February 10, 2019

5th Sunday after the Epiphany Year C

Our lectionary texts this morning have at least one thing in common, the idea of calling, being called by God to something beyond our personal interest, to a purpose beyond ourselves, to God’s mission in the world. 

As the Psalmist says, 

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; 

your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.

Notice that it is “the Lord” who fulfills his purpose for us. This is not a coercive statement, but one of grace – of a God whose steadfast love goes before us, undergirds our best efforts, and strengthens us in the midst of difficult circumstances. Our God is like a loving parent who doesn’t prevent us from making mistakes, but is always there to help pick us up and clean us off, with encouragement to continue to try new things and learn from our setbacks.

The prophet Isaiah finds himself in an uncertain and difficult circumstance, his king, Uziah, has died and there is uncertainty for the future of the kingdom. So Isaiah goes to the Temple to worship and something amazing happens. By the way, as an aside to our story, while God can show up whenever and wherever God wants, and God is always present with us even though we may not feel or know it, part of the rhythm of having a regular spiritual practice of worship and prayer is that it tunes our spiritual sensors to hear and experience God when God does reveal God’s self to us.

So here we have Isaiah seeing an absolutely extraordinary vision of God, one of the seminal experiences of the divine in all of scripture:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

Like fans at a Razorback game calling the hogs, the angels are cheering for God so loudly that the building shook like there was an earthquake and with the shaking of the building smoke filled the air. And what was it the angels were proclaiming? “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.” Sound familiar? The same words we sing each time we worship together, the part of out liturgy which is called the Sanctus, which simply means “holy.” It is our holy cheer for God!

Isaiah is shocked and even fearful to see God in this way. In our day we might say a slightly different “Holy” followed by “I’m in big trouble!” But Isaiah says,

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!

And then one of God’s angels picks up a burning coal and touches it to Isaiah’s lips (homily alert, don’t try this at home!) and says, “your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Apparently, this is only the beginning because God finally speaks and says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Now at this point if I were Isaiah, I probably would have started looking around to see who else was there or just looked down at my shoes like they had suddenly become much more interesting than the spectacle I seemed to be apart of. But Isaiah, apparently feeling the effects of the cleansing burning coal states emphatically, “Here am I; send me!”

Notice the syntax of Isaiah’s reply with the emphasis on the object “here” rather than the subject “I.” This wasn’t primarily about Isaiah, this was about God and God’s mission. Isaiah was simply the willing vessel of God’s message. After all, King Uziah has just died and the nation of Israel is in a precarious position without leadership. He accepts God’s call to be the mouthpiece of God. This is not a calling for the faint of heart.

Our Gospel reading tells the story of another call. This time Jesus has asked to use the boat of a man named Simon so he may more easily address the large crowd that has gathered to hear his message. The fishermen have just finished a long night of hard work fishing, having caught nothing, and are in the process of cleaning their nets to go home for a well-deserved rest. But after Jesus is finished with his teaching, he instructs Simon to “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon reluctantly agrees and before he knows it, has to ask the other boat for help because the net is so full of fish it begins to break. This is the sort of catch Simon has dreamed about, too good to be true! There were so many fish that both boats were overloaded and were near sinking. They had hit the proverbial fisherman’s jackpot. Simon immediately recognizes this as an act of God and kneels at Jesus feet in the sinking boat and proclaims, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Sound familiar?

No burning coals this time, Jesus simply says, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” Jesus calls Simon to join in his mission of inviting people into God’s realm of peace and forgiveness.

These stories of Isaiah and Simon demonstrate a pattern of how God works, not just in their lives, but in ours as well. It may happen in a time of crisis when a king has just died and there is no prophet in the land. Or it may happen at the end of a long day at work when we’re tired and ready to go home and Jesus shows up and asks to use our boat. Isaiah pays attention when old certainties no longer prevail. And Simon pays attention even when he is exhausted and his business is struggling.

God also speaks to us a word of grace, a word that requires us to look beyond ourselves at God’s purpose in the world. Like Isaiah and Simon, may we pay attention in the present moment to hear God’s call and say, “Here am I, Send me!”