Epiphany 5. Sermon preached by Revd Professor Paul Foster on 6th February 2022

Isaiah 6.1-8 and Luke 5.1-11

I don’t know if you follow any of the same news channels, or website that I do. If you do, then there is a chance that recently you may have picked up on a certain theme, or maybe it has passed you by. Have you by any chance noticed that there has been a lot of talk recently about – leadership? For the life of me, I cannot think what might possibly have generated all this interest of late. You can tell me afterwards, or maybe you consider that to be a grey area concerning which we should not speak until all the facts are known. However, leaving aside specific cases, there are some meta-level questions to be raised. Those questions relate to what qualifies somebody to hold, or even to hold onto a leadership role, when should such a hypothetical individual relinquish that role, and when does personal behaviour act as a barrier to leadership. For some, personal failings should debar people from office, while for others it is just a matter of toughing it out and refusing to link personal actions to the role that is held no matter the degree of inconsistency that might be perceived.

Perhaps correctly, religious leaders are often held to a higher standard than others. The reasons for that are fairly clear. If one speaks about ethical practices and moral behaviours and then is found to be acting in a way that is inconsistent with what is being said to others, then that hypocrisy is more keenly recognized. The well-known challenge to “practice what you preach” is not just an easy slogan to throw around. More fundamentally, it is call and a self-check to ensure that one’s actions align with one’s words – especially when those words are spoken from the pulpit or other places of authority.

We know little of Isaiah’s background or upbringing, apart from the fact that he was the son of a man called Amoz. This Isaiah, who perhaps in some way stands behind the first thirty-nine chapters of the biblical book that bears his name, appears to have commenced his prophetic ministry around the end of the period of leadership of a long reigning king of Judah. Our reading today records events that the text dates to ‘in the year that king Uzziah’s died’ (Isa 6.1). Dating in this period is not exact, but Uzziah appears to have reigned for approximately fifty-two years. For part of that period he was co-regent with his father, a time when he was mentored and trained for leadership, prior to becoming sole ruler. His death appears to have occurred around the year 740 BC, and this may coincide with the beginning of Isaiah’s prophetic career.

It is at this time that Isaiah received a visionary experience. The vision is of a throne room. Such settings were at one level a reality in the ancient world. Potentates in the ancient near east projected their own image of power through their lavish throne rooms with elevated seats, bejewelled furniture, and displays of heavily armed body-guards. It was advisable to pay obeisance and to cause no offence – unless one want that to be the last thing he or she did. However, Isaiah’s vision is different. He sees a vision of God sitting above the temple in Jerusalem, and the hem of God’s robe completely fills that large temple space. In this vision, there are mythic creatures – flying six-winged serpents called Seraphim. Unlike the guards in an earthly throne room these Seraphim are unarmed. Their function is not to project power or to defend the one sitting one the throne, for the Lord of hosts requires no external protection. Instead, these Seraphim with unceasing cry affirm the holiness of the one enthroned. This throne room is not designed to give the impression of power, for it is the locus of true, holy, divine power.

Isaiah’s response is perhaps a little unexpected. He is not simply confused or discombobulated. Rather, maybe surprisingly, he seems to understand the implications of this vision. His first response is that should not be in this place. Isaiah cries out, ‘woe is me, I am lost’ (Isa 6.5). He is aware of his status as a sinful person, and he knows that he should not be in the presence of the one whose very nature is absolute holiness. His fear stems from the fact that he, Isaiah, has seen the Lord of hosts. Any Israelite worth their salt knew that it was not possible to look upon the face of God. Even when Moses, the lawgiver, had asked to see the glory of the Lord the response he received from God was this, ‘you cannot see my face, for no man can see me and live’ (Exod 33.20). In a moment of prescient clarity, Isaiah has put two and two together. The logic is irresistible, as an impure person he has just looked upon the face of the thrice holy one, the Lord – it can only mean one thing, he is lost, he is about to die.

Then something amazing happens. Isaiah is not eradicated, rather he is purified. One of the seraphim, who had be praising God for his holiness, takes a cauterizing hot coal from the altar and with it purifies Isaiah’s unclean lips, and his sin is forgiven. The cauterizing coal, the cleansing waters of baptism, the purifying fire of the Spirit – are all instruments of God for the healing of God’s people so that they might stand in the divine presence. Then in what I image was quite an uncomfortable moment, the Lord in his throne room asks, ‘whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ (Isa 6.8). I always wonder if at that moment Isaiah had a look around to see if there was anybody else in the throne room. The news was not good, that question was addressed only to one person – and moreover, there was only one possible answer. Isaiah responds, ‘here am I, send me.’ Thus Isaiah was called and commissioned to be a prophetic leader for the people of Judah. It was not an office he had sought, and he certainly knew that as a person of unclean lips he was not qualified for that role. Yet, the compelling call of God was absolute and could not be resisted.

An apparently much more ordinary scene was taking place nearly eight hundred years later, beside lake Gennesaret – which is Luke’s preferred name for the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen were cleaning their boats and equipment after the kind of fishing trip that you and I have probably been on – long hours and not a single fish to show for one’s efforts. Yet something strange was happening a crowd was swelling, keen to listen to the popular preacher from Nazareth. Then without permission, to avoid the press of the crowd, this teacher climbed into one of the boats, ask for it to be put out a little off shore, and adopting the standard rabbinic posture for teaching, he sat down. The owner of the boat, Simon Peter, probably thought, “a bit cheeky, but why not – nothing else is happening today, there are no fish to get ready for market.” On this occasion, we are not told what Jesus said. However, at the end of the teaching session he asked Simon Peter to put out in the deep water and to let down his nets again. Peter’s response is along the lines of – well this is pointless, we have been fishing all night and we have just cleaned the nets, but hey, why not humour the preacher. On this occasion Peter’s cynicism did not last long. As soon as the nets were dropped the catch was so large that the nets began to break, and the boats were so full of fish that they were at the point of sinking.

It is only at this point that the significance of what has happened strikes Peter. In a way reminiscent of our story from Isaiah, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet – presumably depicting an act of obeisance or maybe even worship. He then says, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man’ (Lk 5.8). Peter recognizes this is not simply a very good fishing day. What has happened, should not have happened, perhaps could not have happened. This is not a normal human event. Something miraculous, something divine has intersected Peter’s everyday world. And that divine encounter makes Peter acknowledge his own inadequacies. Yet, such inadequacy is not a barrier, but a bridge to the divine if it is honestly acknowledged. This encounter is in many ways an epiphany, it shows Jesus to be a person with divine powers. In fact, Peter is the first person in Luke’s gospel to address Jesus as ‘Lord’, a title which Luke typically reserves to refer to the God of Israel. However, this story is not just about who Jesus is; it is about who Peter and his companions are to become. As in the case of Isaiah, encounter leads to call. Here, there is no question asked or invitation proffered, no ‘whom shall I send?’ Instead, Jesus simply informs Peter, James and John, that from now on they would be fishing for people – and they simply trust and follow. These were not people looking for leadership roles. Peter was aware of his shortcomings and lack of training for the task. However, the call of Jesus was compelling and it left no opportunity to be declined. Peter would fail many times. However, he redeeming strength was that he acknowledged his failings, and so was rehabilitated for the leadership of the early community of Jesus believers.
So what makes for a good leader. Is it unfailing self-belief, not acknowledging one’s failings and shortcomings, an ability not to be shamed by any set of circumstances? Some certainly regard those as the best traits possible. However, that is not the model that is displayed in the examples of Isaiah or of Peter. Neither was grasping after a position of power or leadership. In many ways, that is the thing I find most attractive about them. Further, they do not hide their faults. Instead, Isaiah acknowledges he is ‘a man of unclean lips’, and Peter even more directly states ‘I am a sinful man’. Neither one protests that he had broken no rules, or that he was not aware of the status of their activities. Both knew themselves to be unclean, lost, and sinful. Yet despite this, or better because of this, God’s call comes to people who are unqualified, broken, and who would fail again even when carrying out the task to which they are called.

Today, God’s call continues to comes to new Isaiahs and new Peters, to women and men who are broken, imperfect, and unworthy. Our qualifications are never good enough for the task, our failings are only too apparent, and yet only one answer is acceptable. We must respond to the one who calls each of us not because of what we have been, but because of what, by God ‘s grace, each of us shall become. In this place, at this time, as we will gather around broken bread and poured out wine. At that time, in your hearts look up, see the Lord of hosts high and lofty, hear the irresistible call, and respond, ‘here am I, send me.’ Amen.

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