A Sermon for Epiphany 5; Isaiah 6:1-8, [9-13], Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11,
Nearly a quarter-century ago I stood at the end of a line of eight candidates for ordination, and the cast of presenters, vestors, and supporters for each candidate, we were preceded by the Cathedral choir and choral members from the 8 associated churches, the cathedral clergy, and followed by, the bishop’s crew and the Bishop. We processed into St. Patrick’s Breastplate, you know its refrain
I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity.
and perhaps its musically different 6th verse
Christ be with me, within, behind, before, besides, to win, to comfort, and restore, beneath, above, in quiet, in danger, in hearts, in mouth of friend and stranger.
We chose it not just because of the power of the hymn, but because it is one of few that are long enough for such an entourage to process into the Cathedral.
Being the alphabetically last of the candidates I, and my cohort could not see into the cathedral nave, and could barely hear, as the procession started. As we rounded the corner, the glorious sound of that hymn was inspiring. When I stepped into the nave and saw the uncountable people who filled the space to capacity, I was stunned. It was a glorious moment. It has stayed with me ever since. It has been a source of strength, a source of calm, a source of assuredness. It has been a reminder of the presence of the glory of God, in all the world. It was my Isaiah moment.
It was not an accident that the Old Testament reading that day was this morning’s reading from Isaiah. A quarter-century ago, as we planned this service, we chose this reading because of verse 8
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isaiah 6:8);
all of us had heard God’s call, and all of us were responding Here am I; send me!
As strong as these memories are, this morning I am drawn to the first four verses. The image of God sitting on the throne, his robe filling all the Temple, thereby all the world (Mast). The seraphs, six-winged fiery serpents (Harrelson), singing Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. (Isaiah 6:3) with such fervor, such enthusiasm, such passion, that the very foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem shook, and the whole place, the various outer courtyards, the court of Israelites, the court of the priest, the sanctuary, and the Holy of Holies was filled with smoke. All of which emphasizes the utterly sacred nature of God, a being wholly set apart and separated from all defilement and impurity (Harrelson).
The absolutely sacred nature of God terrifies Isaiah, and he confesses his and Israel’s sinfulness (Allen). Then, without his saying anything, a Seraph, think Chinese dragon, takes a coal from the Altar of God, touches his lips, and pronounces that Isaiah is clean; he no longer has to fear being in God’s glory.
Surrounded by God’s glory, having heard he is cleaned from all sin, Isaiah is ready to answer God’s call. I’m not sure he was ready to hear the details. God tells him to preach so that all the people will be blind and deaf, to tell them that they just don’t get it. (Mast; Giere). The people are so resistant to God, punishment has already been pronounced. His calling is to last until everything is destroyed, everything is uninhabited, and all the people are gone, leaving the land desolate and empty. All that is left ~ is a smoldering stump. But ~~ that stump ~ is a holy seed; hope (Tucker).
The journey through these verses takes us from glory to call through despair to hope. We witness a similar journey in Luke. There is nothing here quite so visually stunning as singing, fiery, flying serpents, nonetheless, the Glory of God is present, because the people are here to hear Jesus, so many that Jesus has to get into a boat move a bit offshore just to be heard. The image may suggest the Spirit of God, the voice of God sweeping over the chaos, over the water of the deep (Gen. 1:1-3) (The Living Church). Together with John’s Gospel’s opening verses
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2)
we can know that the glory of God was present at creation; thus, the glory of God is present by the lakeside.
Just as the glory of God is less vivid here than in Isaiah, the calling is equally vague. Simon and his crew have been working all night, with no success. They are tired. They are ready to go home, when Jesus gets into their boat, and asks to be taken just offshore (The Living Church). When Jesus is done preaching, he tells them to row back out to the deeper waters and let their nets down again. His fishing expertise rejects the suggestion, a lifetime of fishing tells Simon the fishing is done. Nonetheless, since Jesus says so, off they go. As you heard, the catch is beyond all their imaginations. Simon recognizes the presence of divine glory, and as Isaiah did, recognizes his sinful nature, and pleads for Jesus to go away from him. There are no acts of cleansing. There is no asking. Jesus simply assures them, Do not be afraid. and continues From now on you will be drawing people into the glory of God’s presence (my paraphrase) (Allen).
A part of this journey is how God comes to us in the midst of our failures; God sees new possibilities, asks us not to give up, but to faithfully be open to new imaginations, by seeing more deeply, expecting more, trusting in the power of God’s glory (Epperly); and remembering that the extraordinary catch of fish happens in Jesus’ presence (Lewis).
Today the world is as chaotic as is was in Isaiah’s day, when the King has just died, and no one knew how the next King would act; and in Simon’s day just after a complete failure of a long night’s work. Their journeys affirm for us that the glory of God is present; in the midst of the fear of the completely unknown; and in the midst of fear of the failure of longtime customary success. Their journeys affirm for us that the glory of God is present in the midst of our unclean, sinful ways, known and unknown; thought, said, done and undone. Their journeys affirm that our guilt has departed, and our sins have been blotted out (Isaiah 6:7). Their journeys call us to look and listen to perceive not only God’s glory but also, God’s calling.
In general, our calling is to witness to God’s glory. The work is not always pleasant. It may require us to name how, when. and where we are missing God’s point; how we are not treating each other as the image of God, how we are failing to tend the land as God (in Genesis2: 8 & 15) put us in the garden to do.
What I draw from the awesome memory at the entry to my ordination is that I am not alone, that day the seraphic voices of the countless voices singing were filling the world with the glory of God in the words of St Patrick’s Breast-Plate “I bind unto myself today ….” that moment my calling was not to, but with God’s people.
Today there are many voices, in countless and sundry forms singing the glory of God. We sing it weekly
Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
May our voice join theirs, moving from grace to calling. May our voices join theirs, in being courageous voices speaking the hard truth, as Isaiah did. May our voices join theirs, and draw people into the presence of God, as Simon’s and the Apostles’ did. May our lives join theirs, so that all we think, say and do, or do not do, draws others into God’s gracious, ever-present glory, that all may live as worthy servants of God (Crichton and Wisher).
Allen, Ronald J. “Commentary on Luke 5:1-11.” 10 2 2019. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.
Ashley, Danáe M. Trusting Jesus Epiphany 5 (5). 10 2 2019. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 2 2019. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Giere, Samuel. Commentary on Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13). 10 2 2019. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Epiphany 5C Luke 5:1-11. 10 2 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel>.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Lewis, Karoline. “Dear Working Preacher Catching People.” 10 2 2019. Working Preacher.
Mast, Stan. Epiphany 5C Isaiah 6:1-13. 10 2 2019. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermonstarters/>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
The Living Church. “”Over the Water”.” 10 2 2019. livingchurch.org. <livingchurch.org/2018/08/22/freedom-and-popular-culture>.
Tucker, Gene M. The Book of Isaiah 1–39. Vol. 4. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. 12 vols. OliveTree 2016.