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5. Sunday after Epiphany, 02/07/2010

Sermon on Isaiah 6:1-13, by Frank C. Senn



There's a popular gospel song that asks for "just a closer walk" with God. There's a lot of emphasis in current spirituality on walking with God. But on the basis of today's readings, I wonder how close to God we want to get.

Isaiah went to the temple, probably not expecting anything different from what he usually experienced there, just as we routinely attend Sunday worship. If he didn't expect a quiet time of prayer (and I can't imagine that was possible in the busy Jerusalem Temple with its daily sacrifices), at least he probably expected a well regulated communal liturgy. But suddenly he was confronted by a dazzling vision of the Lord God of Sabbaoth seated on the heavenly throne and surrounded by awesome creatures (monsters, really), thundering "Holy! Holy! Holy!" so loudly that the foundations of the temple shook. Isaiah fell down, saying, "I'm doomed, because every word on my tongue is sinful and I live among a sinful people, and here I am in the presence of the Holy God!"

Simon Peter was just going about his business as a fisherman. He'd met Jesus before because Jesus had already healed his mother-in-law. But he had no idea that Jesus was anything more than a rabbi with some success in prayers for healing. Now, in a strange encounter in his own workplace, Peter recognizes that this is no ordinary mortal. He can almost hear the angels singing "Holy! Holy! Holy!" again. He fell to his knees with an abject sense of unworthiness in the presence of the Holy, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

Paul, too, in bringing the tradition concerning the resurrection of Jesus to bear on issues in the Corinthian Church was put in mind of his own encounter with the risen Christ on the Road to Damascus and speaks immediately of his own unworthiness to be considered an apostle because he was intent on persecuting the community of the risen Christ.

Now I haven't seen a lot of falling to the ground or heard prayers expressing unworthiness, at least not lately. In fact, in contemporary liturgies we've excised prayers expressing unworthiness out of the worship book, like the classic Prayer of Humble Access in The Book of Common Prayer. "We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table." The closest we come is the prayer in Compline in which we confess "that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed by my fault, by my own fault, by my own most grievous fault" (Lutheran Book of Worship), and now that's been reduced to one iteration of "my own fault" in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Let's not overdo our fault.

Old liturgical texts like these suggest that the stories we heard today aren't unique just to the biblical witness. Throughout the religious history, as Rudolf Otto pointed out in his classic book, The Idea of the Holy (1908), the Holy has repelled as well as attracted. So what's going on in these stories and in classic liturgical texts, and how do they relate to our desire to be closer to God? How close to God can we actually get? Moses was as close to God as anybody, but he only experienced God in a burning bush and in thunder and lightning; and when he asked for a closer look, God only showed him his backside. If God is all love and mercy and peace, why do these people in today's readings fall down in fear and trembling?

This is not just a sense of social discomfort, of feeling a bit out of place because one is out of one's element and feeling a bit self-conscious about it. No, these men were right where they should have been. Isaiah was in the Temple. Simon Peter was fishing in the lake. Paul was on the road to Damascus to deliver a warrant for arrest.

Now I won't deny that God can also be experienced as love, and that love can be comforting and welcoming. I suspect that Isaiah, Peter, and Paul had a comfortable enough relationship with God. But sometimes there is something absolutely terrifying about being confronted with the living God, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.

Actually, it can be terrifying to be confronted even by people with whom you enjoy a close, personal relationship-like your spouse or your girl friend or boy friend or your best friend or colleague. The relationship has been going along smoothly enough. But then something changes. Maybe, in the case of a spouse, you have been unfaithful and you are being confronted with that. Or maybe your girl friend or boy friend is suggesting that your relationship ought to be sealed with the kind of commitment marriage expresses. Or maybe you dropped the ball on pursuing the deal with that potential customer. Wow! Suddenly the comfortable relationship you've had becomes very uncomfortable indeed, maybe even terrifying. Confronted by the other, your words stammer out: "Oh what a wretch I am." "Oh, honey, I'm not ready for this." "Gee, I feel terrible about this."

Perhaps what happened to Isaiah and Simon Peter and Paul was like that. We become aware of what is required in our relationship with God, and suddenly we are directly confronted with the fact that we haven't measured up...or that something more is required. And this can happen to every believer. We've gone as far as we can in our relationship with God up to a certain point. But then we come to that point where the status quo of our relationship is not enough and the way ahead is going to be different. At that point the voice of God is penetrating and terrible in its implications: "Your guilt is removed; your sin is forgiven. Now whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" "Don't be afraid; from now on you will be fishing for people. Follow me." "Saul, why are you persecuting me? Get up and enter the city as a friend."

The word is spoken by One whose love is so high, so deep, so broad that it can encompass the entire universe. It's a love that it can dance at the birth of a butterfly and fling stars into space. But the voice of the Holy also cracks with the agonizing pain of One whose heart breaks when a sparrow falls to the ground and who feels betrayed by those whom he placed in the garden of creation to tend and care for it. God's icon in the world has been effaced by sin and it makes God sad.

When you are engulfed by the extent of that love and that pain, you will, like Isaiah, feel like you are going to die; like no one can come out of such an experience alive. Like Simon Peter, your whole career up to this point is up for grabs. Like Saul, you're in for more than a name change.

Maybe some of us are at that point now. We may be personally experiencing the changes going on in our society or (for pastors especially) in our church body. Because of these changes we may have a sense that we cannot go on as we have, that we are being called to something new and different. Maybe you're graduating from college in a few months or lost your job or took your retirement or are an empty nester now or need to move into an assisted living facility and now have to reconsider or consider afresh what you're going to do with your life. Your congregation wants to leave the denomination because of its changes in policy or your bishop puts up a roadblock to another call. Whatever the moment is, God is somehow involved in it. The challenge of Jesus is before us. The stirrings of the Holy Spirit are within us. We're afraid of what we have to face. Maybe we're afraid of what we're going to have to face in ourselves. Maybe I'm not sure that I'm man enough to surrender to God's beckoning.

God does beckon. "Who will go for us?" "From now on you will be catching people." "Enter the city with a new commission." But many a person gets stuck at the "Woe is me" or "Go away from me, Lord" stage. They catch the faintest glimpse of what they are being called to do and they avert their eyes and or hold Christ at arms length, saying "Don't come any closer." They may say this for the rest of their lives.

And that is the choice you have when you encounter the call of the Holy. In fact, that is the choice you face at every step of the journey of faith, at every experience of the love and goodness of God. You can choose to turn away your face and say, "No further, God," and repress the memory of what you glimpsed in God's word or in yourself. Or you can fall deeper into the arms of Jesus, abandon yourself to his mercy, and go with him wherever he leads you next. You can be sure that just like Isaiah, Simon Peter, and Paul, the moment you hear the words of mercy, "Your guilt is gone, your sins are forgiven, do not be afraid, get up and enter the city," and surrender yourself to God's beckoning, your life will be changed. But it will also be empowered because God also goes with you. You are equipped with God's words to speak even to a people who may not listen.

That's the choice we face at this table. Will you receive God's mercy and respond to God's call? Or will you say, "Go away from me Lord"? We sing the same words as the awesome cherubim as we approach the moment of communion: "Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God of power and might." The words remind us that we are being confronted by Holy Things at this table. But we have been called to be holy ourselves and we can eat and drink them in good health, even to our eternal salvation. The holy things are for the holy people.

Will you come to this table and risk encountering the risen Christ? Will you receive his broken body, his spilt blood, and know that your sins are forgiven and that you are sent forth in his Name? Hear the call that comes to each of us at this table, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us"? At whatever point on the journey you are, if you want to know Christ more and take the next step in a closer walk with him, come, eat and drink, and then "go in peace and serve the Lord" in whatever service to which you have been called. Amen.


Pastor Frank C. Senn
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Evanston, IL, USA
Senior, Society of the Holy Trinity
E-Mail: pastor@ilcevanston.org