A sermon preached by David Barton on 6 February 2022.
Isaiah 6:1-end. Luke 5:1-11.
Two remarkable readings, spanning the centuries. And they contain the essence of what the Christian faith has to give us, and why we come here Sunday by Sunday.
Let me explain. First a bit of context on the Isaiah passage. We can date that vision to around 734 BC: the year King Uzziah died. Its a time of crazy politics. The tiny kingdom of Judah was being squashed between the great empires of Assyria and Egypt. And it had the ridiculous idea that it could stand up to both. A recipe for disaster. Perhaps Isaiah ponders this as he prays in the temple. At all events, it is as if, suddenly, the worship of the temple slides away and Isaiah has a glimpse of the immensity and greatness of God. Isaiah want us to understand that, because he tells us that it is only the hem of God’s robe that fills the temple. The immensity of God fills up the heavens. He hears the angels chants of praise: Holy, Holy, Holy. And he is utterly lost. But an angel gives him assurance and forgiveness and also a tough commission. He must tell his people of an inevitable defeat and exile. They’re not going to listen to him, they won’t understand. But still he must tell them. Its a terrible prophecy: The nation is going to be like a tree felled and burned. And even if a tenth part of it remains, it will be burned again…yet ….at the end of all of this emerges a strange promise: .the holy seed is the stump.
This vision and its prophecy are the germ from which the whole of the Book of Isaiah grows. The book goes on to trace the way it all works out over the next century or so. Jerusalem is defeated and destroyed, and the population is taken into exile in Babylon. But, from the battered remnants of a defeated people, God brings new life. A handful of exiles return home and rebuild Jerusalem. But its not just that. The book of Isaiah points to a new kind of hope. Those mysterious poems we call the Servant Songs speak of a God so close to us in suffering that our grief and sorrows are carried by him, even healed by him. Out of suffering, new life: hope where no one would expect it. Words that in the end help us to begin to understand the cross. That’s all part of the “holy seed.”
And then we read the Gospel in the light of all that. And the first thing to notice is how Peter’s response is uncannily like that of Isaiah. The setting is of course utterly different, just an ordinary working environment. Fishing is Peter’s job. He knows about it. So he knows its not always successful. He must have thought it a fool’s errand, when this young preacher told him to go out again after a night of failure. But he does it. Its a catch he would never have dreamt of – beyond chance or coincidence. He too is caught into the immensity of something he does not understand: How can this man bend creation to his will? It is as if, for a moment the world around him falls away and he glimpses into the heart of things.
Like Isaiah Peter is utterly lost: “Go away” is his only response. But, again, like Isaiah, Peter and those with him are commissioned with a task which they cannot refuse. “Fear not. Follow me. From now on you will be catching people.” And the pivotal word here, that unlocks so much is “catching”. Many of us, brought up on the AV are inclined to think of “fishers of men”. But in the original Greek the word is an unusual one and the implications are not much about fishing. They are of taking prisoners alive as opposed to killing them. So by implication, freedom in the face of captivity, restoring to life someone under threat of limitation, or even of death. For such a thing to happen is a gift of life.
Luke doesn’t go on with a prophecy about the future of course. But his book does tell us of Jesus suffering and death and the new life that springs from the cross. And, in the follow up book of Acts he tells of the apostles taking the good news of the gospel across the known world. They’re thrown out of town, beaten, imprisoned, persecuted, left for dead, and yet, the message of freedom and life grows and flourishes: new life out of death, hope where it seemed there was none. Holy Seed from a battered stump.
I was very moved when I first glanced at these readings. Side by side like this they track the promise of God down the centuries. And you and I come here, Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the unfailing truth and power of that love. We are people of the Kingdom, you and I. The kingdom where, as R S Thomas says,
“There are quite different things going on:
Festivals where the poor man is king
And the consumptive is healed.
Its a place where the blind look
At themselves in a mirror and love looks back at them ;
Where industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured by life.”
We do that here. We are here to celebrate that we know something about that. We are here because we have felt, deep in ourselves, the healing power of God. The church may be shrinking in number, battered and bruised after the pandemic. But at its heart still are those who know themselves to be touched by the God who brings new life out of darkness.
It is not always the easiest thing to speak of. We live in what I think of as the tyranny of a left hemisphered society. Achievement, energy, argument, the necessity of everything to be provable – these are the things that matter. Which is fine, except that the other half of our minds (all minds, not just of a few) – works in a different way: we are all of us creative, intuitive, actually aware of mystery and actually capable of vision. We’re sometimes aware of things – important things – we can’t quite put into words, but which matter to us profoundly. I think a lot of people have an intuitive sense of divine presence, but never speak of it. That we cant find the words doesn’t matter. But NOT to be aware of that, to ignore our intuitive minds, is to be impoverished, and to live out of only half of ourselves.
Coming here Sunday by Sunday is to resist all of that: here we nourish ourselves in the immensity and majesty of God. Behind our songs we hear those of the angels. We remind ourselves of God’s longing to transform and heal our lives with the same energy and love with which he created all things in the first place.
And we remind ourselves of the closeness of God, the God who never leaves us.
And above all we remember the quiet, humble nature of God’s power, who puts himself into our hands. And that is the final and most touching thing about that gospel: Jesus’ readiness to pass over this message of freedom and love to people who are utterly unqualified to receive it. Peter, James and John have nothing to offer. And us of course. But that little group accept the task that God gives them. They don’t bargain about terms and conditions and outcomes, because even the smallest glimpse of God changes everything. In a troubled world they knew that the God who brought light out of darkness, and life out of nothingness, was with them, and would never leave them. The gift of life was theirs, no matter how dark it might become. They faced everything with hope ….and so can we. Under God that was and is enough.