Sermons That Work

Letting Our Nets Down in Faith, Epiphany 5 (C) – 2007

February 04, 2007

“The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said, ‘Woe is me!’”

“Woe is me” seems to be an understatement. The prophet is having a vision that’s not only very vivid, but also frightening. Everything is immense. The hem of the Lord’s robe fills the temple. There are seraphs with multiple wings. There’s shouting and trembling and shaking and fire. In all this, the prophet realizes that not only is he privy to amazing sights and sounds, but he has also seen the King, the Lord of hosts. The prophet knows that to see the face of God invites death. To make matters worse, the prophet is a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips. He feels afraid and hopeless.

We can feel that fear and hopelessness.

That’s because the Bible – in addition to being God’s word to us, the story of our salvation, theology, literature – the Bible is also very good theater. Imagine what a movie director would do with this story. The special effects would be spectacular – so spectacular perhaps that we’d lose the real point of the story. The prophet is indeed living among people with unclean lips. They have become so unfaithful, so far from being a people of God, that God has almost despaired.

The conversation between the prophet and the seraph and then between the prophet and God is wonderful theater, too. The prophet moans, “I am lost!” The Seraph, instead of just telling him that he’s wrong, takes a live coal from the altar and touches the prophet’s mouth cleansing it from guilt and sin. A little more exciting than our usual absolution for sin, isn’t it? Then we hear from God. God asks, it seems, a rhetorical question: “Whom shall I send (to these difficult people)?”

Can’t we imagine saying, “Please, please send me – just keep those seraphs away from me!” And if we had stopped our first reading there as if it were the first act, the main character would come off as a real hero – very brave and confident. “Here am I,” as if God didn’t notice him, “send me!”

Good for him! We hear that sentiment many times in the scriptures, sometimes in different words – Samuel, David, Mary, eventually the disciples of Jesus. It’s a beautiful thing to say, a selfless and loving thing to say, and we can rejoice with that throng of seraphs crying, holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.

But the lectionary offers us the chance to go further in this passage. We can get a taste of what happens when God’s people say, “Send me.”

In the second act, so to speak, the prophet finds out that he must take what will be a very unpopular message from God to the people. “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand. … Make the mind of the people dull so that they will not understand and be healed.”

That seems very harsh unless we understand that the people have ignored every message God has sent so far. Until they hit bottom, they won’t repent. Our brave and selfless prophet has a difficult mission, but he has been anointed and he will be supported by God.

It’s the same in today’s gospel.

In this passage from Luke, we have one of the “great catch of fish” stories. Jesus is beginning his ministry. He’d been baptized. He too had been “anointed” for a ministry. He spent forty days in the wilderness praying and preparing, and now he has come to preach and teach. But he hasn’t started in the court of the king or the temple with the high priest. He’s begun his ministry among the common folk – fishermen, farmers, women, and children. This might make some interesting theater, too. Imagine how a bunch of professional fishermen felt when Jesus, a carpenter by trade, told them to put their nets out again for a catch. Can’t we hear the incredulity in Peter’s voice: “We’ve worked all night and caught nothing. But if you say so…” We can imagine the eye rolling the fishermen did – maybe even the quiet but pointed snickers. But of course, they bring in a boatload, and they are amazed.

But the boatload of fish isn’t the point of the story. It really doesn’t matter how Jesus managed that miracle. The same goes for the vision of Isaiah: it really doesn’t matter how the Lord’s hem filled the temple or the prophet got his lips singed and didn’t die. The point of both passages is that God expects each of us to take a part in building the kingdom of God.

By our baptism we are anointed as Isaiah was – as Jesus was – and as Peter was in today’s passage. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t among the mighty of the land. It doesn’t matter if we’re not even among the mighty in the church.

Notice that neither Isaiah nor Peter – nor many of the other great people of the Old and New Testaments: David, Mary, Joseph, Anna, Simeon – were numbered among the high priests or important government leaders. Both these readings can be a real inspiration to all people who are called to make a difference where they are.

We find the same message in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He talks about his own call – reminding the Corinthians that it was by the grace of God that he became an apostle. With God’s grace he had the strength to continue spreading the good news of Christ – the same thing we’re supposed to do. In this passage, he tells us what that good news is for him in words that we now say every time we pray the Creed. “Of first importance,” he says, is that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day.” If we would continue reading to the end of Chapter 15, we’d hear Paul remind the Corinthians that they, too will be raised from the dead and that Christ would come again – that what happened to Jesus would also happen to them.

The Corinthians thought Christ’s second coming was imminent, but here we are, 2000 years later still striving to live a godly life. We live a life of faith in the promises of God. Each time we say the Creed, we remember Paul’s words and believe even though we’ve never seen Jesus.

We also believe, as the Corinthians did, that what happened to Jesus will also happen to us. We too will share in the resurrection. This story we share with others is a life-giving story. The more we read the scriptures, the more we try to model our lives on Christ’s, and the more we realize that no matter what happens to us – good or bad – we are part of God’s family and God will be with us.

Like Isaiah, Peter, and Paul, we’ve been anointed and are full of the Holy Spirit. Each one of us has a work to do in proclaiming the kingdom of God, whether it’s by working for the church or being a witness to a godly life among our co-workers or in our homes. And each one of us has the same promise that was given to them: Do not be afraid – be at peace.

God is with us every step of the way. We are nourished and strengthened right here at the altar. We have the ability to bring others along with us – to be fishermen – even when it means going out again and letting the nets down another time, letting our nets down in faith that the Lord will fill them.

One of our hymns says it well: “Jesus calls us! By thy mercies, Savior, may we hear thy call, give our hearts to thine obedience, serve and love thee best of all.”

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is the executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

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Christopher Sikkema


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