Sermon for 2.7.10, Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 6.1-13; Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15.1-11; Luke 5.1-11
Please pray with me: Dearest Lord, in our meditation on your scripture, may your word be heard; in the thoughts of our hearts, may your word be known; in the faithfulness of our lives, may your word be shown. Amen.
From this morning’s Gospel: “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”
Thanks to the Scripture this week, I’ve been thinking of experiences that take my breath away, that fill me with awe: Fresh-fallen snow and clearing sky after a heavy storm; the Vineyard sound when I get to see it again each July; my memory of the open, active volcano crater on Hawaii’s Big Island and, around it, the ever-widening fissures pushing steam and gases up through the earth. Awe-filled moments are hard to forget. You’ll have your own versions. For me, there’s always something of resident power in each of these scenes that makes me feel my own vulnerability, even some fright: harsh weather threatens life, the ocean must always be respected, and volcano-watching should not be a casual activity.
That tension between admiration and fear is at the heart of Isaiah’s experience and also Peter’s. Such tension is actually a pretty good definition of awe: mingled reverence, dread, and wonder. And we’re being shown this week that such conflicting and powerful emotions are part of our relationship with our God who is awesome, not to be trifled with. I wonder how often we squarely face the fact that we are loved by and in turn love a God whose immediate presence would be too dazzling for us to bear. The Scripture for next week will build on that realization. Today we are asked to take the experience of awe seriously as two great Biblical figures are changed, transformed by their encounter—their epiphanies—with God.
It’s worth noting that Isaiah is in the temple—in church—when his epiphany occurs. Not a bad place to encounter grace! In fact, Isaiah’s probably only in the doorway since he tells us that “the hem of [God’s] robe filled the temple.” Think scale for a second and imagine how huge a figure would need to be for just his or her hem to fill a large interior. The Divine Figure here is incomprehensible and yet the Divine has also given Isaiah ways to know him. Here a formal and beautiful service is going on: There is the hymn of praise, “Holy, holy, holy,” sung by a choir that shakes the foundations, and there is the smoke from the offering. Perhaps Isaiah’s cry of confession comes because he is so awed by what he is experiencing: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” He’s packing a lot into that confession: We don’t know exactly what “unclean lips” means, but Isaiah sees clearly that neither he nor his society has been obeying God’s commands. But even so, he realizes that God or at least God’s messengers have appeared to him.
His feelings of being both lost and found are confirmed by the ritual of purification that follows. Just as Isaiah would not have been able to bear the direct sight of God’s burning glory, so he could not bear the burning coal directly from God. For these reasons, God sends one of the Seraphs as a mediator, a messenger, first to wield those terrible tongs and then to speak the words of assurance: “Your sin is blotted out.” Isaiah doesn’t promise to try to be better; he confesses his fault and is then transformed by a power vastly beyond anything he could have imagined before his vision.
Isaiah was not only changed by repentance. That in itself can be powerfully troubling, even painful. Isaiah has now not simply been forgiven and folded into a safe, holy world. He will be transformed for his call and that too will be troubling and painful. Now Isaiah hears the actual voice of God and God’s directions are like the parables that are so hard to understand: God commands Isaiah to tell the people to “keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.” God no longer seems to be warning the people to repent; God’s new prophet Isaiah is to preach judgment, to proclaim God’s “no” because they so often only wanted to hear a “yes.” Poor Isaiah even asks God how long he will have to preach in this way, and again, the answer is blunt and realistic. The people need to hear that there is judgment.
By the end of God’s speech, even the saving remnant—the best 10 %—will be burned away. But despite darkness, 9/11s, Haitis, or the darkness of the cross, there is a ray of light. In the words of this passage, God tells Isaiah that a stump will be left and from that stump the holy seed will spring.
The Jesus, whom we meet on the lakeshore in Luke, is that holy seed, the Beloved Son with whom the Father is well pleased and whom the Father sent so that Divinity could be among us. In this passage too there may be a kind of worship going on as Jesus teaches the crowds that gather to hear him, but it’s a realistic scene, in the fresh early morning as the fishermen are cleaning their nets after a night’s work. Jesus seems perfectly accessible, a simple man of flesh and blood. And then mystery and power enter the passage. Jesus commands Peter to go back out onto the water, the deep water, and start fishing again. Peter protests that they’ve been trying all night with no results. But he does as he is told and, as we all know, they catch so many that their nets began to break and their boats began to sink.
At this point, Peter, like Isaiah before him, realizes that he is in the presence of something far beyond him. “Depart from me, Lord,” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” Notice that Peter now calls Jesus not “Master” or “sir,” but “Lord”—kyrios—a word of high respect. His fear is so great that he uses the same word that Jesus had used in exorcising a demon just one chapter earlier: “Depart!” We don’t know what sins Peter might have been hiding, but Peter certainly realized that there can be no secrets from someone like this miracle worker. Better admit to the worst right away and have done with it: “I am a sinful man.” Maybe then this Jesus will leave him alone.
On the other hand, maybe it was an epiphany that drove Peter to his knees, a humble admission that he is a normal, fault-filled person who can only capitulate before this stranger whose power is surely divine. Jesus responds by saying, “Do not be afraid.” This is what angels usually say to mortals. And they probably say it because on some level we really should be, not because of who they are but because of who we have been. But Jesus, who is capable of the power that Isaiah encountered in the temple, was sent to live among us and be a Lord whom we could know and love. He can speak directly to Peter. Jesus wants Peter to move forward into his true vocation and so he simply tells him, “From now on you will be catching people.” And Peter and the others leave everything and follow him. There is no burning coal for Peter, at least not yet. But he will be drawn from his mundane life into waters far deeper than he ever expected.
And what of us? In just 10 days, on Ash Wednesday, we’ll be reminded that we too are simply mortal. What awe do we feel before the divine presence, even before the divine presence of our dear Lord Jesus? What do we need to leave behind so that we can follow his call? How can we become more attentive? As we prepare to hear the great story of Jesus’ Transfiguration next Sunday and then begin the final journey to Jerusalem with him, we can surely take some time for looking and listening and for allowing God to call us in God’s own way and time.
Let us pray: We thank you, dearest Lord, that you do not give us brightness that is too dazzling for us to bear or allow us to live in darkness that shuts out every hope. Be with us as we move through each day. Help us to know that we receive our life from a power beyond ourselves and that we live by a life that is not our own. Amen.
(With thanks to Bonnie Thurston)