Isaiah 6:1-8; Luke 5:1-11
4th Sunday before Lent
St Barbara’s 06.02.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Given that today is the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the throne, it seems appropriate to begin with a story about an English king, even if in this case, its a story about their demise.
Back in 1100 AD, King William II (or William Rufus as he is better known), the son of William the Conqueror, was out hunting in the forests, accompanied by his brother Henry and all the top nobles of the land. At the height of the chase an arrow was shot, and whether by accident or by murderous intent, it hit William, killing him on the spot. What happened next is telling. The king of England, the most powerful and feared man in the realm, well, his body was just left abandoned on the forest floor whilst his brother and nobles scarpered. His brother jumped on the fastest horse and headed straight to Winchester where all the money of the king was kept. All the nobles fled back to their estates to secure their land and possessions. Poor William’s body was abandoned where he had fallen, left to be manhandled onto a farmer’s cart a few days later without ceremony or honour. For the most unstable, the most vulnerable time in any kingdom was when the king died and before the new king had time to get established – this was a time of fear, of vulnerability, of anarchy – that’s why the nobles fled the scene so fast.
It is telling that the reading we heard from Isaiah this morning is introduced with the words: “In the year that king Uzziah died”. Uzziah had been a strong king who had ruled Israel for forty years. But his death led to a power vacuum and left Israel open to invasion by foreign troops. There was great fear, insecurity, a sense of impending catastrophe. Some analysts wonder whether the build-up of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border at this particular time is in part because the most stabilising force in European politics, Angela Merkel, has now retired. Europe is more vulnerable than it has been for sometime.
Some of us here may be able to identify with the fear and uncertainty of Isaiah’s homeland on a personal level too. Our lives may be feeling in a state of transition, of uncertainty, of disruption, maybe through illness, unemployment, changed home circumstances. So what does this reading from Isaiah, recording events that occurred 2,700 years ago, have to say to us today?
Well, it is worth noting that in the midst of the fears and turmoil, Isaiah receives a vision of the overwhelming glory, majesty and holiness of God. God is exalted on a throne far above. The train of his robe fills the entire Temple. The very threshold of the Temple, the largest most mighty building Isaiah would have known or ever seen, shakes in the presence of God. Even heavenly creatures, seraphs, are so in awe of his presence that they cover their faces, and they sing “Holy, holy, holy”. It is the strongest way to express God’s holiness, each repetition just magnifying the nature of the word. Like us saying: “Amazing. Amazing! AMAZING!!!”
This is a vision of a God awesome in majesty, a God of matchless power, a king who rules over all nations and whose glory cannot be contained. This is a God whose glory fills the earth.
For Isaiah, such a vision would have helped to put the events he was living through into some perspective, to realise that ultimately God was sovereign, that he was in control, that he would be more than capable of bringing good out of the situation he and his nation faced.
Its why for us, catching glimpses of God’s glory is important too. When we have a true perspective of who God is, it transforms the way we see our lives and the world around us. When we come together on a Sunday morning, we may catch glimpses of God’s glory – maybe through the words that are said or sung, maybe through the space for meditation and reflection that this hour provides, maybe in the beauty of this building, prayed in and worshipped in for almost a hundred years.
But it is not just here in this place that we may see God’s glory. As the seraphs sing: “the whole earth is full of his glory”. With eyes and hearts open, we may begin to see glimpses of the glory of God in the most unexpected of places: in the kindness of a neighbour taking our rubbish to the tip, in the skill of a surgeon replacing someone’s arthritic hip; in the thoughtfulness of laying flowers outside the home of a grieving family; in the courage of someone standing up against injustice; in the beauty of the trees that line our streets. God’s glory shines all around. Pause and ask: where have I already seen his glory this day, even if at the time I failed to notice it. We stand on holy ground.
Isaiah’s response to the vision of God’s glory is two-fold: repentance and action.
Before the awesome greatness and holiness of God, Isaiah becomes more than aware of his own unworthiness. How can he be in the presence of a God who is so pure, so worthy of praise and adoration, so awesome, when he so consistently falls short? And he realises that it is not just him. The world in which he lives also falls so far short. He cries out: “I am a man of unclean lips amongst a people of unclean lips.”
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Peter’s reaction to the glory of God revealed in Jesus is similar. When under Jesus’ instruction they catch a shoal of fish so large it will almost sink their boat, his response is “Go away from me Lord. I am a sinful man.” In God’s presence we see what goodness and holiness are, and realise how far we fall short.
Over recent weeks I have found myself returning more and more in my prayers to that simple phrase: “Lord, have mercy”. In our services, we sang it throughout Epiphany and will do so again in Lent. At times during the last few weeks I have found that those three words have been the only words I could pray, whether when praying for those affected by the siege or last week’s tragic death, or whether praying for peace in Myanmar or the Ukraine, or whether for myself and my failure to love and act as I should. In God’s presence, there are times when those three words are enough: Lord have mercy. I wonder, for you, for who or for what are those words needed to be said today. Take a moment to pray them now: Lord, have mercy.
God, in his mercy, does forgive us. Like with Isaiah, he takes away our guilt, he atones for our sins. And then he offers us the opportunity to serve. There is no coercion, no manipulation, in God’s invitation. He simply asks: “Who shall I send? Who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds: “Here am I. Send me.” Having experienced something of the glory and holiness of God, having received his mercy and forgiveness, how else could he respond?
The reality is that he could have walked away. Peter, when called by Jesus to go and fish for people, could also have turned round and said he was honoured to be asked, but really all he wanted to do was fish for fish. They had choices, and others around them, many of the people of Israel, many of those who heard Jesus, did just that, did walk away. And you can understand why. Responding to God’s call to serve him, to follow him, is not a guarantee of an easy life. Isaiah spent the rest of his life proclaiming a message that largely fell on deaf ears and unreceptive hearts. Peter, we are told, left everything to follow Jesus.
But responding to God’s call to serve, to follow, can lead to extraordinary things. Isaiah’s words may not have been heeded during his lifetime, but ever since, for the last two and a half thousand years, his words have resonated in the lives of every generation, offering hope and life. Peter became the rock on which Christ built his church.
We may never know the difference that responding to God’s call may make, but as with Isaiah and Peter, it is the only choice truly possible when we encounter the glory and forgiveness of God. I wonder where today you or I may be the answer to God saying “Who shall I send? Who will go for us?” Let’s allow God’s Spirit to prompt us as we take a moment to reflect now.