Forth Sunday Before Lent – Sermon from Canon Rachel

Today’s readings are Isaiah 6.1-8 and Luke 5.1-11

There is some really powerful and personal stuff in our readings this morning – beginning with Isaiah’s commission.  I think I have heard this passage from Isaiah read at every ordination I have ever been to.  Isaiah speaks of a vision of God’s holiness and majesty which he experienced in the year the King died – 740BC. Isaiah tells us of a quite staggering experience of God’s presence and his response. Which begins with “Why me?”.  He is overawed and frankly terrified that someone flawed like him, and frankly no better than anyone else (a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips) should be experiencing God in this way.  

But the purpose of this experience of God seems to be so that God can prepare Isaiah to live his calling.  It is God who releases him from the barriers he would place in his own way, the burden of his sins.  Isaiah identifies those unclean lips, representing I think all he has done wrong, a sign of the barriers he has built between himself and God, and then we hear how God removes those barriers.

This awesome, fearsome God beyond imagining reaches out to Isaiah.  God’s messenger takes something from the altar, a sign of God’s power beyond imagining, and touches Isaiah’s lips.  God goes right to the place that Isaiah has cried out has made him unworthy of God’s attention – and touches that place – releasing Isaiah from the prison of his own guilt and shame and setting him free to act now on God’s call. 

Despite this awesome power of God that we are witnessing as Isaiah tells his story, this is not a story of subjugation, but liberation.  Isaiah is set free – and when God asks “Who shall we send? Who will go for us?” in his freedom Isaiah exclaims “Here am I. Send me.”

God reaches out.  God goes right to the place where we have made the biggest burden for ourselves and the biggest barrier to our relationship with God.  When God touches our humanity, it is in a way we can cope with, not in a way we are destroyed or burned by, but we are changed – and the result is liberation.

I wonder how this plays out when we move to our Gospel reading from Luke – the calling of the first disciples.  Is it the same kind of experience or different?

The crowd are pressing in on Jesus.  People want to hear him but they’re not being polite or considerate about it. There is pushing and shoving – Jesus cannot make himself seen or heard – the whole thing is becoming pointless. Jesus is obviously already popular – he has a following.  But we see here Jesus act with purpose to call people to particular roles – to be not just any followers, but to be disciples.

The fishermen aren’t yet part of the crowd.  They aren’t enthusiasts – yet.  They’re not with the pushers and pullers trying to get closer to Jesus.  They are going about their ordinary business, in their normal place when Jesus asks for their help.  He is not withdrawing from the crowd – but instead he is adapting to the situation so that everyone can hear, so that everyone can see, so that the barriers that are stopping people from hearing the Good News cease to be barriers.

Simon Peter is sympathetic – when Jesus asks him to let down his nets again he tells him of his superior knowledge – he’s the expert when it comes to fishing of course – but agrees nevertheless to let down the nets again.  

When the nets are heaving with fish – when God has turned Peter’s common sense and life experience on their heads, we hear Peter exclaim just as Isaiah exclaimed as he encountered his living God. Faced with the evidence of God’s awesome power, Peter, like Isaiah, declares his own brokenness, his own unworthiness of such attention. He names the barrier of wrongdoing that he thinks should stand between him and God.

And Jesus?  Jesus tells him not to be afraid – and cracks a joke. I know – we don’t usually think of this bit as funny – but it’s word play – how the verb works is that it’s like he’s saying “When you catch fish they die – but we’re going to catch people so they can really live”. Not captivity. Not death. Not oppression.  Not replacing the chains of sin with the demands of an oppressive God.  Liberation.  Come and be part of something that will set people free to be fully human, fully themselves, to live whole, abundant lives.

In experiencing God, and in responding to God’s calling, we are not subjecting ourselves to an oppressive power – we are collaborating with the God who through their grace wants nothing more for us than the freedom to be our true selves with God.

Today as most of you will be aware, is the 70th anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth the second, Defender of the Faith, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, to the throne of this nation. There will be time to fully celebrate this Platinum Jubilee later in the year when we hope to host our summer fete on jubilee weekend and hold a special service for the town to mark the occasion.  We will pray for Her Majesty at the end of our service today too, but it is not our focus.  Partly because she has always marked this day quietly, a sad reminder as every year of her beloved father’s death. Partly because it is not her focus either.

But as we reflect on our own calling, the subjecting of ourselves to the will of God which is itself our perfect freedom, perhaps today you will reflect on how Queen Elizabeth has served our nation, and understood throughout these 70 years that she too was responding to God’s call on her life. 

Her Majesty is a respected and by many beloved head of state. I don’t think this is because of the complex and sometimes indirect lines of heredity that placed her on the throne. I don’t think this is because of the money or the privilege that accompany monarchy. No amount of history or tradition, habit or even sheer relief that she saves us from having a politician as head of state – none of this adds up to the respect and affection she enjoys in her role, even from some of those who would call themselves republicans.

I think it finds its source in the integrity with which she understands herself as a leader whose leadership is service to nation and God, and perhaps whose only true freedom is found in faith.

As a clergy person in the Church of England I have made my oath to Her Majesty on more than one occasion – to be faithful and bear true allegiance.  I thank God that what I am able to strive to be faithful and loyal to is not an outdated form of national governance – but a commitment to live the Gospel which sets people free, an example of responding to God’s call with devotion and steadfastness.   

Perhaps you would have liked me to have talked about Her majesty more this morning.  I believe my Supreme Governor would expect me always to speak of her less, to focus as she does on the calling under God that is true liberty, and to always do my duty under her in proclaiming the Good News. 

To God be the glory.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Mary Steers says:

    Took the time to actually read your story about Isaiah. During these troubled times we all need someone to lean on. The Bible shows us many examples of this. I’ve been feeling a bit down lately as my brother has cancer and we don’t yet know what the outcome will be. I ask myself “why him”. He’s a God fearing man. I don’t have the answers but your messages give us hope.

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