Sunday, February 4, 2007

Epiphany 5
Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

But by the grace of God I am what I am…

One of my first paid jobs was working for a group of local churches in my hometown as an aid for Vacation Bible School. I was sixteen and I worked with a woman a few years older than myself. We were contracted by several churches to do work to help make their Bible schools successful. We went door to door in the neighborhoods inviting kids, helped with paperwork and planning, acted as teachers and leaders and then made some follow-up contacts. I spent that summer focused on the work of the Lord and I found great joy in all that I was doing. It was hard work – long hours walking in unsafe neighborhoods, witnessing the heartbreaking conditions in which some of these kids lived.

Though I had been actively involved in church work from the minute I was confirmed, I really had not thought about ministry as a possibility for my life. Of course, in my church it was the very early days of female ordination, so it had never occurred to me that God might call me into ministry. By the end of the summer I was having thoughts of a possible future, so I went to people whom I trusted and asked them about what it takes to become a minister. Though they were encouraging, they were honest. It would be a hard path and I found a thousand excuses not to pursue that career path. Instead I took the easy way out – went to college to be a teacher. By the time I graduated, I knew I was not cut out to be an elementary school teacher.

Years passed by, I had a few jobs, got married and had children. Those thoughts from my teenage years were long gone. Though I had remained active in church, volunteering in many different ways, the thought of becoming a pastor completely slipped my mind. Twenty or so years later, I began thinking about it again. We were in England and our circumstances put me in a position to begin my writing. It began as a daily mailing to a small group of friends which has expanded to include this devotional. There have been times I have thought that perhaps I should take up that quest I thought about so long ago, and yet I still have the same questions, doubts and fears.

Once, when I returned to my home church I commented to the pastor who had been there since I was a teenager that I really felt called to ministry. He had been on my mailing list for several years at that point. He said, “You are in ministry.” He reminded me that the work we do for God does not need to be accompanied by any special title. Martin Luther had an understanding of vocation that goes much deeper than our understanding that vocation is a career in the church. Vocation is 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 the 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.

Perhaps I am still avoiding or ignoring something God is speaking into my life, but whenever I have had considered the path into ordained ministry I have always realized that my motives were not right. My reasoning had to do with titles, power and authority. I would think, “If only I had a degree or a title, someone might actually listen to what I have to say.” I have come to realize, however, that God will take care of the hearing. There may come a day when God does truly call me into some other position in ministry, but until that day I will continue to live in faith knowing that the higher calling has nothing to do with a special job or title but faithfully serving Christ and others in my daily life and work.

Of course I worry about whether or not I have missed it – missed the grand vision or miraculous sign of God meant to give me the courage to step out into that other path. Yet, as I have been discerning my own vocation in this world I have spoken to many people about their call into ministry. Our lessons for this week show out of the ordinary experiences for both Isaiah and Peter, and we get a glimpse of Paul’s experience in the letter to the Corinthians. I suppose a vision of God in heaven or a boat load of fish would make it much easier for us to see God’s plan for our lives. However, very few of the people to whom I have spoken have had such incredible experiences. There have been a few, but a majority of pastors have been patiently and faithfully transformed by God’s love and grace until the day when they know where they belong. For some it took another career or the passing of a loved one for them to realize their vocation. For others it was the kind words and encouragement of other Christians. Step by step God drew them into His heart and guided them into His will for their life.

Even though Isaiah, Peter and Paul each had epiphany moments, they also had their own questions, doubts and fears. Can you imagine being Isaiah? He was called to preach to the people so that they would not hear God’s voice or see God’s mercy. His job was to turn their hearts from God so that He could finally and completely provide the circumstances that would turn them back to Him. The people of God had often turned away, turned to the worship of other gods or the protection of other nations. When the time was right, God would send prophets to speak into their lives and they would turn back. Their repentance was half-hearted, though, and it took only a generation or two before they were worshipping false gods again. It was Isaiah’s calling to harden their hearts so that God could send in the Babylonians to take them into exile.

This is shocking to us, an image of God that we prefer to ignore. A loving God would never do such a thing. As a matter of fact, I imagine many people will choose to read only the first part of this reading and ignore the specifics of Isaiah’s call. It is too hard to accept and it would bring up too many hard questions. It is better to talk about Isaiah’s vision and leave the rest to another day. However, we should not reject the idea that God is a disciplinarian. Notice I did not use the word punishment, but rather discipline. Sometimes it takes the tough love to turn a heart.

Coaches use discipline in training athletes. It might seem like punishment when the coach sends the pack of players on a run around the track three times, but it is part of the discipline that builds up their bodies and their minds. It might seem like punishment when the math teacher gives one hundred problems for homework, but it is part of the discipline that will help students commit the formulas or solutions to their memories. Discipline is about developing good habits, about let go of bad habits, about establishing a firm foundation for the work that is to be done. The exile was to be a time of discipline – not punishment for being unfaithful but training into a life of faithfulness. God called the prophet Isaiah into a life of readying the people for the next part of their training.

It would take a miraculous, extraordinary experience to ready the prophet for such a ministry. For Isaiah, coming face to face with God was the worst thing that could happen. Any man would die if he saw the Lord and Isaiah knew he was a sinner. He was as good as dead. “Woe is me” he cried. But God did not leave him in his doubt and fear. The seraph took a live coal to his lips and with just a touch God provided Isaiah with the cleansing and forgiveness necessary for him to go on to do the work to which he had been called. It would not be easy, but God was with Isaiah and He would provide all that was needed.

I’m taken by the fact that each of these men called by God to such greatness all had the same response, “Woe is me.” Peter even told Jesus to go away. “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 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. If it were a matter of fishing at a different time or a different place, Peter was more qualified to make the decision.

Peter was most likely familiar with Jesus. We know that his brother Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist before they began to follow Jesus, so Peter had probably heard about Jesus and had even heard Jesus speak before they met on the beach that day. Peter was a tired and disappointed fisherman who probably just wanted to go to home and go to bed. Yet, when Jesus asked him to set out on the lake, Peter conceded. Jesus just wanted to set himself apart from the crowd – not because he was trying to get away from them but so that they could all hear and see him. A pressing crowd makes it difficult to speak so that everyone can hear.

When Jesus was done, he told Peter to go out into deep water. Peter did so despite his knowledge of fish and fishing and the fact that Jesus knew nothing about it. A friend told me that she always hated this story because to her the Peter and the others looked greedy. After all, they pulled in so many fish that they had to call another boat and then the two boats almost sunk under the weight. It is interesting how we see these stories from different points of view. I had never thought about greed being a possibility. To me, the sheer shock of the catch was something that would leave little room for normal emotions. To me, Jesus said fish, so they fished.

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. He was being called to something extraordinary. He wasn’t unwilling to follow Jesus, he thought he was unworthy. “Go away, Lord” Peter said.

We meet Paul much later, after his extraordinary experience. Though we do not hear about it in the epistle lesson, we know that Paul had been a persecutor of the church. He was present at the stoning of Stephen and was on his way to persecute more Christians when he came to meet Jesus. It was there on the Damascus road that Saul became Paul. He was completely transformed by the experience, but he never forgot the greatest lesson he learned that day – he was a sinner in need of the Savior. He did not deserve the position or the authority he had, particularly because he had once persecuted the believers. Yet, by God’s grace Paul was an apostle, untimely born but called by Christ to proclaim the Gospel.

The problem with the Corinthians is that they had lost touch with the Gospel as it had been taught to them. It was in Corinth that we see evidence of the Gnostic heresy that was permeating the church. In Corinth there were those who were ‘spiritual’ to the point of rejecting all things physical. For them the resurrection of the dead was simply a spiritual thing. They did not believe in the physical resurrection of the body. This thinking means that there is no more need for hope – the work of the Gospel was complete in their spirits and they were already perfected. Paul reminded them of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and laid it on the line – if Jesus was not resurrected, then Christian faith is in vain.

Paul reminded the people of the creed which they had been taught. Creeds were developed as teaching tools, since repetition is an excellent way of remembering things. Paul wrote, “For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures.” He then established a list of witnesses to the fact that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Jesus was not just some spirit, He had a physical body – ate with His disciples and lived with them for forty days before ascending to heaven. The witnesses – Peter, the Twelve, five hundred, James, all the apostles and then to Paul – 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 heresies than believe in the resurrection of the physical body. There are too many questions – what happens to the person who is cremated? A friend, a military chaplain, was recently telling me about a time when he helped to cast the ashes of a deceased veteran at a base that had a particularly meaningful place in his life. Things went a bit awry. It was a windy place and before long the ashes were scattered in every direction. How could God raise a body that no longer exists? He can because He is God. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that God is God and that He has promised us a resurrected body just like Jesus. Some day we will understand.

For now our task is simply to live in the faith which by God’s grave we have been given. We might just experience something extraordinary, like a vision of God in heaven or the tangible evidence of God’s power like a boat load of fish. He is calling us to believe, to live in His grace and to share what He has given to us. He might just call us to something specific like Isaiah, Peter or Paul. We might know in a heartbeat or it might take a lifetime for us to truly understand. However, we learn from this week’s passages that the extraordinary experiences will not bring us a position of honor or glory. Instead, the visible manifestation of God’s power will bring us to our knees. We will see clearly our unworthiness. We will also see God’s mercy and His grace. He won’t let us go about His work alone. He will be with us, giving us everything we need.

As we live the life we have been given, listening for His voice and discerning the vocation to which we have been called, we can know that He is faithful and sing a song of praise. As the psalmist sings, “In the day that I called thou answeredst me, Thou didst encourage me with strength in my soul. All the kings of the earth shall give thee thanks, O Jehovah, For they have heard the words of thy mouth. Yea, they shall sing of the ways of Jehovah; For great is the glory of Jehovah.” As we keep our eyes on the Temple, keep our eyes on God, He will guide our footsteps and lead us into the work He has called us to do. Perhaps we will find, someday, that there is something different to which we have been called. It will never be greater – for the greatest calling is to serve God in the ordinary, to share His love with the world. Thanks be to God.

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