The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
And he said, “Go and say to this people:
`Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
“Until cities lie waste, without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.Isaiah 6:1-13
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.Luke 5:1-11
I’ve come to a revelation recently. I’ve tried to resist it, but the more I think about it the more it seems to be true. Monty Python and the Holy Grail might be the most biblically accurate depiction of God in pop culture. Sorry Morgan Freeman. In case you are one of the six people in this hemisphere that hasn’t seen the film let me make my case. God appears to King Arthur and his knights in rather dramatic fashion and calls for them to listen. But what do they do instead? They fall on their faces and start groveling. To which God says — “Stand up! I can’t stand everyone groveling like that!” When they try to do the pious thing and avert their eyes God tells them to “stop it”. Only when they answer “Yes Lord!” does He give them their quest: to search for the Holy Grail. While Monty Python is exaggerating the interaction, they have captured in a few moments many thousands of years of Biblical tradition. Because as much as we admire the prophets and heroes of our tradition, all of them give nothing but excuses when God calls for them.
Let’s start with Moses. When God calls him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, what does he say? Can’t God, I stammer in my speech, you’ve got the wrong guy. Or Jeremiah from last week. Can’t God, I’m too young, they won’t listen to me. And this week we have not one, but two people who are too afraid to take up God’s call. Isaiah and Peter. Both give God the same excuse, “I’m not worthy!” Peter is so afraid that he yells at Jesus to “Go Away! For I am a sinful man”. Isaiah is afraid that he won’t survive seeing God, tears his clothes and says “woe is me! I am a sinful man”. Honestly, the groveling in Monty Python is less dramatic. But God is patient and listens, if only for a moment, to let us air all our excuses. He is kind that He humors us, but in all these stories He immediately takes those excuses away. You can’t speak well Moses? Fine, have your brother Aaron speak for you, but you will lead my people out of Egypt. You think you’re too young Jeremiah? Here are my words exactly, they will listen to that. You’re too sinful Isaiah? Chew on this hot coal, your sins are blotted out. Peter, don’t be afraid, come with me and become a fisher of men. Excuses, excuses, excuses. God has heard them all, yet at the same time, He raises up these people to do His work. Over, and over again.
But it’s easy for them right? After all, God is coming directly from a cloud, or a burning bush, or standing in the boat. God hasn’t called ME like that. Yes, God may not be speaking in pillars of fire, or great storms, or smoke-filled temples, but God is calling. His voice is the poor, the sick, the needy, the broken, the oppressed, and the suffering. As a society we like to shut our ears to their cry because they reflect our failure as God’s people. A society that claims strong Christian roots, yet struggles to share the necessities, let alone the prosperity for all of God’s children.
“Whom shall I send?”
Even though Isaiah’s experience of God seems to be the most foreign, with flying creatures, mystical fire, mouth cleaning coal (Although I hear that is making a comeback with charcoal toothpaste). His experience isn’t altogether that different from our own. His story begins with a time marker: “The year king Uzziah died”. King Uzziah reigned over the second most prosperous time in Israel’s history. A time where wealth, stability, and military victory rivaled that of king Solomon’s reign. But what looked like success was underpinned by corruption. It wasn’t particularly special corruption, it never is. Pride, the sin of the privileged, took hold of King Uzziah and the country; leading them to the conclusion that we all fall into when we get too comfortable: that we can save the world without God.
The novel A Canticle for Leibowitz captures the challenge of both Isaiah’s and our time:
“The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they became with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for then, perhaps, it was easier to see something was missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.”
We like to believe we are different from our ancestors, that with all our marvels and “progressive”, “reasonable” societies we are so much more superior. We are more comfortable for sure, but that simply makes us more vulnerable to the same sin that Uzziah and Isaiah’s contemporaries fell into. It is a myth of modern thought to believe that everything was inherently going to get better as time goes on. For the last 300 years or so we had convinced ourselves that progress is unstoppable, and humanity is going nowhere but up. Only now are we starting to see the cracks form. We thought that with more and more advanced technology we could solve every problem. But technology only grants us a reprieve. The nuclear fission that was supposed to give us unlimited energy was harnessed to create the most horrible and terrifying weapons ever seen on this earth. The medicines that were meant to comfort the dying have been abused to create a crisis of addiction, all for the sake of raising share prices. The social networks that were designed to bring humanity together and promote diversity, freethinking, and growth have become echo chambers, liars, and divided us in ways we previously thought impossible.
“How Long, Lord? How long…” God has just told Isaiah the terrible news that Israel is going to suffer, that they will not listen. God is done hearing groveling. “How long?’ is the question that Isaiah asks God. This is one of the hardest passages in the Bible, because God is perfectly honest with Isaiah. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. And this is Isaiah’s commission. Isaiah must help his people navigate one of the most painful and difficult times in their history. They are being cut like a tree, the good times are over. But God promises that like the oak tree, from the stump new growth will come. God will save us, but we need to make it through this time first.
God made good on His promise to Isaiah. Because God did make that new growth. God has already saved the world. When He came and lived among us, recruited fishermen to become fishers of men, suffered, died, and rose again. All for us. As we look ahead to the future and worry and wonder: “where is God, where are the prophets, and why are we facing so many problems?” God is here. You are his prophets. The problems we are facing are our own creations. God has already done His part. He saved the world. He has given us all tools we need to prepare His kingdom. Through Christ, God has purified us to speak His word like Isaiah with the hot coal. Like Peter, He has invited us to come with him to heal the world. God has taken away all our excuses.
God can work through you, or God can work in spite of you. You have been called, now it is your choice to make. This is your opportunity to say: “Here I am Lord, send me!”
 Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz