Grace Presbyterian Church
February 10, 2019, Epiphany 5C
Like literary works, which can be classified as, say, novels or short stories or historical fiction or any number of genres, stories found in scripture can also be classified according to different types or genres. Some of these classifications might seem familiar, while others would be distinctive to scripture. Any one story might possibly fall into multiple categories, mind you; scripture is as multifaceted as any other written work, and its contents are as varied as any such collection of writings might possibly hope to be.
Some times these classifications sneak up on us in reading and hearing scripture, and in some cases two stories that might seem bracingly different from one another turn out to have something in common after all. Today’s readings from Isaiah and Luke serve as an example of this, in that both of these are what might be known as “call stories.”
Now on the surface it might be hard to conceive of these two stories having a lot in common. The very familiar Isaiah passage is almost an archetype of a call story. Isaiah sees a vision (whether he is in the Temple when he sees the vision or he is seeing a vision that takes place in the Temple isn’t necessarily clear), and that would also be an accurate way to categorize this passage. The vision is a particularly lofty one, with the Lord on the throne surrounded by heavenly beings singing praises. That hymn we sang earlier does us no favors by throwing in “cherubim” that are not mentioned in the scripture, leading us to highly inaccurate visions of chubby baby-like winged creatures more of old Baroque paintings than anything of scripture. Seraphs, or seraphim, are mentioned, and those particularly heavenly creatures are, to put it in modern slang, bad dudes.
In short, it is an obvious scene of glory, and Isaiah plays it to the hilt.
Luke’s account, on the other hand, is anything but glorious-looking. A day on the busy lakeshore is interrupted for Simon and his fishing partners by the appearance of Jesus, followed by a crowd insistently pressing in on him. Basically Jesus borrows Simon’s boat, asking him to put out a short way from shore so that he might teach with less risk of being crowded right into the lake. Presumably Simon, James, and John continue with their post-fishing tasks, mending nets and such, while Jesus is teaching. The one thing they are not doing is sorting through fish; despite being out all night, they caught nothing. Zip, zilch, nada.
When Jesus is done he makes what must seem a strange request of Simon, more of an instruction, really: go out again, cast out those nets one more time. Now back in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel Jesus had healed the mother-in-law of a man named Simon; if we guess that this is that same Simon, that healing might be about the only reason he doesn’t toss Jesus straight off the boat. Simon’s recorded response is quite possibly a lot more restrained than what might have gone through his head. Oh, yeah, right, Mr. Fishing Expert, we were just doing it wrong all night and you’re going to show us how? Who do you think we are? Are you kidding? But for whatever reason, Simon does indeed go along with Jesus’s instruction, and takes the boat out again only to come awfully close to losing it with so many fish caught in his nets. Even when another boat shows up to help, both boats are almost tipped over.
It’s a pretty good story, one that would make a pretty good movie scene. But it’s not all that…glorious, on the surface, is it? If anything, the overwhelming adjectives that might be used are “hot,” “sweaty,” and with all those fish, “smelly.”
And yet, look what follows. First of all, the immediate response from Isaiah and from Simon:
Isaiah, in all his prophetic eloquence: “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!”
Simon, not quite so eloquent perhaps but right on point: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
The immediate response is not “Hosanna!” or “Praise God!” or anything like that; it’s “I’m in trouble.” Upon seeing the sight, whether obviously holy-looking or not, both Isaiah and Simon have the same moment of realization of their uncleanliness, their unworthiness to be in the presence of the One who performed this act.
While Isaiah is graced with a gesture of purification from one of those bad-dude seraphs and Peter gets no such thing, the end of the story is where these two come together as call stories. Isaiah’s response is one of the classic lines of scripture – “Here am I! Send me!” Peter’s response, on the other hand, is wordless; he, along with James and John, simply drop everything – including their boats and all those fish – and follow Jesus.
That’s where Luke’s account gets scary. That’s not something we’re prepared to do, not by a long shot. But know this: we – all of us – are called nonetheless. To risk the correction of my old English teachers for a near-double negative, no one is not called. Maybe we’re not called to drop everything and go, but we are called nonetheless. No matter how inglorious or sweaty or smelly our setting, we are called. The question is, are we listening? Will we ever hear that call, even if the church fills up with seraphs or Jesus drops two boatloads of fish on us?
For those who hear and follow, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #1, Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!; #—, With Grateful Heart My Thanks I Bring (text #334, adapted to tune SOLID ROCK); #170, You Walk Along Our Shoreline, #432, How Clear Is Our Vocation, Lord