shadows and light – and God’s voice. Isaiah trembled, as we all must if we ponder the immense holiness, grandeur and might of God’s presence. Those creatures sang to him – but really to God: “Holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of his glory.” When we sing this hymn, we join angelic creatures and saints in heaven in glorifying God.

The thrice repeated “Holy” led later Christian theologians to reflect on God as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a mystery but a reality: God is eternally a fellowship within God’s own heart. Singing to that fellowship that is God creates fellowship among us, and with them. The tune to which we sing is called “Nicaea,” recalling the historic church council in the year 325 when theologians, bishops and pastors firmed up what the Bible teaches and what we believe about God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

This same angelic hymn appears elsewhere in Scripture. In the apocalyptic, kaleidoscopic fantasia that is Revelation we read in 4:6-11 that creatures around God’s throne sing “Holy, holy, holy!” – and we can be sure that the early Christians, persecuted and intimidated by Roman emperors, centurions, soldiers and tax collectors boldly and courageously sang these counter-cultural words, declaring their unflagging devotion to Christ as their Lord, not to Caesar who claimed to be Lord of the earth.

A few other phrases to ponder in our hymn. I love that we sing this “early in the morning.” “All the Saints adore thee” – and so when we sing, we join our voices to St. Francis, Mother Teresa, my grandparents and a holy host of those who are fully with God. This awe-inspiring, majestic all-powerful God is “merciful and mighty” – and notice the order. God’s mercy is the main thing, God’s might only a tool God uses in his larger labor of mercy. “Though the darkness hide thee.” If God is hard to see, this is actually the very nature of God to be beyond comprehension. And if we sing “All thy works shall praise thy name,” perhaps we notice the trees, clouds, salamanders, mountains, grass, our own hands and the people around us as evidence of God’s creative wisdom and generosity.

Isaiah recovers from being nearly annihilated by the shock and awe of God – and then offers to do whatever God asks. “Here I am, Lord,” will be our focus in Monday’s email. For now, listen to and engage your heart in “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

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