Texts: Isaiah 6:1-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
There is a common theme that runs throughout many stories from the Bible for those who are called into a unique ministry… but it’s an uncomfortable one for us because it doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture the people we regard as the pillars of our faith. Normally we think of the story where Jesus walks up to some fishermen at the seaside, and says to them “come, follow me, and I will have you fish for people!” –Fishers of Men as many of us were raised with. As Mark tells it, they immediately leave their nets behind and follow Jesus.
But Mark’s telling of the story is the rare exception, it is not the rule. What is far more typical is what we hear in all of the scripture readings we heard this morning. In every reading, including even the Psalm, there is a reluctance to follow God’s call… in all three of the readings there is this near-despair from ordinary people who realize that God is not only looking at them, but is calling them to do something extraordinary.
Keep in mind that these people are not nobodies. These are individuals that we hold up as massive pillars in our faith tradition: the Prophet Isaiah, the disciple Peter, and the apostle Paul. All of them, all of them have this initial horrified reaction, and essentially tell Jesus to either get lost, or feel that their life is over. Isaiah says, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips!” Paul says of himself, “Last of all, to one untimely born, he appeared to me… for I am the least of the apostles.” Peter, who we call the first of the apostles says to Jesus, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Not exactly a good record of saying “yes” at the first possible opportunity is it?
I know I have said this consistently, almost as if I am harping on the point, but when we really delve into the Biblical stories, what we begin to learn is how very down-to-earth all of these pillars of the faith are. We learn how positively ordinary they are in terms of who they are, where they come from, and certainly in how they view themselves.
I think too often we tend to approach the characters, the people in the Bible as somehow up there, better-than-us, and that while it is important to learn from their example, we could never presume to be worthy to walk in their footsteps.
I think if we want to engage the Bible in a way that meaningfully connects to our lives, this perception is something that gets in the way. It’s a barrier preventing us from really connecting with the stories and characters of the Bible. It gets in the way of us understand that we have far more in common with the Biblical characters than we know…
I find it even a bit ironic that even Peter himself had this attitude, of not feeling worthy, it also prevented Peter from realizing his own potential.
When Jesus encounters Peter at the seaside in Luke’s account of the story it is not this simple get-up-and-follow kind of affair. It is a miracle catch for a group of ordinary fishermen. In the face of this, Peter says to Jesus “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Translation: “I’m not worthy! Why would you want to pay attention to me? I am but a fisherman with nothing to offer! Please, choose somebody else.”
Isaiah’s reaction is similar… when he realizes that God is actually looking at him, and calling him to be a voice for justice, he says “Woe is me, for I am lost!” As Paul implies in his letter to the Corinthians, his reaction to encountering the living Christ was similar.
How often has the biggest barrier to deepening our relationship with God been ourselves? How often have we felt that we are unworthy of God’s gaze, and like Peter, we say “Go away from me Lord!”?
On one level, they’re right. We’re not worthy to stand in the presence of God. We’re not worthy of that attention. We’re not worthy to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
But the story doesn’t end there. Otherwise we would have no Bible, no meaningful connection to the whole foundation of our existence… and we would be left fumbling around in the dark.
Notice what happens in all of these stories, with Peter, with Isaiah, with Paul… their initial reaction is a personal sense of unworthiness. They feel so inadequate that they push away at the personal attention that God is giving them. Perhaps they hope that by stating the obvious, that they feel unworthy of this attention, God might go somewhere else, Jesus may go down to the temple to talk to the pious person is more deserving of this attention.
But guess what? God doesn’t go anywhere. Jesus stays there, and gives Peter a lesson in grace.
After all, if we really think about it, despite Peter’s, Isaiah’s and Paul’s personal confessions about how unworthy they are… isn’t it a bit silly to say that to God? Like God wouldn’t already know! If we really think about it, God’s already taken that whole unworthy bit into consideration!
It has never been about being worthy to be in the presence of God. The point is or rather never should be about how worthy we feel. As we understand it, all of us have fallen short of the call in some way or another, and all of us are in need of redemption as human beings. We’re fallible, that’s how it is, get over it!
Yet God is still there calling Isaiah, Jesus is still there reaching out to Peter, and for Paul, as he describes it as one “untimely born” he has an experience of Christ in the Holy Spirit. None of them felt worthy of this attention, none of them deserved it, and yet there it is. A gift of grace…
We would do well to put ourselves into their shoes. How would you and I react? How would we respond? I think what is so wonderful about these stories is how so blatantly human all of them are. We are far more like Isaiah, Peter and Paul than we care to admit… but still we put them up on a pedestal that somehow they are more worthy or deserving than we are.
But these stories completely take that whole notion apart.
Paul, Peter, and Isaiah felt themselves to be unworthy, just ordinary people, and yet God still called them to do extraordinary things. Why is it then we feel that we can get away with telling God to go away because we are not worthy? It didn’t work for those three, or anybody else in the Bible for that matter. So maybe instead of trying to put up barriers, we should be taking them down.
The lesson is grace. That God has given to each and every one of us a precious gift to make the world a better place. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it… but we have it. So what are we going to do with it? We are at our best when despite our failings and misgivings, we allow ourselves the possibility that God really does care who we are, and that our lives have value in the grand scheme of things.
I think the next time we pick up a Bible to read a story, whether it is a favourite one or something a bit more obscure, it may be helpful for us to put ourselves into the shoes of the characters, rather than put them up on pedestal. The next time we are tempted to say “Go away from me Lord, for I am sinful!” maybe we should remember that God is just as persistent as he is loving. Maybe then we’ll have an epiphany moment of our own that in fact God has been working at us to tear down those barriers that prevent us from growing any further in faith. Maybe then we’ll realize that it’s not about how worthy we feel, because really, that’s God’s department. Maybe then we’ll find ourselves growing in faith, and even answering like Isaiah eventually does “here I am, send me.”