Text: Isaiah 6:1-7; Luke 2:8-20
Hymns: Lutheran Service Book: 960; 367, 380
Although angels are powerful heavenly being, they are not to be worshipped. In Revelation chapter 22, the Apostle John fell down at the feet of an angel to worship him, but the angel responded, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.” (vs. 9) Indeed, we should only worship God and none other. This is the first and greatest commandment.
God is not only our God; he is the angels’ God. We even proclaim every Sunday in the Proper Preface, “therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying,” So, not only do we believe that angels worship the same God we worship, but we worship God with the angels every time we worship God!
And since angels stand in the presence of God (Luke 1:19) and always behold the face of God (18:10), it seems natural that we would seek to learn from the angels how to worship the almighty God with whom they share heaven. Indeed, this is what the Christian Church has done. For at least 1,650 years the Gloria in Excelsis has been a part of the Divine Service. This is where we sing, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace good will toward men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee,” and so forth. Every Sunday you go to church, except for during Advent and Lent, you hear this song being sung. And who taught us this song? The angels, who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace good will toward men.” (Luke 2:13-14) If this song is good enough for the angels in heaven, it is certainly good enough for us to sing praises to our God, who comes to us even today in his Word and Sacraments.
Every Sunday before we receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ true body and blood, we sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; heav’n and earth are full of Thy glory.” And where did we get these words? Isaiah heard the seraphim sing them in earth shaking voices to one another. The word Sabaoth is Hebrew for heavenly hosts. God is the Lord of the heavenly armies of angels.
Yet, it isn’t just that we take the words the angels speak in their worship and incorporate them into our worship. It is the how and why that we are interested in. First the why. Why do the angels use these words? “Holy, holy, holy.” Why three holies? Why not one? Why not a hundred? The angels say the word holy three times, because God is the Holy Trinity. The Father is holy. The Son is holy. The Holy Spirit is holy. And yet, there are not three holies, but one Holy. The angels confess the Holy Trinity, the only God, who is Lord of the heavenly armies; the only God, whose glory fills the heavens and the earth.
And so, we learn from the angels, whom we should worship: The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also learn from the angels’ worship that we glorify God by confessing who he is. This is why we confess the Creed. This is why we proclaim Jesus to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. We glorify God by confessing him to be who he says he is and by confessing all the wonderful works he has done. When we sing the words of the angels, we are not mindlessly mimicking their words like parrots. We are learning from them why they sing the words they sing. And we let this “why” affect our entire form of worship.
Second, how do the angels worship God. Let’s look at the seraphim. Seraphim are mighty angels, who fly above God’s throne. Their name, seraph, comes from the Hebrew word for burning, which indicates that their appearance might have been like fire. They used two wings to fly, but they used their other two pairs of wings to cover their faces and their feet. In Martin Luther’s hymn, he says that they did this humbly. Isn’t that remarkable? Angels of such high rank that they fly above God’s throne, whose appearance is of fire, who dwell in heaven close to God and are without sin, yet, they still show humility. They cover their faces before God. They cover their feet. They stand before God in reverence.
And so, we learn to behave in a similar way. We have no written rule on how we should behave, what we should wear, how we should act when we are in worship before God. But the example of the angels tells us that we should be reverent. If the angels themselves cover their feet in humility, we too should come before God in humility. The angels teach us to recognize that we are in the presence of almighty God, who made the heavens and the earth. We learn from their composure that we should not forget that to have no other gods means to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. This fear does not mean that we are frightened of him, but that we acknowledge God as God and that he is the giver of all good things.
The seraphim show humility before God, but they are not timid. Quite the opposite! While remaining pious and reverent, the angels are very confident in their worship of God. Isaiah says, “The foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called.” As these angels say, “Holy, holy, holy!” to one another, their voices shook the foundations of the heavenly temple! Here, the angels teach us how to sing! When you come to church, don’t just mumble along to the music or worse, close the book and sit with your mouth closed. No, sing! It doesn’t matter if you think you can’t sing. God desires to hear your praise. Sing like the angels. Sing with the confidence of faith that what you are confessing is true. Let the beams and lintels of the church tremble as you sing praises to the only thrice holy God!
Yet, there still remains a deep problem in our quest to worship God as the angels do. We’re not angels. We’re not sinless heavenly beings. We’re sinners. This is exactly the problem Isaiah and the shepherds faced. Isaiah cried out when he saw the angels’ worship, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Yet, in each of our biblical cases of worshiping angels, the angels provide a solution. One of the seraphim flew to Isaiah, took a burning coal from the altar with tongs, and he touched Isaiah’s mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
This is the solution. The forgiveness of sins. Isaiah is able to stand before God, to join in and worship him, to proclaim the words of the Lord, because his sins are taken away. This is why we begin our services with confession and absolution. We, who on account of our sins are not worthy to stand before God or sing his praise, are forgiven of all our sins. When we hear that God forgives us for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death, we are then fully equipped to praise God with the angels and with all those who dwell in heaven.
The angel did the same thing for the frightened shepherds. He says, “Fear not.” Why should they not fear? Because the angel brings them good news. This good news is that unto them is born a Savior. Here again, we learn from the angels how to worship. In our worship we need the Gospel. It is through faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our Savior, that we are able to worship God with confidence. In fact, the greatest worship of God is done in the heart, when you believe that God forgives you and accepts you for Christ’s sake. This is why the preaching of the Gospel is always part of our worship of God.
Did you notice how the angel used tongs to pick up the burning coal from the altar, but then he touched it to Isaiah’s mouth. Why didn’t the coal burn Isaiah’s lips? And if the coal didn’t burn Isaiah’s lips, then why did the angel need to pick up the coal with tongs? Because, the burning coal represents the divinity of God. God, in a mystery we cannot comprehend, became a man. The hottest fire touched human flesh, yet the flesh did not burn. God did not become an angel. So, the angel cannot touch God with his bare hands, but a sinful man, Isaiah can touch God with his lips. Because God became man, Jesus Christ. And Jesus, who sacrificed himself on the altar of God, which was his cross, has made atonement for our sins, so that we not only can worship him without fear, but we can even eat his true body and blood and say that God now dwells in us. This is something angels cannot do.
Sometimes our church looks almost empty when we’re gathered to worship. That can be discouraging. Yet, remember, that there are those worshiping with us, whom we cannot see. We worship with the angels of heaven. And even greater than that, we worship with the saints, who have gone before us, whose sins have been atoned for, who are able to have a contact with God, which the angels will never have. And as we worship God here on earth, we have confidence that we will soon worship him in heaven, with uncovered faces, with angels, archangels, and every saint. We will worship him without end. Amen.