“Your Guilt is Taken Away…”

This article was written for our March Newsletter.

“Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for”

You may have noticed the past couple of Sundays that I gave a different blessing at the end of each communion table. Instead of normally saying “Depart in peace; your sins are forgiven”, I said “Depart in peace; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 

That phrase was taken from our Old Testament reading a few weeks back, of Isaiah’s vision into the heavenly throne room (Isaiah 6). Isaiah trembled at being in the presence of God’s own throne room. It said the thresholds and foundations shook, and the 6 winged cherubim angels were flying about. Smoke billowed up from God’s altar. 

 Isaiah cried out “Woe is me! For I am an unclean mean of an unclean people”. To be a sinner in such a holy place surely meant God would destroy him.

But God did not. Instead, he sent one of the angels to carry a burning coal from the altar, and touched it to Isaiah’s lips. It did not scorch him. Instead, the  angel declared “Behold, this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

God then called for Isaiah to be a prophet to the people, to which Isaiah famously responded “Here I am, send me!”. Having been cleansed of his own sin, he could go with a clean conscience to call other people to repent of their sin. 

The focus of this passage is often on Isaiah’s response and God sending him. But what about that coal? Why did it not burn him, but purify him? How can a burning coal do such great things? 

This coal was taken from God’s altar. The Old Testament believers like Isaiah were well acquainted with offering sacrifices for their sins. But as Christians of the New Testament, we understand that it was never the blood of goats or bulls that actually forgave their sins. Hebrews chapter 10 teaches us that these sacrifices pointed us forward to Jesus’ sacrifice. It is truly only his blood shed that could forgive and reconcile the sins of the past, present, and future.

The burning coal from God’s own heavenly altar should be understood to be a burning coal from the sacrifice of Jesus himself. Remember, this is a vision Isaiah is experiencing, so we don’t need to get caught up in the fact Isaiah was before the time of Christ, or that Jesus wasn’t literally sacrificed on the fires of an altar. But The sacrifice of Christ crucified is for the sins of all time (Hebrews 10:10).

When Jesus’ sacrifice is offered from our altar in Holy Communion, we should be invited to receive it like Isaiah did. First, confessing our sins, as we do at the beginning and through our Divine Service. We then receive better than a burning coal to our mouths; we receive the very Body given and the Blood shed on our behalf. Having received it, we have been cleansed like Isaiah was, to do the various works God has given each of us to do. “Depart in peace! Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Amen.

– Pastor Paul Gaschler