Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany February 10, 2019
You have perhaps seen advertisements for an online resource called Angies List. Based on customer satisfaction reports, Angies List will provide information about competent and fair electricians, auto mechanics, plumbers and the like when you are looking for various services. Trusting testimonies from satisfied customers, you can select a person or business with a degree of confidence.
We don’t hear about Angies List in the Scripture lessons today but we do hear about God’s List or Jesus’ List regarding who they call to serve as a prophet, apostle or disciple. As you listened to the lessons today it appeared that God called for God’s service the least qualified. In the first reading we heard of a spectacular vision a man named Isaiah had in the Temple. He saw God. This was considered to be hazardous to your health. Sinful humanity was to approach God carefully, in the Temple with prayer and sacrifice, but never to see God directly. The powerful holiness of God would consume you. But in his vision Isaiah saw the Lord God on his lofty throne. The hem of God’s robe filled the entire Temple. Frightening creatures called seraphs—the word means ‘fire’-thundered shaking everything, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.” These fiery and scary angels are constantly thundering around the throne of God announcing God’s holiness. Notice they did not say heaven only is the location of God’s glory or presence, but the whole earth as well.
Isaiah did not respond to this vision by saying “Awesome, I can’t wait to write it all down in my journal.” He uttered the cry, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among people of unclean lips.” Isaiah felt woefully inadequate, yet he has seen God, and that cannot be good, a terrible judgment must be at hand. Isaiah knew he was unqualified to stand before the holy God with anything except a confession. He was a man of unclean lips. The whole nation was not any better. Earlier in Isaiah we read, “For Jerusalem has stumbled and Judah has fallen, because their speech and deeds are against the Lord, defying his glorious presence.” The whole nation was living in such a way that day-by-day they denied God’s presence as their Creator, failing to be thankful for blessings received. They not only denied God’s presence in the world, but they also defied it. For the time this meant the worship of whatever gods the people wanted. Was Isaiah admitting he was part of an overall idolatry; boy that should disqualify him before God. Idolatry is not only bowing down to an image of a god, it can be more subtle than that. In a sense people can bow down before themselves, proud of their accomplishments with no gratitude for God. People can be arrogant about themselves. Another meaning of “unclean lips” maybe found in the common complaint, “they honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Isaiah knew he was guilty of that: praying the right words, singing the right words, worshiping the right way on the outside, but what about the inside, the heart? Worship and faith is not about ‘looking good’, but being good, and for the Scriptures being good meant obedience to the will of God. Isaiah knew he was guilty; he could not hide under the bright light of the glory of God.
Then came one of those fiery angels with a burning, searing hot coal from the altar. With that coal the angel told Isaiah “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed, and your sin blotted out.” The man crying “Woe is me, expecting the wrath of God” instead was cleansed of his sin. Now the Lord began to speak, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us” Isaiah, no longer saying “Woe is me” said “Pick me, pick me, Here I am, send me.” As we heard the task before the prophet Isaiah would be rough, speaking God’s word to a people who wanted nothing to do with God and God’s will. But Isaiah was willing to be a spokesman for God because his guilt was gone, and sin blotted out, all because of God’s decision, God’s action, God’s grace.
We heard the good news of God’s amazing grace in the reading from the apostle Paul. He told the church people at Corinth that he faithfully proclaimed to them the very center of the faith, what sounds like an early creed: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the scriptures.” This is the gospel, the good news of our salvation. Paul was somewhat surprised that he was called to be an apostle or one sent to proclaim all that Jesus did for people. If Paul had a resume there would be listed ‘persecuted the church of God.” That should have disqualified him. Paul used a vivid image: he felt as one untimely born.” Literally Paul said he was like a stillborn child. He used a terribly sad image to picture just hopeless he was, how wrong he was, how dead he was, completely unqualified for being a preacher or apostle. But God can be funny, God can call the unexpected, God can call even an enemy of Jesus, and by grace, change that person. In fact Paul used the word ‘grace’ three times to describe his transformation” “But by the grace of God I am who I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of the others, though it was not me, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul knew that being a follower of Jesus is no picnic: there are times of frustration and failure. Yet if God can call someone like Paul, who persecuted the church, than God is at work to fulfill God’s plans and purposes even when we are unaware meaning, as Paul wrote, “know that in the Lord Jesus, your labor is not in vain.”
In the gospel lesson we met Simon Peter and his associates, commercial fisherman working the Sea of Galilee or known by another name Gennesaret, meaning “harp”, for that is the shape of the lake. Their evening of fishing looked like it was vain for they caught nothing. Nothing at all, which is not good for their bottom line. Jesus came along and asked to borrow Simon Peter’s boat to use as a pulpit, speaking and teaching the crowd. Simon and associates were cleaning nets when suddenly Jesus told them to go out and fish, this time go to the deeper water. This did not sound good to fisherman exhausted from a fruitless night’s labor. And what did Jesus, trained as a carpenter, know about the fishing business? But give Simon Peter credit, he didn’t tell Jesus to jump in the lake, but went out again at Jesus’ word. And we heard about the miraculous catch, nets so full that they were beginning to break. Another boat was called for, and both boats were so laden with fish they were in danger of sinking.
We know Simon Peter did not say “Jesus, I’ll hire you as my fish-finder.” No, he knew something miraculous had occurred, out-of –the-ordinary, all pointing to the holiness of Jesus. In fear Peter cried out “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” There was much Simon Peter did not understand, like a record catch of fish during the wrong time of the day. In the presence of Jesus, all Peter knew was his sinfulness. He felt completely unqualified to be in Jesus’ presence, so it would be best if Jesus went somewhere else. But Jesus did not say anything about sins. Jesus wasn’t there to be condemning, but calling Simon Peter, along with his partners James and John, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be busy with another kind of catch, you will be catching people. You will come and follow me on a catch and release ministry: catching people with good news, their forgiveness or release from sin, guilt, and condemnation, the mission of Jesus who previously said “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sigh to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and not be about fear, but declaring the year of God’s favor.
Isaiah was sure he was done for and cried out “Woe is me”; but things changed because of the gift of God’s forgiveness. Now he said, “Lord, Here am I, send me!” Paul thought as far as the church of Jesus was concerned, he was dead because of his past. But he was changed because of God’s gift, God’ grace and said, “God’s grace for me was not in vain for I have worked as hard as any other apostle.” Peter, awestruck and fearful before Jesus’ power pleaded for him to leave him because he was a sinful man. But Jesus refused to leave. Instead Jesus called Simon Peter to follow him, and learn to catch people with the grace, forgiveness, and love of God. Maybe you feel lost. Maybe you feel burdened by guilt and sin. Maybe you have a troubled past. God’s view of you may not be what you think. Just as Jesus sent Simon Peter to cast his net in the deep water, Jesus casts his net of steadfast love in the very depths of our souls. Jesus finds the lost and afraid. Jesus is not interested in focusing in on sins. Jesus does not disqualify because of mistakes of the past. Jesus calls us to follow him, to be released from guilt and sin, and be open for his grace to work through us, so we can catch others who are hurting and afraid with the healing and steadfast love of God. Don’t worry about qualifications for what counts is grace, it is Jesus we follow, it is Jesus from whom we learn, it is his grace and mercy that qualifies us.