Sermon for Epiphany 5, preached on Sunday, February 7, 2010.
In college I was a regular visitor to several monasteries in Michigan – including a Lutheran one known as St. Augustine’s House. The quietude and worship discipline were attractive to me. The contemplative life of the monks who worshiped first, then worked, with little time was left to self was very appealing -- just the opposite of most of our priorities. I thought this was the perfect life. I assumed that God would want this life for all of us -- were it not for the nasty business of bills, family responsibilities, etc. I felt like Peter on Transfiguration who did not want to leave but remain there beholding the glory of Christ without end.
Oh that we had nothing more to do that reflect upon God through His Word – free from the mundane responsibilities of life to meditate upon the sublime mystery of God! Sure, what was easy in a brief experience is always more difficult over the long haul -- witness the problem some of you have paying attention to my short little sermons – much less sit for a day to think upon one phrase of Scripture!
Then I read about the Christian vocation. I had once believed that God had hard wired us for contemplation but then I was not so sure. As I read over the texts like we heard this Sunday I discovered that God has something different in mind besides contemplation and meditation.
God comes to us not so that we might meditate upon His mystery but so that we might be called, freed, equipped, and directed into a new vocation of service to Him, to the cause of His Kingdom and to witness the Gospel. We saw that today in the first and Gospel lessons. Isaiah had this stirring revelation of God but the outcome was not a life of solitude pondering the Word of God. No, Isaiah recognized that this vision was a call to mission. When God ask who would go, Isaiah responded “Here am I! Send me!” And God said to him, “Go to speak my Word to my people!” It was the same for Peter. After a fruitless night of fishing, Jesus sends him out again. And when Peter saw the catch, this miracle led to a new vocation - fishers of men!
Isaiah’s is a classic vision of God. You have all the components – God in His temple, angels serving Him, thick clouds of incense, the ground shaking from God’s power. God takes Isaiah and gives him a glimpse of His holiness, of heaven’s glory. We might think Isaiah was drawn to this vision but Isaiah is repulsed by this vision. It was overwhelming. “Woe is me, for I am fallen and lost, a man of unclean lips from an unclean people and now I have seen the Lord.” He ran from this vision because Isaiah knows he did not belong.
But God would not let Him go. He cleansed the prophet with the burning coal from His altar. As soon as it touched his lips, Isaiah was forgiven by God – his guilt was gone and his sins atoned for. The Word of God came to Isaiah and cleansed Him so that this Word might dwell within the prophet -- not so that Isaiah might contemplate it all. No, the Word was sent to Him to send Him. “Whom shall I send?” asks God. And Isaiah responds. “Send me!”
God defined the mission: “Go and speak My Word to My people.” What word? The one that cannot be ignored. The Word that calls forth repentance by planting the Spirit within the hearer, melting the heart of stone. The Word that enables God’s people to turn from their sinful ways and be healed by God’s rich grace. What was Isaiah’s only response? “How long?” He did not reject this call but asked of God how long he would serve Him as a prophet. Until everything is gone and the dead stump brings forth the seed of new life, says the Lord. In other words, until Jesus comes -- since He the new life brought forth from the dead stump of Israel.
Lest you think this is only an Old Testament thing, read the Gospel again. Peter is told to go out and fish – after a long night of trying and catching nothing. Note Peter’s response to Jesus’ request. “At Your Word, O Lord, I will do it.” Peter is not so sure there is a chance of success but because it is the Lord who has asked him, Peter goes. After all, what did Jesus know about fishing? He was a carpenter. But Peter knew the Lord and does what the Lord tells him to do.
Peter catches fish. He catches more fish than he ever thought possible. The nets were breaking and the boats endanger of foundering under it all. Others had to come and help and they too were overwhelmed by the catch. When St. Peter sees it all, he knows that heaven's glory has been revealed to him. Peter drops to his knees before the Lord Jesus. “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinner.”
Peter's encounter with God's glory did not lead him to stay in His presence or spend his life in contemplation of what happened. Peter just wanted Jesus to leave him alone; he knew He was a sinner in the presence of God. But Jesus did not leave. Jesus absolved Peter of his fears and doubts, of his sin and unholiness. Jesus absolved Peter so that Peter would no longer fish for fish but for men. Again, when God encounters His people, it does not lead them to prayer and meditation. It leads them to action and service, to a new vocation. You shall become a fisher of men. God defines the mission, equips the person, and sends him out.
Everyone thinks that the Church should be a place of contemplation, a refuge away from the duties and pressures of life. But God does not call us to contemplation or reflection. God calls us to vocation – to a new life and a new purpose doing God’s bidding in the places where we are. You come to Church on Sundays and Bible study and that is well and good and as God wants it to be. But if it ends there, something is wrong. God comes to you in His Word and Sacraments to call you to a new vocation and purpose in life. The Gospel is no possession to be hoarded but the gift to be shared.
You were called in baptism not only to belong to the Lord but to serve Him. You were forgiven of your sin so that you might serve Him unhindered by guilt and undistracted by the burden of your wrongs. You were given the Word of God not as a personal possession to secure but as a working document to guide you in what you are called to do as a fisher of men, a servant of God, a witness to the Gospel, and an agent of His compassionate will.
We generally think of vocation in terms of what we earn to pay the bills. The Lord reminds us that vocation is His gift to us, flowing from baptism, to worship the Lord and to serve Him in the places where you are – where you live, work, shop, go to school, and enjoy your leisure. Our encounter with God is the beginning of a mission, a purpose, a calling, and a vocation of service to the Lord. God calls us and places us where we might speak the Word that calls many to repentance in Christ Jesus and draws those who hear into His kingdom.
I still relish the days I spent at those monasteries... the quiet, the worship, the work, the discipline... Some days when I am overwhelmed I wish I could go back for a while. But I did not stay there nor is that where God wants us to be. God’s call is not to a retreat from the world but to encounter the world with the Gospel spoken in the words and displayed in the actions of His people. The Church is not some temple where we go to hide from the world but the place where God prepares us to do His bidding in the very places where we are.
Of course this is scary thing but God calms our fears with His promised presence. We do not go alone but He walks with us, equips us with His Spirit and the gifts that flow from Him. He does not move us by guilt or pressure us to succeed; His call is to be faithful -- faithful in the words we speak and actions we take... faithful to Christ and to the Scriptures that make Him known and the Gospel that redeems lost and condemned sinners. He equips all our lack with the gifts of His grace.
You do not need to go to Seminary in order to fulfill this vocation. You do not need to be on an evangelism committee. The call is to each of you. Baptism is your Isaiah encounter with the Lord and your Petrine moment of revelation over waters alive with fish. Now He asks you as He did Isaiah and Peter of old -- "Who will go for Me?" And our prayer is that where God shows Himself, His people will respond, “Here am I. Send me, send me!” Amen.