- (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
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
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."
that, Isaiah was able to say, "Here I am, send me!" in
response to the question "Who shall I send, and who will go?"
mission he was given, too; he had to give God's message knowing that
it would fall on deaf ears. Sooner him than me!
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
encounter with God
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
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.
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.
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.
very often, there is a sending-forth by God. God has something for
us to do.
forth by God
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
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!
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.
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
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,
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
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