Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
But by the grace of God I am what I am. His grace which was given to me was not futile, but I worked more than all of them; yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
One topic of conversation between people who have just met is usually our jobs. “What do you do?” we ask one another. If the conversation goes long enough, especially if the job sounds interesting, we might even ask, “How did you get into that line of work?” Many youth ministers can point to a summer working at a camp somewhere, a job they got because it was one of the few jobs available for summer work. Many people will admit that they got into the business because of a family member. “My dad was a...” they say. Few people have miraculous stories, especially those who work in business. No one says, “God called me to this job,” when they are an accountant or plumber or mailman.
We use the word “vocation” regularly with jobs in ministry, but rarely about the fast food line chef or grocery store cashier. However, Martin Luther’s understanding of vocation goes well beyond ministry. To him, vocation was living out our faith in the world, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Martin Luther’s teaching on vocation came out of a mistaken notion that serving God in and through the Church was a higher calling. Life in a monastery or convent, being a priest or a bishop was considered more important, more spiritual and more holy than life as a farmer, carpenter, housewife or father. Luther’s doctrine of vocation went against this attitude that the religious life is more holy or pleasing to God than any ordinary life. He once said that a washerwoman and a bishop were of equal status as long as both were faithful to their calling to serve Christ and others in their daily life and work.
I have been fascinated with the life of Daniel ever since I began studying it as part of a Bible study I’m writing on the book of Revelation. We turn to his book because of the prophecies pointing toward the end time and because of the exciting stories that teach valuable lessons to children. I have found, however, that they all fit together when read in context. The stories teach us how to face the end times. The stories give us keys to the character of one who lives in hope and peace when facing difficulty. The stories teach us how to be faithful people of prayer. In his 80 plus years, Daniel had different vocations. He was a wise man, an example of faith, a prophet and encourager. In his final years, Daniel was a prayer warrior. As a government official for the Babylonians, Daniel was never in a ministerial job, but faith was always part of his life and work. He served God even in a pagan, secular position. In some ways his calling was dramatic: he was taken captive and exiled to a foreign land. The stories are incredible: near death, a fiery furnace, a lion’s den. Yet, he lived a simple life. He trusted God, did his job and in the end was greatly rewarded by God and by the kings of Babylon.
I don’t think people outside the church will have exciting stories about how they came to work in their job. As a matter of fact, most would not even consider their work a vocation in the sense of a ‘calling.’ They might have family in the business, so decide to follow a father or mother in their work. They might choose because of the availability of jobs or the financial rewards of the work. They might choose because they have a talent that would best be demonstrated through a particular job. However they come to make their career choice, it is unlikely that they have experienced some vision or miraculous call from God. It is unlikely that they would even consider it a call.
In the scriptures for this week we get a peek into the stories of some of the biblical characters that served God. Isaiah had an incredible vision. Peter witnessed a miracle. We even get a glimpse of Paul’s call in the letter to the Corinthians. These three tell amazing stories of unusual circumstances that brought them to their position and purpose in the world. Most people, however, will not have such powerful and life changing stories.
The scriptures this week do not talk about God calling people into ordinary jobs. Each one - Isaiah, Paul and Peter - were called into extraordinary situations serving God. What we do see is God calling ordinary men out of ordinary circumstances to do His work in the world. Each one did not believe they were worthy of the call. They were sinners and could not possibly be the one whom God wanted to accomplish the task. As a matter of fact, they feared for their very lives having come face to face with God.
But that’s what vocation is all about: living out our faith in the world so that we come face to face with God. As we look toward the temple in search for our identity, the world also sees the One from whom all good gifts come. The higher calling is not working in the church or becoming a minister. The higher calling is serving God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Our journey will bring us not only face to face with God, but with our unworthiness, our failures and our doubts. We will face the reality of our sinfulness, but God has a word for us. To Isaiah He said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your iniquity is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” To Peter He said, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be catching people alive.”
Throughout the history of Israel, the people turned away from God for a time to worship other gods and ally themselves with other nations, setting God aside to satisfy their own desires. Over and over again God sent prophets to speak the Word into their lives to turn them around and bring them back into His presence. Over and over again they turned back to God for a season, quickly returning to the old ways. With Isaiah God offered a new way. The people would have to suffer the consequences of their unfaithfulness, but through it all there would always be hope for restoration. This experience - the exile - was God’s way of showing His people life without His presence so that they would never want to turn to other gods again.
Isaiah had a vision that is incredible. He saw God sitting on a throne with strange beasts all around Him. Isaiah knew He was in the presence of God, a place no human truly wants to find himself. Isaiah knew he wasn’t worthy. He knew he was a sinner. He knew that if he saw the LORD face to face, he would die. “Woe is me! For I am undone, because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell among a people of unclean lips: for my eyes have seen the King, Yahweh of Armies!” The greatest moment of his life was the worst moment of his life because he knew that he did not belong there. He was a fallen man and knew that he would not survive standing in God’s glory. An angel touched Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal, an act of cleansing and forgiveness. “Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin forgiven.” Once cleansed, God called for a helper. “Who should we send?” Samuel answered, “Here I am. Send me!”
The Lord said to Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, ‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” God was sending Isaiah to the people not to make them turn to Him, but instead to make them turn away. His task was to make them not want to hear what God had to say. God wanted their hearts hardened so that they would not turn to Him. God’s intent was to harden their hearts for a season so they would learn to appreciate His grace.
Why would God want Isaiah to make their hearts hard? Shouldn’t the prophet be calling for repentance, for the people to turn toward God? It had been done before, many times. And though the people did turn back to God, the repentance was shallow and they quickly turned back to the old gods. Isaiah’s job was to make the rebellion and rejection so great that God could finally do the work that would make Israel’s repentance real and lasting. The threat of exile was built on the promise of restoration, healing and renewal. The task might have seemed ridiculous to Isaiah, but it was the first step of a larger plan. God wanted their hearts hardened so that they would not turn to Him. God’s intent was to harden their hearts for a season so they would learn to appreciate His grace.
Isaiah gets it, but he is uncertain about this plan. “Lord, how long?” he asked. Isaiah would preach this unbelievable message until Jerusalem no longer stood and all the people had been taken away. When everything was gone, then God could start over with His people. God is filled with promises and He does what has to be done for restoration, healing and renewal.
How do you think Isaiah felt when he found out about the work he was being sent to do? Do you think he had second thoughts? Do you think he doubted that he could do it? Do you think he thought the whole idea was ridiculous? “Why do I have to convince them to reject you? I’d much rather convince them that you are forgiving and merciful and just.”
He didn’t vocalize these doubts or misgivings, but if he’s human like you and I, he probably had them. I can sense the excitement of surviving the presence of God and responding to God’s grace with enthusiasm. But we tend to say and do things in the heat of the moment without truly thinking them through. I can’t count the number of times I’ve volunteered and quickly realized I shouldn’t have raised my hand.
I can relate to Peter. He has a similar but different experience as Isaiah. Peter spent the night fishing on the lake with his companions and they did not catch anything. It was a wasted night; they were tired and ready to go home to rest. Jesus came to them and asked to borrow their boat, so Peter took him out onto the water. From there, Jesus could preach and reach a larger group because He did not have to worry about the crowd pressing in on Him. When He was finished, He told Peter to go back out onto the lake and let down the nets. Peter was a fisherman. He knew fish and everything about fishing. He knew it was a bad day for fish. He was tired because he had already spent all night at the nets and they had gotten nothing. Jesus was not a fisherman; Peter was more qualified to decide when and where to fish. Despite this truth, Peter agreed and went back onto the lake.
They had much better luck this time. Their luck was so great that they needed a second boat, and even then they nearly sunk under the weight. Why would the haul be impossible for Peter to handle? Why would there be so many fish, probably more than they had ever seen at once? Since Peter was a fisherman, the sign had to be one that was so out of the ordinary that he would clearly see what Jesus was saying. The catch had to be bigger than anything they had ever experienced, astounding in numbers or else Peter would be able to think it was a fluke.
As it was, Peter realized that he was looking into the face of God, hearing the voice of God. Peter and Isaiah’s experiences were so astonishing so that there would be no doubt that they had stood in the presence of God. Isaiah and Peter were being called to something extraordinary.
I would probably respond much like Peter. He wasn’t unwilling to follow Jesus, he just thought he was unworthy. “Go away, Lord” Peter said, not because he did not want to be near Jesus but because he was afraid. A sinful man can’t stand in God’s presence without being changed. Isaiah thought he would die. Perhaps Peter thought so, too. But God’s grace overcomes our fear and uncertainty. “Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said, “I have an incredible offer for you.”
Peter and his companions dropped everything and followed. I wonder how long it was before they began to question whether they made the right decision. They believed, but they didn’t believe. They understood, but they didn’t really understand. Jesus had a powerful message of love and hope and peace, but He also spoke harshly, warning sinners of the coming judgment. The perceived promise of a position in a palace near the throne of a king was exciting, but the risks were great. How many times did they say to themselves, “What was I thinking?” It isn’t hard to see ourselves in the apostles.
Paul came to believe in Jesus in the most extraordinary way, but he never let that get to his head. Though he sometimes sounds arrogant and judgmental in his writing, he is also very humble and modest. The problem that Paul was addressing was Gnostic heresy; some had stopped believing in bodily resurrection. In Corinth there were those who were “spiritual” to the point of rejecting all things physical. They did not believe in the physical resurrection of the body. Gnostic heresy leaves no room for hope. They thought the work of the Gospel was complete in their spirits and they were already perfected. Paul reminded them of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and laid it on the line: if Jesus was not resurrected in flesh, then Christian faith is in vain.
His proof of Jesus’ resurrection lies in the witnesses who testified to seeing Him alive. Paul’s list is a long one: Peter, the Twelve, five hundred, James, all the apostles and then to Paul. These witnesses established the foundation of the Church and the faith to which we now belong. The beliefs of the Corinthians had parted from the fundamentals. It was Paul’s job to bring them back.
This could not have been an easy thing to accomplish. After all, there are still people today who would rather believe the Gnostic heresy than believe in the resurrection of the physical body. There are too many questions that we can’t answer about the afterlife. The idea of resurrection is extraordinary. For many, the promise of keeping the body we’ve had in this life is not hopeful. I’d rather exist as a spiritual being without this imperfect flesh that aches on rainy days and doesn’t fit into a decent pair of jeans anymore. I might be happy if I were resurrected with the body I had in my mid-twenties, but after two kids and old age, I think I’d rather just be spirit. But that’s not the reality; it is not the promise. Jesus was resurrected so that we, too, will be resurrected and restored to the way we were created to be in the beginning: living in the presence of God for all eternity.
Even though Paul sounds a bit superior in the beginning of his message when he says, “believe what I told you,” he reminds them that it was not his message that he was sharing. At the end of this passage he says, “I worked more than all of them.” I read this and think, “There you go again, Paul.” But Paul reminds us that he knows where it comes from, “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”
I get it. I’m the same way, especially about my kids. My children are terrific. They are successful, well-adapted and accomplished. People often congratulate me for their success. The idea embarrasses me because they are the ones who has put in all the work. And yet, Bruce and I did have something to do about it. We gave our children the love, encouragement, opportunities and tools they needed to grow into successful adults. I worked hard to make them what they are today, but not really. They are who they are because God created them that way. He gave me the grace to be the mother and to provide them all they need. My kids are terrific because I labored for them, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.
That’s what we learn from our stories today. We are going to have doubts and uncertainty when it comes to the work God is calling us to do. Sometimes it is ridiculous. Sometimes it is impossible. Sometimes we will insist that we are the wrong person for the job. But as God calls, He also provides all we need. It is not us doing the work, but the grace of God in us and with us that is accomplishing God’s work.
When He calls out our name and asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” we need only remember that God will give us everything we need to accomplish the work. His call might not be to just an ordinary job in an ordinary workplace. Yet, the calling to live out our faith so that the entire world will see Him and come to believe is always extraordinary. Every Christian is to live out their faith in daily life using their particular gifts and talents in service to God. While it is hard to see the holiness in the ordinary, God has called us to live out our faith in the every day. No matter if you are a Bishop or housewife, do everything in faith and commit it to God and you will see Him do extraordinary things.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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