Sunday, February 7, 2010

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

…yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.

The big game is this weekend, and while many people are looking forward to watching the New Orleans Saints play against the Indianapolis Colts. The experts are already comparing records and making predictions about who will win and who will and who will impress. Fans are getting ready by gathering snack foods and beverages to enjoy during the game. Many will host parties where crowds will gather in front of their big screen televisions to cheer and boo the action.

But the game is not the only thing that is drawing attention for this game day. As it is every year, a great deal of hype has been made over the commercials that will play during the game. The big game is one of the most watched television programs during the year, so advertisers line up to spend a fortune to buy air time. The network hosts can charge almost any amount and they will get advertisers. This year CBS is asking $2.6 million dollars for just thirty seconds. They’ve had no problem filling the commercial time; they’ve even been able to turn some advertisers away.

So, at $2.6 million dollars for half a minute, you can imagine the work that has gone into those commercials. Those advertisers are going to do everything they can to make the campaign successful. They certainly get their money’s worth: the best commercials will be watched over and over again in the days and weeks to come as they are discussed on news shows and websites. There is even an official website where you can vote for your favorites.

It is funny, though, on first watch many of those commercials do not even leave a lasting impression about the product. I can’t even remember what was being advertised during some of my favorite commercials from the past. They get creative to catch our attention, but need repeat viewing to really get our business.

Now, can you imagine going to all this trouble to create an advertisement to convince people to not buy what we are selling. Can you imagine an advertiser saying, “I don’t want you to believe in me or my product?” That’s exactly what Isaiah was called to do.

The Lord said to Isaiah, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they sea with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” 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 and healing. The task might have seemed ridiculous to Isaiah, but it was the first step of a larger plan.

Isaiah gets is, 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 is gone, then God can start over with His people.

We see this in the attitude of Isaiah early in the passage. Isaiah has a vision that is incredible. He sees 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 in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, Jehovah of hosts.” 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 he would not survive standing in God’s glory.

But God is filled with promises and He does what has to be done for restoration and renewal. 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?”

This moment always makes me giggle. After all, the only one standing in front of God and His angels is Isaiah. It is like a father playing with a child, pretending not to see the child in front of him. “Where is my little girl?” Or a mother who has a yummy cupcake pretending not to see a hungry child, saying “Who should I give this cupcake to?” God knows that Isaiah is there and that Isaiah is the one who will go, but He is calling Isaiah, but wants Isaiah to volunteer. He doesn’t force anyone to do the work, although He can be very persuasive.

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 doesn’t vocalize his doubts or misgivings, but if he’s human like you and I, he probably had them. Yes, 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.

Now, 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 suck 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. Isaiah’s vision was also extraordinary, purposely so that there would be no doubt that he 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 wonder 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. In today’s passage, Paul writes about his work among the people in Corinth. He writes, “Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain.” He insists that the congregation believe his message or their faith will have been in vain.

The problem that Paul is addressing is that some had stopped believing in bodily resurrection. They did not believe that Jesus had been raised in flesh and that they, too, would be raised into a new body. 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 spiritual. They did not believe in the physical resurrection of the body. That understanding leaves no room for hope—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, then Christian faith is in vain.

His proof of Jesus’ resurrection lies in the witnesses who have testified to seeing Him alive. The 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 heresies 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 spiritual without this imperfect flesh that aches on rainy days and doesn’t fit into a decent pair of jeans anymore. Now, 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 this 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 labored more abundantly than they all.” 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. Just this week, an article about Zack appeared on the school district website reporting about a major accomplishment. Several people have congratulated me for his success. The idea embarrasses me because he’s the one 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.

Our task is simply to live in the faith which by God’s grace 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. Whatever our circumstances, God 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. However, we learn from this week’s passages that the work we do 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 own unworthiness. We will also see God’s mercy and His grace. He won’t let us do His work alone. He will be with us, giving us everything we need.

And so we face the ordinary and the extraordinary with a heart filled with thanksgiving and 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 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 extraordinary for us to do. It might even seem ridiculous to us. But let us never forget that God’s grace is made manifest in His will and purpose for our lives. The greatest calling is not to be a powerful prophet or a prolific apostle, but to serve God in the ordinary and ridiculous opportunities, and to share His love with the world.

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