Close Encounters

(4 February 2007)

Today's readings are about two very different people who had two very different meetings with God; the prophet Isaiah and Simon Peter.

Isaiah, of course, was a Temple prophet, working in Jerusalem. We don't quite know when he first received a call to be a prophet, but presumably sometime during the reign of King Uzziah, since he was in the Temple when he had his vision.

Now, a prophet in the Old Testament seems to have been a specific function, quite different from a temple priest. Their job, the priests', that is, was to prepare the Temple sacrifices; the prophets spoke forth God's word to the people, rather like the best preachers today are able to do. And while for many of them, this was a matter of providing daily food for daily needs, some of them were called to be far more wide-ranging than that. And many of those were the prophets whose words were written down, either by themselves or by their disciples, and have come down to us today.

Isaiah was one such. At least, the person whose words are recorded in this part of the book was - as you may know, some people think the book was a collection from two or three different people. And one day, there he was in the Temple, when suddenly something different happened.

He had a vision.

The Temple suddenly filled with God, and with the Seraphs, angelic beings whose function seems to have been to sing God's praises. Isaiah was well aware that he was in God's presence, and his instant, instinctive reaction seems to have been, "Oh no, help.... I am so not worthy!"
"Woe is me, for I am all undone!" as the old translations had it.


Peter's experience was very different, but his reaction was exactly the same. "Depart from me O Lord, for I am a sinful man!"

For Peter, his meeting with God, in the person of Jesus, happened in the context of a miracle. He - Peter, I mean - had been out in the boat fishing all night, with no sign of a fish anywhere. One of those days when you reckon there simply aren't any fish in the lake, even though you know quite well there must be. But the fish were hiding. And so Peter and his colleagues decide to call it a night, and they pull up their boats on the beach and start to wash the nets.

And along comes Jesus, with a whole crowd of people following him. "Can I borrow your boat a minute, mate?" he asks. And Peter rows him out just a tiny way offshore, so that he can speak to the crowds from there.

We aren't told what he told them, but we know that Jesus' message tended to be that the Kingdom of God was now here, and was well worth weeking for. And I expect he told them, too, a bit about the sort of people God wanted in the Kingdom - people who go out of their way to help others, even people they've nothing in common with, even people who they can't stand; people who don't bear grudges, who don't use other people in any way, or get angry with them in a destructive way; people who, basically, treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are, and who go out of their way for them. For anybody, just as God himself does.

Anyway, when Jesus had finished his teaching, he grins at Peter and goes, "Ta very much, Mate. Tell you what, why don't you take that boat out into deep water, just over there [points] and see what you don't catch?"

Peter's sceptical, but - well, why not. So they row out and throw their nets over one last time.... and the amount of fish in there, the nets couldn't cope and, eventually, nor could the boats.

And Peter's reaction is to throw himself at Jesus' feet - I assume Jesus was still in the boat with them - and say "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!"

Peter and Isaiah both had the same reaction to the presence of God. They became aware of their own failings as people, their own sinfulness. They were totally overwhelmed by the presence of the Divine, and the contrast between God and them.


And for both, there was cleansing, and then a mission. One of the seraphs touched Isaiah's lips with a burning coal - I hope it didn't burn him - and said, "Now that this has touched your lips,
your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."

And after that, Isaiah was able to say, "Here I am, send me!" in response to the question "Who shall I send, and who will go?"

Nasty mission he was given, too; he had to give God's message knowing that it would fall on deaf ears. Sooner him than me!

Meanwhile, no such symbolism for Peter - but then, Jesus was actually physically with him and could touch him, if necessary, clap him on the shoulder, whatever. And say to him, "Don't be afraid. From now on, you will be catching people!"

So for both Isaiah and Peter, there was an encounter with God, a response to God, and a sending forth by God. I wonder whether that has been true for us?

An encounter with God

These spectacular encounters, of course, are very rare - maybe it will happen to you once in your life, maybe never. For most of us, our encounters with God are fleeting, perhaps we are barely aware that they have happened. Most of the time, I reckon, we just have to assume that God was listening to our prayers, or present as we shared the bread and wine in the Sacrament. Sometimes we look back at how something has gone, and realise that God was probably leading us, even though we hadn't been aware of it at the time. But most of us probably don't ever meet with God in quite the way that Isaiah or Peter did.

But most of us will have met with God in some way, or we'd not be here this morning! Perhaps when we became a Christian it was due to an overwhelming conviction that God is just what he says on the tin. This might have felt like an intellectual conviction rather than an emotional one; it might have been a gradual realisation rather than a one-off "road-to-Damascus" type event. Some of us might not have a datable "conversion", but all of us have been convinced, one way or the other, of the reality of God. Most of us will have met with God in some way.

A response to God

We will have met with God, and we will have responded. I've already commented that Peter's and Isaiah's experiences of God were very different, but their response was the same. And many of us, too, will have experienced that response of being aware of our own sinfulness. Not all of us, of course. None of us is perfect, we know that, but while some people are overwhelmed with just how imperfect we are, for others this is, again, a gradual realisation and something they can deal with as it arises.

But whichever it is, God's response is the same - we are cleansed. Our sins are forgiven. For Isaiah, this was symbolised by the burning coal touching his lips, cleansing him and, I suppose, meaning that henceforth he would be able to speak God's message. For Peter, it was a friendly and reassuring word from Jesus. For us - well, it can be hard, can't it? We hear the minister or preacher remind us that "our sins are forgiven", and we read the Bible promises of forgiveness, but actually and really believing that we are forgiven can be very much another story! I've found, personally, that it's really hard to forgive yourself when you know you've been in the wrong - and that makes it all but impossible to receive God's forgiveness! Yet the Bible says "So far as the East is from the West, so far has he put our sins from us!" I don't think that whoever wrote that realised that if you go far enough east it turns into the West, and vice versa - the author was thinking of a flat world - from one side of the horizon to the other.

So we meet with God, and are overwhelmed by the sense of His presence, and we realise just how far we fail to match up. And there is forgiveness and cleansing, either explicit or implicit.

And then, very often, there is a sending-forth by God. God has something for us to do.

A sending forth by God

Not invariably. God heals and restores us because he loves us. There isn't always an ulterior motive! But sometimes those very special times with God are because God has something special he wants us to do. For Isaiah, it was a special and difficult message to preach. For Simon Peter, it was to become "the big Fisherman", and to leave the quiet lakeside for the bustle of Rome, and ultimately a martyr's death.

And for us? What is God calling us to do?

Many of you were called to leave your home countries and to come and live and work here, sharing your faith with us. And that is a great and glorious and difficult calling, so don't knock it!

We aren't all called to preach, or to be evangelists, although we are all witnesses to Jesus - he didn't say, by the way, that we must be his witnesses, or that we should be; he said that we will be, when the Holy Spirit comes upon us. We can't help it - it's part of the package! So just getting on with our lives, being Christ's people all the time, not just on Sundays, is a huge deal, and something we can't really do by ourselves; we do need God's help to do this. For most of us, most of the time, this is all we are called to do - to be God's person wherever we are and whatever we do to the very best and utmost of our ability.

Sometimes, yes, there is a special call, and very often these special moments with God such as Isaiah and Peter, respectively, experienced are because of that. But Isaiah didn't preach all the time, and all Jesus' disciples will have had plenty of time when they were "just living". They needed to be God's person just as much when they were out shopping or eating their lunch as they did when they were doing whatever it was they had been called to do.

And so do we.

But this isn't something we can do of ourselves. When you look at the description Jesus gives of the sort of people his people are going to be - I just mentioned some of them there a moment ago - well, it isn't always easy, is it? Do we manage not to say something really destructive in a moment of anger? How do you look at someone rather delicious and not think of them as just a pretty package, forgetting that there's a real person inside with hopes and needs and fears and wants? How do you live in an attitude of constant forgiveness? How do you love your enemies? How, in today's world, do you esteem other people as equally as important as you are?

And so on. Really living that sort of life - well, has anybody ever done it? As far as I can tell, only Jesus! And sometimes you wonder about him, too!

The only way we can even come close to living like that is to allow God to live in us, through the power of the Holy Spirit. To stay open to God all the time, to "go on being filled", as St Paul says.

We won't all have the kind of close encounter with God that Isaiah had, or that Peter had. Some of us might. Some of us may even have had them. But we can all know God's forgiveness and cleansing.

We won't all be called to do something special for God as Isaiah was, or as Peter was. Some of us might. Some of us might have been so called. But we can all know God's power working in us to enable us to live the lives to which we have been called. To become the people God designed us to be. To become fully human.

Thanks be to God.

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