February 7, 2010

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

I said in my sermon last Sunday that when we come face to face with God in Jesus Christ, the amazing nature of God’s goodness can make us suddenly aware of our own imperfection. We believe in a God who loves us with an unending love, but who also calls us to let the Spirit transform us more and more into the image and likeness of God. And so, the message of the prophets is never just that God exists, or that God simply loves us, but it is that God both loves us and requires us to live in certain ways – ways of love and justice – within our families, our communities, and in relation to our neighbours.

But sometimes, the fact of our human sinfulness becomes the main message that we get in church. In prayers of confession each week, we are reminded of our failures – the things we have done wrong, and the good and loving things that we have failed to do. As much as I would like to ignore sin and to focus on those things that we are doing well – to concentrate on the ways that we are loving and serving, and giving our time and energy towards God’s good purposes, the reality of human sinfulness comes up over and over in the scriptures.

Today’s readings include two examples of human people coming face to face with the holiness and wonderfulness of God, and just about freaking out from the experience. First, there is Isaiah, who has a weird and wonderful vision of the Lord. God is so huge in Isaiah’s vision that as he sits on a throne, only the hem of his robe fills up the giant temple of Jerusalem. Strange winged creatures are flying about and worshipping God, as the temple shakes and fills with smoke. It’s quite a dramatic scene!

Although God’s voice has not yet been heard, calling Isaiah to become a prophet and to go out in God’s name to speak to the people, Isaiah seems to know that he’s about to be sent on a mission. And he doesn’t feel prepared. He doesn’t feel worthy. With his eyes beholding the holiness and majesty of God, he becomes acutely aware of his own unworthiness: “Woe is me! I am lost,” he cries, “for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!”

In a moment, God will send Isaiah to speak the very words of God to his people… and this is unimaginable for Isaiah, because his lips (like all our lips) have probably been used to utter curses, to grumble and complain, and to say all kinds of things that shouldn’t have been said.

The fisherman called Simon, who later became Jesus’ good friend Peter, had a similar reaction when he encountered the Christ of God for the first time. After borrowing a seat in Simon’s boat so that he could teach the crowds on the shore, Jesus asked Simon to put out into the deep water and let the nets down for a catch.

Simon was doubtful about the usefulness of the endeavour, because he and his friends had been fishing all night and hadn’t caught anything. But he must have been impressed with the authority of the teacher, because he agreed to give it a try. Lo and behold – Jesus was right. They caught so many fish so quickly that their nets were beginning to break. Even with the help of their partners in another boat, there were so many fish that their boats were in danger of sinking.

Again – just like in Isaiah’s story – not a word had been uttered about a call to do some work for God. But Simon was already objecting, letting Jesus know that he (Simon) was not worthy. He fell down at Jesus’ knees saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” As Simon witnessed the wonderful power of God in Jesus, he became horrified by his own unworthiness, and he could hardly stand to remain in Jesus’ presence. It must have felt like a bright light had been turned on… there was light shining onto all the things that he wanted to remain hidden, onto all the mistakes that he wished could be forgotten. It was as if they were written across his face, as if he was wearing them on his sleeve.

Although it can be very difficult… there is something very good and healing about confession – whether it is confessing your mistake to a person that has been hurt by it, confessing your neglect to a friend who will hear you and encourage you to go on and keep trying, or whether it is confessing your sin to God and humbly asking for forgiveness and help.

Whatever the process of confession, what happens is that all that stuff (that we are so embarrassed and ashamed of) gets out in the light of God where it can be acknowledged and dealt with… and ultimately, where it can be left behind. Just think of that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach when you have hurt your spouse, or let down your friend, or ignored someone who needed your help. And remember the release of pressure that occurs when you finally talk about it, or maybe fight about it… and ultimately, get over it and go on?

Imagine Isaiah… looking up at the holiness of God, and blurting out his confession of the bad things that have come from his mouth. And God didn’t reject him. God didn’t go looking for someone else. God didn’t even punish or reprimand him. Instead, God cleansed him from his sin. Isaiah looked, and he saw one of the seraphs flying to him, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched his mouth with it and said, “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”

Forgiveness is not just a New Testament concept that came in with Jesus. Here, Isaiah is clearly forgiven by God and equipped to respond to God’s call in the affirmative. “Whom shall I send?” God asks, “and who will go for us?” And Isaiah boldly responds, “Here am I; send me!”

I feel very blessed because in my life experience in my family growing up, and in the church, the message of God’s amazing love for me has always been emphasized more strongly than my utter depravity as a sinful human being. While I have been challenged to live into my identity as a beloved child of God, that identity has never been questioned. I belong to God, and I am loved… just exactly as I am.

But there are many among us (and many more who are not among us this morning) who have not heard that message as often or as consistently as they need to hear it in order for it to sink into their hearts and become a part of their very being. When they look at themselves in the mirror, they may see only the failures, or the broken relationships… they may see only the parts of themselves that they would want to keep hidden from the world and from the holiness and goodness of God.

The author of this morning’s psalm must also have felt pretty small and not very significant compared to the wonder of God’s glory. He wrote: “I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart… I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness.” But the psalmist seemed to know that God would not reject him or his praise, even if he failed to match God’s perfection. He continues: “On the day I called, you answered me, you increased my strength of soul… For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly… The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me.”

Simon, who became Peter, was amazed, along with the others, at the catch of fish that they had taken. But he was also afraid… afraid, perhaps, that he would be judged by God and found lacking… afraid, perhaps, that Jesus would expect him to do more than he was able to do… afraid, perhaps, of the unknown possibilities and dangers that lay ahead for him if he were to follow this amazing man on his mission.

Have you ever noticed that on this first fishing trip with Jesus, the nets are beginning to break and the boats are in danger of sinking? Jesus invites us to join him in a mission that is beyond our human capabilities, and that we cannot handle through our own strength and talent alone. But if you read the Gospel of John, you will notice that there are two stories about the disciples fishing with Jesus in that Gospel. In the earlier story, the nets are beginning to break when they are filled to overflowing with fish. But later, when Jesus comes back again after his death and resurrection, he takes them out fishing again. The miraculous catch of fish is repeated. But this time, the nets hold, and with the help of some friends, they successfully drag them into the shore.

This morning we are invited to remember and to know that our identity as God’s beloved children is much more important than our history as humans who make mistakes and do wrong things. And no matter how unimportant or incompetent or inexperienced we may feel, God is calling us to follow the way of Jesus, to learn from him, and to join in his mission. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to us, “from now on you will be catching people.”

And as Simon and his friends left everything behind to follow Jesus, may we leave behind our doubts, our fears, and our insecurities, and follow him in faith and confidence. May the Lord fulfill his purpose for us, and may God’s Kingdom come. Amen.