Are we any use to God?
A sermon on Isaiah 6:1-13 & Luke 5:1-11 by Nathan Nettleton, 5 February 1995
God's church is to be a place of cleansing and healing and preparation for mission.
Have you ever had the experience of being there when something happened, so you know a bit about it, and then some time later hearing someone else tell the story and it sounds so different that you wonder if you were really both there. I've had it a few times after watching a football game, when I thought one of my favourite players, say Nicky Winmar or someone, had played a pretty ordinary game, and then I hear someone else describing the game as though Winmar had played a blinder. I've had the experience even more often after worship services or after hearing a sermon. Sometimes I've been amazed to hear someone talking about one of my sermons, and hearing them saying that I'd said something that really meant a great deal to them and was very special, which is really nice to hear, except that I didn't think I was actually saying that. In fact one time I even heard someone say how encouraged they were by the main point of my sermon, and I thought I had been saying the exact opposite of what they had heard, preaching against that view even. Two people hearing the same sermon can sometimes hear somewhat different things, and certainly by the time they describe it to others it can sound so completely different that you can't recognize any connection between the descriptions.
Sometimes, even if they understood something similarly, their descriptions can sound different just because they use different words. This is especially true of people describing spiritual experiences. If I say I had a dream you'll understand it one way, but if I say I had a vision you might understand it differently even though it might be the same thing. If I say that a thought crossed my mind you'll probably interpret it a bit differently to if I say I heard a voice from within. If I say I had a sudden insight it will sound a bit different to if I say I had a revelation, or a word of knowledge. But I might not mean anything different. Sometimes my choice of words might reflect the interpretation and significance I attach to the event, sometimes what you hear will be more related to your experience than mine.
Something like that may be the only major difference between the events in our two readings today. In the gospel reading, Simon the fisherman is going about his business, which of course is fishing, when something a little unusual happens in that he has a larger than usual catch at the wrong time of day. But for Simon, there is something about the relationship between this event and the presence of Jesus that suddenly makes him acutely aware of his own shortcomings as a human being and painfully uncomfortable in the presence of Jesus. One of those experiences that we talked about earlier in the service. His perception of Jesus as a holy man, possibly even as the human presence of God, made him feel exposed and unworthy. In his desperate discomfort he falls to his knees and begs Jesus to go away and leave him alone, to keep his distance and let him go about his ordinary mundane existence. But Jesus, lifts him back to his feet, affirms him and commissions him to be his follower, his apprentice in mission bringing the good news of God's reign to all those who also felt stuck in their unworthiness.
Isaiah's description of his experience sounds very different, but in effect is exactly the same. Isaiah, still a young man at this stage, has an experience, which he describes as a vision or a dream, in which he senses the presence of the holy God which makes him feel despairingly conscious of his own failures and brokenness. So much so that he feels doomed; he feels that this revelation will kill him. But instead he ends up feeling forgiven, cleansed and affirmed by God, and he responds by offering himself, and being commissioned as God's messenger.
The basic experience is the same for both Isaiah and Simon Peter. It is described in very different terms, one in the mundanities of everyday life, and one in spectacular visionary terms, but the basic experience is the same. They feel convicted, they despair, they sense themselves being cleansed, they find themselves chosen by God, and they respond by dedicating themselves to God's mission. It is the basic guts of what we call Christian conversion. It is what we attest to in our baptisms - we confess our sin, we are washed clean, and we are sealed and commisssioned to follow Christ in the mission of bringing good news to the world.
Now the temptation here for me as a preacher is to go on about each persons need for such an experience and maybe dish out a few heavies to try to get everyone falling to their knees conscious of their brokenness and unworthiness, but I don't hink there is much point in me doing that here because I am badically preaching to the converted. Most of you can relate, to some extent or another, to that experience. You have acknowledged your need of God, sensed God's forgiveness, and commited yourself to serving God. For us here at this time, the big question is, How do we as a body of the converted, as a church, how do we respond to this message? How can we as a church live our life together in a way that enables and encourages people to live this to the full?
Let me suggest to main things we need to take from this at this time. Firstly we need to be a community that accepts those who are broken and hurting, and helps them to find forgiveness, healing and growth among us. And secondly, we need to be a community that enables people to hear the call of God to them, and supports them as they seek to respond to that call to participate in God's purposes in the world.
Let me flesh that out a bit. The first point. We need to be a community that accepts those who are broken and hurting, and helps them to find forgiveness, healing and growth among us. This, if you like is our mission to those who chose to number themselves among us. This is what we have to offer each other. We are to be the kind of community that inspires a person to seek and recognize God. This will happen partly by word and primarily through example. As others see us, individually and communally, deepening in our relationship with God's Spirit, and consequentially deepening in our maturity and our fulness of life, many will be inspired to undertake a similar journey of discovery and growth. This must necessarily go hand in hand with another journey, a journey of self-discovery. We are to be the kind of community that encourages and enables a person to embark on a journey of self-discovery; a journey that will enable them to come to a realistic understanding of their own weaknesses and their own strengths, and of how God is working within them and through them.
People who are coming to terms with their own condition and discovering the reality of God will usually become aware of their own need for forgiveness and healing. We are to be a community that enables them to find that. Now you might want to jump up and say, But they need to find that from God rather than from us. And I would want to answer that that is certainly true, but one of the biggest obstacles to people feeling forgiven and accepted by God, is that they don't feel forgiven or accepted by God's people. If we would help people find God's forgiveness, then we must model it and demonstrate it.
Cleansing and healing for most people happen only in an atmosphere of acceptance and love, and happen as people are able to extend their journey of self-discovery into the area of understanding and renewing their inter-personal relationships and social and community links. This requires us to hang in there with people who may have some destructive or alienating patterns of behaviour or relating, to hang in there with them while they dismantle those patterns and learn new healthy patterns. As each of us finds healing and genuine growth occurs in our lives, we are increasingly able to contribute and participate in making the same opportunities available for others.
And that brings us to the second area of response. When Simon and Isaiah had discovered God and themselves, and experienced acceptance and cleansing by God, they were called by God to join the mission. To offer themselves as servants of God's purposes in the world. So too with us. We need to be a community that enables people to hear the call of God to them, and supports them as they seek to respond to that call to participate in God's purposes in the world.
Some of this is directly related to what we have just been saying, because obviously the further you travel on your journey of discovering God and discovering yourself, the better your chances of hearing and responding to God's call. For most people, the call of God on their lives is intimately bound up with an appreciation of their personal strengths and passions. But the next step is living it out and that goes well beyond what we have just been talking about. It gets us outside our own doors. It puts us back in touch with the world out there, the same world that we came in to find shelter from, to find healing for the wounds we had sustained out there. And at that point most of us feel desperately unworthy again. You know, and I know, that I am not worthy to go out there and be a representative of God. That's too big for any of us. Well, the good news is that none of us have to. The scary news is that all of us have to. It is our joint mission, not the mission of any one of us. We are to be the representative of God. We are to be the vehicle of God's message out into the world. We are a sign of what a community of people can be if it is touched and transformed by God. And we are an active agent in seeking to dismantle the structures and systems that oppress and degrade people and in bringing to those people hope and creative possibilities for new life.
It is a big ask. We, as a relatively small community of relatively ordinary people here in Prahran and South Yarra, are called by God to live faithfully to this vision of the church. This vision of a community that fosters healing and growth in us as its people, and then bands us together to be active participants in the healing and growth to wholeness of the world and all creation. And whether you sense that call through spectacular visions of the heavenly throne room or whether you sense that call in the midst of your everyday work life, that is our call as followers of Jesus Christ. It is to the living out of that vision that God says, Who will go for us? Whom shall I send.