Sunday, February 10, 2019. Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
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Both of our texts this morning conclude with God giving a summons to a person or a group. In both passages, God gives them a mission, a purpose, an organizing principle for their lives. “Whom shall I send,” God asks in Isaiah 6. “Who will go for us?” God has a mission that he wants to send someone on. And in Luke 5, Jesus turns to Simon Peter, who is there with a group of fellow fishermen, including James and John, and Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.” “Fishing” becomes a kind of metaphor here for Simon Peter’s vocation. He has been a fisherman before, but now he will be engaged in a different kind of fishing, what we might call “holy fishing.”
Both of these passages are pointing to the abundant life that God wants to live in and through us. Isaiah was called to speak prophetic words of judgment and hope to the people of Jerusalem. Simon Peter was called to be a part of building a community of Jesus’ students. In a very real way, you and I are sitting here today because of the impact of these two people. What God did through them, long ago, has shaped our lives today. When you’re talking about having an impact on the world, that’s not too bad.
The question of our vocation is a central question for our lives. Why are we here? Why has God put you on the earth? What does God want to do through your life? What does God want to do through you as an individual, and what does God want to do through us as a church? These sorts of questions are extremely important for young people. As young people make their way through middle school, high school and through college, as they develop their skill sets and their personalities, the question underlying much of what they are doing is, “What is my life going to be about? What am I going to do with my life? What is my personal mission in life?” These questions are fundamental to living a life of meaning and purpose.
But these questions are not just for young people. Mary Oliver’s question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” is a central question for us, no matter how old we are. When we enter middle-age, we may find ourselves re-examining our approach to life. When we enter retirement and our older years, we may find ourselves recalibrating things. Our bodies may no longer do everything they used to, but we may find that we are gathering depths of wisdom and patience that we did not formerly have access to, and which can become a resource for helping the people around us. What does God want to do through you, through us?
And when we examine these texts for clues about that, what is remarkable is what we do not find. In neither Isaiah nor Luke do we find examples of people who are superstars or heroic spiritual perfectionists. This is a little surprising, because when we talk about our life’s purpose and ask, What are you going to do with your life?, we can put a lot of pressure on ourselves to succeed. We’ve got to get it right. “You better not mess this up,” we can seem to say to each other. But that’s not what we find with either Isaiah or Luke.
When Isaiah has his vision of the temple, he sees the Lord sitting on a high and lofty throne, with six-winged seraphs flying about, you might have thought that his reaction would have been, “This is awesome! I must be awesome, too, if I’m getting to see all of this!” If Isaiah were living today, we could imagine him wanting to grab his phone to take a selfie, because you know that photo would get a lot of likes if you were to post it.
But that’s not what he does. 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.” Isaiah does not congratulate himself. Instead, he realizes how he has messed up his life in a variety of ways. The things that he thought would bring him happiness or success have not, in fact, done so. Isaiah seems particularly concerned about his speech. He says, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Now I think that this means much more than that Isaiah cussed a lot. I wonder if Isaiah became aware of how he, and the society of which he was a part, had fallen into the habit of using speech for reasons of manipulation, saying things to get what they want, rather than conveying the truth. In our own society, in which advertisers tell us that our lives will not be complete if we do not buy this “brand new car” or pair of shoes, we know a thing or two about words that do not convey the truth. Isaiah becomes aware of how he is a broken vessel.
And in Luke 5, Simon is recruited by Jesus to “fish for people.” But at least on this one occasion, Simon has not had great success at fishing. “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing,” he tells Jesus. Luke wants to make a point here that Simon and his friends are tired, they’re empty-handed, and they can’t do it on their own.
So this is very interesting. Here we are, talking about what God wants to do with us, why God has put us on the earth, and we end up talking about being broken, tired, and unable to accomplish things and get things to work out on our own. That’s not the way we might have thought this was going to work out.
According to these texts, there is something peculiar about God’s power and God’s abundant life. God’s power is released in us and through us, especially as we grow in humility. Isaiah fell to his knees, keenly aware that his lips were unclean; one of God’s angels took a hot coal, touched it to Isaiah’s mouth and said, “There now. I’ve taken care of that. Your brokenness is not a problem for God.” Simon Peter sighed with despair and told Jesus that they hadn’t caught anything all night. Peter knew the fish weren’t biting. But then he said, “Well, if you say so…” He dropped the nets, and their nets almost broke with the abundance.
This can be tough for our society to know what to do with. Our hyper-individualized society wants us to be high achievers, and to imagine ourselves as self-made men and women. Our society’s gospel is about being strong and getting to number one, standing at the top all by your lonesome. And if you can’t do that, then you’re a failure and a loser.
But that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus tells us, not that we’re strong on our own, but that God’s power at work within us is able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine. The gospel of Jesus tells us that God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.” “Whenever we are weak, then we are strong.” Our society doesn’t know what to do with claims like these.
This is yet another reason why small groups in the church are so essential to our faith and life, why youth groups and adult groups are so important. In a small group, we share this journey with others. We walk with each other through our joys and successes, but even more, we walk with each other through our failures and our disappointments.
Two questions. First, in your own life as an individual, and in our life together as a congregation, what do you sense that God is calling you to do? Where do you sense God calling you? And second, in your own life as an individual, and in our life together as a congregation, where do you sense that you are weak or broken or sinful? And can you imagine that God’s grace and power might be flowing precisely in and around and through those broken places?
Friends, God is already using you, already at work through you, to touch the lives of the people around you, to heal and organize and advocate and strengthen others in ways that make the world a kinder, more humane place. This is a kind of holy fishing, in which God’s abundant life is released in you and through you, just as God’s abundant life was released in Isaiah and in Simon Peter. And as we grow in humility, that life can be released more and more. To the God who is able to accomplish far more in us than we can possibly imagine, be all praise, honor, and glory, now and forever. Amen.