There is a common thread running through all of the lessons today. Isaiah says to the Lord, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Paul tells the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles.” And Peter tells Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And what is it that we know about all of these men? Isaiah was a powerful prophet of the Lord. Paul was the primary apostle to the Gentiles. And Peter was the foundation of the Church that grew out of those who followed the way of Jesus.
We have this story from the beginning of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah has this tremendous vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, filling the temple, surrounded by seraphs, who fly around singing, “Holy, holy, holy...” And he is overwhelmed and responds, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, yet I have seen the Lord of hosts.”
(That’s grace, to be unworthy and yet to receive the Lord and stand before him.)
(This vision of God’s glorious throne room reminds me of an incident a number of years ago in Huntsville. I was the assistant at St. Stephen’s and campus minister for Sam Houston. A young family move here from Venezuela. The mother was a student at the university and they had an 8 year old daughter. One day the daughter, Alexia and I were out picking dewberries and she told me a secret. She confided in me that she had seen the glory of God. As I questioned her, I realized that what she had seen was the sun shining through the clouds leaving trails of golden light, and I agreed that she had indeed seen God’s glory. It is so refreshing to see the world through the eyes of a child! The glory of God is made visible to us over and over in this way.)
So here is Isaiah as a very young man and the vision inspires him and when he hears the Lord say, “who will go for us,” Isaiah eventually responds with enthusiasm, “Here am I. Send me!” How many of us respond in the same way? It’s so much easier to say, someone else will go.” I just heard from a friend who told me her son had pulled out a man trapped in an overturned wrecked car just before it burst into flames. He didn’t think about it, he just saw the need and did it. Isaiah didn’t think about what it meant either, he just answered the call.
In our Gospel lesson today, Peter sees the miraculous catch of fish, and he backs away. He’s scared. “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” He is in the presence of holiness and he is afraid. I always wondered about this thing of being afraid, fear in connection with the Lord, with God, and with angels. And I never quite understood it until recently.
Neither passage uses the word ‘awesome’ or ‘fearful’ but both imply it. The Hebrew word Yāre’ can be translated both as awe or as fear. In some translations you read about the “awesome acts of God” or other translations you read about the “fearful acts of God.” It’s bothered me for years and then a few months ago, I heard an explanation that made sense to me - of how something wonderful can also be fearful. Our sun is one of the most powerful things in existence. It’s like a continual nuclear reaction. Without the sun, we could not have life on earth, but if we got too close to the sun, it would destroy us. This idea of God’s power contains the same kind of internal dichotomy. Without God, we would not exist, but being in the presence of God should always inspire awe (or fear) in us.
So both our Old Testament lesson and our gospel reading remind us of both the power of God (that vision of the throne room of heaven) and his ability to work in our lives (the miraculous catch of fish.). In both cases the response was, “I am not worthy...”. But we also know that in each case, Isaiah and Peter both accepted the commission that the Lord gave them.
Our lesson from Paul expresses a similar statement - I am the least of the apostles - and he admits that he is unworthy because he persecuted the newly founded church. But the other thing he talks about - God’s grace - is never poured out in vain. He says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Remember in the Old Testament when Moses was standing before the burning bush, and he says, “Who are you, Lord?” “Who do I tell the Israelites sent me?” And God says, “I am who I am. Tell them ‘I am’ sent you.”
This phrase, “I am” is one of the things that got Jesus in trouble. In John’s gospel, there are seven “I am” statements. I am the bread of life... I am the good shepherd... I am the way, the truth and the life, etc... The ecclesiastical authorities of the day considered these statements to be heresy because Jesus was equating himself with God - “the great I am.” All three of our speakers today use the phrase “I am.” But all three of them name themselves as unworthy of God. And yet by the grace of God, all three allowed themselves to be used by God and became God’s instruments in the world, to spread the good news of God to all people.
The same is true for us - none of us is worthy to stand before God. But God himself makes us worthy through his grace and adoption as his children. Our collect for the day says, ‘set us free from the bondage of sin...’ and it asks - on our behalf - ‘for the abundant life seen in Jesus Christ.’ So, even if we feel sinful or unworthy of Jesus - or of God, please know that God can take any raw material that He sees in you and He can transform it for his own use.
Being fearful is not an uncommon response on our part. When God came to me wanting me to go to seminary and be ordained, I was 50 years old. I was too old. This path would take me to seminary. I had already started two different masters program, one in music and one in math and I had not completed either one, so I had convinced myself that I was not smart enough to get a masters degree. I was not smart enough. And the last thing was to be a priest, you had to be holy, and you had to preach... and there’s no way I qualified in that category. Oh, I read scripture and I prayed, but I didn’t have that special spark that set me apart. I can remember at one point in my life wondering if they let “ordinary people” take classes at seminary, because I thought I might find that interesting.
So the one thing about today’s gospel lesson that I had forgotten is that Peter - a ordinary fisherman, with no special skills, by his own admission a sinful man and definitely not holy - was being called by Jesus to set his fear aside and to follow Jesus, to become the corner stone of a faith that would spread across the world. If Jesus can use a man like Peter, then he can use me and he can use you to be witnesses of our faith and witnesses to the world of God’s place in our daily life. Amen.