BIBLE READINGS: Isaiah 6:1-8 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 Luke 5:1-11
When we listen to Isaiah, Paul and Peter as they share their experiences of God's call, we hear a single theme. It's a theme that Saint Augustine once confessed with passion: "Lord, what I am for you terrifies me. What I am with you consoles me. For you, I am a priest. With you, I am a Christian."
When the prophet Isaiah had a vision of God in the Jerusalem temple, fear and terror overwhelmed him: "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was one of the most gifted poets in ancient history; even today people who are unfamiliar with the Bible recognise his verse in music like Handel's Messiah. Yet Isaiah identified the difference between artistic genius and a genuine apostle with a word from God. The smoke, voices, and earthquake that he saw in his vision caused Isaiah to despair at his sinfulness. His vision reads like a science fiction horror story when an angel takes a hot coal from the altar with a pair of tongs and burns his lips.
When the apostle Paul thought about how viciously he had tried to kill Jesus followers, painful memories touched his heart with feelings of deep regret: "I am the least of all the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle," he wrote to the Corinthians (15:9). In seven autobiographical flashbacks on his pre-conversion life, Paul describes how he imprisoned many disciples, dragged them to Jerusalem for punishment, expended every effort to force them to blaspheme, sought out the death penalty for them, and opposed the name of Jesus with all his might. What he once boasted of as religious purity he later scorned as the worst form of self-righteousness. Even after many years as a Christian Paul still a sense of guilt for what he had done, "I am the worst of sinners" In Paul's mind only the "unlimited patience" of God permitted him to move beyond the grief and shame that his painful memories caused.
When the fisherman Peter worked hard all night and caught nothing at all, but then obeyed Jesus’ command to drop his nets into deeper waters, he hauled in a catch of fish that ripped their nets and nearly sunk their boat. When he realised what had happened, when he grasped the relationship between the power of God and his miserable faith, he fell to the ground before Jesus in fear: "Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8). Peter had other occasions to make this confession. When he rebuked Jesus for predicting his suffering and death, Jesus called Peter "satan" (Matthew 16:23). After denying that he would deny Jesus and then doing so three times, Peter "wept bitterly" (Luke 22:62). Decades later, Paul publicly rebuked him for his blatant hypocrisy over refusing to eat with ritually impure Gentiles (Galatians 2:11–13).
The point of these three stories is that human sin, failure, and inadequacy were not obstacles to God's call. God does not require a perfect messenger for his message. In our most honest moments of self-awareness we can still offer ourselves to God like Isaiah, "Here am I, send me." Without hedging our bets or adding planning for our future security we can imitate Peter, James, John, and their companions who "pulled their boats up on shore, left everything, and followed Jesus." We can rejoice with Paul that "by the grace of God I am what I am." Most important of all, to Isaiah's dread, Paul's deep regrets and painful memories, Peter's fears, and to our own deeply personal insecurities today, God whispers to us what Jesus said to Peter: "Don't be afraid" (Luke 5:10).
And we can know what Isaiah, Paul, and Peter knew, that however dreadful our sin, however painful our memories, and however real our fears, God's limitless love is greater still. Or as Paul once said, "where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more" (Romans 5:20).
I want to finish with a prayer written by Sir Frances Drake so many centuries ago:
Disturb us Lord when
We are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to shore
Ackowledgement: Daniel Clendenin